Tips for Cal Freshmen

Alumni Advice for New Cal Students

Starting at Cal is both a wonderful and stressful experience. It’s a new chapter of your life full of new freedoms, friends, and experiences. It can also be overwhelming. You’ll be in a new place, far away from your old support network, and put into situations you’ve never had to navigate before.

I’ve been there.

As an alumni, I’ve spoken to lots of students and as much as your situation may seem unique in its difficulties, very often there are others who have been in the same place before. It’s from those shared experiences that I’ve pulled together some advice for those just starting out at Cal and even those returning to school.

Focus on Yourself and Not Others

It’s super easy to focus on what others are majoring in, what clubs they’re joining, and what internships they’re getting. It’s not unreasonable. When you’re just starting out you’ll be looking to others as a way of figuring out what to do.

But it’s easy to get caught in the trap of becoming a follower instead of simply an observer. You shift towards the major your friends are going into, you stretch yourself thin trying to join all of the popular clubs on campus, and you worry that everyone else has more internship offers than you do.

But it doesn’t matter.

You’re on your own path in life. The last thing you should do is let someone else determine it for you (they may not even be determining their own path). If you discover a subject you’re passionate about, explore it! Embrace the fact that you’re doing something different than your peers.

Join the clubs and groups that bring the most value to you. And if you don’t get in look at that as an opportunity to join a group that sees the value in you.

And when internship season comes, don’t focus on what others are applying for or getting into. Seek out the opportunities you like, that you feel like you’ll learn something from. Even if that opportunity isn’t a traditional internship it can offer an experience that will put you ahead of the pack when it’s time to find a post-college job.

The truth is that once you graduate you’ll either look back on college as a time you wasted following the desires of others or as a time you grew emotionally, academically and professionally by embracing your own interests and not being a follower in your own life.

You’ll enjoy your time here more, you’ll get more out of it, and you will definitely be better off by the time you graduate.

Try Classes Outside Your Major or Intended Major

When it comes to a lot of your classes at Cal, it’s not so much about what you’ll learn as much as it is how you’ll learn that can determine whether a class is worthwhile or not.

Often your major (or intended major) will have elective requirements that allow for classes outside of your major. This is an opportunity you really shouldn’t miss. A lot of students continue to pile on coursework related to their major with these classes thinking that it’ll benefit them in their future career.

The truth is that much of the stuff you’ll learn (excluding certain classes) isn’t all that important or you’ll need to relearn anyway later on.

But one thing you’ll discover taking classes for your major is that the related courses tend to be taught the same way. The questions you’ll face will be different in content but similar in how you’ll be expected to answer them. You’ll start to learn and think in a way that is particular to that major.

This is why taking courses outside your major whenever possible is an amazing opportunity. Just like your chosen major these non-major courses have their own ways of asking questions and solving problems that can open your mind to entirely new ways of seeing the world. The frameworks you pick up in these courses can also be of immediate benefit as oftentimes you can apply them to work you’re doing related to your major.

I don’t need to tell you how much of an advantage this can give you in class and also in life after college. Being able to leverage different mindsets towards solving problems is a skill that is in short supply and one the world needs more of in every field and aspect of daily life. Elective courses are a great way to build your problem-solving toolkit.

Grades Can Matter but Not as Much as You Think

Grades are important, but not as important as you might think. There are definitely academic tracks where GPA can matter a lot, but for the majority of students not planning on an advanced degree immediately after graduating GPA is only a part of what makes you an attractive candidate for an internship, full-time job, or college (like Haas) on campus.

But recruiters, academic departments, and the world want to see more from you than a proven ability to do well on tests. They want to see that you’ve developed important soft skills like collaborating with others and that you’ve put your knowledge into practice like using what you’ve learned in an accounting course to manage the budget for a student club.

Immersing yourself in new experiences as opposed to simply studying for perfect grades will give you more to talk about, a better understanding of the world, and help you stand out in a sea of grade point averages.

