What I Would Do If I Was A Freshman Cornell Student Again

What I Would Do If I Was A Freshman Cornell Student Again
Photo by Eliott Reyna / Unsplash

I was an absolute mess as a Freshman Cornell student.

I lost all 14 of my initial friend group after the first semester, I switched my major, I ate way too much of the Cornell dining hall food--which has no right being that good--I had no time management skills, and I didn't know how to learn.

In this video, I will teach you everything I would do differently if I was a Freshman Cornell student again.

Make sure to watch until the end because I share the single most important thing I wish I had done when going back to college.

Build A Self Learning Habit While In School

Firstly, I would build a self-learning habit while in school.

One of my favorite quotes from Mark Twain is that you "should never let school get in the way of your education." Chasing straight A's in school makes you dumb. Unless you are trying to become an engineer, go to medical school, become a lawyer, or become a lawyerdoctorengineer, you don't need to get straight As in your classes.

Chasing all straight A's will make you prioritize regurgitating information on the tests rather than developing an intrinsic love of learning.

In my first semester, I created a habit of reading for an hour and a half on a book outside of school every night if I didn't have any other plans.

This kept me intellectually curious by reading something outside of my schoolwork almost every night. I didn't seclude myself in an informational echo chamber of psychology but read books from all over the place, business, environmental science, fiction, biology, and more. With the vast learning resources on the internet and the rise of AI, a physical college degree isn't enough to stick out anymore.

If you want to remain relevant when you leave College, you have to learn things outside of it.

Start A Side Hustle In School

Building a side hustle as a content creator while in school forced me to: Learn time management skills Discipline Develop an intrinsic love for learning Understand me better

Was it easy? Absolutely, peace of cake. No, of course, it wasn't easy! There was one month where I was in three clubs, creating a weekly podcast, newsletter, YT video, a digital course, sleeping eight hours, exercising, and doing stand-up comedy, all while having a regular course schedule. I remember waking up in my dorm room and instantly getting hit with a wave of anxiety, thinking, "How in goodness gracious am I going to do this all?"

I had to learn to be very intentional with my time.

I scheduled everything in my to-do list or Google Calendar. I time blocked when I would wake up, work out, have meals, study, and work on my side hustle. I time-blocked when I would go to the bathroom... just kidding, lol. You might be thinking, but Aidong, isn't college the place where you should have fun and relax? Scheduling everything takes away spontaneity and freedom.

Here's a question: if you care so much about spontaneity and freedom, why did you sign up for 4 years of being told what to do?

I'm of the opinion that life is seasonal.

There are seasons where you will be more work-focused and seasons where you will be more relationship-focused. Your college years should have a mix of both.

If you want to get some ideas for side hustles, check out Ali Abdaal's video on it to learn more.

Diversify Your Friends

You're profoundly affected by the five friends you interact with most.

If your friends play video games, eat unhealthily, and don't exercise, you will also likely do that. You must find friends you want to be like. It's way too easy to only make friends with those on your dorm room floor or those in your major.

But if you do this, you likely won't find friends that resonate with who you want to be like.

In my first semester at Cornell, I made friends with the first 14 people I met at the orientation party on the first night of College.

For the first month, we did everything together, but as time went on, we stopped seeing each other as much. One day, about two months into the semester, we got everyone back together for dinner at RPCC. I was so excited, hoping it would be just like that first week. But when we sat down, and I tried to enter a conversation, one by one, each person went on their phones and scrolled through Tik Tok.

This kept happening at subsequent hangouts.

I came to realize this group of friends, while not evil, wasn't for me.

Even though it's hard now, I wish I had diversified my friend group earlier. Find friends that resonate with who I want to be. Friends that can give me a different perspective on life.

Friendships, not situationships.

If you want to learn how to find friendships that resonate with you at College, check out my video: How To Create Deep Friendships In College To Combat Loneliness.

Become The Person That Plans Things

Be the person that plans things.

I know it's unfair, but why should you have to set up everything? But if you are only ever the person that accepts invitations, you won't have the time to cultivate deep friendships. Plus, planning things lets you choose what you get to do with friends.

Wanna know my secret?

Each week, I have a task on my to-do list, which encourages me to set up something awesome to do with friends.

