The Myth of the

One-Size-Fits-All University Experience

By Kira Guehring and Aurora Hotti | August 30, 2021

Cover Illustration:

Studying often plays a minor role in the ‘classic college experience’. Sharon McCutcheon / Unsplash

Campus reporters Kira and Aurora take on the differences between the ‘classic college experience’ as portrayed in the media and their own university expectations and experiences.

The best years of your life. Memorable nights out, hookups, no responsibilities and cool friends. The media sells us an idea of what the university experience should be like. If yours doesn’t live up to the hype, it can feel like you’re doing something wrong. 

What is regarded as the ‘classic college experience’ is rooted in American college stereotypes, often glamorized in the media, which can already make it unattainable for some. While some of the downsides of the university experience are portrayed, like bad roommates and low cash flow, many of the main detractors are never addressed. Studying and going to class are often missing from the narrative, despite being the more obvious purpose of attending university.

And while some people do have this kind of university experience, the majority do not. Maybe your university years will be the best period of your life, maybe they won’t. That does not mean anyone’s experience is worth more or less, it just means that there is no one-size-fits-all university experience. Even if social media can make it seem like everyone is having a better time than you.

With that being said, let’s dissect exactly what “better” refers to. For one person, an ideal night consists of spending time with a friend watching a movie. For another, it means reading a book in bed with rain hitting the windowsill and for yet another, it might mean being out and about until the break of dawn. The social pressure felt through online portrayals cannot reflect what makes individuals happy, especially when what makes you happy changes from day to day depending on different factors like your mood. It is up to individuals to overcome the subconscious comparisons.

There are so many different reasons why people decide to go to university. One reason being the expectations and goals for this period. This can influence how many of the full experience requirements you can fulfill, but also how you feel about them. Maybe your plan was to party or prioritize finding new friends. Or live with your parents to save money. All of these factors sculpt an experience that becomes ‘your’ university experience. 

For myself, Kira, my expectation for uni was slightly different. Part of me had already accepted that the classic party experience was not for me. Instead I envisioned studying interesting topics, being a regular in the coffee place around the corner, dinners with friends and long nights talking with roommates. Some of these activities became a reality, although it was usually different than I had expected and sometimes short-lived. Despite this, the idea of how university is represented in the media was not an easy standard to let go of.

On the other hand, mine, being Aurora, did consist of days where it felt like I was living the mainstream university experience and yet I wondered if it was “enough”. During intreeweek in 2019 I was out every night surrounded by new people in exciting venues, but by the first half of the semester I already felt myself beginning to isolate in order to focus on school. The balance between breaking out of my comfort zone, exploring Amsterdam and meeting people whilst taking care of my well-being and academic work became a hard line to define. It soon became clear, however,  that there was a time and place for everything and appreciating the quiet nights at home or evenings late in the library were equally important if not more. 

What really matters is not the experience itself but what it represents. University is a time for ‘finding yourself,’ for exploring and growing as a person. The classic experience takes these ideas quite literally, by seemingly trying out everything. But with the pandemic dragging on, it feels like more and more of this experience is being lost. Current students are missing out on the opportunities that are associated with this personal growth and exploration. At the same time, these unprecedented times have created different paths and resulted in, pardon my oxymoron, a similarly unique experience.

So what should you strive for? Following your interests can lead to unforgettable moments and an experience that is more fun than what you have been told it should be like. Don’t have too many expectations, and be flexible. Along the way, you will discover new ways of life and realize that what you once held at such a high standard may not be a priority after all. Regardless of what your experience looks like, it will be memorable and you will get to learn a lot about yourself along the way. In the end, how you experience university never ends up being precisely the way you planned it. What does happen is everyone comes out with having gone through inner growth, and memories to reminisce. 

All of us, regardless of where we go to university, sometimes feel lost, tired and homesick and at other moments feel excited, happy and motivated. THAT is the university experience everyone can expect to have, not a list of presupposed events which we imagine to be true based on what we see in pop culture. The path we take once we choose where to go and what to study is up to us. 

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