What I Wish I Knew Before Coming to Swarthmore

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Dear Accepted Students,

I want to start off by saying congratulations! You should be incredibly proud of your acceptance to this school.  After the tiresome college application process, you now have another wonderful, yet terrifying road ahead of you.  As a graduating senior, I hope to shed some light on what is to come.

Freshman year is a difficult, trying time. You’re going to be pushed academically, socially, and emotionally, but it’ll be okay. Every single self-conscious freshman is nervous about what they’re going through.  Even though you might think that you’re the only one struggling, you are not alone.

Most of my time at Swarthmore has been great, but it’s important that I discuss my most challenging times that have truly shaped who I have become. I will share with you some of the lessons that I have learned in the hope that you find them useful to your own lives, whether or not you end up enrolling here.

1. Accept rejection gracefully

Over my four years I have been rejected by three plays, four a capella groups, the orientation committee, and numerous grants. I’ve also been rejected from being a Writing Associate, Admissions Fellow, Diversity Coordinator and RA.  I’m not going to lie to you. I really struggled dealing with the rejection I faced in college. It’s not a fun process. Even now as a senior, I’ve faced rejection from job after job, but I’m okay. I can move on and find something else.

Rejection is something real that we all have to deal with. We all have these expectations of where we will end up, and sometimes we need to open ourselves to the possibilities that we didn’t originally envision for ourselves. You can overcome rejection and find other opportunities out there…

2. Seek opportunities

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. This school has a lot of funding that is available for you. Because of Swarthmore funding, I got to spend three summers in South America doing work that has actually inspired my future career plans. I didn’t get these opportunities because I’m a genius. It’s because I explored my different options and didn’t let my numerous rejections stop me from doing what I love.

3.  Define your own happiness

I’ve had peers tell me that my schedule was too easy or that I didn’t have enough extracurriculars. These criticisms used to really bother me, but I’ve learned that I can’t let other people tell me how to lead my life.

Do not let anyone define your happiness. No professor, peer, or partner should ever tell you how to feel about yourself.  Spend college figuring out what fulfills you and makes you happy. Beyond music and theater, I’ve learned that sharing my story has become very therapeutic for me. Writing to you now helps me far more than you will ever know, and that is so much more powerful than any criticism a judgmental peer can throw at me.

4. Help yourself

Last spring, I was going through a rough time with friends, and instead of reaching out, I silently dealt with my problems until I couldn’t take it anymore. Despite my fears, I decided to go to our counseling services, CAPS. Suddenly I had an outlet for these frustrations that I had been keeping inside. CAPS gave me perspective on life and taught me to open up and share my feelings in such a productive, healthy way.  They were the help I needed.

I considered not sharing this in such a public forum because of the peers or future employers that may think differently of me, but it would be hypocritical of me to let others’ approval define my decisions. Those who read this have no right to judge me. I am not going to apologize for taking care of myself, and you never should either.

5. Empathize with others

My time in CAPS taught me that I shouldn’t completely blame my friends or peers for issues that come up between us. People are not evil.  They are just trying to make their way through the world in a way that makes sense to them. Really think about where people are coming from and what motivates their decisions in life. Everyone is fighting something.

6. Share with others

Earlier this semester I was making small talk with a freshman, who out of nowhere asked me, “Do you like Swarthmore?” Instead of giving a quick answer, we ended up talking for two hours, during which I explained that Swarthmore can be difficult, but it’s worth it in the end. I told him how my own experiences inspired my personal growth and made me the man I am today. I left that meeting and wrote down all my feelings; that actually became the basis for this op-ed.

Even in my old age, I still have lessons to learn. Sometimes it takes someone with a fresher perspective to open up my own.

7. Enjoy it while it lasts!

College is such an odd time in your life.  You get to explore yourself and the world around you in such profound ways, and it ends so quickly. I am 37 days from graduation, and I can’t believe where all the time went. As I look back, I can honestly say that I am a better person for having gone here. I have grown so much, and I am proud of what I’ve accomplished. Treasure the time that you have because before you know it, you’ll be a senior looking back on your own orientation day.

Go into your freshman year filled with the hope and wonder that will allow you to get the most out of college. Make mistakes and learn from them. Forgive others and discover your passions. And most of all, learn to believe in yourself.

Best of luck in everything you do!


Andrew Dorrance

Swarthmore College Class of 2015


  1. I’ll add something else. Comparing yourself to your peers can be one of the most damaging things you can do while here.

    Don’t compare yourself academically to upperclassmen. The school has beaten them up and shaped them intellectually in ways that you can only imagine as a freshman. Don’t worry, your time comes too.

    Do not compare your extracurricular engagements with that of others. I have really struggled with mental health issues while at Swarthmore, and finally realized that that was an extracurricular in and of itself. Learn that it is ok to set your boundaries.

    FOMO is a myth. You will be happier if you do what makes you happy, instead of what you think will give you good memories. Often times you will just feel disappointed if you try to check “experience boxes”

    DO NOT BUY INTO THE MISERY POKER CULTURE. I am dead serious on this one. Comparing your “misery” with other students will not help you accomplish anything, and it only feeds into a self-defeating culture on this campus.

