A Guide to “The College Life” in Illinois

(FACT: there’s a lot more to Illinois than Chicago—but Chicago IS pretty sweet)

Aerial view of Northwestern University campus.

Welcome to college in Illinois. No matter if you’re brand new around here or you were born with a string of Polish sausages in your hand, you’re in for a real treat.

To help get you all settled in and ready for the road ahead, we’ve put together this guide to prep you for a life around the state that puts the extra in extracurricular. So, let's get into it.

Chapter One: Illinois Conversation Starters

Now, easily the most important thing to do once you get to Illinois is make some new friends. However, in order to make friends with a real-life Illinoisan, you gotta know a thing or two about 'em first. You can't just spout off a bunch of facts from the state's Wikipedia page on populations and state birds and all. You gotta go for a way, way deeper dive. 

When trying to assimilate to local culture, try out a few of these conversation starters:

  • "You for the Cubbies or the Sox?" In baseball, at least around Chicago, you'd better know who you’re rooting for between the Cubs and the Sox because the rivalry is fierce. When it comes to the southern part of Illinois, though, there are a lot more St. Louis Cardinals fans than either. But when it comes to football, it’s Bears or nothing.
  • "Where can I get a good dog or pie?" Around here, you just can’t beat the deep dish from Lou Malnati’s. It’s been around for years and everybody knows the name. When it comes to dogs, Portillo’s is easily the most popular spot to get a Chicago-style, but you’d really have a harder time finding a place that didn’t have a good dog than one that did around here.
  • It's "Illinoi", the 's' is silent. Say it and you’re likely to get booed out of the place. A big pet peeve around here.

Chapter Two: Where to Crash

If you’re not already set on living in the dorms, you’re going to need to know where to lay your ever-growing head at night. So let’s talk about the hot rentals around the area.

According to rentcafe.com, the home of the University of Illinois, Champaign, has  one-bedroom apartments going for around $1,466/month. And in Evanston, home to Northwestern University, you can expect rent to be even higher — around $2,034/month. But of course that’s right inside the city, and you can always find lower prices out in a number of nearby suburbs or neighboring cities for a few hundred less.

PRO TIP: If you put two to three bunk beds in every room and grab a bunch more roommates, your rent will be dirt cheap!

Chapter Three: What's with These Locals?

To live among Illinoisans, it’s best if you understand them. But when it comes to Illinoisans, you gotta know that there is Chicago, and then there’s everything else. Folks in Chicago don’t “get” people from the rest of the state and vice versa.

So in Chicago, you’re going to get a big heavy dose of major metropolitan life with slick hairdos, fancy clothes, and fast cars. But in most other parts of the state, you’ll see a more rural lifestyle stuck deep inside some strong Midwestern values.

Around Chicago, if you're into art, you'll be in good company around here as locals are proud of their interesting and jaw-dropping architecture. Plus there are hundreds of exciting museums, concert venues, and theaters, too.

Throughout the rest of the state, you’ll experience more humble personalities. We’re talking the helpful Midwestern neighbors that probably don’t lock their doors at night and are always willing to lend a hand or a cup of sugar. There’s a fair amount of life spent outdoors around here as well especially when it comes to the farming community who spend their free time still immersed in Mother Nature’s beauty while hunting, fishing, four-wheelin’, and more.

Chapter Four: Where to “Study” around Town

Now that you’re getting all nice and settled into Illinois life, it’s time to focus on those studies. But everyone knows how distracting roommates, video games, and fridges can be when you’re trying to focus. So why not try some of the great sights and local hot spots for a little study sesh? Here are a few places we recommend:

  • Garden of the Gods (the Illinois one): Not to be confused with the rock formations of the same name in Colorado, this marvel is a part of the Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois. Best in fall, the trees change colors and light up some pretty incredible views. It’s just the spot you need to finish that thesis or just write a poem or two.
  • Millennium Park: Called Chicago’s Front Yard, this park was finished in 2004 and houses some incredible art, architecture, landscaping, and more. A perfect place to relax and get some work done before hitting up an outdoor show or whatever else you want to do. 
  • Along the Chicago River: A system of rivers and canals that combine for 156 miles throughout the city of Chicago, there’s all sorts of activity going on around here. With long steps in some spots, there’s plenty of seating to take advantage of and get some good studying done.
  • Wrigley Field: Heck, any reason to visit this classic ballpark, we say take it! Built all the way back in 1914, this place is a must-see for any red-blooded baseball fan.
  • Right next to a cheesy deep dish: You need energy to study and what better way than to get some food in ya? And when in Chicago, you do as the locals do.

Chapter Five: No FOMO Weekend Activities around Illinois

One of the best things about college are the weekends. And Illinois has plenty of incredible things to do, see, smell, and eat to rest your mind from all that studying you’ve been doing. Here are a few of our favorite local things to do:

  • Lollapalooza: With 4 days of activities, Lollapalooza is a don’t-want-to-miss event held every year in Grant Park. You get to soak up over 170 musical acts with art, food, culture, and a lot more.
  • Field Museum of Natural History: Home to collections from Chicago’s Columbian Expedition (or World’s Fair), the largest T-Rex skeleton ever found and even mummies,  this museum is right on Chicago’s famous Lake Shore Drive and always a nice little weekend win.
  • Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum: They don't call it the Land of Lincoln for nothin'. The 16th president of the U.S. only owned one home in his lifetime in Springfield. The walking tour serves up sights from Lincoln's lifetime including a stop at his home and tomb.
  • Route 66 road trip: This iconic roadway begins in Chicago and travels all the way to Santa Monica, CA. Of course you don’t have to ride the whole thing, but a nice trip through Joliet and Springfield is a great way to spend your weekend.
  • Art Tour: This city is packed with incredible art and architecture. There are tons of guided tours you can take where an expert can help walk you through the must-sees, or you can make your own tour around the Art Institute of Chicago all on your own. Whatever you’re into.

Chapter Six: The Post-College Job Scene

Maybe you know exactly what you want to do after graduation or maybe you’re still undeclared. Either way, we’re so sure you’re going to want to stick around after the ceremony that we should probably talk about the local market and which careers are hot right now around town.

The current unemployment rate is just 4.8%, less than half of what it was in 2009 (11.7%), and continually improving with a current minimum wage here of $8.25/hour.

Among the biggest opportunities these days around here are in mobile development, machine engineering and development, JavaScript development, respiratory therapy, clinical research, financial and data analysis, food science, and project development. There are also plenty of jobs available in the clean energy industry. According to chicagobusiness.com, "clean energy is booming in Chicago - the metro area has 23 wind companies, 14 of which are headquarters, and solar farms are about to sprout, too." 

But if you’re really looking to make the big bucks, the highest paid jobs in the state include physicians and surgeons, OB/GYNs, psychiatrists, and air traffic controllers.

So if you've got a love of computers and technology, squeaky-clean energy, food, or the health/medical industry, this may just be the place where you can make your dreams come true.

Chapter Seven: Pack Your Windbreaker, ‘Cuz Here You Come

All right folks, there you have it — your supremely helpful, though far-from-complete, guide to the Illinois college life. It's true that we can't pack in absolutely everything that's important to consider before making a huge cross-country move, but we hope we helped you get the ball rolling.

Good luck. And remember, it’s deep dish or nothing.

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