Is College Really the “Best Four Years of Your Life?”

During my final stretch of college, I fretted so much over what it meant to “make the most of it.” It was advice I had received from my older friends who were working entry-level jobs and feeling nostalgic. They scared the shit out of me; I took their guidance as a mandate. Have fun, enjoy it, it’s almost over. Of course, demands to have fun don’t really work, and the cruel irony was the only time I wasted was the time I spent worrying I was wasting it.

What I’ve learned in the years since is that dividing adult life into the binary of college and post-college is silly. It’s all equally capable of being interesting, challenging, fun or boring, depending on who, where, what you are. “The college experience” is about as predictable as “the working experience,” which is to say: not at all. It’s much more varied than our culture gives it credit for.

In an effort to bring some of that emotional diversity to light, I asked seven women who went to college to tell me what they think of those years now. Whether I was talking to Elizabeth, who graduated a year ago, or Jenny, who graduated 46 years ago, I asked the same questions: Was college, for them, the experience touted in the movies? Did they think it was “the best four years of their lives,” as the cliche goes? Did they miss it? Read on to find out what they said.

Elizabeth, one year out

Aside from graduating early, I definitely had the cliché experience: I joined a sorority and lived in dorms until senior year, etc. I loved it, but I don’t buy into the idea that college has to be the “best four years of your life.” I got a lot of flack for graduating early, especially from friends’ parents, who couldn’t understand why I’d want to “cut these four amazing years short,” but I don’t feel like I missed out at all! I needed a break before I started working full-time. I think it’s unrealistic to think college will be the greatest years for everyone.  It puts an annoying amount of pressure on people. Also, it’s depressing if you think the best years of your life happen so early and then everything is downhill from there.

I do miss some of it. I miss being in the same building as all my friends and being able to choose what I was learning and having it vary from semester-to-semester. I miss having designated spring/winter/summer breaks and being able to sleep in and work out in the afternoon instead of squeezing it in at 6:30 a.m. I think a lot of things are better now too, though, like not having to share my bedroom with someone who is WAY too chatty pre-coffee or who may or may not bring someone home on a random Tuesday night, or my increased independence in the “real world” — feeling like I’m starting a future that’s no longer bound to a four-year time-frame.

Yvonne, four years out

Most of my college experience was cliché in a good way and I remember it fondly: meeting incredible friends, having lots of freedom, making mistakes in a controlled environment, studying abroad, partying, living in a sorority house. Sure, there were a few less glamorous times in college, too: exhaustion, heartache, homesickness, social anxiety my freshman year. Overall, I feel lucky to have had an incredible experience.

Not to sound cheesy, but I probably would call it the best time of my life. Especially after I quit my sport at the end of sophomore year, I discovered how much I loved what I was studying (art history), and I had endless amounts of freedom to explore, go out, hang out with friends, study what I wanted, take random classes just for fun (like public speaking, Buddhism and creative writing), go to sports events, support friends in their activities and do so much stereotypical college stuff. My senior year, having just finished a 10-week internship, I was acutely aware that it was the last time in my life I was truly “free” and I think I really made the most of it. I was definitely scared and sad to graduate, but I think it was maybe because I actually did have an authentically great experience that was hard to move on from?

I remember visiting campus for a football game only four months after I had graduated college. At the time, I felt really lost at work and lonely in a new city. But visiting — trying to “re-live” my old life — made me feel even more lonely. Yes, I miss college but in a “wonderful memory” way, something I know is the past. In the four years since graduation, I have missed college less and less as I continue to find fulfilling jobs, make new friends and settle further into the city. In short, I am annoying and loved college.

Kelly, nine years out

I remember college fondly, but I worked nearly full-time for most of it to cover my expenses and never took a light class load, so I was pretty busy. Having a sprawling amount of free time with friends is probably the “cliché” college experience I feel I missed out on the most, and there is a tinge of regret for me there, but I don’t think I’d change that for my own kids. I learned so much about how to work and the value of money; it made my transition to “real life” so much easier. Isn’t that the point of college?

