Five Thoughts about Making College Great

Tomorrow, several people that matter a lot to me are starting their college experience. Here are fifteen things I’d like to suggest to them that they’re probably not hearing from anyone else who has been giving them advice on college over the past three months.

You don’t have to know what you want to do right now. You’ve probably heard countless people asking what you’re majoring in and so on and you’ve likely built the decision up into something monumental in your head. It isn’t. For starters, most of the time when a person asks a college student what their major is, they’re mostly just looking for some sort of information about who you are. They’re not trying to judge you, they’re trying to understand you.

As for the vitality of that major, I majored in life sciences and computer science in college and today I’m a writer on personal finance topics.

In short, you end up finding your own path in life and it’s not a path dictated by your college major. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a major that actually lines up with what you’re passionate about. If you’re not lucky, your college degree will mostly wind up being proof that you went to college for some number of years and were able to complete a degree.

Instead, the biggest value you’ll earn in college is the relationships with other people. The friendships I built over the course of my college career form many of my friendships now. I have friends sprinkled throughout tons of businesses and organizations and walks of life now. A relationship I built with my academic advisor got me my first real college job. A relationship I built with an awesome staff member got me a research job related to my area of study. A relationship built with a professor helped me to get my first post-college job – and, indirectly, my second one. I fell in love with my wife-to-be in college. At my wedding, my best man and one of my groomspeople were my two closest college friends.

The people made the impact. Focus on building friendships with good people – students, staff members, professors, deans, everyone. Look for people who are focused at what they’re doing, have some interest overlap with you, and are also seeming like they’re having fun doing it, because those are the people that are going to be great to spend time with and are also going to be doing something great with their life. They’re the kind of people that will make your path better.

The biggest value you can get from your classes is transferable skills. Knowing the ins and outs of organic chemistry might help you if you happen to wind up in one of those rare jobs that utilizes it. The skills you’ve built in the process of actually getting through organic chemistry – those are ones you’ll utilize time and time again.

The value isn’t so much in the actual subject you learn in your classes. The value comes from the ability to absorb lots of information, to process that information, and to think about that information. The value of college is in the ability to manage your time effectively enough so you can do all of that, get strong grades, hold down a job, build relationships, and grow as a person. The value of college is learning how to communicate with people from vastly different backgrounds than you – in other words, try making a friend that lived on another continent.

Time management skills. Information management skills. Communication skills (speaking, writing, presenting). Critical thinking. Those are the things that college gives you a great opportunity to really, really learn, and those are the things that will help you no matter what your path is.

Almost everyone will get as much or more value out of learning how to learn a particular challenging topic or class than they will get out of that specific topic.

Try things you would have never tried before. The social constructs of a typical high school make it very hard for people to dive into and discover what they’re passionate about. Those constructs are largely gone in college. This is the time in your life to try stuff you would have never tried before.

As Robert Heinlein put it, “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

College is the best opportunity in your life for trying all of these things, learning how to do them, and stumbling upon that thing or two that really, really lights up your passion.

The only way to fail at college is to sit around your dorm room a lot of evenings watching reruns of Bones or taunting someone on Xbox Live. Do something new, preferably something you would have never done before (and preferably not anything that has a likelihood of killing or seriously harming you).

Keep your eyes wide open for free stuff. The average college campus is teeming with free things to do and food to eat. Look at your school’s event calendar and start hitting as much of that stuff as possible – anything and everything that looks vaguely interesting. It usually is interesting (or at least exposure to something new), it’s almost always free, and there’s almost always free food there.

If the people around you won’t engage in the tons of things going on every evening, it’s a great time to expand your horizons a bit more. Look for the faces you see repeating at these events. It’s a great way to meet interesting people who are actively involved in the world around them.

Plus, most of this stuff is free, which enables you to keep your cash right in your pocket, take out fewer student loans, and get out of college with a smaller debt burden than you otherwise would have.

These are the elements of a life-changing college experience. It’s not about chasing a perfect 4.0 or partying hard all the time. It’s about finding who you are, building the actual skills you’ll need over and over again in life, and finding the people and things that actually matter to you. Good luck.

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33 thoughts on “Five Thoughts about Making College Great

  1. Colin says:

    “In short, you end up finding your own path in life and it’s not a path dictated by your college major.”

    The impression I get from your article is that your major is largely irrelevant, but I think it is rather relevant if you continue into grad school (something you didn’t address at all).

