14 Lessons Every Girl Should Learn Before She Leaves For College

Joanna Schroeder shares the lessons that would've spared her heartbreak and embarrassment if she'd learned them earlier.

Lessons for Girls Jacob Lund / Shutterstock.com

Four of my six nieces are heading off to college this year and next. Thinking of them all as babies, I feel the passing of time so keenly. Each of them with their big brown eyes and round cheeks, dark hair falling across their little foreheads, it’s hard to believe they’re all so grown.

Yes, it’s trite. But these are common sentiments for a reason: startling at the growth of babies is an essential part of the human experience — and so is wanting them to avoid much of the worst heartbreak and heartache we’ve experienced.


When I think of them as 18 and 19-year-olds in college, I think of what I wish I’d known at their age.

This is for them — and all of our girls. Maybe we can spare them some of our heartbreak (and embarassment!). 

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14 life lessons just for you, my Gen Z girls, courtesy of TikTok (& your aunt)

1. You don't owe anyone anything



Yes, this mom is talking to a little girl, and you gals are not little girls. You already know this stuff, because you all have extremely badass moms.

But there are still things we can learn from this TikTok.

How do I know? Because I am 45 years old and spend 33.3 percent of my days angry as a caged badger and I still sometimes find myself accommodating people who don’t deserve it. Any chance I have to learn from a little kid, I’ll take it.


What does ‘red flags’ mean? she asks.

Something’s wrong heeeeere! her little girl replies.

And I love that the mom says you can still be kind. Boundaries are, in fact, very kind. Not just to ourselves, but also to the people who love us. They tell people what lines not to cross and teach them how to treat us well.

Young girls at beach


2. Be like a possum

Yes, a possum.

They help the world by eating dangerous ticks that carry Lyme disease, as well as other gross insects, and they don’t carry or transmit rabies-like raccoons, bats and other mammals.



In addition, have cute little faces and ears like a mouse, but they are terrifying when you cross them. They hiss, they spit, and when they turn their backs, they have wild naked tails like a snake. They also have an odor that is … distinct.


I’m not saying you should smell bad or show your ass. I’m just saying, go ahead and be cute (you’re all already cute, 10/10, no notes on that) but don’t be afraid to hiss when someone tries to interrupt your good works.

3. Don't trust anyone who is afraid of your anger

Yes, you need to be kind, thoughtful and respectful of others in the day-to-day of your life. And when you disagree with people, there’s no need to lose yourself in the fight. But …



You are allowed to be angry. Angry at the world when it is cruel, angry at people who dismiss and take advantage of you. Angry when you don’t get the job you wanted or at a friend who double-crosses you.


And you are allowed to get angry at your partner, and if your partner tells you that you are irrational when you are feeling angry — even when you feel totally rational in your anger — as the little girl in my first point says, “something’s wrong heeeeeere”.

4. Build something you don't want to escape from

It’s going to take a lot of tries in order to find the metaphorical home that feels so peaceful, so fulfilling, that you don’t want to escape from it — but you need to keep trying.



Try on different people as partners, try on jobs and aesthetics, try on wild friendships and friends who like quiet corners and sweet books, try on homebodying and traveling.


Try it all on until you find something you don’t want to escape from. And then know that nothing is forever, that you can keep building a peace that feels nourishing for the rest of your life.

5. Say all the nice things that come to your mind

Say kind things and say them often.

Don’t say nice things to get stuff or make people like you — say things you mean. Make it a practice.



It’s an exercise not just in spreading joy — which you will — but also in finding your authentic self.


Sorting through the compliments and kind words you want to say and filtering out what may be attached to an agenda not only helps us get to know ourselves — it also helps us spot people who say nice things for nefarious reasons.

6. Understand that paying interest on credit cards is like throwing money in the garbage

I know this is boring, but when you’re 30 and actually have savings while your friends are paying $3,000 a month (just in interest!) on student loans, car loans and credit cards, you’ll thank me.

(The biggest part of the lesson at this point is at the bottom of No.7 in this list!)



I’m not going to be good at explaining the true cost of paying interest, so please watch this guy above and trust me — what he says is true! I opened a Discover card account my junior year of college (please be wary of anybody offering you a credit card or non-university loan when you’re in college!) and paid 29.99 percent interest for years.


When I graduated I had $3,000 in debt on that card.

I had not spent $3,000 in purchases.

Over the course of just one year I gave Discover $850 of my hard-earned dollars — just in interest. For nothing!

Don’t be like me. I should’ve cut back my expenses more, not bought so many shoes and handbags, and paid for my books with debit directly from my bank account.

7. Become obsessed with your credit score

And I do mean obsessed.

I’m being boring again, but go with me on this for just one minute, gals. I’m almost done!

Once you turn 18, you can start building credit. That means you’ll have a number score attached to your name and social security number. This seems irrelevant right now, but in a couple of years, you’ll want to rent an apartment or home. If you have good credit, you’ll get first pick.


You’ll also get lower interest rates on credit cards and auto loans with a good credit score. Again, I know this seems ridiculous right now, but if I can give you one gift, it’s the gift of never having to rely on anyone — or any one particular job — for money.

