A couple of years ago the Midwest conference of the Junior State of America asked me to be their keynote speaker. I still have no idea at all why they invited me – it seemed and still seems rather unlikely. I stupidly agreed, and then agonized about what to talk about. The organizers suggested talking about how I got to where I am, but, although there are parts of how I got to where I am that are quite interesting, where I am is not interesting at all. Then, mercifully, the Thursday before the talk two of my students brought one of their friends to meet me in my office. (You can tell how exciting their lives must be!) And they told me to tell her my tips for how to get the most out of college. I was put on the spot and tried, desperately, to remember what my tips are. Fortunately, I did remember. And then I thought, oh, actually, I could talk on Saturday about how to get the most out of college. It’s something I know something about, and that would actually be useful to audience!
Since it is the time of year that some of our readers in the northern hemisphere are getting ready to welcome students to college (I am teaching a small first-year class, which I only do once every three years), and other readers are getting ready to send their kids off to college and, conceivably, one or two readers are getting ready to go off to college themselves, I thought I’d excerpt the part of the talk where I actually give the advice. About 2/3rds of the talk was about what the point of going to college is and I’ll skip most of that, but just say that the point that I gave them was to learn knowledge, skills, attitudes and dispositions that will enable them to make a better contribution to the good of all of us; and to enjoy that learning itself. I know going to college has other purposes, but these are the ones that get neglected by the college recruiters, and school counsellors, and movies, that shape their ambitions about college.
Here goes with the concrete advice:
Work in the summers to support yourself, but during the school year devote yourself as much as you can to schoolwork. Bear in mind that while there’s such a thing as getting into too much debt, there’s also such a thing as working too many hours. Seek balance (Finding it is easier said than done).
Choose classes on the following bases: does the subject interest you?; how big is the class? (seek out small classes even if you are shy; especially if you are shy, because that’s how you’ll learn not to be); how good is the professor?
How do you know who’s a good professor?: Here are some questions to ask about them. Do they engage students? Are they open to a full range of disagreement? (Avoid professors who preach at you, unless you strongly disagree with them, in which case maybe you can learn from them). Do they make you write a lot? (if so, that’s a positive, not a negative) Do they seem to enjoy teaching? (plenty of people enjoy things they are not good at, but very few people are good at things they don’t enjoy). Find out from your friends. Or from your enemies if that’s the best you can do!
Some people enter college knowing what they are going to major in. That’s great for them. But it’s not normal. Most people have to find what they’re interested in. Beyond taking good classes, and really engaging with the material, to discover how interesting you find it, I don’t have lots of advice about this. But, don’t major in something you find uninteresting – you’ll be wasting time.
If you choose a professionally-oriented major, don’t restrict yourself to that major. Take classes in the liberal arts that will challenge and interest you. (See next point). Conversely, if you choose a liberal arts major, don’t restrict yourself to the liberal arts, take some professionally oriented classes to learn about professional fields. (This can be more difficult, because professional schools sometimes restrict enrollments to interesting classes to their majors).
The key skills you need coming out of college are to be able to communicate effectively orally and in writing, and to be able to work on solving problems with people you have not chosen to work with: take classes which give you the requisite technical skills for the field you want to enter, but also take classes in which you’ll do more abstract thinking and which you can’t necessarily see how they’ll be relevant to your career.
Go to office hours. Talk to the professor. Students say ‘but I won’t know what to say”. So here’s what to say. If the material is easy for you go and ask the professor for suggestions of a couple of other things you should be reading. If it is difficult for you, find one or two specific questions to ask about the material. Most professors actually want to talk to students in their office hours. Some don’t – but there’s no need to be embarrassed if that happens – if they are so self-centered that they don’t want to talk to you, they’ll forget who you are as soon as you leave.
For every hour in class spend two hours studying, when you are awake and alert.
Take classes with your friends, and if you’re in a class without friends, make friends in class, and talk to them (and your family) about the material you are learning about. The point is to make learning feel like leisure: doing schoolwork without feeling that you are doing it, which is what happens when you talk about the material with people you want to spend time with anyway. (I this is really obvious advice, but am surprised how many students don’t just automatically do it, and how few of them have been told to do this by their parents).
You are all interested in politics (This was the Junior States of America). Do yourselves, and the rest of us, a favor. Make friends with people you disagree with about politics. And about religion. And about particular issues. And who are from a different social class than you are. And who are from a different race than you. Exploit the diversity you find, to have a richer more diverse array of friends, and talk to them about things that matter. Learn that you can really disagree, and really argue, about things that really matter, with people who really are your friends.
Feel free to add, subtract, or substitute (which, I suppose, involves adding and subtracting). And to pass the advice on to people who may need it which, if you teach at a college, includes the first year students you will be teaching.