Updated on 09.18.14

What College Students Can Do To Prepare For Success

Trent Hamm

At the start of the last college semester, I provided ten tips for personal finance management for college students:

Get some free money.
Make it automatic.
Look for cheaper entertainment.
Don’t get any credit cards.
Eat in the cafeteria.
Look for free stuff.
Empty out your pockets at the end of each day.
When you go buy something, ask around and see where it’s cheapest.
Get an interesting job.
Keep yourself up.
If it makes you feel good, do it.

These ideas will help minimize the debt load that a college student will carry after college (and also make a lot of things easier while in college), but for the most part, they won’t help too much with maximizing your income after you graduate.

If you want to put yourself in a great position after you graduate, do as many of these ten things as possible:

Ten Tips for Post-Graduate Success

1. Separate yourself from your parents

Even when I was in university, there were many “helicopter parents” deeply involved in their child’s life. If you’re a parent, back off; if you’re a student, work on trying to build some separation there. A big part of the university setting is figuring out who you are and what your strengths are; a hovering parent issuing phone calls to school administrators is a sure way to find yourself not growing as a person.

2. Don’t commit to a major too early; instead, find out what you’re passionate about

I found that once I had the time and freedom afforded to me in an academic environment, I discovered interests that I had never even considered before and eventually wound up switching majors even after completing a couple years’ worth of classes. Instead, my advice is to take very general requirement classes the first year and spend some time seriously considering what really lights your fire. A big hint is usually the topics that you find yourself thinking about regularly outside of the context of classwork.

3. Do not load yourself down with classes the first year

The first year at college is usually a giant culture shock – new people, new environment, new material, new challenges. Don’t take fifty credits the first year – in fact, don’t take much more than the minimum required to be considered a full time student. You can make up for it later when you’ve got your career directions and goals figured out. Even better, spend some of that time sitting in on a few classes. If you’re still figuring out where you want to go, take lots of little tastes of various directions and spend your time figuring out what you actually want. The first year or two of college will provide you with more freedom and opportunity than you’ll probably ever have again in your life – take advantage of it.

4. Find a job connected to what you’re doing, even if it doesn’t pay well

Once you’ve settled in on a major, find a job that relates to that major, even if it’s on a volunteer basis. So many students go work at Taco Bell for $7 an hour – it might put a few bucks in your pocket, but in the long term it’s a giant mistake. Once you’ve focused in, go through all of the professors in the department and find one or two that are doing things that really pique your interest (Google them and find out what they do). Then request a meeting, ask a lot of questions, and see whether they have a role that you could fulfill. In most majors, this will probably be nonpaying, but in some, you might get minimum wage if they have something available.

Obviously, during the summers, look for internship opportunities, but you can look at such a job as an “around the year” internship and, quite often, the professor can help you net a very good internship for the summer. A curious and intelligent student doing a lot of work will cause any professor worth his or her salt to lend a helping hand.

5. Sample some organizations related to your interests, particularly to your major

Most large universities are absolutely loaded with student groups and organizations. Find ones that match your interests and attend some meetings. Some will click with you – some won’t. If it doesn’t click, don’t worry about it. If it does click, though, make it a point to get more involved with that group. How will this help? A select number of groups that you’re involved with can be a real resume-builder.

6. Get involved in any general leadership organization

I also recommend finding an organization that focuses on leadership activities. Try to get involved with the student government, or be involved with general interest groups that focus on character building, public speaking, or other things that are useful no matter what you choose to do. Not only are these useful in helping you figure yourself out and learn how to work well in a team environment (which, in all likelihood, is where you’ll wind up working), but it shines on a resume.

7. Once you find an organization that matches you, get involved and become a leader

Once you’ve found an organization or two that really clicks with you, work hard to be a leader in that organization. Run for an office, then eventually run for president. It may seem like a lot of work that you really don’t want to deal with, but this type of activity not only trains you for later, but it also looks fantastic on a resume.