There are a lot of happy moments from those years that will always stick with me, but I can confidently say that it was NOT the best time of my life. It would have been pointless to try to explain it to me then, but the distilling of friendships, a real paycheck and the confidence gained from life experience and a good job far outweigh any perks from that phase of my life. I had a lot of fun in college and established (a few) friendships that I will carry deep into my life, but it was not a fulfilling time for me. College and high school blend together for me in so many ways: so much insecurity and anxiety and self doubt! You couldn’t pay me to go back.

Aside from being grateful about the people it brought into my life, I spend so little time thinking about college now. And that includes my views on “pedigree” based on where I or anyone went to school. So, so, so much of your life happens in the years post-college. I want to tell 18-year-old me to chill out, learn how to work hard, pack your brain with things you’re genuinely interested in, and find a person/ people that you can be your true self with and want to sit next to forever.

Sonia, 14 years out

The things I remember fondly: the intense friendships, the almost-complete lack of responsibilities, the youthful energy, all the possibilities in front of me, very straightforward work. Also, my skin, hair and body were all better than now. I’m kind of disgusted by the person I was at that time, though. All I wanted to do was party and have fun; I skated through classes. I worried about the wrong things: my grades didn’t end up mattering out in the real world. It didn’t even matter that I graduated. College should have been all about making connections. I wish I had seen the opportunities instead of being so lazy. I also think about what my life would have been like had I just rejected the narrative of having to go to college, and instead spent that time and money traveling or doing something more meaningful.

I did learn some things in college, though. I learned about what true wealth looked like: private planes, expensive cars, second or third houses, kids who could buy whatever they wanted, kids who didn’t need to actually get jobs. My school was full of kids like that. I learned about substance abuse and disordered eating from one of my roommates; that was pretty eye-opening. And I started learning about how to hustle for gigs, which was the most helpful takeaway. I loved writing papers. I miss academic work. I know people who have advanced degrees and I would love to have the opportunity to go back to school for another four or eight years. Unfortunately, I can’t bankroll that kind of thing.

I remember thinking at one point, “I have to get a tattoo to commemorate how I feel right now because I know I will never feel like this again.” I was right. Kids should be scared to graduate. They should be fucking terrified. The thing I learned after college, when I moved to New York to try to actually have a career, is that no one owes you anything. Does that sound harsh? I was pretty sheltered and naive.

Shawna, 19 years out

I absolutely loved college. I definitely think of it as one of the best times in my life. What was special about college for me was that it was the culmination of years of very hard work in high school to get into the college I really wanted to go to, Brown. I was really happy to be there and I felt like I finally found my people: creative thinkers, not overly obsessed with grades, more interested in trying new things than being the best at one particular thing. Even years later, when I meet someone I really click with, I often find out that they went to Brown, too. Probably 75% of my current friend group went there but, funny enough, I only met about 20% of them when I was at Brown. (Disclaimer: my husband went to Brown, had a completely different experience and wouldn’t say that college was the most amazing time of his life.)

I loved being independent and having the freedom to make all of my own choices. I also loved the first four years after graduating from college, when I moved across the country to San Francisco, moved in with my boyfriend, had my first job and rented my first apartment. Those were carefree times, and I lived in very close proximity to my best friends. We were all going through the same life experiences together at the same time. It is nearly impossible to recreate that closeness and connection you feel with your friends as you get older.

Even if I miss it a lot, I don’t feel like I wish I was back in school. No way. I just have a lot of nostalgia for that phase in my life in general. I miss seeing my friends all the time. I miss that connection and closeness with my community. It sort of ties into that fantasy of “Hey, maybe we should all quit our jobs, sell our over-priced New York apartments and live on a commune up in Woodstock!” Actually…that’s a good idea…I’m going to get on that.

Jamile, 35 years out

I did not have cliché “college experience,” although I wish I did. I don’t remember it fondly because I worked while I went to college and I was more focused on my job than my classes. I don’t miss my college experience at all. In fact, I’d say I missed my college experience. In retrospect, I would have done it differently.

Jenny, 46 years out

I totally had the cliché college experience! I started college during the Summer of Love and it was exactly as all the hype says: sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll. Maybe not the “college experience” of yore, but it was a lot of freedom. Of course I remember it fondly, who wouldn’t? It was good for what it was and for my age, but it wasn’t necessarily the best time of my life.