    It certainly helps pick a “good” major if you continue into grad school. You can probably jump into an MS or PhD in engineering if you were in computer science but it would be much harder if you majored in political science. Some programs like MBA are much more accepting of undergraduate degrees though.

  2. dangermom says:

    I loved college, but I wish I’d realized a couple of things that no one ever told me. First, get to know your professors–going to office hours is a good idea, but I was too shy to figure that out. You can talk over your ideas for papers and whatnot. (Obviously you shouldn’t whine at them all the time!) Participate, do your work *well* and then ask what more you can do to get the best out of the course.

    Also, it’s rude to pack your stuff up before class is over. Everyone does it, but it’s rude. So is texting during class–the prof can see you, you know. Behave professionally.

    It’s good to audit classes! If there’s a class you’d love to take and can’t, ask the professor if you can audit it. I did twice and it was great.

  3. Adam says:

    “Instead, the biggest value you’ll earn in college is the relationships with other people.”

    Maybe true for some people, but my degree was in Chartered Accounting, and my masters was in Taxation. I don’t really hang out with many of the people I went to school with except for 1 or 2. On the other hand, my degree lead me to get my CA (CPA equivalent) at 24 and allowed me to travel for work in my 20s all over the globe and a 6 figure income rather early on in life. Maybe for some degree programs the connections are more important than the skills you learn, but not all of them. Just my 2 cents.

  4. Couldn’t agree with this advice more. I took journalism as an undergrad and focused more on having fun and building up my experience than on grades … I made sure to keep up a decent average but at the same time spent time working at the student newspaper and making friendships and doing internships and freelancing to build up my experience.

    Just a few weeks ago I was accepted for a masters program in a subject I adore — space studies at the University of North Dakota — based on my experience. Yes, the marks were one factor but they were more interested in what I did with my time in college (and afterwards) than how great my GPA was.

    More importantly, I maintain a lot of close friendships out of my undergrad that I intend to nurture for the rest of my life.

  5. Kate says:

    I try not to be a giant crank about this stuff, but for some reason, the implications of this article really struck a sour chord with me.

    50k a year for the privilege of building relationships and building time management skills?

    It just seems like an elaborate way of reinforcing the class system that already exists. You need to pay 50k a year to meet people, hopefully people who will help get you a job, and if not, at least employers can have “proof” that you have mastered time management skills by going to university?

    Even taking into account the potential for scholarships and access to student loans, it basically sounds like a recipe for “buying” yourself into the middle class. Can’t afford it – before or after? Stay right where you belong.

  6. Johanna says:

    The knowledge you pick up in college prepares you for more than just your job. You might never use organic chemistry in your job, but you live your life surrounded by the products of organic chemistry, and it’s helpful to know something about what went into all those things.

    And on an unrelated note; You don’t have to impress anyone with your extracurricular activities anymore. The only reason to do an activity is because you enjoy it. If you’re not enjoying it, or if it’s taking time away from other things you enjoy more, drop it.

  7. Brittany says:

    Fifteen things you want to say?

  8. Chris says:

    This is not a frugal way to go through college! I won’t be passing this along to my high schooler.

  9. marta says:

    Brittany, I counted five, but who knows…

  10. dakota says:

    Timely- we start back to classes tomorrow. I’m a professor and agree with many of these things. (As other people posted, some points apply more/less depending on the degree). I’d add a few of my own. If you are interested in any of the “helping professions” (social work, nursing…) make time to volunteer. Employers in my field look highly on people who do this, and if you hate your volunteer experience it is likely not the right path for you. Also, don’t be afraid of the professors. I tell my students that they are paying my salary and they have a right to my time. Many professors don’t think that way, but for the one’s that do, building a relationship with them will pay off. I’ve written my students scholarship and job application letters that were personalized and identified their strengths clearly because I knew them from office hours and outside activities. Finally, if it’s not the right time for college, consider waiting. I see people loose time and money failing courses
    because of personal issues, lack of interest, and so on. If you really want it later, you will go back (and I love older students to mix up the classroom).

  11. Kai says:

    I disagree. I think it’s terrible that a university degree is becoming a standard requirement, even for jobs that don’t need anything you learned there.

    There are a lot of other ways to learn about yourself, build relationships, and develop life skills that do not cost vast amounts of money.

    If you have all the time and money in the world, go to college, screw around, take classes randomly, and have fun.

