There is not a single one of you, whether you are returning to our excellent university for another year, or only just embarking on your college career, who has escaped the following college-going advice:
- You have to study really hard. This isn’t like high school.
- No one is going to hold your hand.
- Don’t post stupid pictures on social media.
- Read your syllabus.
There is not anything wrong with the above advice, per se. Except that you’ve heard it all before, and because of this, I wish to impart something a bit different, as someone who remembers all too well the sometimes fun, sometimes odd, and oftentimes difficult road that defines the path toward a college degree. Beginning with:
When I was growing up and lamenting over virtually everything, my father would say (sometimes too often): “Youth is wasted on the young.” It took a few decades, but I now know what he means. Here is how I spent a lot of my time during the college years, in particular (when I wasn’t studying and looking for internships, of course):
- Worrying about whether or not my phone was going to ring with a fun set of Thursday, Friday, or Saturday night plans on the other end of the line (yes, we had lines back then).
- Worrying about whether I had a new (or even decent) outfit for said plans.
- Worrying about whether I had enough disposable cash for said plans.
- Worrying (after the fact) about whether I left myself enough time to study after said plans hatched.
- [Insert other concerns about maintaining a social life, here.]
Indeed, I wasted a lot of time. A lot of time. And all about things that, years later, hold absolutely zero meaning to my life now. Here is what I wish I would have spent more time on, now that I’ve had (quite) a few years to think about it:
- Getting good at something (that is, something other than creating a social life for social life’s sake).
When I was asked to construct an “advice” piece for returning (and new) students, I struggled with constructing something that you have not heard a million times before. And then I remembered something that I share with my own students, at the start of every semester:
Your professors can only be as successful as you are committed.
In other words, if you are not completely committed to your own success, there is very little your professors—or anyone else, for that matter—can do.
So, what does commitment look like?
- Have an opinion. Your classes, and your college career in general, are not about sitting down and taking notes while your professor speaks. Notes are helpful, and you should take them, but this is not a spectator sport. Have an opinion, and make sure it’s an informed one. Your opinions make class lively and enjoyable. Your silence makes class feel long. Very long. So have an informed opinion and wield it. How do you formulate an informed opinion? Read your materials, complete your assignments, and investigate topics of your own volition in order to fill the gaps that your courses, by design, cannot fill.
- The less you think you know, the better off you are. You’ll see – the older you get, the less you know. This is a good thing. So, ask questions. Make sure you know the difference between clarifying and comprehension questions. There is a tremendous difference between “comprehension” questions (i.e., you just do not understand something) and “clarification” questions (i.e., the information can easily be found with a little effort and does not require the help of someone else).
- Choose to be actively involved in your education. The students who wait to be told what to do and when to do it are the students who have trouble staying on track. The students who take the reins over their classes, jobs, and college career in general have a less complicated time. Here is one way to be actively involved in your education, which simultaneously provides a way to stay on track.
Some other ways to stay on track include arranging time with your academic advisor when you are stuck with questions about your long-term goals, and getting an early start on requirements that you think are not due for some time (e.g., course papers, seeking an internship, securing a letter of recommendation for scholarship competitions, etc.). Indeed, deadlines have a way of sneaking up on us—all of us.
All of this said, I do wish I would have taken a more “active” approach to my college experience. It would have made life a bit easier.
In sum, find time to write more than you’re required to; read more than you’re asked to. Think more than you feel is necessary. Create something—anything. Whether it’s a blog post or a battery that requires only cold air to recharge, create something. Commit to getting good at something—knowing who you are and what you want to be will come to you a lot faster than choosing to sit on the sidelines.
So yes, study hard. Read your syllabus. Know what you need to do and when you need to do it. But perhaps most importantly of all, when things feel like they’re getting a little too out of control and difficult, I offer my grandmother’s words of wisdom: “They can’t take your education away from you.”