I don’t miss it. I think what people forget is that along with all that freedom, you still have to figure out what the heck to do next and who you are and all that. I think the twenties for young adults are not easy unless you are one of those people who always knew what she wanted to be, like a lawyer or something. I wish I could have my 20-year-old body and my mental state now. Woo! I would rock!

Collages by Edith Young; images from the Science & Society Picture Library via Getty Images. 

Get more Pop Culture ?
  • Abby

    As I am now not only post-college but also post-graduate degree, I can tell you that THIS is the best time in my life. I’m older/wiser, I never have to do homework again!!!!, I’m way more secure in my self, I make decent and non-entry level money, I got a house/a dog/a husband, I don’t have kids yet so I can spend my money how I want and go out on the weekends with minimal worry about responsibilities. This sweet spot between no-more-school-ever and taking-my-kids-to-soccer-practice-constantly is the best!!

  • Meemaw

    I’d rather give my mother in law a Brazilian than be back in college again.

    • Imaiya Ravichandran

      i swear this was a plotline in an episode of mtv’s “underaged & engaged”. millennials will know.

      • Teresa

        Haha! I totally remember that episode!

  • Right now I’m three years out of college and I definitely look back on college fondly but in a nostalgic way. I don’t wish that I was in college right now but I miss having all my friends in the same place and that feeling that anything is possible when you graduate. Real life if hard! But, at least now I am less self-conscious and anxious than when I was in college.

    • “that feeling that anything is possible” this! was just talking about my friends about how this was the best part of college for me—i felt invincible, and like the world was my oyster. i don’t want to go back to college, as much as i loved it, but i do wish i could get this feeling back.

  • Adrianna

    I graduated in 2011, so six years ago. I attended NYU, which is a specific college experience. I continued to live and work in the same neighborhood after I graduating, and in many ways I feel like I wrote over and replaced my college memories.

    I enjoyed college, but it was hardly the best years of my life. I think I experienced the cliche post-graduation struggles of 20-somethings by attending a university in Manhattan.

    I struggled with depression and the challenges of paying my own rent in NYC during the recession. I’m an immigrant and first generation to go to college, and I was bitter about my economic background and lack of exposure. I felt more awkward in my body and self-conscious about my clothes more than I did in high school. I mostly only miss going to class and learning. I remember it as being a super busy time – I woke up at 5am, studied in the morning, and worked at night.

  • Cate

    I miss devoting all of my time to studying. I loved my major (American History) and feel incredibly lucky that I got to give 4 years to it. I miss taking electives like art. I miss living with 4 girls and sharing every bit of our lives with one another. I went to a women’s college and dearly miss being a part of an institution that is 100% devoted to advancing women (turns out there aren’t so many of those in real life).

    But six years out, I have to say that there is nothing quite like independence. Adulthood is hard, but I did not have myself figured out until I was 26ish years old. College was a steep learning curve for me, but it took a few years in the real world to really get to know myself. I don’t think I would give that up to be back in college – I was so anxious.

    • Adrianna

      I didn’t go to a women’s college, but I was always surrounded by a majority of girls or women in my high school and college classes. (I had classes at NYU that were all female.)

      It was kind of jarring to realize how superior men feel, and just how many positions of power are filled by mediocre men. I didn’t experience any sort of mansplaining or similar sexism until graduating college.

  • Jess

    One year out and don’t miss college at all. It was a very stressful experience for me. If I have a nightmare, nine of ten times it happens at school.

  • Mariel

    I’m still in college but I have to work so I can pay my tuition and sometimes I feel like I’m losing too much of the college experience that everybody is having however I feel like is for the best that the adult world won’t affect me as much as it affects my classmates

  • I loved college so much. I went to an awesome school in Providence and enjoyed nearly every minute of life on campus. I had never really been away from home before, so college was the place that I really began exploring who I was, meeting new people, and seeking out new experiences. Was it the best four years of my life? No way! I want to be living my best life now!

    I’m not really someone who looks back, but I think the person I am today would do so much better in that environment. I wish I had spent more time meeting friends that really understood me, and took advantage of all the resources and activities the school had to offer. I know so much more now that I feel like it’s almost wasted on the younger version of me!

    My cousin is currently in college, and has decided to take a semester off to pursue a startup. I have mixed feelings about the whole thing, but I don’t say it’s the “best time of your life”. More that it’s a carefree time, and one of the only times you’ll be around tons of people your age. Whatever she decides, I just hope it works out for the best.