    For the rest of the world, if you don’t know why you’re there or what you’re going to do with it, DON’T GO!
    Get a job, travel, volunteer, try new things, meet new people, and get a better idea what you want out of life. Then, if you figure out that what you want to do requires a degree, THEN go. It’s an awfully expensive way to spend your time figuring out what to do. Far better to make money, then use it and avoid the debt.

    It’s terrible advice to suggest that everyone should go to university, especially with no idea why they’re there.

  12. Julie says:

    @Kate (#4): I think the point being made in this article is that all of these things are a *bonus* in addition to the actual college education. You’ll get more out of the college experience if you are open to learning everywhere, not just inside the classroom. I would also like to add that not *every* college is 50k per year. There are many public universities that offer a great education for much less than 50k per year. In fact, I went to a public university that was so small, it felt like a private school.

    I also wanted to add to the first point made in the article. Sure, you don’t need to know what you’re doing with your life (especially if you’re the traditional college student starting at 18 or 19 years of age). But, I would say it’s good to have a spiel figured out to tell people. From my experience, it’s much less awkward when talking to your parents’ friends if you tell them an idea of what you’ll be doing rather than say “I don’t know.” If you change your mind later, no worries.

  13. Cheryl says:

    I home school my children, and tomorrow the older two are beginning to take college courses. At 15 and 17, they are taking English Comp 101, Geology 101, a PE, and high school level algebra. I have always told them that I want them to declare “undecided” as their major for the first two years, so I quite agree with your advice on that matter.

    As for the second and third points, I think these are subjective things that likely differ from person to person, from major to major, and from campus to campus.

    And for all those people whining about the value of a college education…this is quite clearly a post on getting the most out of your college experience—a decision that has already been made.

  14. Camille says:

    Thank you Trent for highlighting the less obvious pro’s to a university degree. I have a BSc and have decided to be a homemaker instead (for now). So many people have said “it’s such a waste” and so on when I don’t feel it’s a waste at all. I learned so much about myself and the skills that Trent listed above, that yes, even though it did cost me a lot of money, I don’t believe it was a complete waste. I loved every minute of my degree but right now my life choices have taken me in another direction. If anything, I have a wealth of knowledge to share with my children and instill in them a love of nature like I have.

  15. kristine says:

    If you are a high school student who excels, and are shooting for a full scholarship to say, 2nd tier, you had better have an idea of your major. They are looking not for kids who will be “great students and hold promise”, they are looking for kids who are already on their way to be coming a “name” in a particular field. The upper achieving half of the seniors at our public high school have already done mentorships with PHDs, working at Universities over the summer after junior year on what would be typically be a grad student’s research. They typically take 4 AP (college) classes per year from 10th grade on. It depends on what career you want, and how far in the vanguard you want to be. For these kinds of kids,going into an interview not knowing their major is a mistake. The competition for merit scholarships is intense, as they grow more and more rare. My 16yo old daughter spent the first 2/3 of the summer working on a cure for cancer, at a University, tracking laser pulses through carbon nanotubes into stem cells, which causes the stem cells to turn into the kind of cells around it, in this case, bone. Her job is to figure out, using chemical markers at a nano-scale, why it works, so it can be used in other body areas. The world has changed. I mean come on, at 16, I worked at a pizzeria! These days you need people connections and recommendations to even get in the door, never-mind when you get there! (My daughter tells me what she wants to do, and I just facilitate the best I can, nodding and chaufering. I do not believe in pressuring kids, but it is unfair to paint an unrealistic picture of the playing field.)

  16. Johanna says:

    @Cheryl: I think what you’re calling “whining” is people responding to Trent’s first point that “you don’t have to know what you want to do right now.” It’s true that you don’t have to have your whole life planned out from the first day of freshman orientation – and if you do, there’s a good chance that your plan will change several times – but if you don’t have at least some idea what you want to major in, maybe it’s not such a good idea for you to be starting college right now.

    Among other reasons, in many majors (such as sciences and languages), you have to take a lot of introductory classes before you even get to the ones that count toward the major. If you don’t get started on the introductory sequence right away, you might not be able to finish your degree in four years, which means paying an extra year’s tuition.

    Yes, there are a lot of people (like Trent) who don’t end up working in something related to their major. But there are also a lot of people (like me) who do. Your choice of major doesn’t dictate your whole path in life, but it does close off some paths, or at least makes them much, much harder. So it *is* a big decision.

