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Hot Take: The “Traditional College Experience” is a Harmful Myth

In conversations amongst my friends at Kenyon and elsewhere, the concept of a traditional college experience often weaves its way into discussions of social life. We’ll be chatting about our hidden desires to spend Fridays watching Netflix, or ranting about meeting new people, and suddenly it’ll come up. I’ve often heard common phrases such as “I need to have a more traditional college experience” or “I’m just not having the traditional college experience like everyone else” come into conversation. Honestly, I’m really tired of hearing this kind of talk. Why? Because truth be told, I don’t believe that there is a universally appealing college experience. 

All forms of media we interact with that display college life, such as movies and Instagram posts, glamorize college. Consider shows like Gilmore Girls and Gossip Girl, which both showcase characters navigating more realistic-seeming college settings. We see characters in these shows attend classes, become acquainted with dorm life, and figure out complicated campus dating situations. Yet in our binging of these shows and admiration for the characters in them, we develop a warped perception of college experiences, taking their messages at face value as how-to manuals. Ultimately, these shows and many others influence viewers about what should happen during college—making viewers forget that they’re merely fictional situations intended to be dramatic.

Anna Schultz-Girl And Guy Playing Beer Pong
Anna Schultz / Her Campus

The other form of media I’ve mentioned, Instagram, is just as harmful for perpetuating ideas about the traditional college experience. When I scroll through my own feed after a Friday or Saturday night, I’m immediately hit with an overload of party photos. The people in these photos are posed in certain ways, usually in large groups. They’re dressed in fashionable attire that they’ve probably planned out for photos, and appear to look totally happy. But are they really happy at every single party they go to? It’s impossible to know the answer to this. Someone’s post from a party is simply one point in time intended to show others that they are socializing in a way considered traditional to college life. And these posts are popular, demonstrating an anxiety to conform to this. 

It’s possible, too, that the idea of a traditional college experience may be influenced by parents or older relatives who try to give college advice. Regardless of if their advice is helpful or not, it’s important to keep in mind that they likely had a different experience than you will; they likely had no cell phones and different trends that influenced their social lives. Of course, some aspects of college are universal and can be shared, such as study habits. Additionally, students who are legacies may also be able to have many similar experiences to family. However, I think it’s crucial to remember that different generations experience college life differently. 

Repeatedly being influenced by the idea that there is a traditional college experience that should be followed is extremely unhealthy. All people are different and choose to experience their collegiate years differently. This depends on multiple factors, from major to personality. If you’re holding yourself to a standard that doesn’t really exist at all through natural differences in preferences, you will consistently be let down by working towards a nonexistent goal. Besides, if you’re obsessing over participating in something because it seems like others are, it may not even be for your own wellness. At the end of the day, you should be focused on making yourself happy. 

Ultimately, worrying if you’re doing “enough” to participate in college is totally natural. I’ve experienced this feeling countless times, especially when it’s brought up by my friends. The most important step for myself has been acknowledging that I have these feelings and understanding that my expectations are unrealistic. Through this acknowledgement with myself I’ve learned more about what truly makes me happy. I’ve been able to rationalize how deeply posts on social media and talk about lacking a social life negatively affects me. Reflecting on your feelings as I have is something I really recommend. No matter how you spend it, your college experience is too short to spend worrying about a total myth. 

Ella Simpson

Kenyon '24

Ella is a sophomore at Kenyon College. She is an English major with a concentration in Women's and Gender Studies. In her free time, she can be found writing poetry, binging Gilmore Girls, and looking at photos of her two dogs.
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