I'm not currently a college student. Haven't been one for awhile...at least in the undergraduate sense of things. But I hang out with college students. I work with college students. And I work full time at a University as the Director of Campus Life (the coolest on-campus job in the world).
Plus...I really like college students.
It's one of the greatest times in life. When do any of us ever get to hang out with hundreds of friends for four, five...dare I say...six years? It's like going to camp..except they give you homework and you have to read 800 pages a night.
So if I could sit you down, with a slow drip of coffee being shared between us (intravenously or by the cupful if you prefer), and share some ways that I believe you could not only make the most of your time in college, but really, really enjoy it and succeed at it - here's what I'd say...
1. Meet people
One day you'll walk across a stage, and a very smart looking man or woman in a really nice, long, black gown will hand you a piece of paper that says "Bachelor" (even if you're a girl!) on it. You'll graduate from college. Do you know what you'll remember most?
The relationships you've made.
My advice is to meet everyone you can. Be friendly. Smile. Talk to people (not in class...that could be dangerous). Go to places where people hang out and hang out with them. Your friends are what make college special.
Some day you'll come back to campus as an alumni and the place will feel weird. It will feel different. That's because all of the people that you were friends with during your college years aren't there. It's the same college, but different people. It's the people that make your experience unique. You are going to make friends that you'll have for the rest of your life.
Like I said earlier, I work at a University. My boss (yes...he's smarter than me) is a good friend that I went to college all four years with. It's been a great relationship for all this time. I don't know of any other place you create these types of relationships at this age. So get out there. Get busy meeting people.
2. Talk to your professors
This one continues on with the theme of number 1. Go ahead and do everything you can to meet your professors. Make an appointment with them as soon as it is possible in their schedule. I have discovered that I learned so much more from a professor when I had some kind of personal relationship with them.
Professors are people to. Respect their time and make sure you communicate clearly with them. Don't waste their time with excuses for not doing the work or simply not showing up to class. The goal here is to establish some type of relationship.
Whenever I think about a subject or content I learned in college it is tied to the face of a professor. If I think of learning German - it's McKinney; if it's creative writing - Nelson; if it's communication - Jackson. My knowledge came from a person more than it came from a book.
One of my favorite movies is Orange County. It's a story about a high school senior that wants to get into Stanford. He's enamored with the writings of a certain professor there. When he finally has the chance to meet the professor and sit down and talk with him, it changes his entire perspective. While those types of conversations might be rare in your experience because you go to a large University - seek them out anyway! They'll be some of the best memories you take from your time in college.
3. If you need help ask for it
One of the reasons you're in college is because you don't know everything. If you can learn to admit that, you'll be ahead of most freshmen at your school.
Independence messes up most teenagers in that they want to do everything by themselves. So when a moment comes when they can't do something or don't know something, there's an inner struggle. I encourage you to put the pride aside and ask for help.
If you need help in class, get a tutor. If you need directions to the financial aid office, ask for them. If you don't know how to complete an application for an internship, look for someone who does.
Your school will have people that can proofread your papers, help you learn how to do your laundry the right way, and even give you some good advice on how to stay in shape (because we all need our health!).
Look at it this way: You will become smarter if you ask for help when you need it. If you don't ask...you'll remain ignorant. I'm not advocating that you shouldn't try to find things out on your own. But there comes a time where you'll discover that learning happens better in the context of "we" and not just "me." And you might also discover that the best way to meet people is to simply ask, "Hi, would you mind giving me a hand with this?"
4. Get some sleep
One thing that you have in common with every other person in the world is that each person needs to sleep. If you don't get enough sleep, bad things start happening to your mind and body. I know this is difficult to hear, and I'm probably beginning to sound a bit parental by saying this, but go to bed.
I've pulled my share of all-nighters. I've had to study, cram, write, and just get it done. I've also stayed up too late because I kept losing at Halo and had to play just one more game. Either way, it messed me up for the next day. My body had to play catch up. I wasn't sharp. If you string enough late nights together, you are not going to be the learning machine that you need to be.
I know you're young and invincible. But sleep is so necessary. Research says that a night of sleep deprivation is like being mentally impaired by the legal blood-alcohol level. When you don't get adequate sleep, you're body ages faster. Sleep also helps to relieve stress...so if you're stressed out - you may simply need a good nap.
