When I first attended college some number of years ago, I really didn’t take the experience as seriously as I could. I kept my grades high enough to maintain scholarships and loans, but I often glossed over my classes and completely skipped out on optional things unless they came with free pizza.
The handful of smart things that I did do stand out like a beacon from those years. It was those good moves that really made a difference in my life – most of the rest was, frankly, rather wasteful.
Yes, I walked away with a degree, but I did not extract nearly as much value from my college degree as I should have. The college experience offers the opportunity to build lifelong relationships that can continually benefit you personally and professionally. It can teach you invaluable time management skills along with the ability to process and use information quickly. It can build a deep foundational understanding of your academic area of focus. It can help you add a ton of amazing elements to your resume beyond that boring educational section. It can lay the foundation for a great career or an entrepreneurial direction. I tapped very little of those things and, in the rare cases where I did, they really made a huge difference.
If I were suddenly decide to return to school for a new degree, here’s the approach I would take to the whole thing.
Use Smart In-Class Behavior
My simple mantra for participating in a college class would be to treat it like a business meeting because, in essence, that’s what it is. You’re in a business arrangement here where you’re exchanging money for the education being provided, and you’re being given the opportunity to get the maximum amount of value out of it. Here’s how.
Show up. I can’t even tell you how many half-empty college lectures I attended. The professor would show up and deliver the materials to the half-empty hall, but that professor would often deliver a bunch of extras along the way such as unplanned “bonus quizzes” to earn some extra points and a lot of extra attention and focus given to the students who cared enough to simply show up. Be one of those students. It will be valuable to you over and over and over again.
Be alert and well rested. Don’t show up half-awake and pass out in the back of the lecture hall. If you’re going to be in school, take it seriously. Show up to your classes well rested, alert, and ready to learn something. If you’re finding that difficult, then consider rearranging the other elements of your life that are keeping you from doing this.
Turn off your devices and take handwritten notes. There is extensive evidence – and my own personal experience matches this – that taking handwritten notes is far better for retaining knowledge and comprehending ideas than simply listening to lectures or taking notes on an electronic device. Take advantage of that – turn off your digital devices when you enter the room and take notes in a notebook using a trusty pen or pencil.
Sit near the front of the class. By sitting in the front of the class, you’re able to see all of the lecture notes and chalkboard notations very clearly. You’re going to be in the professor’s clear line of sight. You’re also going to be in a position where you’ll know, on some level, that you shouldn’t be dozing off or distracted and thus you’ll stay on task better.
Write questions throughout your notes. Whenever you take notes on anything, use a second color of pen and write questions that pop up in you head as you go along. Sometimes, those questions are answered further along in the lecture; other times, they provide the foundation of further reading or investigation. Spending a bit of time after the lecture answering the questions in your head makes the lecture come together much more clearly.
Ask questions after – and even during – the class. Obviously, it’s a bad idea to disrupt the class with every question you might have. However, if you have a key question that’s causing you to lose track of the direction that the entire lecture is going, don’t be afraid to ask it. Similarly, don’t be afraid to ask questions directly after the lecture. This also helps the professor know who you are specifically, which can help with grades and other factors.
Use Smart Online Class Behavior
Many classes today are held online, which means a very different structure, but many of the same principles for offline classes still apply. Be as focused as possible by closing down as many other distractions as you can. Take handwritten notes with questions interspersed. Answer those questions for yourself after the lecture.
Beyond that, be heavily involved in the class discussion forums. This provides many of the same benefits as asking questions during and after the class lecture – filling holes in your information, getting to know the professors better, and so on. Just as in real-world lectures, students who participate in online discussion forums for their classes tend to stand out to their professors while also understanding the material better.
Attend Office Hours, Even If You’re Confident in That Class
A natural extension of participating in the actual lectures is to take advantage of the class office hours. Office hours provide a genuine opportunity to interact more with professors, and relationships with professors tend to be invaluable in terms of mentorship, references, career guidance and advice, and potentially even employment.
The vast majority of students never bother with this. I’ve attended office hours for a 300 student lecture before and been the only person there. It’s an incredibly effective way to stand out and get individual questions answered while also building a bit of a relationship with the professor. Here’s how.
Know about the professor. Before you go, have some idea about who the professor is and what his or her research interests are. If that professor has published papers, what were the areas of focus? What kind of questions might you have to try to understand those areas better? This is a great conversation starter with almost any professor beyond the strict area of class topic discussion; it demonstrates your further interest and gives them an area to discuss that they’re naturally interested in and excited about, which is always great for building a positive relationship.
Collect notes questions you haven’t answered yet. If you’re looking for things to discuss within the class itself, whether you’re actually looking for help in the course or are just looking to extend your knowledge beyond the course materials, a powerful place to start is to gather up the unanswered questions you have from your lecture notes – the questions written in a different color of pen mentioned above. Make a list of them on a page to take with you to the office hours and ask all of them!
