How do you get the most out of college?
by John Perry (Stanford)
College takes up four years of your life, at least. These days it can mean big bucks for you and your parents, even if you don’t go to a pricey private school. And it’s a lot of work. If you get it wrong, it’s not so easy to go back and start over. So it’s no wonder that many college freshmen and prospective college freshmen are confused and anxious about how to plan their college years. And frankly, there are a lot of seniors who look back and wish they had done things differently.
You have about 120 semester units, or 180 quarter units, to work with. I’ve got some suggestions for how to use them, based on teaching and advising college students, for almost fifty years, at Cornell, UCLA, Michigan, Stanford and the University of California, Riverside.
Let’s start with what you want to avoid. First of all, you definitely want to avoid spending four or so years going to college and not graduating with a degree. Every college has requirements— freshman English, one or two years of a foreign language, perhaps some philosophy, basic science and math, and so on. Colleges vary in how many requirements they have. And often students get out of some of them through tests, or AP credits, or high school courses. But roughly, you can count on about of fourth of your units being used up in this way.
A second thing you want to avoid is getting to the end of college, collecting your degree, and then being unemployed or having to work for peanuts. You don’t want to be working at the Car Wash with that degree in Baroque Music stuffed in your back pocket.
You may think the way to avoid that is to major in something remunerative. That’s not a bad idea. But I don’t want you to start off thinking that way. I want you to think: I’ll major in what interests me. But whether it is Baroque Music, or Biology, or Philosophy or Computer Science — that’s one thing. But however that turns out, I am going to make sure to pick up a marketable skill that will get me a reasonable job. If that doesn’t happen as part of the major, I’ll make it happen in addition to the major.
That means you’ve got to get pretty good at something useful. This can be often be done with a sequence of two or three college courses; you don’t have to devote a whole major to it. What sorts of things? Computer programming in an up-to-date language. Working with data-bases. Marketing. A teaching certificate. Accounting. Para-legal. Lab skills. Web-site design. Basic statistics. It doesn’t have to be what you want to spend the rest of your life doing. It has to be something that your native talents give you the capacity to learn, and of course should be something that doesn’t totally repel you. Accounting or Marketing can be part of a business major. Lab skills can be picked up as part of a biology major. Statistic is an important part of a psychology major. But these skills can be acquired by a Philosophy Major or an Art major, too. You just need to put a little thought into finding the relevant courses and fitting them into your schedule, and a bit of work in mastering the subject matter.
Think of this as what you owe your parents and your future self — that person who will be paying off your college loans. Again, plan on a fourth of your units or less.
The third big investor in you that you owe something to is you. You need to devote the rest of your units to what you really care about. That seems simple enough. But there’s the rub. Believe it or not, you may not know what your really care about. So a significant part of this investment may be used up figuring out who you are and what you care about.
I went to the college I did because I though it was small enough I could make the varsity football team, in spite of my modest talents. Well, I did make the squad, but spent most of my time holding tackling dummies in practice and sitting on the bench at games. After the last game, the coach said to me, “Perry, you’re small, but you’re slow.” It was his way of suggesting I might find better things to do my sophomore year than play football. But that was fine, because by then I had discovered something I never knew about myself. I actually liked academics. My interest in playing football didn’t run that deep. It mostly reflected admiration for what my father, my uncle, and one of my cousins had done. It wasn’t really me. And it turned out that the same stuff that bored me stiff in high school could be interesting in the context of college.
The direction I eventually went in life — becoming a philosophy professor — was completely different than anything I contemplated for myself in high school. But what should be surprising about this? Up until you go to college, you have most likely spent your whole life in an environment in which what people think of you, including what you think of yourself, is shaped by what your family expects you to be, augmented by what your friends — most likely kids who have grown up in the same town, same ethnic group, same income group, and same part of the country as you — expect you to be. When you get to college, this will all change. You may go for weeks without having significant communication with your family, much less seeing them. You will meet students from different parts of the world, different economic and ethnic groups. You will meet that weird group of people known as college professors. These people may see something completely different when they look at you than your friends and family did. And you may soon come to see yourself quite differently. Or you may not. Burt wait and see. That is the most important investment you make when you go to college, the investment in yourself, in finding out who you are, what you really care about, what you really want to be.
Think of this as a debt you own to yourself in twenty or thirty years, when you turn forty or fifty. If that person is trapped into a career they don’t really care about, they will be very unhappy. You owe it to them to get yourself started in a direction that will make you, and them, happy, and not simply reflect the expectation of your family and current peers. So take care to graduate and make yourself employable, and give college a chance to help you find out who you are and what you care about. That’s my advice.