Is College Really the “Best Four Years of Your Life?”

During my final stretch of college, I fretted so much over what it meant to “make the most of it.” It was advice I had received from my older friends who were working entry-level jobs and feeling nostalgic. They scared the shit out of me; I took their guidance as a mandate. Have fun, enjoy it, it’s almost over. Of course, demands to have fun don’t really work, and the cruel irony was the only time I wasted was the time I spent worrying I was wasting it.

What I’ve learned in the years since is that dividing adult life into the binary of college and post-college is silly. It’s all equally capable of being interesting, challenging, fun or boring, depending on who, where, what you are. “The college experience” is about as predictable as “the working experience,” which is to say: not at all. It’s much more varied than our culture gives it credit for.

In an effort to bring some of that emotional diversity to light, I asked seven women who went to college to tell me what they think of those years now. Whether I was talking to Elizabeth, who graduated a year ago, or Jenny, who graduated 46 years ago, I asked the same questions: Was college, for them, the experience touted in the movies? Did they think it was “the best four years of their lives,” as the cliche goes? Did they miss it? Read on to find out what they said.

Elizabeth, one year out

Aside from graduating early, I definitely had the cliché experience: I joined a sorority and lived in dorms until senior year, etc. I loved it, but I don’t buy into the idea that college has to be the “best four years of your life.” I got a lot of flack for graduating early, especially from friends’ parents, who couldn’t understand why I’d want to “cut these four amazing years short,” but I don’t feel like I missed out at all! I needed a break before I started working full-time. I think it’s unrealistic to think college will be the greatest years for everyone.  It puts an annoying amount of pressure on people. Also, it’s depressing if you think the best years of your life happen so early and then everything is downhill from there.

I do miss some of it. I miss being in the same building as all my friends and being able to choose what I was learning and having it vary from semester-to-semester. I miss having designated spring/winter/summer breaks and being able to sleep in and work out in the afternoon instead of squeezing it in at 6:30 a.m. I think a lot of things are better now too, though, like not having to share my bedroom with someone who is WAY too chatty pre-coffee or who may or may not bring someone home on a random Tuesday night, or my increased independence in the “real world” — feeling like I’m starting a future that’s no longer bound to a four-year time-frame.

Yvonne, four years out

Most of my college experience was cliché in a good way and I remember it fondly: meeting incredible friends, having lots of freedom, making mistakes in a controlled environment, studying abroad, partying, living in a sorority house. Sure, there were a few less glamorous times in college, too: exhaustion, heartache, homesickness, social anxiety my freshman year. Overall, I feel lucky to have had an incredible experience.

Not to sound cheesy, but I probably would call it the best time of my life. Especially after I quit my sport at the end of sophomore year, I discovered how much I loved what I was studying (art history), and I had endless amounts of freedom to explore, go out, hang out with friends, study what I wanted, take random classes just for fun (like public speaking, Buddhism and creative writing), go to sports events, support friends in their activities and do so much stereotypical college stuff. My senior year, having just finished a 10-week internship, I was acutely aware that it was the last time in my life I was truly “free” and I think I really made the most of it. I was definitely scared and sad to graduate, but I think it was maybe because I actually did have an authentically great experience that was hard to move on from?

I remember visiting campus for a football game only four months after I had graduated college. At the time, I felt really lost at work and lonely in a new city. But visiting — trying to “re-live” my old life — made me feel even more lonely. Yes, I miss college but in a “wonderful memory” way, something I know is the past. In the four years since graduation, I have missed college less and less as I continue to find fulfilling jobs, make new friends and settle further into the city. In short, I am annoying and loved college.

Kelly, nine years out

I remember college fondly, but I worked nearly full-time for most of it to cover my expenses and never took a light class load, so I was pretty busy. Having a sprawling amount of free time with friends is probably the “cliché” college experience I feel I missed out on the most, and there is a tinge of regret for me there, but I don’t think I’d change that for my own kids. I learned so much about how to work and the value of money; it made my transition to “real life” so much easier. Isn’t that the point of college?

There are a lot of happy moments from those years that will always stick with me, but I can confidently say that it was NOT the best time of my life. It would have been pointless to try to explain it to me then, but the distilling of friendships, a real paycheck and the confidence gained from life experience and a good job far outweigh any perks from that phase of my life. I had a lot of fun in college and established (a few) friendships that I will carry deep into my life, but it was not a fulfilling time for me. College and high school blend together for me in so many ways: so much insecurity and anxiety and self doubt! You couldn’t pay me to go back.