  • Emily

    I loved college for many reasons– the independence, discovering my sense of myself, gaining confidence in my academic abilities, finding my career path, making friends who I share a lot in common with– but even with all that growth, I also struggled with loneliness, anxiety, and depression, especially when I thought about how my college experience wasn’t ‘stacking up.’ It seems to me like this is a pretty common college experience these days. I also went to a large public university, where it was hard to find a big social network without joining a co-op or sorority, and my one big regret is not working harder to find a group for myself, even if it wasn’t through those avenues. I wouldn’t change things though, as I’m happy with where i’ve ended up. I think I will treasure my experience and how it shaped me as a person, but I doubt in 60 years I’ll look back on it as the best four years of my life. time will tell!

  • I live mere blocks away from my alma mater and every weekend when my neighbors across the alley are yelling “body shots!” and ringing a gong (??? a real thing they did last Friday) I am so dearly thankful I’m not in college anymore.

  • Fat Tony

    I’m really glad you decided to touch on this, Haley. The idea that college is “the best four years of your life” is something that has bothered me since I was a freshman and something that has bothered me up until recently (I’m three years out btw). I struggled with anxiety/depression and an eating disorder while I was in undergrad and this created a breeding ground for my self-doubt. I was constantly comparing myself to others and wondering why I wasn’t “normal” and loving college like everyone else. This ended up continuing even after I had graduated. I moved back home to save money while I was in grad school while most of my friends went on to get jobs in cities like NYC and Boston. These two cities are definitely hubs for graduates from my university so often times people moved with college friends and therefore continue to hang out and prolong their college experiences. This led to me feeling even more alone than ever and often like I was doing something wrong. For all it’s positives, social media definitely played a big part in this “extreme fomo” and made this transition all that much harder. Now I’m out of grad school, out of my parent’s house, and working full-time, I’ve finally “caught-up”. The most important part of this “catching-up” is trying not to compare myself to other people’s experiences. I think it’s important that we talk about these topics so people can see that they aren’t some sort of outlier among their peers, and there is no “normal” college experience or life experience in general. I loved all the perspectives you’ve shared and I look forward to reading what the MR community has to say about this topic too.

  • AG

    I used to have this running inner monologue with myself in college. I’d say things like “You’re a 19 year old girl, walking through this beautiful campus on this gorgeous spring day. You’re headed to a class on a topic you find really interesting and afterwards you’re going to grab lunch with your best friends” and so on. I guess it was my way of putting the pressures and stresses of college life into perspective and focusing on just how gd wonderful I had it. Even if I was headed into a test or heading to the library to study for hours, I’d try to frame it into something nice like, “you’re going to sit in a beautiful college library with a hot cup of coffee and figure this stuff out.” Right now for me if doesn’t work too well “you’re a 28 year old woman, sitting in traffic, heading to a job she hates..” (i kid, life is still pretty good.)

    funny story – while studying abroad my junior year I told one of my British flatmates that I do this. Later she came to me and said “you know, I started doing this as well and it’s great. However, instead of my inner monologue being in my voice, it’s yours!” I still laugh thinking that her’s came out in an american accent.

    • Kiks

      I still remember having those monologues as well, and I graduated in 2006! I was so proud of myself and so excited to be away at university, at the school I had dreamed of going to, rather than the crummy local university most people in my hometown defaulted to. I constantly reminded myself how lucky I was to be there. 18 year old me screwed up a lot of things, but at least she knew enough to appreciate those things in the moment.

  • Basil

    I really really loved university (in the U.K. Here) for numerous reasons – I have pretty strict parents and it was the first time I had freedom, compared to everything before it was completely amazing. I could go out, have fun, do stupid things without my parents hanging over me. Also – I loved what I was studying, and I loved that I had so much control over my time. It was tough – I had no money so worked throughout (lots of my friends didn’t have to) and that was a constant worry. I found it hard after I left, as I had such a close group of friends but also because a few months after I graduated, my boyfriend and I broke up and I was devastated (it was something inevitable – I loved to a different city and he wanted to stay put).

