If I were in college today, here are a few basic strategies I'd use to get the most out of my four years. These are like Wall Street "insider" trading tips--except not corrupt but, I hope, beneficial to those starting college and not sure how to make the most of the experience. These are methods not everyone will tell you--or agree with. But they work, both in college and to help you have the life you want after you graduate.
The key: diversify. Most of the rest of life comes "pre-sorted": we live most of life in narrow worlds, with fields and friends that mirror us. Sometimes depressingly so. The best aspect of a college or university is all the choice it offers, diversity in every sense of the word. Don't squander your chance!
1. Take advantage of everything. Soak it up. Treat college like a foreign country or an amusement park or museum. Indulge! Take chances! Be bold, try a little of everything.
(If you don't have the safety net to be risky, at least take advantage of all the useful, practical, but still courageous options universities have. It may seem risky but it actually leads to better outcomes on every level, including helping to keep you happy and curious and not bored--the single affective consideration most likely to keep you on track, in school, and graduating!)
2. If I were a student determined to get the most out of college education, I'd find the best source on campus for the best teachers. Sometime it is the local Teaching and Learning Center--and talk to someone there. Sometimes it is the Dean of Students. Sometimes it is advisors in dorms. And sometimes it is fellow students. Find the most reliable source, then pump them for all the information they will give you (they will if you keep asking!) about the best teachers. Rate My Professors has proven to be notoriously inaccurate except for the basics--easy grader, low work load, great lecturer, chili peppers (really?). The comments are typically left by the most and least disgruntled students.
Most TLC's didn't exist with any real visibility or robustness a decade ago. The one unexpected consequence of MOOCs and other attempts to displace profs by videos is suddenly everyone remembered that teaching is important. TLCs can send you to the prof who won't just teach you content but will teach you how to learn.That's the skill that will last a lifetime. And that will serve you best in changing times, challenging teachers with creative ideas about how to make the classroom a platform for your engagement and excitement and growth.
p.s. While at the TLC, I'd also ask questions about my own learning and see if I could get some help. They often have simple, clear, and great answers to questions. Try them!
3. If I were a student today looking for the best possible education, I’d major in the field close to my interests but I'd also find the one with the FEWEST requirements. Most people don't really know their life’s passion (80% in a recent survey) but, in fact, have lots of interests. And a career is different than an interest. Explore!. Every study we have of success shows the field is less important than you loving what you do and being willing to do more than you probably should. But what that is is not easily defined. It's not a "field" so much as a "niche," in the ecological sense of you find the right conditions under which to do the kind of work that interests you. People switch jobs six times in their twenties and early thirties, on average. Explore college too! If you know what your passion is, go for it. If you don't, you can take an array of classes during your "general education" period that will help you figure out what it is you most enjoy doing.
4. Once you think you have a major you love, ask your profs early about unpaid or paid internships so you can see if the style of work is what you want. There are so many questions to ask about life after school that you don't really know until you are in the job. You can find out through internships. Here are some questions: do you like to work alone or in groups? Inside or outside? dressed up in business clothes or casual? Do you like set deadlines or do you like to set your own agenda? Do you like cities or only living in a rural area? Do you like to travel or hate getting on planes? These are all deep personal things to consider. What level of material wealth makes you happy? What kind of social role do you like? Are you an activist or do you just like to go along with the rules? These are rarely asked--and make a difference to your future happiness. You can learn this by learning beyond the classroom. Take advantage of each and every experience and opportunity to apply your work that your college offers.
5. If you have to choose a major but are not entirely sure this is your life's passion, then find a major you think you like with the fewest requirements. Minor in "everything else." What you want for your personal growth--and for your resume--is what will round out what is not in your major.
6. If your university offers pass/no pass courses, save those for your boldest choices If you are an engineer, use that one precious elective (engineering schools are notoriously requirement heavy) on a painting class you might barely pass but you’ll spend a semester with creative students who approach a canvas with entirely different assumptions than you do—and learn from their decision making as much as your expertise. Conversely, if you are a painting student, use a pass/fail elective to take a programing course for the same reason.
7. The diversity of interests that an institution of higher education offers is its single most important and most unique aspect. Milk it. And if there are skills you need that you can’t get easily on campus, take a course online from one of the excellent online and often free resources available.
8. Construct your resume to show everything you have done—take advantage of labs, outreach, summer programs, internships, summers abroad. That Teaching and Learning Center that sent you to the best teachers will also help you show off all your range and skills and courage on a resume.
9. The algorithm that sorts hundreds of job applications for first, starter jobs will first sort to see if you have completed your degree. It will look to see your major or if you have certain words indicating skills that match the job requirements. In this job market, a new resume for each job and using the precise words of the ads can help you get past the machine. No, I'm not telling you to lie. Never do that. I'm saying there are synonyms and most algorithms for sorting aren't as flexible as you are. Use the precise words that apply to you. All those electives and extra-curricular experiences will offer you abundant possibilities for matching a job requirement.
10. The humans who look at the stack of resumes pre-sorted by algorithms will be just as impressed by strong interests and skills supplemented by bold experiences and curiosity. All the extras you gather in college can add up to a picture of you as the inquisitive, fearless, and ambitious person you are.
Congratulations! You are gaining an education that will serve you for life. It takes initiative and ambition beyond the grade and the degree. It is also the opportunity of a life time, for the time of your life.