The College Years Journal

By Michael Ham

The college years are a time of major change and major decisions — no pun intended. For the first time, you are really on your own, and the decisions and experiences you’ll be going through over the next few years will determine the direction of your life.

This is the ideal time for a journal. It can:

  • Give you a picture of your life at this time, which in later years you can revisit and reawaken your memories — memories that would otherwise be unrecoverable.
  • Help you make sense out of your experience at the time, by helping you analyze and review what’s happened and what it might mean.
  • Help you make decisions by recording the context of the decision: what you;re basing it on, how you feel about it, what you expect from it, how you will review the outcomes.
  • Help you set and achieve your own goals-personal, academic, financial, recreational, whatever. And help you create goals that take you in the direction you can go.

You can keep a journal in any sort of blank book, lined or not. You’ll want to keep some photos with it, most likely. Or you can keep a journal on a computer, ideally in a form that organizes your thoughts so you can readily review them and search out particular passages — and that will accept photos.

Of course, you want assurance that your private thoughts will stay private. If you use a book, you’ll want to keep it safe — hidden and even locked away. Or if you keep your journal on a computer, you’ll want it to be password protected and to encrypt your entries so they can’t be read. You can use various computer programs for a journal, but it works best if you get on that was designed specifically to be a journal, so that it includes many tools to make your journal-keeping more fun, more efficient, and secure.

Here are some ideas that you might consider for your own college journal:

Picking the college.

Explain how you made the first major decision: picking the college. Did you visit the campus? Tell about that. Did you meet any students? Describe them. Why this college, instead of College A, or University B? What made you decide, and how clear was the decision? What were your expectations and hopes for this college?

Picture it.

Don’t forget to include photos in your journal. If you keep the journal in a book, paste the photos to the appropriate page (but use a paste that will not destroy the photo over time). Take the time to describe the occasion and the people in the photo. Otherwise, in later years, you’ll be surprised to find that you don’t recall anything about the photo. If you use an electronic journal, include digital photos, along with the descriptive information.

Your college aspirations.

Right at the start, you should record your aspirations for your college years: what do you hope to achieve? Not just academically, but in terms of your own development and growth as a person. What goals have you set for these years, and how will you know whether you’ve achieved them? This page you can return to and review as you go through college — and you might write a similar page at the start of each year or even each semester. What do you want to accomplish, and what hopes do you have for the semester? And how do you evaluate your previous semester or year?

The cast of characters.

Describe the key people you meet, from the moment you meet them, and add to the descriptions as you learn more about them: your professors, your new friends, your teammates, people you’re drawn to, people you’re wary of. Develop your skills as a writer by recording encounters that help you understand more about them — and about yourself. Develop your intuition by learning to listen to it and by honoring it through journaling what it tells you.

Decisions, decisions.

Use your journal to define and explore the key decisions that you will make: how you see each important decision at the time you make it, what information and discussions are leading you to make that decision, what alternatives you see (at the time the decision is made) that make your decision the best choice for you. Later on, it will be impossible to recapture what you yourself saw and understood and expected when you made that big decision — though you can evaluate the outcomes later, and determine how you can improve the way you make decisions. But hindsight bias will blind you to exactly how you made the decision and felt about it at the time, unless your journal helps you recall and recapture those critical moments.

Small pleasures of daily life.

It’s hard to believe at the time, but the small daily pleasures and fun exchanges that you enjoy now will blur and fade in the fog of the past as your life goes on. The intensity of feelings that you experience now will sink into a vague general impression that these were “good years” with few specific details you can recall. Record those pleasures now — the conversations, the triumphs, the daily joys — and you’ll be able to relive them later. A few small details can be enough for your memory to recall an entire day. And even the temporary terrors — facing a final, testing yourself in a completely new situation — will fade with time. You will lose the sense that you can face such things and get through them, unless you’ve written down, in the privacy of your journal, what you feared and how you dealt with that fear. And don’t forget: what’s hard to endure is sweet to recall.

The best thought/book/conversation/course/whatever you ever had.

College is a time of breaking new ground, finding — and creating — new ideas, new visions, new versions of what your life can be. But from all the possibilities, you can choose only a few. With your journal, though, you can record the whole range of the possibilities that you see, so that you can see them again in later years. And, of course, also record the worst: the worst course/evening/person/professor/weekend/whatever. Those too are a part of your experience, and those too can fade with time unless you capture that moment to look back on later.

Big questions.

During college you will undoubtedly review and discuss certain perennial questions: the extent of free will, the nature of altruism, the sort(s) of immortality a person has, the nature of God, to what (who) you may be connected beyond yourself, the soul/mind/body separations, how families affect society and society affects families, the duties and responsibilities you have in your various roles (citizen, family member, friend, etc.), and the like. Because your ideas will evolve, it’s good to capture their evolution by having sections of your journal set aside for them. Or if you keep your journal on your computer, to mark those passages so they can be easily found and followed as a sequence.

A few other, related thoughts:

Fear the person who’s never failed. We learn so much from our failures that those who have yet to fail are woefully ignorant. Tell yourself the stories of your own failures and what they taught you.

Hindsight favors us. Those decisions that turn out well make us recall more certainty than we had when we decided, and those that turn out poorly make us recall an inkling of doubt even when we may have been totally certain. Tell yourself, at the time you decide, exactly how you felt, what you knew, what you expected, and why you decided. Then, good or bad, you can look back at the time of the decision and see what you can do better in future decisions.

Defining goals. What are you goals for the coming year? What new experiences and courses will help you reach those goals? And how well do these advance your goals for your life?

Essays for memory. Describe in 200 words the specific character of a particular day: an autumn day outside, a winter day inside, a spring day of hope, etc. Or the specific character of a particular person. Each month, capture the flavor of that month in the description of a typical day.

What have we missed? As you keep your journal, you’ll find that this list is incomplete. Help me complete it by telling me what I missed. Please send your ideas for additional prompts and journal directions to me.

14 August 2001
Michael Ham

About the author: Michael Ham kept a journal intermittently in college, and in revisiting it while a Director of Admissions at St. John’s College, Annapolis, MD, wished that he had been more methodical about it. He developed the college-journal prompts as a basis for those who want to make the most of their college years — and to be able to look back at that wonderful time later.

This article originally appeared in The Journal Newsletter – November 2001.