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Top 10 College Tips

With students heading back to college across the country, as I sit in my office, a funny thought strikes me. I’m not a college student anymore. I graduated last December, I’ve been working at a daily newspaper since April, you think I’d be used to the idea that I’m not a college student anymore, but alas, here I am.
back_to_schoolWith that said, watching all these folks talk about heading back to college, or heading off to college for the first time, it got me thinking about some of the many lessons learned in my time in college. Not the ones in the classrooms, but the lessons learned about life as a college students, the ones that made life easier, the ones that made the experience more fun, and I figure now would be a good time to share them while they’re fresh in my mind.

These are my Top 10 College Tips, tried and perfected through four years of my own time in college. Take notes kiddies – these may end up being some of the most useful things you’ll learn in college.

10) Take as many CLEP Tests as your college will allow

I will never cease to be amazed how many people can go four years in college without ever having heard of CLEP tests, much less taking one. This is part of why I think this may be one of the best kept secrets of the American college system.
CLEP_testFor the uninitiated – which is most of you, I assume – CLEP stands for College Level Examination Program, and they’re a series of standardized tests handled by College Board that, across a range of subjects, gauge your knowledge on a given subject to see if you could pass a college course without taking the college course. If you pass, you get the course credit. It’s as simple as that.
CLEP_examsFor around $80, and maybe an hour or two of your time, you can save yourself a semester’s worth of classwork, and a hefty sum of money. I managed to CLEP test out of an entire semester of courses for less than the price of a textbook in around a single afternoon, and frankly, I urge every expecting student to give CLEP tests the old college try to see if they can do the same. Your schedule and your checking account will thank you.

So why don’t more college students know about CLEP tests? Probably because your university wants more of your sweet, sweet tuition money. Speaking of which…

9) Do NOT take student loans

I think this one bears repeating. DO NOT TAKE STUDENT LOANS. Ever.
debt quadrupled[1]Look, by now its pretty much common knowledge that student loans are just shy of taking a loan from the mob in terms of bad deals, and yet hoards of students take them year after year. It’s been a political football for years now, and its on the verge of becoming a national crisis.
student-debt-cartoonLook, I get it, college is expensive, and not everyone has loaded parents willing to pick up the tab. I certainly didn’t. I also didn’t want to take a loan, so I went a less conventional route. I joined the Army, and saved damned near every penny I made as a soldier. I went to community college first, and worked side jobs as I did that to save more money. I applied for the Pell Grant and every other scholarship I qualified for. The result is that while I have classmates and colleagues talking about how they have tens of thousands they own in debt on college loans, I walked across the stage as a free man, and collected by degree without a dime of debt to my name.

Was it easy? @#!*% no. As they so though, the easy way isn’t always the best way. Certainly not when it leads to tens of thousands of dollars in insurmountable debt that will drag you down for the rest of your life.

8) Plan ahead

You know the stereotype of the college student waking up five minutes before the big test, always late or skipping class, or waiting to the last minute to finish your major projects.
lazy-college-senior-memeDon’t be that guy. Or girl, as the case may be. Though the one about not buying your textbooks is largely on point.

I’m about to teach you one of the biggest lifehack’s that helped me through college – your first week in class, take your syllabuses, and look over the assignment deadlines and grading percentages for each class. Type up a list combining all of your assignment deadlines date by date, with the portion of your final grade they represent. Keep it with you, and keep it updated as your grades come in. At a glance, you’ll be able to tell when your deadlines are, how important each assignment is, and whether you can take it easy or if you need to double down on your efforts.

Once you get all that classwork stuff sorted out, you can focus on the other stuff about campus life, like…

7) Go to events on campus

You could just hole up in your dorm or apartment and play Xbox in your spare time for four years. However, given the kind of money you’re spending to attend a university in the first place, that’s a waste of your time and money, especially given the wealth of things going on at any given moment on a college campus.
college-rugbyAttend a guest speaker’s lecture. Go see that big production being put on by the theater department. See the showcase being put on by one of the cultural clubs on campus. Go out for drinks or go on a date. You’re already paying for the experience with your tuition dollars, so why not actually get the experience? Go out and live a little – your Xbox will still be there when you get back.

6) Go OFF campus too

One of the things that bugged the @#!*% out of me in college was listening to some hipster complain about how there’s nothing to do off campus every other week. He says this while standing in the middle of a college campus located in downtown Richmond, Virginia, a city known worldwide for its various roles in American history, thriving culinary scene, wealth of odd subcultures, and is home to a metro area of more than a million people. Frankly I’m impressed folks saying things like that can walk around Richmond at all, since they’re heads are clearly shoved an impressive distance up their own @#!*% .
weekend-road-tripsWhile certainly more true of an urban college campus than a rural one, in both cases, there exists a vast world outside of the boundaries of campus, and you owe it to yourself to explore it, not just to see the world around you, but to remind you that there IS a world around you. One of the downsides to life on a college campus is that it tends to exist in a kind of bubble that often ignores life outside of it – you owe it to yourself not to exist solely within that bubble. It’s one of the reasons why, if you are able, I encourage you to life off campus if you can. It will keep you grounded.