8. Keep your studies up

Note that I didn’t say “keep your grades up.” If you keep up with your studies, grades will follow. Attend every class, and in smaller ones ask questions if for no other reason so that you stand out to the teacher. Don’t hesitate to ask questions after class. Absolutely stop by office hours if you have any question at all. Get to know the teachers a bit and demonstrate that you’re working hard on the material – and actually work on the material – and you’ll do just fine. A 4.0 is only vital if you’re trying to get into an exclusive graduate school, so don’t be upset if you get a B. On the flip side, don’t just blow everything off and struggle to stay in school at all – your transcript will be a piece of the package that gets your career started.

9. Take every opportunity to speak, perform, or present publicly that you can

This is especially true if the idea of speaking in public scares you like crazy. I’d encourage you to take a public speaking class, read How to Win Friends and Influence People (if for nothing else the tips on how to speak to others), and then look for opportunities in your organizations to speak and present. Don’t worry about it if your first attempt is awful – keep at it and you’ll get better. You should also keep a list of your public speeches and presentations, as they can be useful to have as your career advances.

10. Build lots of connections

If you do nothing else in school, do this. Talk to lots of people and make an effort to keep tabs with them. Lots of students today use Facebook for this – make an effort to gain a lot of friends on there and leave lots of messages and wall scribblings. If you click at all with someone, make sure to keep in touch with them a bit. Find ways to connect people that you know – if you have a wide social circle, you’ll often find people that you can connect with each other for mutual benefit. I really recommend reading Never Eat Alone for a great introduction on how to do this. I didn’t make many good, strong connections in college, and it’s something I still regret.

College is both a time to figure yourself out and also a time to build up your skills and resume. If you work hard, you can easily do both, maintain good grades, and have a lot of fun. Most of my best memories of college were from moments spent being involved with groups and getting to know others that had similar interests.

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  1. Kate says:

    Take a PE class, the first semester and every semester thereafter. Physical health is vitally important at every age. The college years are still formative years physically, mentally, and socially. This is an ideal chance to form great habits.

    College students spend an inordinate amount of time sitting on their butts – in class, in the library and while doing homework. A regular PE class will help counter the sluggish student lifestyle, and the resulting (“freshman ten”) weight gain. Regular exercise will provide plenty of other benefits too, like more energy and better concentration. Follow this plan all through your college years and you’ll built a very healthy habit into your life. Signing up for a PE class is better than just good intentions of using the student rec center or gym – it’ll help keep stress in check, it’ll force you to stick to a regular routine of exercise, and it won’t generate any extra study time. A bargain all the way around.

  2. FIRE Finance says:

    We agree with Kate; in addition to studies and deciding upon a major, we found that yoga classes, swimming and training the gym really help a lot. Not only does it revitalize the body after a long day of classes but it also energizes the mind.
    After all we all know that “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
    Have joy in life else the greatest transcript, grad school, finest job or tonnes of $ in your booty really don’t mean too much. They can go only that far.
    FIRE Finance

  3. Lewis Empire says:

    I found that the best advice for a student is to never take a job for the money – that’s what student loans are for. They should be looking for the type of job that is either going to build a resume (as you mentioned) or build transferable skills. There are lots of jobs that will help a student increase public speaking skills, deal with business clients or add to their list of contacts.

    I’m glad you posted about this. Too many students think that a brainless job at a fast-food restaurant will somehow benefit them after school is finished. They should explore all the options available for a co-op term in their field through the school. If one is not available, try proposing a trial term to the head of the department.

  4. Jake Smith says:

    Ahh colleggggeeee….

  5. blackliquorish says:

    I’d add that you should calculate how much you’re spending per credit to help evaluate which courses to take.

    For me, it wasn’t worth it to spend $2K of my loan money on a PE class, when my tuition/fees already afforded me “free” access to the gym. That said, get a workout buddy so you’re sure to go.

    If you are used to working hard and know yourself well, you can absolutely take a full course load and work a job your freshman year. Not only that, but if your grades are solid, you may be able to get special permission from a Dean to “overload” in the future — taking an extra course per semester without paying extra in tuition. That’s a great way to complete a double major without taking out loans for another another semester, too.