Ultimately, getting enough sleep is a matter of prioritization. Just because you CAN stay up, doesn't mean you SHOULD stay up. You need to be mature enough to know when you need to get some sleep so that you can be an effective college student.
5. Get organized
Everyone needs a plan to accomplish all of the things that are required of you in college. It is extremely easy to start living from event to event, assignment to assignment when you're neck deep into your semester.
My number one piece of advice for getting organized - get a calendar and stick to it, live by it, and look at it everyday. Now there's lots of types of calendars out there. I like to use Google Calendar. It's online and I can access it from anywhere. Since I spend a fair bit of time on the computer, it's always handy. Plus, I've got it linked up to my email and the datebook software on my Palm Treo. But that's my way. I made a choice one day that Google Calendar was going to be MY calendar. You've got to decide and stick with it.
Some colleges will provide you with a paper-based calendar like a planner. This may include dates of important events for your college, key deadlines, and class schedules. If you are pen & paper minded, this may be the route for you. I also recommend the Moleskine planner. It's smaller and easier to carry.
Once you've chosen your calendar, you need to get busy putting EVERYTHING into it. That's right. Put every assignment, every deadline, every part of your extensive social commitments. Remember, you don't want to be surprised. It's a horrible feeling to realize that you had a vital paper due yesterday. At the beginning of each semester, sit down with all of your syllabi and fill in that calendar. Set reminders a few days before big projects come due. This will also help you to see when you will have difficult weeks with lots of obligations so you can get cracking ahead of time.
Now that you've chosen a calendar, put all your information in it, you've got to manage it. At the start of each week, look over the week ahead. KNOW WHAT'S COMING! If you only look at each day as it arrives, you'll miss opportunities to be excellent.
That's the beauty of being organized. It creates space for you to do your best work. You know when something is coming and you make the appropriate time to do your best.
6. Have a lot of fun
This is one of the best parts of college. You are going to have a ton of fun...especially if you follow the other pieces of advice in this article. College is one of the funnest experiences you will ever have. You are living with a lot of other like-minded people who are in the same situation that you're in. It's like Survivor (especially in the school cafeteria), but no one gets voted off the island.
I laughed a lot in college. I liked to hang around people who made me laugh and didn't take themselves so seriously. There were lots of events to attend. My buddies and I would take some great roadtrips during the breaks. There is a lot of freedom to do a lot of things while you're in college. I chose to have as much fun as was humanly possible.
The other benefit of having fun is that it makes incredible memories. I can remember some phenomenal pranks that have become lore at the college I attended (I won't say what it is or my own level of involvement because the statute of limitations has yet to expire). While I didn't play sports in college, I was an intramural animal.
Also, I don't want you to get the impression that all of the fun occurred outside of the classroom. When you discover what you're unique strengths are and land in a major that falls in line with your passions, learning becomes tremendously fun. I can remember projects and classes that I really enjoyed and looked forward to them. I think there were some professors who really made learning fun.
I guess with any aspect of college you can make the choice to have fun or to stress out. I encourage you to choose fun - even in the midst of hard work.
7. Get involved
During the first semester of college, I joined a fraternity. I had to do some really silly things (I have fond memories of onions and "thank you sir, may I have another.") to join this group, but it changed my entire college experience. When you arrive on campus, there will be a lot of ways that you can get involved in college besides going to class.
Your college has multiple organizations that are centered around social or academic themes. There are clubs and councils that are always looking for new members. You may have a bent toward student leadership and I encourage you to jump in and apply for those positions. It has been proven that those students who get involved in extracurricular activities have a better college experience. They also have a stronger attachment to their school when they become alumni.
I can remember our graduation day from college. When it came time to announce the valedictorian for our class they introduced a student whom none of us recognized. Now don't get me wrong here...I want you to do all that you can to get good grades and pass your classes. But for our graduating class - the person with the best GPA was an anonymous person. He wasn't involved in anything. We didn't know who he was.
Now hear me out. My GPA wasn't stellar, but I did graduate with a 3.6 in all of my major classes. Not bad. But I also was the Student Body President, was in a fraternity, joined many clubs, worked Security, and lived in a dorm all four years. I wouldn't trade that for a four-point-whatever and be anonymous.
8. Handle money wisely now
Right off the bat I must tell you - watch out for credit cards. It is the easiest thing in the world to get suckered into a credit card offer and start charging things on the plastic. Here's the catch - you have to pay it all back - with interest.