I always try to set up a more epic 3+ hour-long adventure with friends on the weekends because we have more time. But I also have set rituals in place where I meet a friend for lunch or dinner every week. Having it at the same time every week, it makes it easy to consistently see my friends once a week or once every other week.

But I don't always get lunch or dinner at the same place.

That wouldn't be memorable.

That's why it's essential that, as the planner of activities, you understand what makes an experience memorable in the first place so you can create memories that last a lifetime in College. Check out my article How To Create Memories That Last A Lifetime In College The Power Of Moments And The Art of Making Memories Book Summaries.

Figure Out Your Why

As Nietzsche said, "Those who have a why can endure almost any how."

Most students I know at Cornell don't have a concrete why they are doing what they are doing. Heck, when people asked me, "Why are you doing Nutrition Science in my first semester, I would be like," Uhh, I like food. So how do you find your why?

Sit under a tree, close your eyes, and meditate for a couple hundred hours...

My personal favorite is not only through regular journaling but doing an Odyssey Plan exercise every year.

The Odyssey plan is a journaling exercise for uncovering what you want to do in the future and why you want to do it. It includes three questions which I would give around an hour to complete:

  1. What does my life look like five years from now on my current path?
  2. What does my life look like five years from now on a completely separate path?
  3. What does my life look like five years from now if societal obligations and money weren't a factor?

I'm not saying you're going to complete this exercise and suddenly have incredible clarity over what your entire life will be like.

What I am saying is you can't steer an anchored ship.

Stop Multitasking

Multitasking doesn't work.

When you multitask, working on two highly cognitive tasks at once, the brain rapidly switches between tasks you are doing, causing tremendous amounts of cognitive load and making you do worse on both tasks than if you were doing one on its own. But multitasking can be way worse than that. Multitasking inhibits our focusing muscles, which increases our tendency to mind wander and makes it harder to focus attention, ultimately reducing our ability to enter the flow state and have optimal experiences, robbing us of some of the most enjoyable aspects of life.

Multitasking is like trying to play a symphony on two pianos simultaneously.

Your brain becomes a frantic conductor, hastily flipping between the notes of each piece and, at the same time, unable to enjoy each piece for what it is.

Despite this, practically half the students I see multitask on something else while taking lecture notes in class. One day, I remember a student watching a minimized football game while listening to the lecture AND doing their math homework. I must give it to him, that was impressive.

If you want to learn more about why you shouldn't multitask, check out my video, Multitasking is Destroying Your Ability to Enjoy Life.

Get Your Triforce Of Health In Order

So many students wear how little sleep they get, little exercise they are doing, and unhealthily they eat as if it's a badge of honor.

Not fulfilling your triforce of health, sleep, diet, and exercise is no joking matter. It's the foundation for you to thrive in college and anywhere in life. I used to watch YT up into the late hours of the night, exercise only when I on a sports team during the year, and get double lunch every single day at school. Safe to say, I wasn't the model of great health decisions. Here are some of my highest leverage tips that helped me build my triforce of health:

  1. Go to sleep and get up at a regular time each day. Even on weekends. Sure, you can break the routine occasionally, but don't be that person with no regular sleep schedule.
  2. Stick to a diet for most of the year that you could do for life. Don't fall for the common dieting fads of heavily restricting yourself for a few months or the opposite of getting dessert at lunch. If you can't stick with it for life, it won't work.
  3. Choose the exercise that is most enjoyable to you. Don't force yourself to run for exercise if you don't enjoy running.

Join More Clubs

Join more clubs.

As a Freshman, I avoided joining too many clubs making the excuse that I "wanted to get used to college first." That's perfectly fair, but I think joining more clubs than you reasonably can forces you to get your time management in gear and exposes you to tons of places to find new friends. Clubs are in many ways more valuable than the college education itself.

You will build lifelong friends, new skills, and broaden your perspective.

How can you find clubs?

At Cornell, the Campus Groups website shows all the clubs at Cornell. Take a big scroll through and email the club leaders to see when the meeting times are. Through this process, I found three of my favorite clubs: The Speech and Debate Club, The Board Game Club, and The Outing Club.

Take Weird Classes

Take weird classes.

