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4 Complex Words To Perfectly Describe Your College Experience No One Talks About

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A young woman with short brown hair wearing all white in a college library with a book on her head with the pages turned.

A typical college student experiences a wide range of emotions, dilemmas, and internal fluctuations. Four specific words paint the nuances found within the mosaic that is college life — neologisms representing landmarks in the distinguished path of every college student.

A whopping 600 million students are projected to be enrolled in college by 2040, as the demand for higher education rises. Millions of students hop into this phase with the promise of academic and experiential enlightenment.

They collect what they need from a buffet of real-world samples like a museum of tough love, out of which they emerge older and relatively wiser.

These unique experiences are so universal that John Koenig, the creator of The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, has perfectly captured their various nuances on his website and YouTube channel.

His observations take the form of self-coined neologisms, each word having its own poetic definition to describe your college experience in a way you’ve never put to words.

Some of these words are borrowed from other languages, while others are their own epistemological projects. And all of them can deeply resonate with at least one adolescent learning the ways of the world.


n. a moment that seemed innocuous at the time but ended up marking a diversion into a strange new era of your life—set in motion not by a series of jolting epiphanies but by tiny imperceptible differences between one ordinary day and the next, until entire years of your memory can be compressed into a handful of indelible images—which prevents you from rewinding the past, but allows you to move forward without endless buffering.

Seamlessly and subtly, like the veins on a leaf, this neologism has to do with the shapeless mass out of which life carves itself for us.

“I think one of the most stand-out lessons I learned at university was the fact that I have the ability to wander. I had sort of a unique experience in that I was not actually at my home uni [in Southern California] the first term, and I had to pack up and leave so quickly the second term because of COVID. I think I learned that I have the spirit of adaptability in my life, and that’s not something I would have learned very easily about myself if I hadn’t been in that environment,” said Aastha Jani, a sophomore at the University of Southern California.

Even without a pandemic to hastily awaken the practical decision-makers in us, college is often scattered with tiny explosions of unprecedented circumstance. Meanwhile, each one of them brings us closer to the idea of adulthood we have always had.

If you look back to describe your college experience, you will realize the awakening fact that scenes unimportantly scribbled on a first draft made their way as a climax to the final publication of your life. Often, these explosions play out over the course of months — possibly years — before we can piece them together and play them out like a film reel.

A light brown blurry background with a dark brown film reel tangled on the ground.

Making and losing friends, transferring to another institution, changing our majors; we measure our reactions to such magnified hairpin turns in our carefully-constructed lives or career paths, and our winded selves look back at younger, more ingénue-like versions of ourselves.

These thoughts accumulate to make us realize that we were not in fact marching to meet the functioning adult we’ve always pictured ourselves to be. Rather, that version has been passing us by every time we’ve had to struggle.

Eventually, the mature version of ourselves would introduce themselves as a whole, after we realized that we already, in fact, recognized them.

There was never a set keyframe to meet the graduating adult — the graduating adult had already shaken our hand countless times. Innocuous moments, as John Koenig puts them, are what distinguish our lives from others’ the most.


n. the kind of unnoticed excellence that carries on around you every day, unremarkably—the hidden talents of friends and coworkers, the fleeting solos of subway buskers, the slapdash eloquence of anonymous users, the unseen portfolios of aspiring artists—which would be renowned as masterpieces if only they’d been appraised by the cartel of popular taste, who assume that brilliance is a rare and precious quality, accidentally overlooking buried jewels that may not be flawless but are still somehow perfect.

John Koenig uses this neologism to introduce a feeling of awareness that has more to do with those around us.

“I saw how academic everyone was and was intimidated by how focused they were and how much they kept to themselves — and realized the school is full of brilliant people. I just wish I could navigate uni better and feel like I belong there,” said a second-year student from the University of Waterloo. 

College students are often met ad nauseam with brilliance, talent and passion within their campus. What happens when we realize we’re not the only four-leaved clover in the grass or that we’re one of a million Christmas trees?

Downward social comparison is a coping mechanism that helps one put their competence in perspective. By knowing that there will always be those better and worse than themselves, tackling their sense of self-competence is achievable.

A group of boys, all with dark hair, are sitting on the brown and white couches interacting with each other with a backpack on the table in a house with brick walls.

College is one of the first places where students come to terms with the reality that there is no such thing as a level playing field, and that something as arbitrary and vague as luck does not have equal weight to the hard work, talent and skill that it takes to get noticed.

