A few things to keep in mind as you set off to university

University is a time to experiment, discover, fail and even dye your hair purple, writes Shoba Narayan.

University students ought to use their time and freedom to explore their limits. Photo: AP / Eric Gay
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‘Parting is such sweet sorrow,” Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet. In the next few weeks, hundreds of thousands of 18-year-olds from all over the world will make the long trek to join universities in America. They will be basketball players and artists; maths wizards and chess geeks; athletes and musicians. They will be both excited and terrified, for this is the beginning of a new phase of their lives – one that, arguably, will effect them more than anything they have done before.

A group of us have been in the privileged position of giving advice to a bunch of 18-year-olds who are going off to college. Some of the advice has been interesting and funny: “Colour your hair purple – every­one should do that once in their lives.” Much of it is thoughtful and has to do with regrets: “I wish I had known when I was 18 how much time management and structuring my day would matter.”

Here, then, are a few themes for every college-going student to consider as they embark on their adventure.

Figure out if you want to sample or dig deep. This depends on if you have a passion already. Perhaps you are bent on being an engineer. It is something that you have always wanted to do. The question then is: do you just take courses that further your engineering goals (digging deep) or do you take courses in art history, music and other liberal arts?

We live in a world that rewards specialisation but college seems too early to specialise, particularly at the undergraduate stage.

This is the time of life when you can view the academic offerings as a buffet and sample everything. There is a famous story about Steve Jobs taking calligraphy courses, which seemed to have no earthly use, at least at that time in his life. He sampled.

Try to take courses or activities that make you uncomfortable. If you ask adults what they regret, many of them will say that they regret not taking enough risks when they were young.

In many ways, growth happens when you are uncomfortable. If you don’t think you’re artistically inclined, force yourself to take a course in drawing. Put yourself in the way of discomfort. If you don’t think you have a way with numbers, take a calculus course – the beginners’ one, of course. If you think you cannot dance, take a group dance course.

College is the time when you can make a fool of yourself without too much regret, and when the risk is low. Take advantage of these years when you are allowed to – indeed, encouraged to – try and fail.

Prioritise what happens outside the class as much as you do the classroom. Of course you will be busy submitting tests, doing homework and poring over library books for a project. Realise, though, that some of the best friends you will make in your life are the people around you. Nurture these relationships, because they will be the friends you will fall back on in times of crisis.

Join every club that interests you. Increase the surface area of relationships that will enter your life. Only after you kiss many frogs will you discover a prince.

Team sports are an underappreciated way to grow. Research suggests that playing a team sport is a great way to cultivate confidence, competence and a number of physical skills. This is particularly true for girls.

Being part of a college team – whether it is rowing, basketball or lacrosse – is a great way to learn those physical and social skills that will see you through for the rest of your life.

Finally, no matter what, have fun. And be safe.

Shoba Narayan is the author of ­Return to India: a Memoir