Step Outside Your Comfort Zone

At Cal, you’re surrounded by a community with a diverse assortment clubs, events, and opportunities to engage with new ideas. You’ll also be able to find social groups that line up perfectly with the subjects and ideas you’re already on board with.

It’s easy, especially in the first few weeks, to seek out those groups most similar to you and embed yourself deeply into them for the next few years. It also feels good. It’s uncomfortable to put yourself out there but that’s exactly what you should be doing. Cal is a rare chance to expose yourself to views and people that you wouldn’t normally come into contact with. If you’re super introverted, it’s a chance to break out of your shell in a safe and positive environment.

Yes, trying this can suck. If it’s awkward or difficult that means you’re actually challenging yourself. You’re not really working out if you don’t break a sweat and you’re not really stepping outside your comfort zone if you’re not feeling uncomfortable. The good news is that you get used to it quickly and the better news is that once you’ve made the change it’ll become a new normal for you and you’ll be better for the experience.

Transitions Are Hard and It's Okay to Recognize That

Change is hard. Not just dealing with the result but going through the process as well. You might feel lonely and you might feel like nobody else is struggling like you.

You’d be wrong.

The transition to college (even the transition back after summer) can be difficult for everybody. You’re in a new place with people you’re not familiar with taking difficult exams and dealing with new problems. You’re probably a long way from home and without your normal social safety net to catch you.

If you’re struggling understand that it’s normal to feel that way. If you’re stressed know that everyone else is stressed too (even if they look like they’ve got it together they don’t). If you’re having trouble reach out to a roommate or friend, call home, go do something fun, or get some rest. Don’t lock yourself away to be alone with your problems. If things are particularly challenging seek professional help. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing that and the folks over at Cal’s Tang Center can help you get the support you need to be your best at Cal.

Join a Club

Cal is home to a vibrant club community. If you have an interest or hobby there’s a good chance Cal has a club for that. Clubs offer up an opportunity to meet new people and forge lasting friendships that can help you get through your time at Cal.

Clubs are also a great way to get useful experience that’s applicable towards internship and job interviews. There really isn’t a better way to prepare for your professional future than by picking up useful skills while doing what you love.

Take Advantage of Being in a Place Where You Have Time to Focus on Learning

One of the most valued skills in today’s world is the ability to learn new things. Technology continues to drive rapid change in every workplace across the globe. These changes require new skills, whether they are knowing how to use a new tool or operate a particular type of software. You’ll come to find that most people are resistant to change. They like the way they’ve done things before. To an employer, this isn’t a good trait but it’s all too common.

Having a healthy amount of curiosity will make it easier for you to break free from the status quo and embrace change. But building that curiosity muscle after college can be hard. You’ll often be busy and focused on what’s happening in the moment with little time to waste on experimentation and asking a lot of questions.

By not building on that curiosity you become just another cog in a fast moving machine. Fortunately, you have several years at Cal to build that curiosity muscle. You’re in a safe atmosphere that encourages experimentation and asking questions. It celebrates learning and rewards you on how much you delve into a subject instead of how much work you get done. You can do this in your own time when you get out of school but it’s so much harder to do. Now is the best time to learn how to ask good questions, to embrace new experiences, and to try new things.

Taking advantage of this will make it easier once you leave to stay at the top of your field and ultimately benefit you no matter what you choose to do.

Explore Your City

Finally, get to know Berkeley and the Bay Area. It’s one of the most exciting places in the world when it comes to nature, art, science, and entertainment. Lots of you will likely end up living out here after you graduate so it’s a good idea to get an understanding of your future home (and certainly your home for the next few years). After all, you don’t want to hide out in your dorm all semester. Cal’s more fun (and way more comfortable) when you know more about the city you’re in.

Have a Great Year

It’s certainly up for debate whether the best years of your life are at college, but there’s no debating the fact that this is definitely the best time to build that curiosity muscle which will serve you well the rest of your life. Enjoy your time at Cal. Now go and make some memories!

If you have advice for new students that you’d like to share or questions about student life at Cal you can let us know here.

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