I have taken a cooking class, a Buddhism class, a Bike Touring class, and more. Wanna know my secret, I'm a Psychology major. These weird classes have given me some of my best college experiences so far. My cooking class, for instance, inspired me to become a home cook. When I return to my parent's house during breaks, I have tons of fun cooking African, Japanese, and Indian cuisine, which lets me host dinner parties with friends as well!

It's all because of taking weird classes.

Don't avoid taking weird classes just because they aren't in your major.

What are you going to remember twenty years from now? Biochemistry or Magic Mushrooms and Fungi? There are tons of weird excellent classes at Cornell and every College. Here are some of the most prominent ones I can recommend to you:

  • Oceanography
  • Psych 101
  • Magic Mushrooms and Fungi
  • Food For Contemporary Living: My Cooking Class
  • Six Pretty Good Books
  • Food Science Ice Cream
  • Acting
  • Human Bonding
  • Networks
  • PSYCH Better Decisions

And last but certainly not least, the legendary Wines class.

This class is infamous at Cornell because it's the only place to drink alcohol underage.

Learn How To Study

Learn how to study.

I was terrible at studying before I came to College. I remember one year while studying for a history exam, I walked up to a friend outside the testing room feeling smug, folded my arms, and asked, "How many times did you read the book? I read it three times through." They looked at me with a coy expression, "I read it five times."

We thought rote reading of the textbook was the best method for studying.

Nobody is going to teach you how to do it. So, unfortunately, you have to learn to do it yourself. If you can learn to study BEFORE you come to college:

  • Spend paradoxically less time studying because you remember the material better from test to test
  • Have more time to see friends
  • Remember vastly more of your learnings after the class
  • Enjoy the class more because you will know you can actually remember what you learn

This deadly combination of not enjoying studying and using bad studying techniques led not only to me disliking school but also forgetting most of what I "learned" a few weeks after a test.

Understand Where Partying Fits In With You

In college, people will pressure you to party.

I recommend you go and see if it's for you. After partying three times at College, I decided it wasn't for me. Personally, I don't think partying as an activity gives that much value to you or the world. For 3 reasons: There are other much more healthy ways to socialize and relax You aren't likely to find good friends And it's bad for your health.

Making a conscious decision not to party but rather spend my nights with friends or reading was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

But if you want to spend one night per week having a good time partying, then all the power to you.

Explore Ithaca

Cornell is one of the most beautiful campuses in the world, but I'm sure any college you go to has some nice nature areas.

I highly recommend you make the most of it by exploring some of my personal areas either with friends or alone:

  • The Arboretum
  • The Slope
  • Arts Quad
  • Engineering Quad
  • CALS Quad
  • Monkey Run Trail
  • Buttermilk Falls
  • Truman State Park
  • Cascadilla Gorge

You can find a whole bunch of nature trails by going on NatureRx.

My personal favorite nature spot on Campus, however, is Beebe Lake. I had a habit during my first semester at College of walking around the lake or some other nature spot at least once a day, and it has been one of the greatest habits I have ingrained. I have probably walked around that lake over 300 times at this point. I have listened to many books, podcasts, ideated content, and simply been present during those walks.

Find your own nature spot you can do it with at college.

Do Daily, Weekly, Monthly, And Yearly Reviews

One of the biggest life-changing habits I instilled at College was setting a daily meze in place.

A daily meze is a regular time each day when you journal and check in with your communication mediums, calendar, and to-do list.

This saves so much time.

Here's the process for doing mine daily at around 6:00 p.m.

I follow the two-minute rule while going through my communication mediums. If I can't answer it in two minutes, I leave it for one of my logistical response days at College. I tag emails that I can't do in two minutes with later. Then during my two logistical response days during the week, Monday and Friday, I go through all my emails tagged with later and batch respond to them.

What about tasks and time-sensitive items?

I go through my calendar and time block what I want to work on for the next day based on my weekly goals, which are based on my monthly goals, based on my quarterly goals, based on my yearly goals. Then I go into my to-do list and revise my tasks for the next day.

This is real life-changing stuff.

By setting in deliberate time to get things done the day beforehand, I wake up with complete clarity on what I'm going to do with my day. This doesn't mean I have to schedule everything out or that the schedule will go to plan. The simple act of planning is powerful enough.