    Use the ADD/DROP period to its fullest extent and don’t hang on to any classes that you’d hate too much to attend and get decent grades at. Better to hold out for a dynamic professor and the right schedule.

    For me, it was also incredibly worth it to keep my GPA up — by maintaining a 3.3 or higher, I received and kept a scholarship for my entire 4 years.

    Books can be a giant rip-off. If your class specifies a particular textbook edition, ask the prof what has changed from prior editions. Frequently it’s just page numbers and minor things here and there, and the older edition will be dirt cheap compared to the current one. Get the syllabus as early as possible so you can shop online for books used. If the syllabus says you’ll only be reading a chapter or two of a text, go get it from the library instead (but be sure to beat your classmates to it).

    If you’re taking out loans, investigate whether it’ll be cheaper to live on campus and have the meal plan or get roommates and cook for yourself off-campus.

    And finally: do a semester abroad, if you can. I didn’t, and it’s a regret. In the future, it’ll be hard to get away for three whole months while you live in a foreign country!

  6. Kate says:

    Ah, I hadn’t considered the situation of having to pay by the credit hour. The university I attended charged a flat fee per semester, so taking the maximum number of PE classes allowed per semester (2) was a no-brainer for me. The PE classes always filled up fast, which is why the uni set a 2 class maximum per semester. At $2K per PE class, I’d probably balk too. But if the fees were reasonable, I’d still urge college students to do it. Health is the first wealth, as they say.

  7. Megan says:

    Don’t just sign up for a major because you like the classes you’ll be taking. Research what kind of work you will be doing when you graduate, try to get an internship early on or ask your parents if they know someone working in that field that you could talk to about their work. You’ll be in classes for four more years, but working for at least 40, make sure you’ll enjoy those 40.

  8. Jessica says:

    I’d only take it “easy” your first semester and take the 12 credits necessary to be a full-time student and then take as many courses as you can earlier on in your education. That will free you up to do more intensive course-work in your last two years, like a capstone project or internship.Plus if you’re looking at grad school, they generally only consider your last 60 hours in your GPA so that’s where you’ll want the grades to count.

    Also, there are a lot of students who more or less have to work and I wouldn’t be too concerned if you end up working a “crummy” job. If you don’t go to a research university or even if you do, it’s not terribly likely that professors will be eager to hire you on to do work related to what you want to do in the end. Generally there are formalized programs for this and it usually involves junior-senior students. Even then, you often end up doing the envelope stuffing portion of the job.

    However, it is good to befriend professors especially if they have connections outside of academia, or inside if you’re on the track to be an academic yourself.

    It is better to have some work experience than none at all in college. And for many, NOT working isn’t an option.

    I’d also suggest asking the department of a potential major if they can tell you what former students are doing with their degree. Better yet if you can actually contact them. Look at want-ads in the classifieds and figure out what sounds interesting. If you can, do the informational interview thing. Otherwise figure out what kind of major/degree you’d need to do it. You may just find that having an English/Philosophy/Psychology degree won’t open as many doors as you think…

  9. Kat says:

    I disagree with looking around at your major. If you know what you want to do, go for it. Don’t waste time and money looking around.

    Also I second going abroad. I spent a summer in Paris and a semster in Denmark. Both were eye opening experiences that will be with me forever. Plus you can make great connections for later on in life.

  10. I can see the impulse to suggest not taking on a credit card to avoid racking up debt, but allow me to pose the question: For the financially responsible student, won’t failing to create a credit history end up costing the student in the longer-term?

    The Editorialiste.

    media criticism blog at:

  11. catherine says:

    In “Keep your studies up” you recommend “in smaller [classes] ask questions if for no other reason so that you stand out to the teacher.” As a former prof, I say Absolutely NOT to this suggestion! Do NOT say things to try and stand out – you may succeed but for all the wrong reasons. I was far more impressed by students who might have said little but when they did speak, they made a really insightful comment or asked a pertinent and intriguing question. Quality is always better than quantity, substance better than style. If you’re too shy to ask in a large class, ask during office hours. Genuine interest and curiosity are far more impressive than asking because you want to impress. Profs aren’t stupid, they know a try-hard when they hear one.