Aside from being grateful about the people it brought into my life, I spend so little time thinking about college now. And that includes my views on “pedigree” based on where I or anyone went to school. So, so, so much of your life happens in the years post-college. I want to tell 18-year-old me to chill out, learn how to work hard, pack your brain with things you’re genuinely interested in, and find a person/ people that you can be your true self with and want to sit next to forever.

Sonia, 14 years out

The things I remember fondly: the intense friendships, the almost-complete lack of responsibilities, the youthful energy, all the possibilities in front of me, very straightforward work. Also, my skin, hair and body were all better than now. I’m kind of disgusted by the person I was at that time, though. All I wanted to do was party and have fun; I skated through classes. I worried about the wrong things: my grades didn’t end up mattering out in the real world. It didn’t even matter that I graduated. College should have been all about making connections. I wish I had seen the opportunities instead of being so lazy. I also think about what my life would have been like had I just rejected the narrative of having to go to college, and instead spent that time and money traveling or doing something more meaningful.

I did learn some things in college, though. I learned about what true wealth looked like: private planes, expensive cars, second or third houses, kids who could buy whatever they wanted, kids who didn’t need to actually get jobs. My school was full of kids like that. I learned about substance abuse and disordered eating from one of my roommates; that was pretty eye-opening. And I started learning about how to hustle for gigs, which was the most helpful takeaway. I loved writing papers. I miss academic work. I know people who have advanced degrees and I would love to have the opportunity to go back to school for another four or eight years. Unfortunately, I can’t bankroll that kind of thing.

I remember thinking at one point, “I have to get a tattoo to commemorate how I feel right now because I know I will never feel like this again.” I was right. Kids should be scared to graduate. They should be fucking terrified. The thing I learned after college, when I moved to New York to try to actually have a career, is that no one owes you anything. Does that sound harsh? I was pretty sheltered and naive.

Shawna, 19 years out

I absolutely loved college. I definitely think of it as one of the best times in my life. What was special about college for me was that it was the culmination of years of very hard work in high school to get into the college I really wanted to go to, Brown. I was really happy to be there and I felt like I finally found my people: creative thinkers, not overly obsessed with grades, more interested in trying new things than being the best at one particular thing. Even years later, when I meet someone I really click with, I often find out that they went to Brown, too. Probably 75% of my current friend group went there but, funny enough, I only met about 20% of them when I was at Brown. (Disclaimer: my husband went to Brown, had a completely different experience and wouldn’t say that college was the most amazing time of his life.)

I loved being independent and having the freedom to make all of my own choices. I also loved the first four years after graduating from college, when I moved across the country to San Francisco, moved in with my boyfriend, had my first job and rented my first apartment. Those were carefree times, and I lived in very close proximity to my best friends. We were all going through the same life experiences together at the same time. It is nearly impossible to recreate that closeness and connection you feel with your friends as you get older.

Even if I miss it a lot, I don’t feel like I wish I was back in school. No way. I just have a lot of nostalgia for that phase in my life in general. I miss seeing my friends all the time. I miss that connection and closeness with my community. It sort of ties into that fantasy of “Hey, maybe we should all quit our jobs, sell our over-priced New York apartments and live on a commune up in Woodstock!” Actually…that’s a good idea…I’m going to get on that.

Jamile, 35 years out

I did not have cliché “college experience,” although I wish I did. I don’t remember it fondly because I worked while I went to college and I was more focused on my job than my classes. I don’t miss my college experience at all. In fact, I’d say I missed my college experience. In retrospect, I would have done it differently.

Jenny, 46 years out

I totally had the cliché college experience! I started college during the Summer of Love and it was exactly as all the hype says: sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll. Maybe not the “college experience” of yore, but it was a lot of freedom. Of course I remember it fondly, who wouldn’t? It was good for what it was and for my age, but it wasn’t necessarily the best time of my life.

I don’t miss it. I think what people forget is that along with all that freedom, you still have to figure out what the heck to do next and who you are and all that. I think the twenties for young adults are not easy unless you are one of those people who always knew what she wanted to be, like a lawyer or something. I wish I could have my 20-year-old body and my mental state now. Woo! I would rock!

Collages by Edith Young; images from the Science & Society Picture Library via Getty Images. 

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman is the Features Director at Man Repeller.

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