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Dear Class of 2026: Here are 26 things I've learned from my first year

<h6>Stephenie Chen / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Stephenie Chen / The Daily Princetonian

Dear Class of 2026, 

When someone is a naïve high school senior, gaining acceptance from an institution supposedly as elite as Princeton can be an ego-booster of exorbitant amounts. Upon getting into college, I thought I’d made it. But when I waded through the damp air of New Jersey August, I realized that I still had a long way to go. 

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In honor of the first year that has flown by too fast, no longer being among the youngest the University admits, and the Orange Bubble that I now call home, here are 26 things that I’ve learned. Whether you take my word as gospel or close the tab after this sentence, these are some things that I personally think are worth sharing by virtue of lived experience, even if they are not applicable to all. I feel grossly under-qualified to give this advice, but these reflections are more for myself than for anyone else — to remind myself that these past eight months have been more than just a fever dream. 

In a year’s time, whether you find this university the ‘best damn place of all’ or despise it with every single bone in your body, it is undeniable that you will have learned more about yourself as a person than you probably will have ever before. Make those memories, cherish your friends, and most importantly, do what fills your heart with joy. Because (although it pains me to say this) before you know it, you’ll be a rising sophomore, writing 27 lessons for the Class of 2027. 

Good luck, have fun, and here are 26 lessons for the Class of 2026. 

  1. Ask for the damn extension! More often than not, professors want to see you succeed, and help you to do so. If asking for an extension will help you succeed, then it never hurts to try. 
  2. Take a freshman seminar! Some of the most invaluable lessons I’ve learned, both academically and in life, I’ve gained from sitting amidst the lovely chaos of FRS105: American Identity at a Crossroads. Having a small seminar freshman year, and being able to discuss topics you’re passionate about with a distinguished academic as well as friends, is an irreplaceable experience. 
  3. Water in between alcoholic drinks helps prevent hangovers (at least from personal experience). 
  4. REJECTION IS REDIRECTION. After not getting into some clubs that I had based my entire identity around in high school, I felt lost, especially seeing people around me find their own little communities. But if I had gotten accepted by those clubs, I never would have even considered applying to Coffee Club on a whim in November. That decision turned out to be one of the best I’d ever made because of the people that I met and the abundant warmth of the community. 
  5. Take courses you genuinely enjoy — you only get this giant intellectual playground once. Everything else will fall into place. 
  6. Study in spaces that aren’t Firestone Library. Murray Dodge Cafe — they have free coffee, tea, and cookies; Empty classrooms. The Princeton Public Library! 
  7. Napping spots are more than abundant on campus — the Chancellor Green sofas, the Lewis Library sofas, any sofa that is even vaguely hidden from the public (or not!). Of course, your room works, too.
  8. Caffeine is NOT your best friend. There are actually different types of people & how they respond to caffeine — listen to your body! 
  9. And to reiterate: listen to your body! If you are exhausted, dehydrated, and hungry, more often than not, you will not be able to do good work. This may be the mom in me speaking, but please take care of yourself. Deciding to stop working at a certain point and just go to sleep — instead of shotgunning a Monster Energy — has often been the best decision for my body, sanity, and soul for the following day. 
  10. The person you’re in tears over right now? Within a month, you will literally not remember why you were sad in the first place. 
  11. Google Calendar is a religion — follow it as such. 
  12. DO NOT OVERLOAD YOURSELF — everyone goes at their own pace, and has their own path through Princeton and through life. 
  13. Do not feel pressure to have a “friend group” — everyone here is so busy that you’re reduced to spending time with people who genuinely bring you joy and whom you care about. So do exactly that. 
  14. Studying with friends is less efficient, but definitely more fun. 
  15. Study groups! Checking problem set answers and talking through concepts with other people is immensely helpful, both in terms of motivation and understanding the material.  
  16. Go to office hours! Especially in big intro STEM class, the office hours offered aren’t necessarily your professor’s, with whom you may not particularly vibe.
  17. On that same note… actually going to classes helps massively with understanding the material, even if you don’t take notes. Where you direct your attention is where you will gain the most.  
  18. Dressing up when you’re not feeling great can make a huge difference in your mood. 
  19. Noise canceling headphones are the BEST investment I’ve made. 
  20. Not all days will be great. And sometimes you just have to push through to the next nap. 
  21. If you can wake up early, slow mornings where you can get breakfast are elite
  22. Having a specific song on repeat when writing/performing tasks is incredibly effective. Pavlov yourself into productivity. 
  23. Be genuinely intellectually engaged with the things that you’re studying — there will always be some small sliver of information that actually tells you a lot about the world. PHY104? Literally explains ELECTRICITY, which is what I am using to write this, and what you are (probably) reading this using. 
  24. And if you can’t bring yourself to do that — at this point in the semester, the lack of intellectual motivation is definitely hitting — then gamify it. You are a hot Princeton student completing your silly little tasks, and you will succeed. 
  25. Appreciate the little things. Your time in the Orange Bubble passes faster than you expect it to, and it’s the little things that break you out of the monotony of classes, problem sets, and life. I literally didn’t even realize the flowers in spring were beginning to bloom until the entryway to Holder Courtyard was laden with them, and it did make me a little sad. 
  26. I’d say that the greatest thing that I've learnt from Princeton is what I genuinely value. I committed here in pursuit of the American Dream — Princeton, allegedly the No. 1 university in America, seemed able to foster that success. But as time has gone on, I’ve realized that I want to be chasing kindness instead of success. Rather than being great or being remembered, I want to be a good person; I want to be kind, and to always face the world from a space of love. I urge you to question your values to figure out what you genuinely want to pursue. What do you believe? Who do you want to be at the end of these four years? And although high school me may be unimpressed with who I am today, I wouldn’t change this for the world. 

Steph Chen is a Contributing Writer for The Prospect and Data at the 'Prince'. They can be reached at stephchen@princeton.edu 

Self essays at The Prospect give our writers and guest contributors the opportunity to share their perspectives. This essay reflects the views and lived experiences of the author. If you would like to submit a Self essay, contact us at prospect@dailyprincetonian.com.

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