In May, I shared some advice for new grads. After receiving a few requests from current students to also cater advice to their specific needs, I spent some time reflecting on how I would approach college if I were able to do it all over again.
In this post, I share four thoughts on how to get the best bang for your buck from your probably ridiculously expensive college education.
Good luck with your Fall semester and beyond.
1) Shut up, eliminate distractions, and listen 👂
You can’t learn from others when you’re too busy hearing yourself talk or constantly consumed by your devices. Be present, and focus your attention on whoever has the floor. Only when you demonstrate empathy and respect will your professors and peers be willing to share with you their deepest insights and most interesting experiences. In the age of perpetual digital distraction, you can easily stand out as a friend and student by being a genuinely attentive listener.
One of my most life-changing meetings in college was a roundtable discussion with my dance team, right after someone hung a noose on a Duke campus tree. We sat in a circle, turned off all our phones, established that we had a no-judgment zone, and one-by-one shared exactly how the horrific incident made us feel. The process of actively listening to each other in an environment of emotional vulnerability allowed us to see the depths of each other’s personalities and experiences.
2) Appreciate your Gen Ed classes 👩🏫
Many students view their general education as an inconvenience, if not a total waste of time. Don’t adopt this cynicism. While it’s practical to view college as a means to acquire a minimum set of credentials to begin a chosen career, you’re only limiting your long-term potential if you don’t take full advantage of the wide-ranging learning opportunities provided by your liberal arts curriculum. Anyone can be taught the technical skills of a job, but it’s near-impossible to teach someone all the critical life skills associated with a strong, generalized college education – skills such as close reading, articulating concepts clearly, being resourceful, evaluating ideas systematically, thinking creatively, and collaborating productively.
A secret that you should know is that there are long-term learning opportunities in almost every class you can take. Let's say you have a 5-page paper due in two days and the topic, to your dismay, is Sylvia Plath. Most would not consider this to be an exciting assignment, and the material may sound useless after college. But take a step back and look at the bigger picture. This project provides perfect practice for learning how to persuasively present dry material as interesting and significant. Amazing, right? With a little reframing you can turn a “useless” project into a long-term growth opportunity. By noticing and capitalizing on these ever-present learning opportunities, you’ll be way happier during college and way better prepared for your long career ahead.
3) Spend time with different kinds of people 👨🎨
Cherish your once-in-a-lifetime proximity to thousands of peers who don’t look like you, don’t think like you, have different skills, have distinct motivations, and are still inspired by life. Your college probably has a hand-crafted level of diversity, so being surrounded by all kinds of people may seem normal to you now. But it's probably not going to be that way in the real world, even if you end up in a major city. So take every opportunity to spend time with all these unique characters. You’ll learn as much from them as you will from your academic endeavors. Conflict is inevitable, but useful. Disagreements force you to defend your viewpoints, challenge your assumptions, and grapple with nuanced issues.
What endeared me most to my college friends were not our similarities, but our differences. My dance teammates, unashamed of their own quirks, taught me how to overcome my insecurities and embrace my idiosyncrasies. My student-athlete friends, who somehow kept up with school while practicing several hours a day, showed me how to efficiently regiment my busy schedule. Friends in greek life taught me how to expand my network and properly let loose. Techie friends showed me how to learn and build new things on my own. International students, with their jet set lifestyles, inspired me to think beyond the boundaries of the U.S. You get so much more out of college when you spend time with people different from you. Plain and simple.
4) Push yourself, unhindered by the fear of failure 🏋️♂️
Students are commonly misguided to be carefree in college, when they should really be encouraged to take fierce advantage of the unique, myriad opportunities afforded by their expensive tuition. College is where you should push yourself to the brink, because it’s a safe environment where you don’t really have to worry about the consequences of your mistakes. It’s frustrating to me that so many students pay thousands of dollars a year just to drink, smoke, and slack off in class. By all means, have a blast when you've earned it, but the last thing you want to do is drown yourself in student debt with ultimately no skills to show for.
The value of pushing yourself in college is that it reveals your limits, and reaching those limits stretches them quickly. This pressure forces you to structure your time efficiently, identify and prioritize what matters most to you, and weigh the tradeoffs of all your decisions big and small. You’ll inevitably make mistakes, but the beauty of college is that no one cares about these micro-failures after your graduate. So push yourself – you’ll be seriously surprised how much you’re capable of.