Vince: Our tutor Bridget talks about what she learned from her adjustment to big UC life!
Bridget: Senior year can swiftly range from late nights stressed over an approaching AP to senioritis-inspired water balloon fights on the quad during lunch. I speak from experience, and don’t regret the sopping wet socks we all lived with for the rest of that afternoon. As college loomed just around the corner, my thoughts on the transition ahead were similarly wide-ranging. In addition to the typical transitions faced by many students like moving away from home or facing professors instead of teachers, I was also making the switch from a small private to large public school. Getting accustomed to this new college environment was filled with quick adjustments and slow lessons alike.
It was an undeniable privilege to have attended a private high school that afforded me incredible opportunities. Attending a UC was a fantastic financial, professional, and academic choice. I wouldn’t change it for the world! There are just a few things to keep in mind if you’re embarking on this additional transition!
I attended a high school of roughly 800 students across grades 7 to 12, with 148 in my graduating class. Our class was often referenced as one of the largest in the school’s history. One of the most remarkable features of attending such a small school is the bubble effect. Without a proper frame of reference, I internalized 148 students as a “big class” and mozied through the entirety of high school without really considering this ridiculous notion.
Inflating my school’s size a cool 5,200% to reach that of UC Berkeley’s 41,000 students was a very efficient way to pop the bubble I had been living in. With a large student population comes a first true experience of bureaucracy. Here are the strategies I developed to jump over some of these hurdles, after admittedly crashing through a few.
At Berkeley, having an academic advisor was not a reality for some of the larger majors, including mine. Initially, I went the standard route available for those that wanted advice on class schedules - peer advising. This entailed standing in line to speak to a fellow student to get basic information about graduation requirements and check that your units were relatively on track. While this helped with the basics, I was still left with many questions. If I were to approach these advising difficulties again, I would stray from the typical standard college advising. Certainly, reaching adequate units is important, but there were missed opportunities to talk to impromptu advisors that could have served me well. Selecting a handful of professors that you admire and getting to know their path through schooling is arguably more beneficial. If you are interested in academia, there could be no better advisor than a professor who has gone through the process themselves. If you’re interested in industry, don’t be afraid to cold-email people you look up to on LinkedIn. People love to talk about themselves - take advantage of this! Take note of the classes they wish they had taken, their choice of major, and what internship or extracurriculars they credit with giving them a leg up.
It is true that when professors don’t have an obligation to advise, they can be less inclined to give you a piece of their already very limited time. They key to this is persistence; either be persistent with attending office hours and setting up meetings, or be persistent with seeking out other professors if the first few aren’t available enough. Finding advisors both inside and outside your field is important!
School size effects more than your academic life. College was the first time that I had to worry about my own health insurance, tuition payments, and incidental fees. Friends at smaller private schools often had health insurance included in the cost of tuition. The UC system has the automatic setting to have all students enrolled in student health insurance, but unlike private smaller schools, offers an opt-out option. This can be a great way to save a shocking ~$5,000 per academic year, but be careful if you choose to opt-out. Unlike a smaller school, if you make a mistake on a form, there is nobody sitting at a mahogany desk somewhere that you can call and ask politely to edit the form retroactively. Be prepared to cross your t’s and dot your i’s very carefully, and plan to submit all bureaucratic forms at least 10 *business days ahead of the deadline to give yourself some cushion!
Potential forms to look out for include student health insurance waivers, housing agreements, tuition deadlines (of course!), extra fees for lab of field based courses, and requesting transcripts for scholarship or graduate program applications. Of course, these forms and deadlines are not unique to large public universities, but be uniquely mindful of allowing for a cushion window and expecting to trade human interaction for case numbers (write these down!) and waiting periods.
You will be vastly more prepared for the real post-college world of taxes and adult responsibilities than some of your small school counterparts. Wear this badge of bureaucratic-master proudly!
Luckily, the bemoaned course enrollment system had such a reputation that this was a lesson learned quickly: sign up for classes the moment your enrollment window opens up. Think of this as the first minute Coachella tickets go on sale. You want to have your course code numbers, discussion codes, and a few backup options. Because courses fill up incredibly quickly, waitlisting is inevitable. At UC Berkeley, the 10% window was generally a good rule of thumb. In a lecture of 200, as long as I was in the first 20 on the waitlist, it was likely I could get into the class. For a discussion section of only twenty students, you would need to be waitlisted student #1 or #2 to have a fighting chance.
I learned to always enroll in my major-required and university-required classes first. Even though that seminar in field geology with a trip to Yosemite sounds enticing, make sure you prioritize getting a seat in the important classes. You’ll have more opportunity for those fun classes as an upperclassman!
I also learned to try and take the most popular classes in the off-semester when possible, option for Physics 1 in the Spring and Physics 2 the following Fall. The earlier your enrollment period, the better your chances at getting your required and desired classes. This was typically based on number of units accrued, so having AP credit was always worth it. Even if the university doesn’t let you skip intro to physics with your AP physics credit, you are likely to at least get a few units on your transcript, which will boost your enrollment status. One of the best perks of being either a Regent’s scholar or student athlete at a large university is the possibility of priority enrollment. For some, this benefit makes early morning practice completely worth it!