    Everyone has their demons and their struggles. Don’t compare your load to that of others. You are smart and strong and brave enough to ask for help and get through anything. Share your load. Please. This is the best piece of advice I can give.

    • omg yes I agree…do what makes you happy x 100000
      SO much lost time doing extracurriculars and taking courses I had no interest in.

      Do what you love and you will be happy. It’s your f**king life so do as you please!

    • I cannot agree more with the “DO NOT BUY INTO MISERY POKER CULTURE.” Sure, there are legitimate problems in life, both big systemic ones and little personal/interpersonal ones, and it’s often a very important thing to talk about them.

      I had to go abroad to a very different place in order to break out of the misery poker cycle, but I did, and despite various things not quite going my way senior year I had an absolute BLAST because misery poker had no hold on me.

      Misery poker’s sneaky little cousin is “I’m so BUSY.” Of course you’re busy, and because of that you should say “no” to things and take care of yourself and those around you. But most of the people who are so busy get that way because they’re doing awesome things with awesome people. But you can *do* busy without *thinking of yourself* as busy, and the difference it’ll make for your life is enormous.

  2. Great share!! In Sharpe and Schwartz’s practical
    Wisdom class Tuesday a potential transfer student was sitting in and we talked about the hidden curriculum at Swarthmore as part
    Of class — I hope it didn’t scare the spec away!! But it was amazing and not surprising to me that all my classmates could see through Swarthmore and articulate the messages that are not explicit but built into the structure of the school– namely,

    wOrK work Work Work Work on academic matters.
    Advisor freshman year would tell me about her health Problems and how she only slept 3 hours a night. I felt like I should be helping her…my gap year after high school working a lot definitely Helped me resist the work work work culture. No way. I also carved out time here to develop personally in ways that I didn’t see many
    Others doing at the time — but I know others were out there doing it too.
    That means I didn’t try for honors or anything like that, or
    Even a particularly grueling schedule the last
    Two Years – academically. I get a lot out of working ($$) off campus. I wouldn’t trade a thing! It is possible To Go Here If you do not want to burn the midnight Oil. As long as you are okay standing a bit apart from others, the prototypical
    Swattie that wants to be a PhD candidate some day.
    I found Swarthmore to be worth it in many ways Too.

  3. More tips from an alum:

    1) If you’re premed, major in something other than science–major in philosophy, religion, soc-anth, classics, history, whatever. Something else. As a current med student, I regret majoring in my science major–all you’re gonna get in med school is science science science…so take the time to explore something else and differentiate your application!

    2) Workout daily! Whether that means exercising in the new Matchbox (I’M SO JEALOUS) or taking an exercise class, make exercise a central component of your life. It is so, so important for emotional and mental wellbeing to exercise. So do it, exercise daily.

    3) Eat healthily at Sharples–keep it low carb and high protein. Ice cream bar everyday will kill your waistline. Also, don’t feel pressured to drink the terrible alcoholic beverages served at parties. When you’re legal, have fun exploring great wine and great beer.

    4) Take a lot of language courses–learning a language is honestly the best thing you could do in your college career and you can relate it to your studying abroad.

    5) Take a dance elective. Take a music elective (music lessons or chamber music).

    6) Things NEVER go as you plan it around 95% of the time. Accept that but keep trying. Things eventually work out.

    7) You will change as a person. You will grow. It won’t be easy and it won’t be painfree. You will mature in ways you never knew were possible. But keep striving, keep your head up (and on), and always, always KEEP PERSPECTIVE.

    8) It goes by SO fast and there are so many things that I wished I could have done…

    Welcome to Swarthmore!!

  4. Two more thing, visit Medina and Philadelphia! Medina is a wonderful town with great restaurants (Iron Hill brewery and restaurant is great).

    Philadelphia has some amazing architecture and lots of yummy places to eat. See a performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra at least once at the Kimmel Center. Go get Yogorino at Rittenhouse square (so good). Get a philly cheesesteak at Pats (or Genos, but I prefer Pats) and a gelati from Rita’s.

    Take courses at Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Penn.

    Swarthmore has so many (too many?) opportunities, but it is up to you to take initiative and grab them!

  5. This is so great, Andrew!

    I would also add:

    1) It’s okay to take a break (or think about taking a break). It’s okay to take 3.0 credits or 3.5 credits, and it’s okay to take a semester or two away from Swarthmore. I know I really struggled with the idea of “taking a break” or taking a reduced course load because I was comparing myself to others. Ultimately, though, we all have different needs (physically, mentally, socially) and different work/life balances. Talk to the deans’ office; they’re generally more than happy to help you figure out how to take time away from Swarthmore and the doors to Swarthmore are never closed (you can come back without re-applying!).

    2) If you feel like you need more away from Swat physically, there’s ways to do it! Work off-campus (like Lily mentioned), try classes at Penn, take community-based learning classes, go abroad, live off-campus!

    3) Feel free to say “no.” Don’t feel like you have to do everything, or join every club, or always volunteer for XYZ.

    Congratulations on getting in and enjoy your time at Swarthmore!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

The Phoenix

Discover more from The Phoenix

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading