Beyond the Lecture: 3 Things to Focus on to Make College Worth It
I was a good student in high school, and I enjoyed learning (except pre-calculus – maybe I didn’t enjoy that as much). I expected college to be more of the same: study hard, get good grades, learn skills – and at the end, land a job that used my newly-acquired knowledge.
But when I got to college, something didn’t add up. Why were the classes so large and anonymous? If my assignments were pass/fail, what was the point of making an effort? How, exactly, would my major connect to a job after college? Suddenly, 4 years seemed like a very short time to figure that out.
How do you make college worth it? The answer is different for everyone, but college can be a great use of your time, if you know what to focus on. Even if you are one of the lucky people who know exactly what they want to do from a young age, here are some things to consider to make the most of your 4 years (hint: it’s not all academics).
Make new connections
The friends you make in college will not only be your buddies through 4 years of adventures – they will also be your network once you leave school. Finding your dream career path is as much about the people you know as your skills, so it’s worth spending time to build this group in college.
- If you join a club or sports team, stick with it and consider running for a leadership role – it will give you a sense of what it’s like to manage a group, and gives extra weight to your resume.
- Your housing can have a huge influence on who you meet. A friend who now works at the State Department made lifelong connections at his international dorm, and learned early on how to navigate cultural idiosyncrasies. Want to bond with other creative types? Consider living in the arts or ‘maker’ dorm. At MIT, East Campus was the place to explore building and making things, from wooden roller coasters to a mechanized couch on wheels.
- A frat or a sorority can provide a sense of belonging and an instant social group. Not only that, but this group – and all its alumni - will become your most valuable professional network post-college.
Find a job, an internship or volunteer role
Think you’re too inexperienced to find work experience in a field you’re interested in? Think again. Here are some options to get your foot in the door while you’re in school.
- Many companies offer internships to students not just during the summer, but during the school year. Consider taking a lighter course load for a semester and filling the time with an internship role (and check to see if your college offers credit for internships). Try LinkedIn, Internships.com and Indeed. Your college’s career services office should also be a good resource. Not all internships are paid – make sure you consider your finances before committing to an unpaid role.
- Volunteer roles are another great way to get your foot in the door – Idealist and VolunteerMatch are great starting points. Nonprofits seek volunteer help for everything from tutoring kids to planning events. And there is an incredible range of where you could volunteer, from a hospital to a museum to an afterschool program to an environmental group. While the words “volunteer” and “intern” may be used interchangeably, be careful if you are seeking academic credit for your work, since a structured “internship” may be required for that.
- Look for opportunities with student groups on campus that can help you explore a career or skill. Interested in journalism? Get involved with the student paper. Thinking you might want to be a lawyer? Look for a mock trial club. (And, if you want to take on a leadership role, you can always start a club yourself!)
Get engaged with academics
Majors have a set of required courses, but you will usually have flexibility in how you build out your course of study. Some schools even have programs that let you create your own major. Whatever academic path you pick, consider doing the following:
- Pick electives you are genuinely interested in, not just “easy A’s”, This is the time to take a risk and explore a subject you’ve been curious about, whether it’s graphic design or a new language.
- Speak up in lectures and go to office hours. Talk to your professors – they will appreciate your curiosity, and can connect you with teaching assistant or research roles, make introductions, and act as a reference when you apply to jobs.
- Study abroad for a semester. If you are studying a foreign language, challenge yourself and immerse in a country where it is spoken. Stuck with just English? Try Britain or New Zealand or Germany or India. . Being immersed in a new language and country will give you amazing insight about the world and about yourself.
College can be a tremendous opportunity to meet new people, to experiment and explore. Don’t worry about doing everything on this list, and give yourself space to make mistakes. There’s no way to do everything right – which means there is no wrong way to do it, either. Good luck!