In school, you are taught that studying and getting good grades are your raison d’etre (the reason you exist), so when I went to university, I took that along with me. There I was, spending thousands of (my parents’) dollars and many years (more than a decade) thinking the same way as I did when I was 12 years old, “If it worked in school, it’ll work here.” Boy, was I wrong!. When you think that way as a university student, you’re totally missing out on almost everything that a university education can offer you.
Here are five things that I wish I knew when I was a student. I guarantee, these tips will completely change your experience as a student.
1. Know that knowledge is NOT what you’re in university for.
Is there something you’d like to know? Wouldn’t it be cool if you could know it in five seconds? Back in the day, it could take you years to find out these answers, but since we live in the information age (even that’s such an outdated term), all you have to do is Google it! Even though profs can go on and on about how they hate Wikipedia, its credibility has surged in the last few years. It is such a great tool to quickly get a lot of (mostly) good info. You might be thinking that you’re in university to learn and to acquire knowledge. You’re right about the “learning” part, but wrong about the “knowledge” part.
Universities don’t hold the keys to knowledge anymore, like they used to only a couple decades ago. However, learning how to learn, reason, analyze, solve problems, and think is really why you’re there. By rubbing shoulders with your professors who are experts in their subjects, you’re getting something far more valuable – a front row seat into their minds! That’s why you’re sitting hours and hours in front of these people, despite the fact that (as some of you have realized) you can get all the knowledge they’re spewing out of their mouths by just going to the library and buying yourself a good textbook. Learning the mindsets of the experts is the gold you mine in university.
2. Your career has already started.
Opps! The vast majority of students have no idea that this is the case. That’s why they’re wasting so much time doing unproductive and sometimes destructive things. Instead of strategically making use of their time, they think what they do in university will stay with them when they graduate. This is a tragic mistake. What if you took your time in university seriously? What if you understood that your career and future were being immensely affected by your actions as a student today?
Look around your class. Someone there might be a potential partner for a great company, or your future boss who you’ve kept ignoring, or a key contact that will land you the job of your dreams. Here’s a story I love to help emphasize this point. There once was a guy who dropped out of Harvard when he was 19 to start a company with his friend. There they were, at the world’s best university, thinking, “Wow, we’re so lucky to be here” Next thing you know, they just left it all behind. I mean, couldn’t they have waited two more years! Nah. That guy was Microsoft’s Bill Gates. These guys understood that their career was already in play way before they got that official looking piece of paper (a.k.a. a degree). The believed in themselves so much they didn’t even bother waiting to finish school. That’s what I call seriously thinking outside the box.
3. Don’t follow the crowd.
Just because you’re in a “program” doesn’t mean you have to behave like a programmed robot. I’ve seen so many students miss out by taking the path everyone else is taking. Be bold enough to be different. Choose your courses by what you like and not what you think might be easier. Dare to take on courses (and professors) that others might run away from.
As a Biology student, I took courses in geology, linguistics, archaeology, and philosophy that had no direct relevance to my so-called premedical program. However, these classes took my university experience to a completely different level. Therefore, choose the road less-traveled in university, even if it seems difficult. You will learn far more valuable things than those who take the congested highways of the program.
4. Engage, engage, engage!
Most students are on automatic pilot in university. They’re focused on the A — the grade and the degree. If they don’t stick to their books, they’ll waste their time elsewhere. Shake yourself out of this habit and decide to be involved in all aspects of university life. Meet your professors outside of class to chat with them, seek career advice, and ask questions.
Be social and stop telling yourself that you’re not social if you are. Instead, decide to meet new people and cultivate positive friendships. Become an active member in one or two student clubs that share a passion of yours or reach out to the community with valuable services. Most people aren’t intentional (autopilot mode) because it is hard work, but once it becomes a habit it’s as easy as breathing. You’ll dramatically prepare yourself for the real world that awaits you outside. As I said before, expanding your network of contacts is a crucial asset that you should begin working on in university.
5. Pick the right major… even if it means changing the one you’re in now.
I’m a biology professor who is utterly astounded at how half of my students don’t belong here. “Hey, why are you doing biology?” “Uhhh… I dunno. I kinda sucked at math and well… biology is cool!” Meanwhile, I’m screaming inside! “Look, if you like biology, go buy a nice biology textbook and read it in your spare time.” Don’t get me wrong, they can be excellent students, but they lack direction and find themselves where they are by default. They have only a vague notion of the value that the degrees they’re working so hard for actually provide.
You need to ask yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing. The answer to that question has to be razor sharp at all times. What do most students do when they’re about to choose a major? They’ll think about what subjects they were good at in high school and choose the corresponding majors in university. This approach is totally silly (not to say stupid) because contrary to what you may think about yourself, you can be good at anything you want. Alternately, they may have an image of the profession they aim to have one day and because of that image, they’ll pursue the major that leads to it. Most of the time that image was formed on haphazard encounters that give you a very different picture than reality.
The real question isn’t what I like or not, or whether being a doctor looks better than being an engineer; the real question is: Where do I want to be in 10 years and how can this major help me get there?
That’s why you need to do quality research. What is a degree in your major worth? What kind of jobs will be available to you? Is this a growing or shrinking market? For example, when I graduate will I most probably find a job, or will I be just another fish in an ocean that’s already too crowded with sea food? How do professionals in the career you want to have feel about themselves? Are they rich, but too miserable to enjoy it because they work 100 hours a week?
You need to ask yourself these questions and many more just like them. Do your research — then do even more research. Don’t worry if you’ve already missed the boat in the wrong major. Go back and change it. You’ll thank me for it later!
Featured photo credit: Charlie Foster via unsplash.com