young woman reading at a college campus

(WOMENSENEWS)–There is no bullet-pointed list of how to do college. There is no perfect college experience–or any other type of experience for that matter (and I don’t think anybody is ever prepared to face adulthood, but that’s a whole other thing). At the end of the day, there are only individuals who have personal experiences based on how they choose to approach the novel situations with which they’re presented.

On levels both intimately singular and collective as women, we need to let go of this idealistic portrayal of college and embrace the far more nuanced and dynamic reality.

But accepting that this idealistic portrayal is false hardly necessitates accepting defeat: It’s more than possible to have an incredible college experience. There are still three major things you have to actually do in order to have a truly great college experience.

1. Discard Perfection

Young women often view the college experience as another step in their quest for perfection. We enter with insurmountable expectations of having an idyllic, sister-like relationship with our roommate, of meeting a simultaneously intellectually stimulating yet romantic and compassionate partner, of finding an intellectual passion that will reveal a fulfilling life path. We envision a perfect experience because that’s the standard to which young women are held to generally in this society: the prospect of anything less is a failure because there is no intermediary alternative. Thus even while immersed in a college experience that hardly matches this perfected vision, we don’t assume that society has failed us in its unrealistic depiction of college, and that the college experience itself is actually much more complex than we expected. Rather, we conclude that we failed society in our personal inability to have the perfect college experience, that it’s somehow our own fault. We struggle alone to create an experience that doesn’t exist instead of banding together to embrace the one that does.

I wish I had a prescription to cure perfectionism. I wish I could draw up another nifty diagram or neat bullet point list to go along with all the rest in this book. But the truth is, I’m hardly one to preach about it–perfectionism dominated my high school career and hardly abated my freshman year of college. The deeply held conception that I had to be the best at any cost dictated every feeling I had about and action I took surrounding my mind, body and worth. I ended my freshman year with a damn-near perfect transcript but as a shell of myself.

It was then that I had something of an epiphany. I saw the disconnect of passionately fighting for women to have access to the lives they want and yet personally feeling defeated and empty. I was reminded of the author and activist Courtney Martin’s brilliant observation that we are a generation of young women who were told we could be anything and instead heard that we have to be everything. I had read and deeply related to those words years before, but it was only then, having stood on the edge of the perfectionist cliff, that I accepted their meaning.

The truth is, though, realizing I had to change hardly made it easy to do so. Overcoming perfectionism isn’t easy: It’s about continuously making deliberate choices. It’s about deciding to disregard the curse of the good girl, about purposefully ignoring what we should do, be, or look like. It’s about deciding not to even try to have it all, but to try to have what we want and need. And to do that, we have to be willing to put it all on the line and embrace the risk of failure.

2. Whole-Heartedly Embrace Risk-Taking

Numerous studies show that women are less likely than men to take risks, to go after what we want. This is not because women are biologically wired to be codependent rule-following minions. As researchers like Julie A. Nelson of Tufts University have found, countless compounding factors and different kinds of risk call into question the idea that women are biologically risk-averse. Rather, our general averseness to risk is historically situated and informed and, in my personal opinion, stringently tied to the perfectionism with which we’re socialized.

Historically, women have only had access to autonomous decision-making for a relatively miniscule period of time. For centuries women were economically the property of their fathers and husbands, barred from making decisions about their own bodies and only obtained the right to vote relatively recently. But beyond the way this history of exclusion and subordination shapes the social, economic and political context in which we’re raised, perfectionism plays a crucial role in restricting our willingness to take risks. Taking risks means opening ourselves up to the possibility of something we’ve been taught to avoid at all costs: failure. Considering young women are socialized to view failure as the complete antithesis to our very identities, it’s no wonder we’re incredibly reluctant to risk experiencing it. Therefore we avoid risk altogether–we avoid the experiences and opportunities that could potentially inform us, and shape us into interesting, whole and fulfilled human beings.

But, at the same time, college is an incredible opportunity to overcome this gender-specific ethos: It’s probably the best chance we’ll ever get to take the types of risks that will allow us to claim our own definitions of happiness and success and to finally go after them. In college, we have enough autonomy to thoughtfully and purposefully experiment–intellectually, emotionally, sexually, and beyond–but are still somewhat removed from having to make crucial, informative decisions that will directly impact the courses our lives will take.

This is certainly easier said than done, but we have to try–not only for own sakes, but also for the sake of all women.

3. Be Transparent and Open to Others

It’s not enough to discard perfection and take risks: It’s vital to be transparent about our decision to actively attempt both. Women need to be far more honest about the perfectionist pressures we feel–in terms of anything from academics, to the difficulty of finding and maintaining friendships and relationships, to the ways in which we treat our bodies and beyond. Collegiate women feel like they’re struggling or failing largely because they buy into the façade other women enforce: that other women don’t feel these pressures and that all failure–perceived or experienced–reflects who we are rather than something we’ve done.

Bottom line: We all feel defeated by life at some point or another, and we can break this cycle of internally struggling while externally projecting effortless success–which reinforces this perception of any struggle as a personal failure–by actively deciding to break it. We need to be completely upfront about the pressures we face and about what we’re doing to combat them and acknowledge when we take risks in order to erase the stigma of failing. Being open about these experiences with other women will not only make them feel better or encourage them to do the same, but will cyclically help ourselves, too, by making this mentality the norm. By the same token, it’s vital that we not only do this ourselves and encourage other women to do this, but that we’re ready to accept them if and when they do.

College (and life) are challenging experiences. But they could be made so much easier if we confront them head on, together. Popular culture largely depicts college as an experience that leads to quantitative gains: as one in which an absurd number of parties are attended, friends are made, grades are earned and a certain starting salary expected. But ultimately, the best college experiences are ones that are qualitatively successful. At the end of the day, college is a responsibility and an opportunity to put in motion the life you want. It’s not about what you’ve tangibly gained but about who you are at the other end of it. I personally believe it’s best to get an early start on achieving happiness for the rest of your life–you only get one of them after all. And a good rule of thumb is that happiness can’t be counted or quantified: It can really only be felt and embodied.

The true beauty of college is that it’s a period of your life that will truly be like nothing else you have experienced or will experience in the future. What all of the wistful adults in your life say is true: It goes by so fast. Embrace it and live every day of it to the fullest. Truly realize that even with this advice there’s no perfect or ideal way to experience college, so just get out there and do it. Prepare for the highs and lows and soak it in.

And, remember, you’re a smart girl. All you need is a little fearlessness, self-forgiveness and acceptance (and caffeine and chocolate), and you’ll be fine.

©Prufrock Press, 2013

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