The Strange Obsession With ‘Making the Most’ At College

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia

Shomik Mukherjee
Executive Managing Editor

I realized a few days into my freshman year that I was already struggling not to fail. I had been told, in no uncertain terms, to “make the most”—and I was not doing so. It wasn’t that I was making the least, either. I was camped awkwardly in-between, making a reasonable amount.

That initial freshman experience was quite a bit of fun, though. I treated trips to the dining commons like auditions for new friendships. There was a charm to the intensity of the organization fairs where I browsed around, picking up flyers for clubs I would never join. And I explored campus and Isla Vista with an earnestness that I might have recreated had I tapped into the Pokémon Go-craze this past summer.

All the same, many of those early days were mired by a sense of urgency. Much of what should have been a natural ease into college life was instead plagued by a worry that what I was doing was not enough, or worse, that I was doing it incorrectly.

I hoarded new contacts on my phone like lottery tickets, perhaps subconsciously hoping that some would emerge as college mainstays. Most of those first club meetings ended with a familiar realization that I did not care to stick around. The glaring opportunity cost of a s’mores social was missing out on building more convenient friendships with my hall-mates, while the s’mores themselves were alarmingly mediocre.

I also quickly became aware that if I did nothing at all, the campus would not reward my lack of effort. There were a few empty nights during the first week when I went to bed feeling like I had done nothing productive in building the elusive “college life.”

While some of this anxiety was self-inflicted, the constant hype surrounding the start of freshman year probably contributed more to my wobbliness. Students and grown-ups on the other side of Welcome Week lecture new undergraduates about enjoying the “best years of one’s life” through the vehicle of “unforgettable experience,” while forming “lasting bonds” with friends on “well-invested time.” All of this is summed up by the tired platitude of “making the most,” a phrase with vague implications and little discernible content, distributed wholesale to every freshman doorstep.

Few profess to owning a literal blueprint to college success. But the bulk of the usual, well-intentioned advice seems to miss the point entirely. Cultivating a memorable college experience is not a tangible, multi-step effort, just like having fun is not typically hard work in itself (as Hobbes the tiger might note). The best years of one’s life are a side effect of becoming a better person, not the motivation in doing so.

Recalling how much importance I assigned each day of those first few weeks is more than a little embarrassing. Like most others, I have since floated into an enjoyable, productive little niche at UCSB. Along the way, there was no elaborate process of self-improvement. There was no photo each week that revealed incremental success. Some mornings, you simply wake up and notice that your life has changed entirely, save for a few constants.

Of course, this isn’t really the case: there certainly were a few key decisions I made during the past two years that proved to be significant in the long run. But they were rarely moments of self-awareness.

My first connections with the people I’m closest to weren’t the results of some desperate attempts to fulfill my so-called “best years.” College allows us to start evolving organically, set free in an environment where we’ll inevitably undergo some degree of change. Our only say in the matter is how much we embrace it.

Perhaps then-UCSB student Jack Johnson, now world-beating musician, walked into De La Guerra dining commons with the intention of making the most on the afternoon when a female student sat at his table, an incident now immortalized in his lyrics. The girl, now his wife of 16 years Kim, certainly kicked off a meaningful chapter of his life, whether or not he knew it at the time.

Johnson’s fabled words will live forever within the walls of DLG—much to the chagrin of the workers at Ortega, where the story actually occurred. Hopefully, a future set of freshmen, rather than interpreting the tale as a directive to not let college years go to waste, will instead glean a message with less implied pressure. Tune out the chatter; don’t dwell on the significance of a moment in time. But do talk to the person sitting in front of you, if you’d like.


  1. This is a lovely piece of writing. As a faculty member who specializes in NEW students, I am often guilty of evangelizing for too many activities. This opinion piece reminded me of some of the best times I had in college — tossing a frisbee or kicking a hacky sack in a circle of friends. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. genuinely loved reading this. I’m proud to know you! thank you for shedding light on this topic and for writing what so many of us feel inside.

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