    They were some of the best years of my life, but then my life is currently pretty great but completely different. I now actually earn decent money, have a wonderful husband and a son who is just the best (and another baby on the way). I hardly ever go out – working FT and being really pregnant and having a small child makes it impossible, but I don’t miss it. Sadly I don’t have many friends I see very often (definitely not how it was at university, where we hung out everyday) because it’s difficult to get childcare and we just don’t have time, but I’m married to my best friend so that’s pretty cool.

  • Thank you for this story!!! As someone who graduates from college this December — and as someone who is VERY much looking forward to graduation — I’ve come to terms that while these college years have been good, they by no means have to be the “best” years of my life. I’ve never been someone who is super into the typical college lifestyle, and I find it a little annoying and demeaning when friends and family are constantly telling me to “enjoy every moment” of my last few months at school.

    Oh well. Go hoosiers!

  • ihaveacooch

    i think a lot of this has to do with whether or not you had to work during school too. i think i would have enjoyed school A LOT more if i hadn’t been commuting ~3 hours, interning, working on top of attending classes. my roommate is always like “omg i miss college!” and i want to be like yeah because you dormed and didn’t have to worry about keeping a job…

  • Eliza

    Yeeaaaah, the idea that college is universally the best time of your life is a scam. You couldn’t pay me to relive those years. I was lost, broke, exhausted, an emotional mess, in a terrible relationship and had a very hard time making friends because I was at a school that really wasn’t a great fit for me because MONEY (or lackthereof). No thank you.

    • Eliza

      Also… now that I’m thinking about it, the initial rush of excitement that comes with “freedom!” and “party!” and all that was lost on me because my parents pretty much always let me do whatever I wanted…. So I was basically like, ok this is the same except now I’m just broke?

  • Delaney

    I am in my first year, first semester of college right now. Reading these experiences was pretty helpful in putting this experience so far into perspective.

  • Alicia McElhaney

    AH i hated college so much. The lack of structure was so bad for me. Never again.

  • Court E. Thompson

    I’m nine years out and it was definitely not the best years of my life. It almost felt like an extension of high school – partly because I went to college in my hometown, but I lived on campus the whole time.
    Grad school was way more fun. Those connections have lasted longer and the time spent was more worthwhile.

  • Saz

    Ah… this made me wish I had had that cliche college experience. Instead, when I left school at 18 – I took a year out to focus on my mental health. Then I started interneing, and eventually, working. Now, at 25, I definitely feel as though I’ve missed out on a carefree youth.

  • Aydan

    growth. That’s what college meant to me. I grew up so much! I went through thinking I could do it all, to changing a major without telling my parents, watching my mother suffer through cancer, fall into deep depression myself, and come right back around out of it. I wouldn’t change it for the world, but I certainly wouldn’t go back. I’ve only continued to grow and expand upon those experience in college and develop into the young woman today. I think the key here is that for those who forgo a traditional experience, you too can still learn and grow and expand your mind. There are multiple experiences and regardless 18-25 is the age of crystallization–feel yourself–know yourself–develop yourself–you’re gonna have to live with you for the rest of life, so start loving yourself!

  • Harling Ross

    Elizabeth is my sister!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Jordana

    I am a senior at a high school where ninety-five percent of students matriculate to a four year university. It seems as though every waking moment of my life is taken up by thoughts or discussions about college. Many of my peers plan to attend high caliber universities, and I feel a pressure to do so as well. I have spent countless hours in the past months working on college applications. While I have strong sense of where I want to go, I feel hopeless and that I will never be able to attend my “dream” school. It seems that all of my thoughts are consumed by college, to an unhealthy degree. I wonder, are these thoughts worthwhile? When did where one goes to college become indicative of their character or competence? I already feel a huge pressure to make college the best four years of my life, and I have no idea where I will end up or even what I want to study. How can I feel grateful for the opportunity to attend college, rather than focus on where I think I need to go or accomplish while there?

  • Cynthia Schoonover

    I graduated from college 41 years ago, and my college years were four of the best years of my life, in spite of the fact that my dad died from cancer when I was a sophomore, but he was so proud of me. I didn’t get to live on campus, but I lived at home, and that didn’t bother me, because I was able to go to the school where I really wanted to go. I attended my 40th reunion last year. I was glad to graduate from high school, because I did not fit in. In college, I was accepted for who I was.

