back to top

What Everyone Should Know Before They Start College

Julie Zeilinger, author of College 101: A Girl's Guide to Freshman Year, debunks myths and misconceptions about your time spent on campus.

Posted on

When 21-year-old Julie Zeilinger went off to college her freshman year, she was under the impression that she was headed toward the greatest experience of her life.

"Hastily constructed college movies full of crappy dialogue and 30-year-old actors with perfect faces and bodies cast as 18-year-old freshmen had completely swayed my idea of what to expect," she told BuzzFeed in an email. "But it soon became clear that the freshman year experience is hardly simple or easy. I was left wondering why our culture is so committed to projecting such an idealistic version of the college experience and remaining silent about the reality?"

After spending so much energy preparing for the academics of college and ultimately feeling ill-prepared for the everyday challenges that college students face, Zeilinger wrote a book — College 101: A Girl's Guide to Freshman Year — to dispel some of the biggest myths about college.

BuzzFeed had the chance to chat with the author and find out some of the biggest myths that everyone should know before they start college:

MYTH: Everybody has carefree sex and drinks without consequence all the time: College is basically a 24/7 orgy.

TRUTH: Far fewer college students are having sex than we're all led to believe. In fact one in four college students are virgins and only 32% of college students say they've had sex with more than one person in the previous year. A 2013 study conducted by University of Portland sociology professor Martin A. Monto found that college students today are substantially less likely than past college students to have sex more than once a week. Drinking is similarly less than straightforward: About 20% of college students choose not to drink at all and the 80% who do often run into alcohol-related pitfalls (beyond getting confused by the "beer before wine" mantra). There are some really messed up gender dynamics related to drinking, like drunkorexia, a female-dominated phenomenon in which young women starve themselves in order to avoid extra calories and get drunk faster, or dynamics of bro culture in which female college students feel they must put their health at risk by binge-drinking to match their male friends (a messed up version of "equality"). Additionally, there are far too many people who are quick to victim blame and point to alcohol as an actual cause or explanation for sexual assault.

BOTTOM LINE: Sex and alcohol can be (and generally are) fun experiences, especially when approached responsibly. But they're not the only fun experiences college students are having and, in fact, are not quite the universally enjoyable or consequence-free experiences we're led to believe they are.


MYTH: The life-sucking monster that is student loan debt obscures all other college-related financial pitfalls. What's the arguably therapeutic expense of a daily Chipotle burrito (a drop in the bucket, really) when you're facing tens of thousands of dollars of debt necessary for your education?

TRUTH: To avoid a world of pain post-graduation, make yourself a budget and avoid credit card debt like the plague while in college. Determine how much money you can comfortably spend every month then figure out what percentage of that money can be allotted for each expense – everything from food to, yes, at the risk of sounding like Queen of the Funsuckers, going out, movie tickets, etc. And then comes the hard part: really sticking to it. Also, while it is actually important to build a credit history, be vigilant about paying off your balance every month. If you know you're too forgetful to do so, it's probably wiser to use cash: You're better off without credit history than with additional debt.

BOTTOM LINE: Figuring out how you're going to pay for college, then supporting yourself while you're there, are likely the first impactful financial decisions you'll make as an adult. It's entirely possible to make smart decisions that will lead to success and happiness, but at the end of the day you're the only person who will answer for your debt. Take that responsibility seriously.

MYTH: Women are dominating on college campuses. The statistics are out there: In 2013, 56.7% of bachelor degrees were earned by women, as were 59.9% of all master's degrees and 51.6% of all doctor's degrees, and 140 women graduated with some level of a college degree for every 100 men. Women's presence in higher education is evidence not only of feminism's success but that campuses are safe and healthy places for women to thrive.

TRUTH: In reality, being the numerical majority on campuses across the country hardly erases the systemic discrimination, social inequities, and even violence collegiate women face. Sexism is still abundant on campuses. This is evident in the misogynistic slurs and/or attitudes that persist on campuses as well as the rise of "bro culture," which involves women conforming to male social standards as the alternative to submitting to rigid female gender roles based on sexist double standards. This sexism can turn blatantly violent and psychologically damaging: Sexual assault is a pervasive reality on college campuses. The 64 recently released complaints of Title IX violations on college campuses across the country, as well as rising student activism around the issue, have made this abundantly clear.

BOTTOM LINE: The ability for women to obtain a higher education certainly indicates feminist progress, but college is hardly a feminist utopia. Just like in society at large, we have a long way to go before we can claim gender equality.


MYTH: College is a multicultural paradise. Haven't you seen the diverse faces of students smiling up at you from many a campus brochure? Or heard admissions officers boast about the geographic, racial, and ethnic diversity of their student bodies?

TRUTH: Beyond the copious systemic factors of inequality embedded in American culture that make college an unattainable goal for many, plenty of students find that, even if they are able to make it to campus, they face augmented or even new forms of inequality (as well-explicated in many journalistic examinations of the topic). From Greek organizations that perpetuate racist and/or homophobic attitudes to daily experiences of managing others' ignorance to even facing racist threats, It's hardly easy or welcoming to be a minority on many college campuses today. While students are starting to speak out about this "post-racial" myth, we still have a long way to go before any college campus can claim to be a place of total diverse equality.

BOTTOM LINE: Despite being lauded as liberal safe havens, many college campuses are still hardly immune from, and even perpetuate, discrimination. While systemic transformation is necessary -- and many students, faculty, and scholars alike are speaking out on the topic and rallying for change – minority students can benefit from finding a support system of peers and allies.

MYTH: College is the happiest time of your life and will be the closest to perfection you can come. If you don't feel great about your life at all times during your college experience, you're doing it wrong.

TRUTH: Rising freshmen enter with insurmountable expectations of idyllic sibling-like relationships with roommates, of meeting an intellectually stimulating yet romantic and compassionate partner, and of finding an intellectual passion that will reveal a fulfilling life path. And yet, nearly all of us fall short of at least one of if not all of these goals. But because of the myth of college as ideal, we often struggle alone to create an experience that doesn't exist instead of banding together to embrace the one that does.

BOTTOM LINE: There will be highs and lows; good grades and bad; fulfilling relationships and disappointing ones. Systemic transformation is necessary -- and many students, faculty, and scholars alike are speaking out on the topic and rallying for change.