A letter to myself 20 years later - My Turn

By John Bader | October 4, 2001

Allow me to share a secret held by many academic advisers: we wish we were you. We wish we had the chance to go back to our college days, to revisit our best moments and to correct our mistakes. I like to fantasize that I could write myself a letter, knowing what I know now and send it to my college mailbox. It would arrive twenty years ago, in October of 1981, when I was a freshman. And it would read something like this:

Dear John,

I know how you're feeling right now - overwhelmed, insecure, uncertain. Going to college is like going to an amusement park, filled with new and strange sights and people. You feel very young just when you're supposed to be so adult. There are lots of people there who are much smarter than you, which is disconcerting.

There are opportunities you never imagined and more that you cannot even see. You have taken advantage of some. It was a good idea to join that singing group. Singing will always be part of your life. But you may have a nagging suspicion that you are missing something. The feast before you is extraordinary, but your plate has only bland offerings.

I hope you will take some advice. You cannot erase all future regrets, but you will spend less time learning from your mistakes and more time enjoying your brief time as a college student. I could write many pages, but let me focus on these points:

Stop thinking like a high school student.

You don't need to take a full year of anything, and you don't have to fill your schedule with the same slots - English, science, social studies, math, etc. There aren't any core courses because the faculty expect you to manage your own course work. Do that creatively.

Use your freedom.

Picking courses randomly is better than having some "plan" that should get you somewhere. Passion and interest matter much more than utility, especially when that plan will be scrapped for thirty more scrapped plans. The chance to take a course on Chaucer will never come again, so carpe diem.

Seek advice from your professors.

I know your first faculty adviser was a bust. He wanted you to become a grad student in his discipline as quickly as possible, probably to validate his own choices. But there are many others who will help you find the right path. Talk to lots of them. They aren't so scary. Come to them with specific questions and then weigh the answers. Their doors are open. Walk in.

Learn how to read.

You're wasting a lot of time. I remember how new it was to use a highlighter in a textbook. It seemed vaguely sinful. But stop highlighting every word! Learn how to engage the text. Ask it questions. Compare it to others. Think about what is important - and what is not. Don't read every word. Look for summaries, concluding chapters, key phrases. Move on only when you understand.

Get help.

Gutting it out makes no sense if you're sick or lost or overwhelmed. You'll just lose your guts. Learning alone is lonely and ineffective. Put a study group together to encourage, test and challenge each other. Don't be proud about getting a tutor or going to a tutoring session. You're not going to do well in Calculus or Econ, so get help now.

Don't worry so much about grades.

I know you're going to ignore me here, but ultimately, it won't matter what grades you get. Inoculate yourself against bitterness now by putting grades in perspective. What did you learn? What skills did you gain? Did you enjoy the course? Did it prepare you for others?

I wish I could be there with you. I envy your opportunity, even while I'm glad to be past the anxiety and confusion. I know you'll love your time at college, so even if this letter is lost in the mail, you'll do just fine. You'll make lifelong friends. You'll cheer at football games and travel the globe with your singing group. And you'll learn more than you can appreciate now. Enjoy.

Much love,


P.S. Pay more attention to that girl in freshmen Biology who sings in that co-ed group. You'll marry her someday, but you'll waste 10 years figuring that out.

My Turn is an opportunity for faculty and staff of The Johns Hopkins University to voice their opinions. John Bader is the Assistant Dean of Academic Advising.

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