If you must sit in the front of a lecture hall due to personal preference or physical need, like eyesight or hearing limitations, showing up early is a good idea. This is always more important at the very beginning and very end of the semester. The first day of class, there will always be more students at the first lecture than will end up enrolling for the semester, with some on the waitlist and some choosing to drop the class later for other reasons. I made the mistake of running late to my first general chemistry lecture, and found myself sitting along the lecture hall steps with dozens of other students that didn’t fit in the auditorium. Those that filed in after us experienced the joys of a standing room only concert, substitute hydrocarbons for music. Most of the largest classes purposely over-enroll, expecting some students to just watch the webcasts instead of attending class. A popular intro to computer science class encourages students to stay home and watch on their computers. A general biology course had a live webcast overflow room for students that didn’t fit into the lecture hall.
In addition to arriving early, choosing to sit in the first few rows is a great way to shut out the crowds and pretend you’re in a class of 30 instead of 700!
Another way to cheat your brain into feeling like you’re attending a small school is to attend office hours. One more time for the people in the back - please go to office hours! In my difficult organic chemistry and physics classes, I should have scheduled in office hours as if they were mandatory discussion sections. I ended up only attending before a big final, and realized how much office hours reminded me of the personal attention and time for questions granted in high school. Maximize this time!
It was an absolute privilege to have attended a private high school that afforded me many incredible opportunities. The arguably greatest benefit was the rigorous academic foundation I developed there. It is quite possible that you will find college easier than high school (in some ways!)
Take pride in your writing skills as it is likely that you received more individual attention as a burgeoning writer in high school than your public school peers. I was able to test out of all university writing requirements this way, opening up my schedule freshman year.
Many of my high school classes used the Socratic method, and becoming a well-versed discussant was a priority. Take advantage of this skill, and contribute to your discussion sections confidently. I experienced an unexpected level of embarrassment to raise my hand in a class of 500 to offer an answer or ask a question. It wasn’t until midway through my second semester that I worked up the courage to contribute in a lecture hall of 650 students. It was a small contribution, but the professor acknowledged me, 650 peers heard my suggestion, and I walked out of class feeling like a superstar.
Try not to forget your discussion skills, as you’re likely to get rusty after a few years of large courses. By the time you’re an upperclassman, finally in smaller classes once again, it will feel like getting back in running shape for the first few weeks.
I was so fortunate to develop note-taking skills in high school that held me in good stead throughout college. This is something you could profit from! Becoming a note-taker for certain popular classes can be a part-time job, and a great way to give back.
Though I felt academically prepared, the motivation end of studying proved more difficult in this transition. Coming from a small private school with a 100% graduation rate, and a schedule often starting at 7am and ending at 7pm after extracurriculars, there was never a moment to consider your source of motivation. The goal was always getting into a good college or pleasing your teachers and parents. Once you’ve made it to college you’re left to your own devices. Without your school there to cheer you on and/or put the pressure on, this is an important moment in life to recognize and develop your intrinsic motivations. Setting small goals was always a huge help for me as it took me a few years to figure out how to self-motivate well enough. With professors that don’t know your name or care if you attend class, and nobody checking your suggested homework or quizzes, it became very easy to leave all work to the last week before finals. In college, you’ll need to be your own high school teacher, parent, and coach. This contrast is much more pronounced at a large public university, and was the biggest challenge to overcome.
This transition is akin to moving from a small town where everyone knows your name to a bustling city. The anonymity that comes with this setting can be a great opportunity to reinvent yourself and pursue new opportunities. Size inevitably leads to endless extracurriculars with a massively diverse student body. Not only will there be a theater group, but a theater for charity club that raises hurricane relief funds, a bilingual theater club, a club bringing theater to local juvenile detention centers, and a Shakespeare in the park spin-off. The possibilities are endless! Just be sure you seek out these student groups on your own, because it might take some sifting through poorly organized university websites to figure out all of the options!
The best piece of advice I received from an upperclassman when I struggled with adjusting socially, was to find your own way to make school small again. Sure, classes are going to stay giant, but wherever you can shrink the population down to a core group, do so. It’s unlikely you’ll run into the same person twice, so if you enjoy talking with someone in a lab, be sure to add them on Instagram and invite them to join you on a hike. Friendships won’t develop after seeing the same people day in and day out like in high school. Some people opt for Greek life, joining an athletic group, dance club, or co-op. These are all fantastic options! If you’re like me, you’ll wish that you could juggle being an athlete, artist, and poet like you did in high school. Make sure not to spread yourself too thin, and really hone in on one or two groups to foster that small community feeling again.
College counseling is one of the greatest benefits of attending a private high school. However, it’s likely that your college counselor will suggest schools that align most closely with your high school itself: small private liberal arts schools and ivy leagues. These are wonderful schools, and may arguably make for a more comfortable transition, but don’t forget the possibility of an adventure at a stellar public university. California has an outstanding public college system, from CSUs to UCs. Some of these schools have global rankings and name recognition that exceed lesser known liberal arts institutions. Name recognition can be a great benefit in your future career, especially if you plan to work abroad. Large research universities allow you to participate in and observe cutting edge research, and collaborate with leaders in your chosen field. Plus, your student loans will be much smaller and friendlier!
I can’t say that you won’t struggle with needing to dress in non-uniform clothing for the first time, but eventually your style will sort itself out. Wear that college sweatshirt proudly!