  12. Wabi Sabi Me says:

    Don’t forget to take advantage of the free/low cost sports and exercise facilities. I’m back in grad school and will be training with a personal pilates trainer (inexpensive and practical too!) next month to jump start my regimen.

  13. Peter R says:

    Great Post and Comments.

    I wish I was given this advice before I left High School!

  14. plonkee says:

    I agree with going abroad if you can. If you can’t study abroad, spend a summer working abroad, the experience will be amazing and it will stand out on your cv – there are several programs that you can take advantage of, like BUNAC.

    If the lecturer in you course is not so great at explaining things, try speaking to one of the TAs if you have them. I went from understanding nothing, to getting some of the best marks in the class because I made an effort to get additional help any way I could. The TA was good because he remembered what it was like to take the course as an undergrad.

    Try many random things. You may never again get the chance to join a Mornington Crescent society, or do a subsidised skydive, or a boat race.

  15. nancy says:

    I would advise taking at least one more class than needed to maintain full time status each semester. This allows you to fail one, and still maintain full time status and continue to be carried on your parents health insurance. This is of course after you have determined the total credits needed for graduation within a four year period, then divided the total credits needed by four, then divided by the number of semesters your school uses each year.

  16. Sarah says:

    I’ll agree with Kat– if you know what you want to do, that’s fine. I came in as a history major and graduated with a history degree and I’m glad. For students who aren’t sure– yes, take this time to explore.

    That being said, however, do explore. I wrote art off as dumb prior to college, but as a result of an “Art and Society in the Renaissance” class, I got very into art history and took a couple of classes. Now I love the stuff.

    Yes to study abroad! It’s often a once in a lifetime experience. I spent a semester and Egypt, and really, there is so much that you can’t just learn in books or the internet or research.

    Don’t worry about getting applicable experience while in school. Shoot for summer internships instead. It can be difficult to schedule work and school, transportation can be an issue, and often, undergrads aren’t offered the same options when it comes to research as grad students. Even if you’re shelving books or working fast food, those references will be as important as professorial ones. Your bosses can vouch for work ethic and it will demonstrate that you are able to balance responsibilities.

    Have a bit of fun, too. Make friends, party a bit, join clubs. It’s college and it too is a once in a lifetime experience. Yes, you can always go back or go to grad school, but it’s not the same experience (take it from me- I’m in grad school now and whoo is it different!).

  17. Scarfish says:

    “Find a job connected to what you’re doing, even if it doesn’t pay well.”

    I cannot agree with this statement enough. While most official internships are limited to students at the junior level or higher, it’s amazing what you can find that’s even sort of related to what you want to do…and you’ll have a much easier time finding work right out of college. I spent almost every summer and semester working in fast food or at the mall for clothes (30% discount!), but did do one stint at a local AM radio station. It was that job and that job alone that got me my first real job out of college, and I’m disappointed that I was so short-sighted at the time to not get more jobs like that while I was in college and really experience what I was studying in my broadcasting classes. What did I have to show for the jobs I did? A fun spring break trip and a closet full of clothes I’ve had to replace since entering the real world. Looking back, I’d rather have had the work experience.

    Meet lots of people, not just to have lots of friends but to get used to being around lots of different people. For many students, this is your first time away from home, first time in a different environment, maybe first time around people who aren’t mostly like you–take advantage of it.

    Take classes that give you personal satisfaction in addition to those you are required to take. I wound up taking an auto mechanics class as an elective, and it was probably the BEST class I took in four (ok, five) years. I was given tools I can apply for the rest of my life–I’ll save myself money by doing work myself or knowing when someone’s trying to rip me off, I’ve already been able to do some emergency roadside repairs when out with friends, and frankly, it’s just fun to startle people that this cute little girl knows how to replace the exhaust system or flush the radiator.