And if there really isn’t anything nearby? Plan a road trip or two. Make plans to study abroad. Anything but holing up in the bubble.

5) Try new things

To give an example from my days at VCU, if you wander around Student Commons every now and then, you’ll occasionally run into a bunch of guys and gals wearing black with a camera stopping people to ask them questions. They’re from Liberate RVA, the local anarchist group, and most people just pick up their pace and walk away.
college-anarchists-vcuOne day, I did not. Chatted them up for a bit, and odd and eclectic bunch as anarchists tend to be, they’re by and large not a bad crowd. Count a few of them as friends now, been to events they hold at a local nightclub they hangout at, Fallout, an odd goth-bondage bar that makes some of the best cocktails in town. Not my cup of tea typically, but certainly an interesting experience, and I’ve gotten some free drinks out of it for my troubles.

None of that would have happened had I picked up my pace and walked away from the guy wearing all black with a camera. This is far from the only example I could choose from, and this is one of those things you’re supposed to do in college: get out of your comfort zone and try new things.
try-new-things.j-collegepgFind an odd looking class every other semester and take it. See what the odd looking social circles on campus are all about. Join the Rugby club for a game, or play a few rounds of chess. You may find some new interest or circle of friends that can stick with you for life. If nothing else, maybe you’ll get some free drinks for your troubles.

4) Keep an open mind

This kind of goes with the above rule, and I’ll open with another example from my days at VCU.
vcu_diversityOne day I’d gotten lost on campus, and so I popped in a room to ask for direction, only to find myself starring at the inquiring eyes of VCU’s Pakistani Student Association. Now, being your bog standard white guy, most people would expect me to exit stage left pretty quickly. Instead, they invited me to sit in, and I did so, mingled with the group for the evening. For my troubles, I got some top-notch Pakistani food later, and ended up meeting a couple of folks who would come to be some of my more lasting friends from my time in college.

Your time learning in college doesn’t end once you leave the classroom, and if anything is just as important outside of it as it is inside. On your typical college campus, there are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people from every walk of life, every part of your state, the country and quite often from other countries, crossing every kind of cultural, ethnic, religious and political belief under the sun, more often than not all entirely different from your own particular combination. Such a cross section is a rare and beautiful thing, and you owe it to yourself to do your best to learn, observe and experience as much as you can.

The exchange of different and new ideas, the meeting of distant cultures, people from different walks of life meeting and learning about each other and how they live – this is one of the foundations of a good education.
safe-spacesThis is one of the reasons why the rise of “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” on college campuses disturbs and disappoints me. They are anathema to one of the very purposes of going to college, to force you out of your comfort zone. You can’t do that hiding in a “safe space” from new people and strange ideas.

Don’t fight the current, do your best to ride it – you’ll be surprised at some of the places where it may take you.

3) Get involved and invested in campus life…

I’ve talked a lot about the things to observe or participate in, now its time to talk about getting involved, that age old college staple.

Passions and causes are great, they’re add zest to life, and rarely will you have more time to dedicate yourself to them than in college. This is also one of those places where trying new things and keeping an open mind comes in very handy – after some personal exploration, you may find something altogether new and different to care about.
campus_activitiesFind a Fraternity or Sorority and get involved with Greek Life. Try out for the play, or read that poem of yours at the coffeehouse. Start training in Brazilian jujitsu. If there a political issue you care deeply about, find a group fighting for it and jump into the trenches and fight for it. Find a cause or club you happen to be passionate about, ideally something new, and chase that passion, share that passion. If there isn’t one, then be the one to start it!

Just don’t let your passions distract you from your mission…

2)…just not TOO involved or invested

Remember when I said that college kind of exists in its own little bubble? Well, toss in a bunch of kids almost entirely fresh out of high school, many of whom are getting their first taste of control over their lives, without the maturity to handle it, and campus life can very quickly turn into one of the most cliquish environments you’ll encounter as an adult.

To give a personal example, for my first year at VCU, I did my best to integrate myself at the Student Media Center, which as the name might imply, handles most of the student media outlets on campus, from WVCW student radio, to the school paper, The Commonwealth Times. Some of my efforts went well, others did less so, largely because the students in charge tended to favor certain contributors and points of view more than others. It was a clubhouse atmosphere where they made quite clear who they favored and who they did not, and most of the ones they didn’t eventually stopped just trying.
commonwealth-timesNever one to give up, I stuck with it, in spite of insults tossed my way, roadblocks placed in my way, and whatever else they could do to make me feel unwelcome. Eventually, they cooked up an excuse to have me blacklisted – while somehow ignoring the irony that a bunch of would be journalists operate a blacklist – and figuring it just wasn’t worth the headache to fight anymore, I moved on.