    (And in case any high school students are reading kristine’s comment and panicking because their schools don’t offer mentorships or that many AP classes, don’t worry – colleges will take that into consideration. Take advantage of all the opportunities made available to you, and do your best to make some opportunities of your own, and you’ll be fine.)

  17. bethany says:

    Trent, I thought this was great advice. Especially the bit about transferrable skills. The critical thinking and communicating college should teach students is worth the investment.
    My experience is different from Kate’s apparent bitterness (most public colleges cost less than 50K. They are indeed expensive, but scholarships are plentiful, especially for people who work hard and smart to make good grades) and Kristina’s apparent cuthroat world. I went to a non-elite private college (on scholarship) and got into a great grad program. I worked at subway in high school. This was only ten years ago. My husband changed majors partway through and has a great job in his new area, using the specific skills from only one class.
    Sure, college isn’t reachable for everyone and it’s definitely not fair, but this advice matches my experience really well, and as somebody who is applying for jobs as a professor, I wish more students would read it.

  18. valleycat1 says:

    I have to say I derived very little benefit from the relationships formed in college (I’m 57 now) – but I’m very much a loner & ‘do it myself’ type. I would hope that the major take away from college would be the education you’ve received.

    That said, I do agree that it isn’t necessary to have a firm major in mind when starting college. (Back in my college days, we didn’t have to declare a major until junior year!) I’m a strong believer in broad application that liberal arts classes give a person. When my daughter was visiting colleges, the admissions people seemed delighted that she hadn’t yet selected a major. However, these days if you decide after your freshman year to go pursue a specific career, you can be behind & take additional years to complete all the required courses because of the way some degree tracks are built (engineering is a good example).

    Having just read Dave Ramsey’s book (finally), I found his chapter on saving for college most interesting.

  19. kristine says:

    Johanna,

    I have my doubts that this blog attracts teens, but you are right to qualify my comment with that in mind.

    I live on LI, NY, where the competition is pretty intense. There are many wealthy kids who get college “coaches” directing their extra-curriculars, and contests, and class choices, from grade 9. They “coach” the essays. (I do not approve of such things.) There are so many excellent public schools, and a glut of college prep private schools as well, that while colleges insist they have no quota, there are limits to how many from a school/town/LI they will take. Everyone, and I mean everyone who possibly can, pays thousands for SAT/ACT courses. We did one of those. From first practice to the actual test, our daughter’s SAT score went up 250 on the SAT. I recommend the courses, and do not regret going all out on that.

    A far as business connections I got my first job from a professor, and my newest gig, teaching grad school, from my advisor in grad school! And I get terrific recommendations from advisor from my other masters, which still gets me calls for teaching interviews, even when I am not looking, and jobs are scarce. I am sure she has other fine students, but I behaved like I was going to work, not class. I was older than the other students, and understood this. Always make the best possible impression on your teachers. If you want them to think of you for professional gigs, behave like a professional in your classes.
    Often employers will call a school, and the head of the dept. will recommend the student they know will show up on time, and get work done on time.

  20. Kara White says:

    I didn’t go to college, so maybe not having the experience colors my opinion. I have to agree with Kate, though. If you are going to college without ANY idea of what you want to do, then maybe you shouldn’t go to college. If all you want to do is network, then join the military, go to trade school, or just get a job! You will find people to netowrk with, and you will also find an apreciation of school that you may not have had right out of high school.

    The commenter who said that this article is for college students starting tomorrow is right. The decision has been made, and tomorrow is the start of a new adventure! My congratulations to the kids who are starting college, and you should probably take Trent’s advice.

  21. Katie says:

    I think I largely disagree with people who say there’s no point in going to college if you don’t know what you want to do. No point in racking up huge amounts of debt, absolutely – go for a community college first or a relatively cheap state school. And definitely there can be a lot of value in taking a year or two to work before going to college. But every study that’s been done shows that college, statistically speaking, more than pays for itself in terms of income regardless of what you major in. That doesn’t mean it’s not wise to limit the costs, but I do think it’s a little silly to say that college is just an end to some very specific means; the fact is, it’s on the whole economically (to say nothing of personally) beneficial regardless of what you’re studying.

    That doesn’t mean that there aren’t people who will do better in the military or a trade school. But by and large, let’s not dismiss college just because spending four years studying, I don’t know, English literature seems “useless” to someone.

