Thoughts On Making College Great

Tomorrow, several people that matter a lot to me are starting their college experience. Here are five 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.

5 Lessons on Making the Most Out of College

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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).

5. 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.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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