I wouldn’t take much of the advice I have to offer. If you know me as a friend, or if you’ve been working with me a while, you know I’m full of all kinds of advice (cut it out, not just full of it). If I start telling you where to invest your money, or what car you should buy next, politely nod and walk away. Quickly, if you know what’s good for you. But when it comes to getting the most out school, you could go to a lot worse sources. I love learning, and I love learning in school in particular. High school? Loved it. College? Even more. Graduate school? Pitter patter, pitter patter.
I don’t know much, but I do know a little about how to luxuriate in an institution of higher learning. So I know you didn’t ask, but for those of you getting ready to fly away from the nest for your freshman year at college, or head back to school for another semester, here are my 6 best tips for how to get the most out of the whole experience.
1. Never miss a class. Never. Not one. Ever. Am I being clear? The professor and his classroom, podium, or lab is where the magic begins. Woody Allen famously said 90% of success is showing up, and that may not be too gross an overstatement in academia. Unless you’re on your deathbed or out of town for some really good reason, show up for every class. You will find it much easier to get great grades simply by showing up to every class and having a pulse. Trying to pay attention isn’t a bad idea either. I also encourage you to take the best notes you can. But the most important thing is just being there and trying your best to figure out what is so darn interesting about this topic (assuming you don’t already know) that the professor and teaching assistants and whole departments dedicate their lives’ work to it. Yeah, by choice. Commit to yourself that no matter what, you are going to school, to each and every class—and really, have you done the math, the total number of classes per college course isn’t even statistically significant compared to those per high school course. It’s a very reasonable goal to hit.
The hardest class to skip will be the first one. That is, you might feel tremendously guilty thinking about and then actually cutting your first class. You’ll convince yourself it’s a for a really good reason, but inside, you’ll no you’re just conning yourself. And the problem is, that guilt will wear off quickly. But that’s the healthy kind of guilt you don’t want to wear off! Once you cut one class, the next one will be easier. Soon you’ll be chewing gum and hanging out on street corners. Bad news. So don’t cut that first class, and you’ll be a-okay. Of course you will face MUCH temptation, in many forms. Out too late the night before? Too bad, suit up and show up. Just met the love of your life and it’s the only time to see him all day. Tough luck, get to class. Many of your peers will make skipping classes a regular habit, and some of them will sometimes make it look fun, productive, even reasonable, and some of them might even pull it off. I ask you, WHO wants to go to college just to pull it off? Try to remember college may represent the LAST organized and disciplined period of education in your life. Even if you go to grad school, you won’t have another opportunity like college to dig in and learn as much as you can about whatever you’re interested in. (Oh yeah, speaking of having done the math, each class is INSANELY expensive. INSANELY. Let’s say you spent a thousand bucks or more to see a concert. Is there even the slightest chance you’d blow it off? Don’t make mom and dad produce tuition bills…’cause we will!)
2. Socialize with EVERYONE, but Hang with the Winners. There is truly no experience even remotely close to college when it comes to meeting all different kinds of people with all different kinds of perspectives from all different kinds of places with all different kinds of goals. Try to meet them ALL. Talk to everyone. With as open a mind as you can bring. Talk about class. Last night’s party. The film showing in the Science Center. Whatever. Don’t be shy. You will be amazed once you get to college how open, friendly, and generally tolerant everyone is. Remember, they’re human beings just like you, looking simply to love and be loved. Of course, not all these folks can become your best friend or part of your inner circle of college bff’s. These coveted spots should go to people that you deem excellent based on whatever criteria of excellence you hold in your head or heart. You won’t have to look hard to find peers who are doing or being what you (at least for now) want to do or be. Hang with them; they are your winners.
3. Manage Your Time Well (aka, Use a Time-Management Tool). Let’s do a little more math. (Sorry, didn’t mean to frighten you—I’ll do the math :-)). Let’s say your average high school day (pre-sports and activities) runs 8AM-3PM, Mon-Fri. That’s 35 hours a week of butts in chairs, doing the school drill. A typical college freshman takes four or five classes that meet two to three hours a week. So that means you’re in school, butts in chairs, eight (8) to fifteen (15) hours a week. High School 35, College 8 to 15. In other words, you will have a TON of discretionary time. Use your discretion well, young grasshoppers. It will FLY by, especially if you’re not keeping a vigilant eye on it. Time is the college student’s most precious commodity. Budget it as you would an extremely limited amount of money. Don’t waste a penny! Remember all those teachers who tried to get you to use a day planner, a e-Calendar, some kind of time-management tool to keep track of all your assignments and to-do’s? Yeah, they were doing you a favor! If you don’t have a time-management tool/system, get crackin’.
4. Exercise regularly. Don’t pretend that your mind and body aren’t integrally linked in the same super-being, namely you. Don’t bring your head to college and leave your body behind. You will learn more, have more energy (you’ll need it), and be healthier if you establish a HABIT of whatever exercise suits you. Make a commitment to your routine and make that non-negotiable.
5. Challenge your assumptions. No offense intended, but some of you will not understand what I mean yet. So what. Keep this as a little mantra, a little gift from me to you. The single most important lesson I learned in school was (from BC, NOT Harvard, NOT Oxford) to challenge my most basic assumptions. The deeper you go in college and graduate school and life thereafter, the more you will come to appreciate the value of challenging your assumptions. You can start by playing a little game, though I warn you right up front it’s addicting and you need to be careful playing it in social situations, as folks may think you’re distracted, or worse, on something. So here’s the game. Every time you have a thought, particularly if there js ANY judgment in that thought, ask yourself, what assumption is that thought based on? For example, you go to class one day and you have the thought, I don’t particularly care for this class. What assumption is that based on? Ideas about what a good class should be like. Are those fair assumptions? What assumptions are those assumptions based on? Are there other criteria by which someone might judge a class? The idea is that you’re always questioning your own ideas. Sometimes you might confirm them. And sometimes you might surprise yourself. And that’s when the fun begins.
6. Choose a course or activity every semester and give it your all. Not every moment of every class is going to rock your world, and some classes, let’s be honest, you’re only taking because you have to. But every semester, make sure you have some sphere of activity that you’re gonna throw down on, be passionate about, and GROW. College campuses, both because of their state-of-the-art resources (from lab equipment to the latest Cybex machines) and because of the contagion effect where you’re surrounded and supported by a whole community focused on learning, improvement, and excellence, however you define those terms, are ideal places to maximize your talents wherever they lie. Find a passion every semester and take advantage! Remember, college is a four-year paid vacation. It’s gonna fly by. Try not to let it. Fasten your seatbelt and get ready for the ride of your life. My personal wish for you is that you go for the biggest, baddest roller coaster they got!
P.S. If you’re currently in college and stumbled upon this post, PLEASE PLEASE share YOUR tips for college success. We non-college students don’t know what it’s really like in the trenches in 2014, but you do. What strategies have you used to make the most of your time so far? What advice would you offer new undergraduates? Please leave your comments below, and thanks in advance.