We keep this information in a glass jar at the topmost shelf of our consciousness, every instance of the brilliance displayed before us reminding us of the looming truth.


n. the feeling that no matter what you do is always somehow wrong—that any attempt to make your way comfortably through the world will only end up crossing some invisible taboo—as if there’s some obvious way forward that everybody else can see but you, each of them leaning back in their chair and calling out helpfully, “colder, colder, colder…”

John Koenig’s neologism “pâro” beautifully explains how we tend to look left and right before taking each step forward; we move cautiously, worried that we may be prosecuted for neglecting some unexpected challenge that has failed to enter our peripheries.

Students often experience this neologism through comparison. Most assume that a lack of proficiency in something their peers seem to have natural control over inevitably equates to overall incompetence. We feel that we must copy their means to the finish line, and if we cannot accomplish this, we are doomed to a life of playing catch-up.

The prospect of spending our whole lives doing so and knowing we will always be in debt for the things we are inept at appears rather bleak. However, we often end up realizing that everyone is equipped with different tools to mine through these few years.

If you describe your college experience as a talent show that everyone wins except you, it is time for a different paradigm. Although there will always be others with better grades and abilities than you, there will also always be someone who craves the versatility and perseverance only you have.

Swastik Pal, a college student in his second year, gave fellow students this advice:

“You are allowed to feel overwhelmed. It’s natural to feel like you don’t get anything in the first couple of months of college. Believe me, no one does; you think they do, but trust me, they are as clueless as you are.”

We look at those ahead of us and assume they know the secrets to winning this race. But we fail to consider that they may be laps behind. We conveniently ignore the idea that they may be figuring the track out just as much as we are. Time spent familiarizing ourselves with our own tools would put us at a higher advantage than wondering why our mattock tool does not shoot bullets.


n. the insomnia-borne jolt of awareness that you will die, that these passing years aren’t just scenes from a dress rehearsal, rounds of an ongoing game or chapters in a story you’ll be telling later, but are footprints being lapped by the steadily gathering tide of an unfathomable abyss, which still wouldn’t wash out the aftertaste of all those baskets of Buffalo wings you devoured just before bedtime.

“I think the thing that really stands out to me about my university experience, I think a result of my depression, is that I look at my life from an outside perspective, and have this sudden feeling of ‘Woah, this life is mine — it’s not just an abstract dream or a thought experiment.’ Suddenly you’re just reminded of where you are, and you’re pushed out of this nice little dream world, and you fall down into reality,” said Ethan Stephanson, a second-year student at the University of British Columbia. 

While John Koenig’s neologism focuses more on the inevitability of death, Stephanson’s experience pertains specifically to consciousness. “It’s kind of like I’ve been watching my life play out, and then suddenly I’m pushed into the driver’s seat,” said Stephanson.

A brunette woman with a ponytail wearing all black, stands outside of her home covering her eyes with all of her fingers from both of her hands in a glass type of area.

Like an amateur musician pushed into the improv jazz performance to which they were originally an audience member, adolescents are faced with major life decisions before the opportunity to get a better look at society’s cogs and gears present themselves.

We get conflicting advice from reliable sources: “Follow your passions, but don’t forget to play it safe.” Some encourage exploration, while others condemn giving into the romanticized notion of meritocracy. All the while, we must keep in mind that an absence of do-overs means our mistakes will attach themselves to our self-perception.

Navigating college can be challenging enough without the radioactivity of mental illness corrupting the compass in our hands.

Mental Health and Your College Experience

Depression levels increased by 18 percent between 2007 and 2018, while anxiety levels increased by 16 percent between 2013 and 2018. The 39 largest schools in the U.S. cannot keep up with the rise in help sought for mental health issues, which has increased by 30 percent since 2014.

Mental health continues to be an issue of importance within the most recent generations, as we generate increasingly creative coping mechanisms.

The realization that there is no copilot to this aircraft, and that the responsibility to keep it airborne is up to us, can be overwhelming. However, with the stigma of mental illness dissipating with time, seeking help has become more acceptable.

While this development is merely a drop in the bucket, it has become more apparent that a social support system is crucial to a healthy mind — to have someone hold your hand even if they cannot operate your designated vehicle for you.

Use These Words to Describe Your College Experience

With the amount of time, money, and energy that goes into being a college student, certain experiences are almost inevitable. John Koenig’s poetic neologisms can be used to describe these experiences in a way that provides them justice.

But don’t forget the other words that can describe your college experiences: the excitement felt when entering your first seminar; the socialness of living away from home; the adventures and challenges that come with college; the power of entering a new environment but the fear of being a newcomer.

Not every college experience is the same, but hopefully you can leave feeling fulfilled by earning a degree and having impactful, inspiring, life-changing years along the way.

Matters of development and maturity, insecurity, identity, and mental capacity present themselves to every college student, some cropping up unexpectedly. While these years can make our lives seem like they may be on the precipice of annihilation, the museum of tough love gives back just as much as it takes.

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