My advice to you is to avoid the credit card route at all costs while you're in school. I know that it's probably unavoidable, so just use them for emergency purposes. Get a card with a LOW limit. Pay those things off every month. If you find you can't do that, then you shouldn't be using them. Most college students leave college with debt. There's the necessary kind that comes from student loans. But it's really hard to graduate in a financial hole because you have credit card debt.
With the money you do actually have, I think it's wise to learn how to budget. Start a savings account. Learn how to balance your checkbook and do that every month. Bounced checks are no fun. The goal here is to live within your means. You may not have as much as other students. That's alright. You are a college student and you're supposed to be broke.
If you are in desperate need of cash, go to your college's career center. They typically have a listing of odd jobs that students can do to get some income. Another thing you can do is to benefit from the ability to borrow rather than own. You don't have to personally have everything, just know some of the people that do. When you live in a dorm, you begin to understand how easy it is to share. I remember that I looked better in my roommate's sports jacket than he did. Don't be a mooch. But learn to share what you have with others and you'll find that they're more willing to share what they have with you.
If you spend less money than you bring in...you'll be in good shape.
9. Learn to write well
One of the lessons I've learned from Scott Ginsberg is that "writing is the basis of all wealth." I think he's on to something there. I would add that writing is the basis of your success in college. While you are a college student, you will read A LOT. But you will also be required to write A LOT. Your writing skills are a KEY factor in how your work will be perceived by a professor.
You can have the best content in the world, but if you aren't able to deliver that through good writing, your work will get lost in the translation. I am surprised how many college students can't spell, don't know how to structure a sentence properly, and use poor grammar. If you struggle with writing, then I encourage you to re-read #3. You must get this one down.
One of the reasons that I started this site (CollegeStudentsRule!.com) is to help college students become better communicators. If you can write better, your work will be better. If your work is better, your grades will be better. I realize that you may be the best person in your class at text messaging...but those little acronyms don't hold up too well under a professor's scrutiny.
Along with writing, I would encourage you to take a typing course. The computer is here to stay and if you are typing with two fingers, you're wasting time. I think that you should work to be able to type at least 60 words a minute. Faster would be even better. Can you type without looking at the keyboard? This is a skill that won't only benefit you in college, but in the workforce as well.
One final note on writing well is in regards to proofreading. Please don't type out a paper and print it out and turn it in. Think in terms of drafts. If you turn a first draft into a professor, he or she will know that it's a first draft. This post that I'm writing won't be published until the third or fourth draft. It would be even better if you could get someone else to proofread your work. That person will probably catch mistakes that you can't see.
10. Get out of the country you're in
This is an idea that is becoming more and more realistic in our day and age. At our University, opportunities to study abroad are growing each year. We also offer short-term mission opportunities to other countries. There are so many ways for students to experience other cultures.
Our world is becoming more globally focused. In some ways it's shrinking. Companies are branching out across national boundaries. Any type of experience you can have outside of your home country will benefit you in your career and perspective on life. If you can get somewhere...go for it. You are young and you don't have many of the responsibilities yet that could tie you down to your local geographical area.
I understand that some of you may have difficulty (financially or otherwise) getting out of your country. If that's the case, find ways to learn about other cultures (watch the National Geographic Channel). But nothing beats actually going there and walking on foreign soil and being immersed in another culture.
11. Keep growing
It may seem obvious to you that you would be growing since you're in college. But I meet a lot of college students who gain knowledge, but don't gain growth. I guess I'm talking about maturity. There are many experiences that you'll have in college that can help you to grow up if you'll let them.
Current research says that adolescence is being pushed farther out - to the mid 20's. They are calling it delayed adulthood. Many young adults are simply pushing back some of the major decisions: marriage, career, home purchasing, etc - to later in life. But being young doesn't mean you have to be immature.
There are many ways to grow outside of the classroom. Life has a way of providing it's own type of classroom. Each of us has an opportunity to grow emotionally, relationally, spiritually, psychologically, and physically. Take the experiences you have in life and spend time reflecting on how you can use those to become a better person. Growth isn't an automatic process. It takes work and it takes time. Use these exciting years in college to develop yourself.
It's exciting to watch Seniors walk across the stage at graduation and remember what they were like when they came in as Freshman. There is so much potential that is wrapped into each one. I love being apart of the process of unlocking that potential during their time in college. That's why I've written this article. If there's something here that you find helpful, then I've succeeded. As with any list, there's so much more that could be added.