    Oh, and live in the dorm for at least one year, if possible. It’s a good experience.

  18. Sharon says:

    Look into getting a certificate (esp if in your area) so you can work at a better payrate. Phlebotomy, Pharmacy tech, nursing assistant, all pay better than min wage and can be worked around a student’s schedule.
    I’ve heard of pre-med students getting a AA in Respiratory Therapy while taking pre-med classes so that they can work for bigger bucks during summer breaks etc. It would cut loans down.

  19. Adam says:

    It seems to me that number ten negates the previous nine. Frugality and wise consumption require a level of self-discipline and restraint which would seem anathema to “If it feels good, do it.” For me, shopping makes me feel good, but it may not be good for me, in terms of being frugal. Spending money, whether you have it or not, can feel good. I agree in large part to your list but would modify the last one to: “Do what’s good for you and you will feel good.” Promoting healthy and wise decision-making will get you a lot farther down the road of life than fulfilling every fickle dilettante of youthfulness. Some are benign and harmless, but establishing a pattern of wise choices never hurt anyone. Sorry to wax philosophical on you – just thought I’d add another perspective. Excellent blog Trent – keep up the good work!

  20. Kit says:

    I agree with so much of the comments – especially the semester (or year) abroad. I didn’t, and at the ripe old age of 42 my job sent me to live in Japan for a year and in a couple of weeks I’m on my way to Santiago for a year. It’s much more difficult to do this when you own a home and have put down roots so GO DO IT NOW while you’re in college. Living in another country for 6 months or a year is worth 4 years of college.

    Also, follow your heart and passions but be smart about what your passions are. I majored in theatre and have 2 degrees in acting and directing. While I did learn many useful skills (foremost amongst them how to think creatively and outside the box) I really wish I had searched around. Turns out this creative artist has a good solid mind for technology – go figure. I probably would have a better savings/retirement fund if I had known that in college.

    Also, if you are even slightly unsure take a year or two off and get a job or travel or something else. I taught college for 3 years fresh out of grad school and 80% of the people I taught had no business being in higher education at that time. The attitude was that they were “paying my salary” and so I “owed” them high grades. If you don’t want to buckle down and do the work take some time off. When you go back you’ll have a greater sense of yourself and the cost of college and you’ll want to do the work.

  21. DrBdan says:

    In regards to textbooks, depending on the course it’s not always even required to buy the textbooks. Obviously this doesn’t work if you have to read the books (like say in a Sociology or Psych course) but in my degree (Computer Science) much of the time the book was more a reference and a lot of the information could be found on the internet or at the library. In some cases you could actually get the textbook from the campus library. In other situations we would buy one book and share it between a few friends.
    In regards to office hours, when I was a teaching assistant hardly anyone came to my office hours. The only time it was busy was the week before assignments were due. However, a few people came almost every week and I was basically a free tutor for them.

  22. mike says:

    Somebody might have already said this, but your advice regarding taking a light load your first year and waiting to decide on a major doesn’t take into account the general curriculum requirements most colleges have. If you have to take a ton of classes to satisfy GCRs and you have to choose a major by second semester sophomore year, there’s not much time for taking light loads and dallying about between majors. Just my experience.

  23. Lisa says:

    I ALWAYS tried to check out the text book from the library. They didn’t always have it, but often times they did. I would make calls to the bookstore to find out, just as soon as possible, what textbooks are required for upcoming classes. Profs have to have their book orders in 6 months before the class starts so bugging the bookstore for the titles was easy. Sometimes I ended up buying the text because I saw it as being beneficial to keep on my bookshelf after the class was over.

    Once I checked out one that I already owned just so I could keep one on campus in my locker and not have to lug the book back and forth from home (it was >1200 pages long). Sometimes, having the library text was good until my cheap copy from ebay/amazon arrived.