  • Alexandra

    When I went to college on my first go-around right after high school, I was miserable and isolated and could not find my groove. It wasn’t until I had a baby, then went back to school when he was 6 months old, that I could truly appreciate my college experience. It was challenging and gave me separation from my role as “mommy”. I couldnt take it for granted, and I met other people who were similarly driven with more adult priorities. So I’d say perhaps my 2nd set of college years were the best of my life, and they were definitely not the dorm-life-party-time-carefree times so many associate with the college experience.

  • EmUhLee

    I graduated two years ago from a small northeastern liberal arts college and have struggled with extreme nostalgia ever since. What I miss most about it, far and away (besides the classes and intellectual stimulation), is the sense of community and interaction and endless possibilities for connection. Post-grad life is just so lonely and isolated by comparison, and I live with friends and have a fairly active social life. Still, nothing compares to the feeling of being at home on a campus where everyone knows everyone (and, let me remind myself that by my senior year I was sick of feeling like I was “under a microscope” and had no privacy). I still haven’t figured out how to get that back.

    I loved college and I do miss it, but I know that my memory is pretty selective. These days, I don’t remember the brutal all-nighters, the days when I barely had time to pee and had lost my appetite from stress, the relationship drama with immature 19-year-old boys, or the somewhat stifling social scene. I couldn’t wait to graduate by the end.

  • Major Q to all my college grads out there! I’m currently in my third year of school and cannot seem to get rid of this weird totally engulfing anxiety about the future and getting a job. Is this a normal thing to be going through?

  • Karen

    I went away to boarding school in high school (not because I was forced or because it was expected. I literally found out that it existed and fell in love as soon as I visited on campus) and those four years will probably be the best four years of my life. I don’t know if I will ever experience such a happy, carefree existence for such a long period again. Not that I particularly want to….? But anyway, a lot of shit happened when I went to college. It was a really hard transition for me, and while I had good memories in college too, I ended up actually on a psychiatric ward during my senior year. So yeah, uh, a very different experience. Sidebar cw: suicidal ideation — it’s scary as fuck / extremely unsettling to watch a PSA video on depression your senior year in high school being horrified at the thought that people experienced ‘something like that’ to flashforward four years later wanting to take my own life??? Brains are so weird!!!!

    I love(d) my high school, the friends I made, the warm atmosphere, and I wouldn’t trade those memories for anything. The day I came home from my high school graduation I cried for hours because I was so sad. I’ve never felt as heartbroken from a person, lol.

    I think I’m confident in saying that those will be the best continuous four years of my life, in high school, but I feel that I’ve had other very lucky, happy experiences since then that felt more…I don’t know, earned? gritty? that I also treasure a lot.

  • alice

    I hate to say this but it’s articles like this and the “6 things that age you” piece that really make me lose faith in manreppeller. I come here to enjoy fashion and style without being made to feel like my life revolves around Kendall Jenner’s instagram, not to read ageist opinions which reinforce the notion that being young and slim are the only components of happiness. How is this even man repelling?

  • Amanda

    My parents have always tried to drill this into my head, saying college is the best four years of your life because never again will you have so much free time or so little responsibility. Maybe this was true a generation ago, but now it’s different because students are going deeply into debt, knowing that they’ll be paying off their loans for half their lives, and spending all hours in the library and all of this places so much more stress on the college experience. So I hope to goodness that these aren’t the best four years! That would really suck!

  • Lauren

    Oh my gosh, Shawna’s piece was eerily resonant. Getting to college was so great for me because it was the culmination of incredibly hard work to get to an incredible school– Brown! I experienced the Brown alum/students the exact same way, and I’ve noticed that when I really admire a writer/figure/etc., they end up having gone to Brown. Also, after graduation, I moved to across the country to San Francisco to be with my boyfriend!

    That being said, I’m 2 years out of college, and I’m so glad for that distance. I miss the nonstop opportunities to pursue anything and everything, but I don’t miss the (internal) pressure to take advantage of said opportunities. I was intensely lonely, and seeing everyone around me having great friendships was torturous. But mostly, I spent 3/4 of college cripplingly depressed, and I think being in college was enough of a safety net to allow my mental health to deteriorate. Getting into the real world, facing real challenges, finding myself capable of handling real challenges, and having responsibility–those drove me to improve my health, and I’m now mentally healthier than I ever thought possible.