  22. Johanna says:

    @kristine: “I have my doubts that this blog attracts teens”

    Good point. :) But you never know.

  23. Nick says:

    “…it’s almost always free, and there’s almost always free food there.”
    Very true, although I stuck with this philosophy: come for the free pizza, leave before they pass out the Kool-Aid. Always seemed to me that some questionable campus groups really like to get their hooks in unsuspecting kids.

    But there’s a lot of good advice in this post. I wish someone had been mentioned them to me a few years ago before I went to college. I studied hard and did well, but the “make lasting relationships” thing wasn’t tops on my list. But that’s partly my personality and I don’t regret how it worked out. Oh, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a “cheap” state school. I’d take $60k in tuition for 4 years over 1 year at a fancy school.

  24. Janie Riddle says:

    Having watched a young man I know struggle with getting a job I am amazed how many jobs will not even let you apply without a college degree. I think part of this is because there is so much foolishness going on in high school.
    My daughter has a masters degree. She went to tech school in high school and received 9 hours college credit for that. She took 12 hours at the local junior or community college the summer after high school graduation to get those credit hours. No, this was not her idea of a fun summer.
    She went off to a small private college for her two year degree. She had a scholarship for tuition and a loan for room and board. The second year she worked as a Resident assistant to help with room and board. She went to a 4 year old school next that was not a good fit for her and too expensive for us. She came home and went to the local 4 year school to get her 4 year degree. It took her a total of 4 and a half years to get the degree and another year to get the master’s degree. Neither my husband nor myself have a college degree so we have seen both sides of the coin. We did not need a degree for the job we could do years ago. This is often no longer the case.

  25. Evita says:

    Trent, what makes you think that your own personal experience is universally useful? Yes, “you” did well, good for you! But it worked because you are now your own boss. Not the situation for the majority of workers!

    College can cost thousands of dollars and so much time. Get real, implying that the major is not important is financial suicide! How many doctors, accountants, engineers, criminologists, nurses started as English or biology majors? Now that jobs are scarce and the competition fierce, who wants to make a costly, useless choice? Paying that much for friendship and contacts, well…… it does not grab be either.

    Just hoping that teens do not read you and take your advice seriously…

  26. Katie says:

    How many doctors, accountants, engineers, criminologists, nurses started as English or biology majors?

    Uh, a ton of doctors started as biology majors. That’s a pretty standard pre-med major. And I can’t speak for criminologists, but “practical” majors like criminology and criminal justice are disfavored in law school applicants. Studies show that students with “useless” majors like English or biology tend to do better in law school.

  27. Evita says:

    Oh Katie, you are right, I did not edit my post. And I should know: my girlfriend did hard science with me and became a doctor…… I became an accountant after doing one extra year to bring my classes up to date for my program…..

  28. Tameh says:

    I am an 18 year old, soon-to-be college freshman. You nailed all of the points that I have been pondering about this summer. Many a time, I’ve been given advice related to majors, costs, and professors, among other general college topics. However, not once has someone (parents, brothers, friends, relatives–even my high school guidance counselor) asked me what I am interested in, what I want to do. People, or at least the people in my life, should give their student room to understand themselves, as you so excellently spelled out in this wonderful piece. Thanks for making me feel better about my attending college in six days.

  29. Becca says:

    By far the most valuable thing I learned in college was how to think critically.

    Writing skills were a close second.

  30. gowri shanker says:

    great article mr.trent
    i am sitting at india and finding at ties your articles are mind boggling
    nice to have an article like this thanks mr. trent

  31. Brian says:

    These “5 tips” are actually the same things that everyone tells you when you go to college. The illusion that college is about learning “life skills” is pretty pervasive and is dead wrong. Most people I knew from college graduated without any life skills, and simply having a college degree is not enough to land a job. The only really good advice is to network. That plus luck is what’s really going to get you a job after college.

  32. Tim. yaratch says:

    I think this artcal talks about alot of good things that new students like me need to hear. Im majoring in dance and minoring in buisness but at the sme time im thinking about changing my major because of todays job market but dancing and performing is what i want to do with my life. I also baleave that building relationships with your teachers and people around you that have the same interest and goals in a good thing cause they can help you along your road. Critical thinking as a new student is very importent and needs to be done.

  33. My brother recommended I might like this blog. He was entirely right.
    This post truly made my day. You cann’t imagine
    just how much time I had spent for this information! Thanks!

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