Many students will sit through rousing, and some not-so-rousing, welcome speeches from Chancellors, Deans and upper classmen- speeches that will attempt to impart upon them some wisdom about “how to do college well.” One such speech, given by Georgia Tech upper classman Nicholas Selby , made headlines this year and went viral on YouTube.
As I think back on my college days, I remember highs and lows, things I would have done differently and a few things that I think I really got right. Today I’d like to impart a few words of wisdom to the fall 2013 incoming class.
Pick a passion and have a plan
If you can’t pick a major from the get-go, do so as soon as possible. And I’m going to go out on a limb here and tell you to pick something you love. That’s right, pick something that’s going to make you want to get up in the morning and go to class. Pick something that you’re pumped about spending four years studying. Yes, some majors are more valued in the market than others (Engineering, for example) but if you hate the subject, you’ll likely hate working in that field- a waste of time for you, your future employer and society. I chose History, a subject which utterly enthralled me, and my life has been better for it.
Once you’ve picked your passion, develop a reasonable time-line for completing your degree and stick to it! Consult your degree audit (if you don’t know what a degree audit is, find out!). National studies have shown that taking 15 hours per semester can greatly increase your chances of finishing on-time (4 years). Break your degree audit down in to 15-hour chunks and stick with it.
An education is what you make of it
I know many people who went to very prestigious schools, graduated and admit they learned little to nothing. Being at the “right” school means nothing; learning does not happen via osmosis. As easy as it is to blame a professor for your lack of learning, college is really about learning how to learn in different environments and from different people- a skill which will come in handy in the fast-paced work world. Learn how to be your own learning advocate, deciphering when you don’t know something, speaking up and seeking out opportunities/ways to learn things better and deeper.
Yes, it’s a cliché but boy oh boy is it ever true! Perhaps one of the most valuable things you will learn in college is the inner-workings of yourself. You will learn about your own self-discipline (or lack thereof), what you’re passion about, what motivates and doesn’t motivate you, how you learn, and how to teach yourself something- all of which will help you throughout life. So, pay attention to your reactions to things, when you are most and least productive, and which classes and professors really motivate you and why.
Go to free lectures on campus
One of the things I truly regret about my college days is that I didn’t take advantage of the rich intellectual culture on my college campus. Free lectures, seminars and workshops are typically aplenty on college campuses. Never again will you be in an environment with so many ideas and intellectually-driven people swirling around, so take advantage of it!
Work (preferably in a field related or somewhat related to your major)
When you graduate college and set out, resume in hand, into the workforce you’ll find interviewers wanting to know about your work experience- any work experience. The ideal is of course to work in something related to your major so that you can build connections and a familiarity with industry culture and lingo, but that’s not completely necessary. I worked as a waitress during my college days and while it was not applicable to my career aspirations I was able to communicate some transferable skills during interviews (showing up on time, ability to learn in a fast-paced environment, a customer-service oriented attitude). The point is, even if you’re lucky enough to not have to work while in college, do something to build your resume and future interview talking points. It may even be volunteer work or a leadership position within a student organization on campus.
Take an introduction to economics class
Although I didn’t major in Economics I did take many economics classes (in both undergrad and in graduate school). It will revolutionize the way you look at the world. I use the principles and theories I learned in those classes in almost every facet of my life today- from my personal relationships, to house training my dog, to understanding local taxes.
And if I might add a few others (if you have time beyond taking the introduction to economics course), take a basic statistics course for it will make you a wise consumer and keen observer of the news; an American or World History course for it will lend context to many of the day’s current events; and a basic finance course for it will make you an efficient steward of your money and shrewd investor.
Get to know at least 1 or 2 of your professors really well
Although I enjoyed a good number of my professors and learned a great deal in many of their classes, I was content to remain a number and name throughout college. I failed to develop really personal, intellectually-engaging relationships with my professors and I have always regretted it. From a practical perspective it made securing genuine letters of recommendation for graduate school difficult. But on a much more meaningful level, I feel that I probably missed out on learning more broadly and deeply about particular subjects.
Attempt to make interdisciplinary connections
When I was an undergraduate, I failed to grasp the greater connections between many of the disparate courses I took. Many of you may be lucky enough to have interdisciplinary courses and you should relish those. But for those of you who do not have access to interdisciplinary courses, seek out on your time the wider and deeper connections between the various disciplines you are exposed to. Your learning will be richer and your world view broader if you do so.
What about you? What advice would you give to the incoming class of 2013?