Most college students need a job to make ends meet. If you can possibly find a job that relates to your major, that’s a huge victory because it fills that role of earning a few bucks while also counting as professional resume-worthy experience. Here are a couple of strategies for making that work.
Talk to your academic department about on-campus work opportunities. If you have strong grades in coursework related to your major (and you probably do if you’re following the earlier steps), stop by your department office and look for opportunities for working on campus on anything related to your major. Be open to work directly for the department, work with professors, work with graudate students – anything. All of it is excellent resume fodder and excellent for building connections with professors and graudate students.
Talk to individual professors who are engaged in research close to your interests, particularly if you did well in their class and attended their office hours. If you did well in a professor’s class and built some kind of positive relationship there, don’t hesitate to talk to a professor directly about hourly employment opportunities, either with them or with others in the department. This is true for any professor you built a relationship with and with whom you performed well on classwork.
Connecting with professors is valuable, but so is building strong friendships and relationships with other students who are also interested in getting ahead in your career path. Many of these students can help you build a professional network that you can rely on for years, particularly as you begin to establish your own network based on your area of employment.
Join any and all groups related to your area of study. If there’s a club related to your major, join it. Get involved, go to the meetings, and be involved in leadership and in projects related to the group. Not only is leadership in such a group great for a resume, it also gives you a ton of opportunity to build connections with other students interested in your area of study who are also focused on success.
Join selected groups related to extra skills you want to build, such as leadership or public speaking or IT skills. These groups tend to be filled with career-oriented and personal growth oriented people from all sorts of different majors – in other words, people who are useful to know. Membership and especially leadership in such groups provide a great way to build those skills and also directly indicate your efforts toward building such transferable skills on your resume.
Join the Greek system or other purely social groups, but know what the benefits and drawbacks are. The Greek system is a powerful social organization that can help you with some professional connections, can sometimes involve you in great charitable groups, and can help build social skills in a very positive way, but they can also be incredibly expensive, require a lot of time, and can sometimes have a culture of alcohol and drug abuse. They’re a good fit for some and not a good fit for others.
Treat Class Projects as Portfolio Builders
Many students treat class projects as simply something to complete and get out of the way. A much better approach is to treat them as a career warm-up and, ideally, as something you can post on a resume or a website.
Look at every significant class project through the lens of whether or not you would want to show it to an employer, and if it falls short, it needs more work. Would you want to show the results of your project to someone who might employ you? If the answer is no, then your project needs improvement. This isn’t about a grade; this is about preparing yourself for a professional environment as much as you can. If you have a source that can help you refine things to a professional level, use that source, because what you learn about those finer skills will be utterly invaluable and will show in your final project. Don’t be afraid to include your best projects on your website and point at them with your resume, as they’ll provide evidence that you have some of those finer skills.
One of the biggest advantages of being in a college environment is that it provides a perfect mixture of educational and social networking opportunities. Some of the best opportunities are put on by the departments and colleges themselves.
If your department puts on public lectures, events, or presentations, make it a point to go to them and take notes on them as if they were your coursework. Write down key points and ideas in your own words, jot down questions that come into your mind, and try to absorb the ideas. This will not only improve your own knowledge and give you things to follow up on when you go back to this later, but it will also embed most of the key points into your head so that you can discuss them effectively afterwards.
Stick around afterwards to mingle, and use your best “How to Win Friends and Influence People” skills if you don’t know how to talk. People almost always mingle after these meetings. Stick around and talk to people about the lecture and, perhaps more importantly, about each other. Apply the key principles of How to Make Friends and Influence People here: namely, when you’re uncomfortable or in doubt about what to say, ask someone else about themselves or about their opinion. Also, if you “click” well with anyone, exchange contact info and consciously send a follow-up or two and an invitation to do something simple like get coffee or a meal together. It’s a powerful way to build relationships with involved people.
Get on college and departmental mailing lists informing you of such lectures and presentations. How do you find out about such events? The easiest method is to simply get on mailing lists where such events are sent out. Look on your college and department websites for email lists about meetings and lectures and get on those email lists. Add them to your calendar when they pop up. They’re fertile ground for being exposed to new ideas and meeting people with similar interest and openness to new ideas.
Fill Every Downtime with an Internship or Something Similar
If you have more than a few days out of class, you should be filling it with some sort of professional growth opportunity, such as an internship.
Never stop looking for opportunities for every single break. Winter break, summer break, spring break, all the breaks – fill them with some sort of opportunity to develop your professional skills. Even if it’s just a few weeks, many organizations offer some sort of internship program during that time. Internships related to your desired career are golden.
Maximize the value of your internship. There are two reasons to do an internship. One is to build positive relationships with people actually working in your field. Two is to be involved with some sort of project that builds skills you can market and perhaps a result you can describe on your resume. Almost all internships have the first one; many have the second. Those are the reasons you take on an internship, so make them the focus. Build lots of relationships and try to learn something from every moment you’re there.