In addition, on the week, month, quarter, and year timescale, I also have reviews.

This gives me immense clarity on what I'm doing every single day in school.

Every Friday, for example, I do a weekly review where I do everything in my daily meze but on a larger time scale. I check my communication mediums, look at my calendar forward and backward for two weeks, roughly plan the next week, and schedule tasks. This process is what I call lifestyle design, the art of creating and adapting a life that resonates with you.

If you want to learn more about how I do my periodic reviews, check out my article: How I Create My Best Life With Regular Reviews In Obsidian.

Learn How To Take Linked Notes

Now for what I wish I had learned most when I first came to college.

If you have read this far in the article congratulations, you get my best tip for the end.

Tell me if this sounds familiar, like a bad case of deja-vu: taking notes in class, I would copy exactly what the professor said verbatim. To study for tests later on, I would read my notes passively. This made me a cookie-cuter student, the student that copies the professor verbatim.

Being a cookie-cutter student had three insidious effects:

  1. My knowledge base became a cookie-cutter version of all the other students taking notes in the same way. There was none of my own authentic personality inside of the notes. I had no stake in my ideas. I didn't care about learning, only about getting the best grade on the next test.
  2. Studying dominated my life. In a desperate attempt to achieve an A+ on everything, I would have to spend hours studying to make up for my passive studying techniques. It was like trying to climb Mount Everest with flip-flops. I lost out on time for exercise, relationships, and eating large amounts of peanut butter.
  3. My learning was siloed from semester to semester. Not only did my notes have none of my authentic touch, but they also didn't connect together from class to class from semester to semester. In effect, every semester was like starting with a blank slate. None of my past work helped me in the future.

Here's the issue: In the digital age, your perspective matters more than your rote knowledge. There is more information than ever before. We live in a paradox of abundance. The quality of good information is getting higher, while at the same time, the quality of bad information is getting worse.

As AI systems get better and better and more and more tasks get automated, your unique perspective as a human being is becoming more and more important. Your hobbies, skills, abilities, relationships, and so much more combine to form something no other human being has.

The issue is traditional schooling is still built on an industrial-era model. It's trying to make you into the perfect factory worker, sucking away your unique perspective and draining your passion for school.

Let's change that.

In College, I had one major realization that changed everything for me about notetaking. If you take nothing else from this video, take this:

There are no rigid disciplines in the universe, only concepts.

Biology, Anthropology, Statistics, History, Phycology (the study of Algae, not joking), etc. They are disciplines that all take highly related concepts and connect them together.

But there's nothing stopping you from connecting a note from Biology to one on History. For example, a note on how the historical Royal English practice of incest led to the famous "long chin" because inbreeding has a higher chance of negative recessive traits revealing themselves. Taking linked notes allows you to do this.

Linked notes are great for 3 main reasons:

  1. It makes you more engaged in your learning. You add your own unique personality, background, flare, spunk, whatever you want into your notes. Your knowledge is unique compared to other students. You add your own unique sauce to your burger.
  2. It lessons the need for incessant studying. The brain doesn't learn by siloing information into rigid folders. It learns through connecting new information to past. Emulating this process using linked notes means you learn the material better the first time.
  3. [[With a second brain you never have to start from scratch allowing you to take advantage of inspiration 1|You never have to start from scratch again]]. Your notes will start to connect class to class, semester to semester. Instead of starting with a blank slate each semester, your knowledge will compound on itself.

To learn more, check out my and fellow Obsidian creator John Mavrick’s flagship notetaking course Obsidian University: Your Secret Weapon In School. In it, you will:

  • Learn how to find enjoyment in learning and studying by breaking out of the Cookie Cutter Mindset
  • Flesh out a systemized process for taking notes on class lectures and outside learnings to get straight As
  • Create a unique personal knowledgebase inside Obsidian that scales across classes and semesters
  • Set up your system upfront to require only 15-30 minutes of daily maintenance
  • Learn how to navigate the overwhelming level of information and overcome FOMO
  • Learn how to integrate AI into your notetaking
  • Gain access to a community discord with fellow students looking to make the same transformation

Join the new Student Era today by checking out the course or signing up for one of my free email courses related to the course on the landing page.