Making the Most of the Undergraduate Experience

Today’s college students have a lot on their plate. Competing on campus commitments, mountains of debt, the pressure to be build a long resume, and an intense focus on finding a job from the moment they step on campus. These competing demands mean that students often spend more time focusing on the job they want than the learning they could be doing (both academically and personally) during the undergraduate experience. How can undergraduate students get the most out of their experience while successfully preparing them for a career path?

In the complexity of all these things, it feels like the purpose of the undergraduate education has been subsumed by careerism. I don’t think these are mutually exclusive. Rather I think today’s college students can get the most intellectually and socially out of their undergraduate experience in a way that will prepare them for the professional world, without losing themselves in the battle to get the best job (whatever that is).

In this post, I offer some suggestions to today’s college students to help them navigate the undergraduate experience First, a couple of caveats:

1) The content in this blog post is not universal human truth. These suggestions are based on my experience, my research, and my coaching. I recognize that there are people for whom the following suggestions are not relevant.

2) The thoughts are directed toward people who decide to pursue four year college degrees. There are people for whom the four year degree is not the right path– and we should be thoughtful in helping them find ways to navigate the world that allow them to thrive and to provide value to society, without pushing them into something that isn’t right for them. Perhaps I’ll offer suggestions on that in another blog post.

And now, some suggestions:

  1. Reconsider the double (or triple) major– I double majored in college, and I loved all of the classes in both of my majors. Double majors (and triple majors and multiple minors) are very popular among competitive college students. It makes sense: look how hard I work! I know twofields really well! I have diverse experience! I can multi-task! Yet double majoring can really limit the college experience. Double majoring means you are stuck in your comfort zone. You know what to expect, you tend to do similar work (i.e., quantitative problem sets or writing papers). And while you can dive deep into these majors, you can’t really dive that deep into both at the same time. Double majoring also means you simply have less time to explore other topics. If you are trying to make sure you have all the right classes to get a major, you miss out on classes that you just don’t have time for. My suggestion: pick one major. Go deep into that major. Take a variety of classes outside of that major. Be proud of your major and own it! (Consider how Dax Shepardleverages his anthropology degree…)

  2. Don’t try to predict the market– Along those lines, pick a major that appeals to you intellectually. You are going to be spending a lot of time problem solving within that major. Don’t feel compelled to study engineering if you don’t like it – even if everyone tells you that’s where the great jobs are. Just think – if you don’t like engineering, you’re always going to be competing against people who love it! Humanities majors have a much lower starting salary – so that just means you need to make sure you are thinking carefully about what you can do with that degree when you leave: write? Teach? Start a company? Take an engineering class or a business class or two along the way. Select classes specific to what you are interested in, and generate a knowledge set for yourself that is unique to you and your skill set. Yes there are pay differentials for undergrads coming out of the humanities versus STEM. And it might not make sense to encourage an English major to accumulate tens of thousands of dollars in debt when the career outcome isn’t certain. That’s why you take classes across many departments, take internships, get jobs on campus, and expand your social network.

  3. Take classes that interest you – and really dive into the classes that don’t–Coursework at the college level is (and should be) difficult. Take classes that you will want to pursue despite the difficulty. Take classes that when they get tough, you want to dig in to figure out the problem (not just get through it). On the flip side, when you have to take a class that you are dreading (hey, we all have them), dive in. Make it your mission to learn something. Maybe if you understand the topic you will like it better – maybe not. Don’t blow it off or try to skim through. Attempt to get something meaningful out of it.

  4. Study abroad– if possible. Get out of your comfort zone. Go for a week, go for a year, find a scholarship (ask the study abroad office – there are usually some available). Go to a country where they speak a different language. Go to a country where they speak the same language and observe the differences in culture. Go by yourself. Go with a professor. If you are interested in appealing to an employer, demonstrating that you seek out challenging international experiences and describing how you thrived is a very compelling narrative.

  5. Go see your professors– Believe it or not, many of your professors (not all but a vast majority) are sitting in their office hours hoping at least one student will show up! Go ask the professor about themselves and how they got interested in their field of research/practice. Read something related to their topic and engage them in a discussion. If you’re struggling in their class – tell them – they want to help. One small caveat – I don’t suggest visiting your professors to vent about personal (mental, physical, family, friends, etc.) problems. Your personal problems matter, and quite frankly, a lot of professors would want to help. However most professors are not trained counselors and cannot provide you the real support you need for your well-being. At most colleges and universities today, however, there are lots of resources on campus for helping you to manage issues in your life that are not directly related to the classroom. Your personal well-being matters, but your professors are not trained to help you, and there are lots of people who are. Get to know your professors as professionals – practice the skills for networking and building relationships that you will use in your life after college.

  6. Socialize– You will meet fellow students in college that will be your best friends for life. You will also be tempted to join every club and take on every leadership role because it will make your CV look good. Attempt to strike a balance. Join clubs – but don’t feel the need to join all the clubs or to take on leadership roles in all of them. Go out and go places you don’t normally go, just be safe and be self-aware. Schedule time with your friends (in college, my friends and I had a 5 o’clock standing dinner time).

  7. Get a job or volunteer– If you have a work-study arrangement or you are working to put yourself through college, this is a great time to engage in professional life. If you do not have to work, consider getting a job with limited responsibility and hours, just to have work in a team, provide a service, and make some money. These sorts of things will help you develop as a professional and will look more impressive to an employer than an extra major or joining yet another club.

  8. Be in the moment– And finally, a little self-help guidance here. Those four years may feel like forever at the time – but they do go by quickly. Don’t worry about what you’re going to do next or what is after college. Go to the lecture, spend time with your friends, study an extra hour. Go to a game. Walk around the lake. Take mental snapshots of your experience and think about what you are learning at every moment. Learning doesn’t just take place inside the classroom, but throughout the college experience.

If you’ve decided on the four-year college route, then you have four short years to turn knowledge into some wisdom and to prepare for your professional endeavors. Learn from class, learn from experience, learn from others. Getting the most out of the experience means being fully present, looking for ways to facilitate your personal and professional growth. These suggestions can help you navigate the complex experience of being an undergraduate.