    Just as important, being in the library and looking over the section of books on the course topic (because they were all were on the shelf together) was very helpful. I often checked out another book or two on the course topic to help me understand the class (eg: an easier text to understand, a text with more sample problems, etc.) and to use as references for the end of course term papers.

  24. Elaine says:

    I’d say work your ass off your first year. Each course is worth the same amount when it comes to determining your GPA, but when you’ve taken more of them, then each one is a smaller percentage of the total, and a higher or lower grade will make less and less of a dent in your overall GPA as time goes on. So set the bar really high in your first year, because a) it’s harder to raise it in your third and fourth year and b) if you have a bad case of senioritis, it won’t bring you down too much. Although if you will ever want to get into grad school, it will help to have a stellar fourth year.

  25. Jim says:

    I gotta agree with Elaine. With a couple of exceptions, your first year or two the classes will be a lot easier, and you can take more of a load.

    I had a lot of “Introduction to X” and “Beginning Y” classes my first year that I was required to take in order to get into the ones I really wanted. I could max out my schedule and still get decent grades. I tried that once in the advanced level classes and realized I was going to have to decide which project to fail and re-take.

    There will probably be some “freebie” classes (that may or may not be required courses) where you already know the material from high school or previous work experience. Take advantage of these, and mix them with some that will take more study.

  26. Jake says:

    I definitely agree with your suggestions. However, I think you are not explicitly stating the #1 recommendation for college students. Get out of your comfort zone…this is the number 1 sure fired way to develop yourself. This can be anything from joining organizations to going to college on the other side of the country or studying abroad. If you don’t push yourself to get out of your comfort zone, your development and growth will not be anywhere near as significant as it could be. Additionally, I do agree with your suggestion for finding a job, but I think that on-campus jobs are completely underestimated. In many on-campus jobs you can get relevant work experience, build transferable skills and have supervisors who respect that you are a student first. Obviously this is not always the case, but if you look, you can find these on-campus jobs. I would also recommend building a relationship with the career services office on campus. These individuals will be invaluable when looking for an internship or job after college. Many of these individuals can be the best connections you ever make. I’d also recommend that students get to know the non-teaching faculty and staff at their school. Whether these individuals are their Residence Directors, or student activities staff. These individuals can speak more to your work style than any professor. I’ll let my bias be known as these statements are coming from a non-faculty student development staff member at a large research institution.

  27. Kim says:

    I went to a pay by the credit school, so taking multiple gym classes was definitely not an option. My advice is to get that required gym class out of the way in your freshman year. I put it off and ended up having to schedule my important teaching classes around gym class. It was very frustrating to have to prioritize something as trivial as aerobics over senior level coursework.

  28. Sarah says:

    *Work hard on scholarships
    Who would say no to writing an essay and getting paid hundreds/thousands for it? In this way, it is possible to piece together a free ride from many smaller scholarships.

    *Take as many classes as you can, don’t study abroad, and get out early
    People say that college is about “finding yourself”, and it is. But you can’t “find yourself” throughout your twenties/thirties? Your educational/personal/spiritual journey, if you will, ends the day you graduate? Just get in, get out, and take out as few loans as possible.

    -Sarah, a second-year junior, Advertising/Public Relations major

  29. Marie says:

    When my parents stopped paying for college, I was forced to figure out how to get my BA degree on my own. I was working, but I also wanted to do well in school. So I dropped my course load down to 12 credits. I found out what the tuition bill would be each semester, so I made it my goal to save that much before I treated myself to anything. I became very frugal. After 3 years, I owed only about $11,500 in student loans, which I took out only when necessary, e.g. when I had to do my student teaching and couldn’t work.

    Now that I’ve gone back to grad school, I am trying to be frugal, too. It is not so easy when there are more things to juggle in life. I am working, and even moved into a “closet” of a room rather than a studio apt. to save about half the cost of rent. I want to buy a house or adopt a child in my next big endeavor, so I don’t want to be prevented by extravagant debt amassed in my additional college years.

    Hey, I even brought juice boxes to class! (The prof. said we could bring a cup of coffee…close enough, eh?)

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