A few simple tips:

1. If possible, don’t buy anything on a credit card that you can’t pay for with cash or your debit card. Why? Because you need to be able to pay it all off before it’s due, every single month. (See the video below for exact instructions — and this is what I do, now, too!).



2. Use your credit card only as a means of building credit — not as a way to buy stuff you want. Every credit card purchase should be for one reason only: to use your card just enough.


Don’t put that handbag you want on it, use it to fill up your gas tank before driving home for a visit. Keep your credit card purchases logical and necessary — stuff you would buy anyway: tissues, toilet paper, a few basic groceries.

You know why? Because these are shame-free purchases, and paying that bill will be easy and natural. Plus, they’re expenses you’ve already budgeted for.

3. Never skip a payment on anything. If you get in a pinch and can’t pay on time, call your parents or the parent figure you trust most and come up with a plan. Don’t put it out of your mind.

I missed one payment on my Subaru Outback when I was a couple of years ago … and it’s still on my credit report, even though the rest of my history is perfect! It drives me bonkers.


Yes, learning this new thing is stressful, but I want you gals to know this now. Being financially free opens doors and gives you freedom from everything: your parents, your romantic partners and even jobs you may hate. Financial freedom and a good credit score give you choices.

8. Find your way to emotional wellness



You will probably bump up against some mental health stuff throughout the course of your life if you haven’t yet. Guess what? It’s normal. Most people struggle with emotional wellness at some point in life.

The first thing you should do is tell your parents — as your aunt, I know all of your parents well, and they will do anything in their power to help you be well while also encouraging you to live a big, brave life. If you can’t go to them, find someone else you trust.


You can also ask for support from your college health resource. It’s covered under your insurance and they’re used to all sorts of stuff. You cannot shock a college health center employee.

In addition, maintain your emotional health in ways that complement what works for you. I love this video of Lili Reinhart (my fave) talking about how she thinks about her own thinking (yes, you read that right) and how she finds her way out of despair. It’s about imagining herself as an alien visiting Earth for the first time.

I love her.

If what helps you stay well doesn’t make sense to anyone else, that’s OK. If you feel better, and like you’re on solid ground, that’s what matters.


9. Learn how to flirt



Your parents are not going to like me for this, but I swear it works.

Ignore the heteronormativity of this video, the technique doesn’t just work on guys — it’s sort of a universal body language “hack” that is a tried-and-true way to up your flirtation skills.

I’m not even sorry I’m sharing this with you. Love is a battlefield. Tell that to your parents, they’re old like me and they’ll get it.


10. Don't become a caretaker

Regardless of whether you’re naturally the care-taking type, you may find yourself in the role of the “giver” in a relationship — and your partner in the role of the “taker”.

This is fine when someone is sick or going through a temporary hard time. But you can’t let this dynamic become A Thing in your relationships — or even in your friendships.



This video is a little cheesy, but it demonstrates the type of everyday, normal things people do in a balanced relationship to care for one another. We don’t get to see these simple gifts often, which is why I like this TikTok.


11. Separate 'value' from 'volume'



This is especially important if you’re using social media or doing public-facing work. It’s easy to feel like a failure when your stuff isn’t getting seen by a million people or praised by lots of strangers. But not everything is for one million people or a bunch of strangers.

Whether it’s physical intimacy, your work or research, social media or anything else — some things are for just a few people in a very deep way. Never devalue those things.

12. Know that some people aren't meant to understand you

You are not for everyone. That’s OK — and it doesn’t mean you’re better than them (or vice-versa).


That doesn’t mean you get to be mean or rude. Saying “I’m not for everyone” is not an excuse to be rude to the people you don’t value.

Instead, be thoughtful and kind, but be yourself. Let the haters fall behind as you make tracks in your own life.



Not only will this help you build a network of supportive, challenging people who love you — it will also help weed out the people who will pretend not to understand you in order to serve their own dysfunction (see the TikTok above!). Often, this is a tool for manipulation because it can make you feel bad or “crazy”. And you’re not crazy.


You’ll find your people. Once you do, treat them well.

13. Be direct, speak from the heart, state your agenda up-front

In other words, don’t be passive-aggressive!

Not just because it clutters up communication, but also because it attracts other passive-aggressive people.



Passive aggression is sneaky. Most people don’t even realize they do it. It was probably normal in their families growing up.


The best way to avoid being passive-aggressive is to pause before you speak and ask yourself if what you’re saying is true — or if you’re trying to elicit a specific response.

As our queen Brené Brown says, “clear is kind”.

14. Eat well, eat what you want, eat for joy



There are so many lovely TikToks and Instagram reels out there promoting healthy relationships with food — but there are also a ton of videos and posts that promote garbage thinking when it comes to food.


I’ve been through a lot with my body image and eating stuff, but I’ve found I’m happiest and healthiest when I don’t buy into the garbage of diet culture. After all, there isn’t one diet that is going to fix your sadness or heartbreak or give you the sense of control you think it will. That’s just chasing a dragon you will never catch.

Pay attention to what foods make you feel nourished, strong, healthy and happy. I know this is easier said than done, but I’d rather say it out loud than simply hope you know.

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 Joanna Schroeder is a feminist writer, editor and media critic and co-author of the forthcoming book, TALK TO YOUR BOYS via Workman Publishing. She pours her heart out and shares advice on Substack.