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What I Wish I Knew Before I Started College: 2020 COVID Edition

By Nikkee Porcaro, M.S.E.

YouTube tells you it’s all frat parties, slip n’ slides and endless spring breaks. Your older brother tells you it’s endless studying, 8 am classes and searching for internships. What’s the real deal about college? What do you wish you knew before you started? And how do you square the changes most unorthodox year in history will bring to college?

All colleges are, of course, different, but commonalities abound among many major universities. I interviewed both those who recently matriculated into college and those who graduated in the last decade; these subjects attended schools both large and small. When it comes to academics, some common themes kept popping up. Student J, a rising sophomore at Vanderbilt, was quick to reply with two major points when asked what he wish he knew before entering university: one, students should be better at writing essays and taking notes by hand, and two, students should learn how to skim long texts for when they get massive reading assignments. Student J continued, “Every professor I’ve had so far at Vanderbilt has had a no-computers-in-the classroom rule, so I wish I was better at writing essays and taking notes by hand.” Despite many students taking online-only or mostly online classes, this rule holds true. Making direct notations in books and taking hand-written notes (I know I always took mine in college with thin Crayola Magic Markers to keep me focused) will reduce anxiety when it comes time to class participation. Plus, knowing that you know your sh*t means you aren’t competing with anyone else; you do you and they’ll do them.

Student J was also vehement about planning (No Anxiety Prep students should be nodding knowingly slash eye rolling here because it’s one of my favorite topics!) and the importance of getting ahead: “Students should get good at scheduling and mapping out their work. I know people that never read syllabi and ended up far behind on readings and assignments when the professor didn’t announce them publicly.” This can be even harder with the new world order of more independent learning, but such is life, buttercups: it is on you to plan your assignments. I spent the summer in two accelerated Harvard graduate school classes while working sixty hours a week, and the best thing I did for myself as starting my final projects the first week of class. By working on them a little bit each week, I was done three-quarters of the way through the class, allowing me time to finesse those projects, turn them in early…and relax until my two As came in as the rest of my classmates panicked.

Gettysburg College alum and attorney K. (’07) seconded this sentiment. “I can’t speak highly enough of the value of time management. I never realized how much better off I’d be if I’d taken the time to budget out my weekly schedule or just look at a syllabus a teacher had given when they’ve done the work for you versus cramming at the very end.”

University of Maryland rising sophomore Student E acknowledged the difference between college and high school: “I was shocked at how in-depth you have to know the material; in high school, you could just study three days before a test and it was fine, but in college you have to think outside the box when you’re studying.”

Social issues, too, are important in the college learning experience. Student J offers up a bit of a surprising tidbit that goes against the constant barrage of kegstands, tailgates and endless rah-rah fun the spring break movies and Instagram videos show, especially in the world of COVID: “Students should feel comfortable being alone at times. Not every meal in your first month on campus will be shared with new people and not every minute of every day will afford itself to movie-style college fun, so although students should plan to meet new people, they should also understand that it’s perfectly normal to not be constantly surrounded by others. They certainly shouldn’t feel inadequate if it takes a while to make friends.” Student E recommends making friends with people in your classes and your major. “It’s nice to have people to study with and that forges bonds. You can plan your schedule with theirs for the next semester, too.” On that note: I cannot stress how important it is to follow your school’s protocols if you are on campus. We have already seen one of our former students suspended from a southern school for being caught underage drinking AND violating COVID protocols, and she is awaiting a final disciplinary decision on whether or not she will be suspended. Students at Syracuse, Ohio State, Notre Dame, and other schools are in similar situations. It isn’t worth it, guys. Drinking cheap swill to impress some randos while you’re possibly spreading a killer disease and derailing your entire future makes no sense at all.

As colleges begin the most unorthodox year in history, but also to talk to family and friends who might be able to offer some 20/20 hindsight on the college experience (because c’mon, you know your parents want to tell their college stories nostalgically as you’re getting ready to flap away from the nest) as you forge your own path. No, they have no idea what it is like to go to college during a pandemic, but maybe, just maybe, you’ll find a nugget of useful info in their wistful anecdotes. Just remember on Thirsty Thursday night, even if it’s on Zoom, that those 8 am Friday classes sneak up on you quickly!

Nikkee Porcaro is the founder and president of No Anxiety Prep International, a greater Washington area-based educational consulting firm that assists students with their educational goals, and a graduate student at Harvard University working on her second Master's holding down a 3.92 GPA while running No Anxiety Prep. She is also a Harvard Global Ambassador.

Email Nikkee at


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