Not a week later, I got my first job at a real newspaper, covering sports for The Mechanicsville Local, a professional job that I not only could put on my resume, but where the pay was better than the editor’s position at the Commonwealth Times. I haven’t looked back since.

I share this story with you for a simple reason.

I’ve worked for dozens of websites and newspapers and outlets, and not one of them has ever given a toss about any role I may have had at my school newspaper. No employer has ever asked which clubs I belonged to, or what I did in my free time. Aside from my own pride, I’ve never met anyone to whom my graduating magna cum laude has mattered.
Real-World-ExperienceYou know what HAS mattered? A handful of courses that I’ve taken. Letters of recommendation from my professors and past employers. A long body of professional work that shows I know my way around the real world applications of my trade. My resume showing I’ve got experience that matters, not just bog standard internships and work on campus that every other greenhorn college student has.

For all the wealth of things available to you in college, the experiences to be had, the people to be met, the friends to be made, the wild and exciting new things available to you, there is a simple truth many people ignore this part of the college experience: NONE OF THIS MATTERS LONG TERM.
college-friendsYou will make a handful of friends you will keep in touch with, and the rest, you will more than likely never hear from or anything about again. Beyond that, all the drama, the parties, the involvement, things like that, with rare exception, will have as much long term impact on you as anything in high school. If anything, getting too invested could serve only to distract you from why you’re in college in the first place.

You are attending college for a single reason: You are there to learn how to do a particular trade, learn to do it well, and then move on to do that trade in the job market. The only thing that matters is that you have a degree that shows you are qualified in your field and you had the will to stick with it long enough in college to get a degree in the first place. Never forger that, and NEVER let college life or drama distract you from that.

The other reason not to get too invested?

1) These are not the best years of your life

If there is one myth perpetuated by wistful former students looking back at their college days with nostalgia, much less countless works of pop culture from Animal House to American Pie, that have folks shed a few tears looking back at college as “the best years of their lives”.

That’s @#!*% . It’s barely better than the schmoes looking back at their time in high school as anything special. If your college years are the best years of your life, then something has gone very wrong with your life.
life-after-collegeCollege shouldn’t be the best years of your life, it should be where you plan and prepare to have many more of them. College is just the training grounds, the launch pad, the tutorial level, the opening chapter, if not the prologue. You have your entire life ahead of you, and a whole wide world infinitely more interesting than a college campus. The best years of your life aren’t ending when you walk across the stage on graduation day, they’ve only just begun.

Make the most of your time in college, but never forget, its all to prepare you for life in the real world, where the real adventure begins.

4 thoughts on “Top 10 College Tips”

  1. Lynn says:

    Not bad, though pretty much the opposite of my college experience. Especially as I am going to graduate with a hefty $50k of debt *after* scholarships, grants, and working. Still a good list, though.

    One thing I’d really emphasize is professional work outside college. The one thing I’m proudest of, and honestly what’s more likely to get me a job, is the large body of professional and personal work in my field that I’ve done outside college. It can suck and make less money, but moving out of college with no work experience or only limited experience in something that has nothing to do with your field (Starbucks) can be a risky venture for future employment.

    1. Sean CW Korsgaard says:

      Sorry to hear. I don’t think I even spent half that on college total – granted it helps that I went to a community college for my freshman and sophomore years, but still, $50k for a degree? Unless it has an Ivy League name stamped on it, that is obscene.

      Right there with you on making sure to do professional work outside of college – one of my editors very early on told me that, to most employers, a bunch of college experience and a bucket of warm piss means you have a bucket of warm piss. Like anything else, real world experience matters.

  2. MichelleCheri' says:

    You forgot what you wrote in Dec 2015 “First to my family, we’ve had our ups and downs over the years, but one of the things that has always remained constant, from my mother and grandmother, to my countless aunts and uncles, is that you have stressed the importance of education, and been steadfast supporters in my pursuit of it.”

    You also forgot to say your IQ level may it easier for you to take CLEP tests. Not everyone was born with your brain. Unfortunately I see you don’t even cover the people that need the help because Mom and Dad didn’t have the money …

    The only thing I agree with is having a job while going to college. The real world wants to know you can handle yourself in real situations and work with a team!
    You also need a job that can pay for college!

    1. Sean CW Korsgaard says:

      Of course I didn’t forget that. More than I can say for some other folks at the moment, alas…

      As for CLEP tests, the issue is less an IQ thing, than it is that nobody seems to know they even exist. Which boggles my mind – hunker down and study for a CLEP test and save yourself a boatload of cash and a ton of money. Hell, sometimes they’re even free. It doesn’t do anybody a lick of good if they don’t know they exist – and if they’re anything like VCU, which doesn’t advertise them, and doesn’t mention they can be taken in the testing center – while colleges actively hide that they even exist.

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