Congratulations, Frosh, you’ve just entered the glamorous world of academia. Prepare yourself for four (to five) years of tailgating, keggers, and a never ending parade of co-eds. At least that’s how it happened in Van Wilder. Truthfully, you will have a blast, but with all the drunken shenanigans you will undoubtedly get into, the new, exciting people you’ll meet, and essentially sowing the seeds of who your adult self will become, it’s very easy to lose sight of the purpose of this endeavor: to get a good (and ludicrously expensive) education that will jump start your career. In these dire economic times, it has never been more important to take your education seriously. With that in mind, here are three things you should know (which I ignored as an ’06 undergrad at the University of Illinois) about getting the most out of your college experience.
First and foremost, earn your degree. I don’t mean attain your degree. Most any fool can waltz onto a college campus, show up when it matters, do the bare minimum and graduate. Earn your degree. Study, give your all on assignments and go to class every day. One of the first things you will notice when classes start is that, unlike high school, no one cares if you don’t show up. There are too many students and too many lesson plans to get through to worry about you taking a day off. Nobody’s going to call your parents and ask why little Steven didn’t show up to Econ 101. Unless your professor has an incredibly rigid attendance policy, he won’t even mention your absence to you. You are flying without a safety net; no one will step in to keep you in line. Truthfully, missing class a few times isn’t a big deal, but the trouble occurs when one absence turns into two to suddenly you haven’t shown up in a week and you don’t know what assignments have been given, what changes have been made to the assignments you are aware of, or even what subject the class has moved on to discussing. College courses move quickly, missing a week’s worth of an English class is like wiping out an entire analysis and discussion of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Enjoy piecing together on your own Benjy Compsons’s fractured perception of time or his brother, Quentin’s stream of consciousness narration of his final day on earth. Hope it doesn’t come up on the final. If you miss a significant amount of time in a more intensive subject, like, say, Avionics Engineering, you might want to bone up on your university’s policies for dropping classes.
If you’ve followed that first bit of advice then you’ll have likely graduated with a well versed knowledge of your chosen field, but that alone will not secure you a position straight out of college. Especially in the current job market, it is very important to have a network of potential employment leads. Professors are the perfect middlemen to intermediate between you and prospective employers. Ostensibly, to gain an esteemed position within their department, they must have excelled in their chosen field. Failing that, they will have friends and acquaintances that are presently excelling and perhaps even looking for an influx of young talent. Professors can write very persuasive letters of recommendation and give you helpful, informed advice as to how to get your foot in the door of your selected field. For any professor to do any of this effectively, however, he has to actually know who you are. More than that, he must have a good sense of your abilities and acumen. If this isn’t the case, the professor will most likely still grant your request for tips, job leads, and letters of recommendation but it will all be essentially hollow, surface level fluff. He cannot properly vouch for you if he does not know your character. This is why it is important to get to know your professors; it shouldn’t be too difficult considering you’ll both share a life’s passion. Professors are usually more than happy to speak with their students outside of class, to share insights, tell stories, and reflect perspicaciously on a life spent working in your field of interest.
Now that making grades, learning your craft, and landing a job are out of the way, my last bit of advice is to stay active. When you first arrive on campus, you’ll be bombarded with a dizzying array of people to meet, events to attend, and organizations to join. However, after a few months, most people will have settled down with their circle of friends within their dorm, fraternity or sorority and be satisfied with the narrow group of activities they partake in. Get out there and meet new people, take in different, conflicting views, and break down your preconceived notions of the world. Go to concerts for music you wouldn’t normally listen to, watch films whose content is out of your comfort zone, and at least consider joining one of the hundreds of wildly varying groups on campus. A college campus is a place where people from all walks of life come together with a singular, shared purpose. This could very well be the only time in your life when you can experience such a community. Don’t waste this opportunity by sitting on the couch day after day with the same three guys you met your first day on campus, playing drinking Duck Hunt with Keystone Light.
One last thing, apply for an internship over your summer break. Even if it’s unpaid, the experience and connections it’ll provide will pay dividends when the time comes for you to find your first job. Good luck and, as my dad always says, don’t eat the yellow snow.