Social media and internet forums can provide a great targeted way to build relationships with other people who share your professional interest as well as an opportunity to hone your own knowledge and skills. Social media outlets like LinkedIn and Twitter have thriving communities related to virtually any professional path, and sites like StackExchange and Reddit have great forums for deep discussion of professional issues. Both can be valuable, not just for your career, but also for your classwork.
Use internet forums and social media discussions related to your topic as a study aid. Look through archives for people talking about the specific thing you’re studying, because reading different people’s takes on a topic can often reveal new angles to you that can vastly improve your understanding of the material.
Give more than you take while participating, as explaining topics to others helps you master them and builds goodwill and a positive reputation. It’s great to ask questions, but it’s also great to take the time to give clear and well-articulated responses. Those types of responses are gold, not just for the person you’re answering and future readers, but for you as well. For you, it helps you master the topic by getting you to explain it in your own words. It also helps build a positive reputation for you because you’ve helped others.
Create lasting resources to help those forums, such as FAQ or wiki contributions. Lasting resources, especially those with your name attached in some fashion, are valuable for the reasons mentioned above, but it’s amplified in every way. Lasting resources tend to be an extended exercise in mastering a topic in enough depth to explain it, but they also tend to stick around for a very long time and help a lot of people. However, they also take a long time. When I’ve done these in the past, I’ve made sure to include my name and contact info in the document so people can find me and it’s actually helped build some positive professional relationships.
Use Job Listings as a Guide
If you’re unsure as to what you should be doing, turn to job listings. Job listings can be an incredibly powerful tool for helping you to plot your next move while in school.
Look at listings for jobs that you’d like to have and do what you can to fill in those blanks during your studies. What would you like to be doing when you graduate? Go directly to those job listings and see what they look like. What skills do they want? More importantly, which of those skills can you directly acquire in college, whether through your classes or through the techniques mentioned above? You’ve got a checklist of what you need for a job, so use it!
Don’t overlook the “recommended” or “desired” attributes; meeting just the “required” attributes usually isn’t enough. Many people apply for jobs when they just meet the “required” attributes, but they don’t come close with the “recommended” or “desired” attributes. The candidate that wins the job is going to have some of those attributed, and if you don’t, you’re probably not winning that job. So, make it your goal to pick up those skills, too.
Supplement with electives that build transferable skills. Extra skills that you can mention on a resume or online application are always valuable, and you can learn many of them in classes or other venues while in college. Skills like public speaking, lifeguarding, self-defense, leadership, and so on can be earned through classes, organizations, and other college experiences, so take advantage of that and add some of those sweet transferable skills to your mix.
College provides an open door to digging yourself into a giant pit of debt – and we’re not just talking about student loan debt. Costs such as housing, food, and other expenses can really add up over the course of a college career. Keep them low. Here are a few tips on how to do that.
Focus on your studies, your experiences, and your useful long-term relationships, not on acquiring stuff. Keep minimal possessions and a minimal wardrobe. You honestly don’t need much more than what can fit in a backpack and a duffel bag to succeed at college, as those can contain a reasonable wardrobe, a laptop, textbooks, and school supplies. Things beyond that are largely unnecessary.
Eat free food on campus whenever possible. Food can become a real expense whether you’re eating in the dining halls or dining off campus. One great strategy is to eat as much as possible at other on-campus events. If you’re attentive, you can attend a lot of club meetings, get free food, build some friendships and professional relationships, and possibly take the leftovers with you, all for free.
Live in a tiny place. You don’t need a big apartment. You don’t need more than a bed, a shower, a sink, and a couple electrical outlets, really. Keep your living quarters as minimal as you can during your college years and keep that rent low, whether that means living in a communal spot with a lot of people or in a tiny space by yourself.
Start Building a Side Gig
It is never, ever a bad idea to start building a side gig. A side gig is one where you devote some of your spare time to an activity that’s money positive, meaning that you’re left with more money than where you started and often have built the foundation for even more money. Running a Youtube channel, for example, is a good side gig.
Look for any and all opportunities to build things related to your area of study that can earn income now. Is there anything you can take from your studies that you can use for income building right now? Can you make Youtube videos where you explain key concepts from your area of study in plain language? What about a blog in a similar area? Is there something you can make to sell with your burgeoning skills, such as a smartphone app? Doing these things allows you to use your skills and knowledge that you’re learning, refine it in that learning environment, and immediately start earning money from it.
Incorporate those things into your studies and coursework whenever you can. Often, you may find opportunities for your side gig to aid you with your studies, such as situations where you can apply new lessons from your coursework into your side gig or when some aspect of your side gig can be used as part of (or all of) a course project. Let the synergy flow.
Many people view the primary goal of a college education as being the extraction of a degree with the minimal amount of effort possible. Treating college with that perspective not only runs a significant risk of underperforming academically (and possibly investing money without receiving a degree), but it also misses out on a ton of additional value that college can provide.
If you’re borrowing money to earn this degree, get every single dime of value that you can from the money you’re borrowing. Even if you’re not borrowing money, take the opportunity of this college experience and get everything out of it you can.
You won’t regret it for the rest of your life.