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5 Things I Wish I knew As A University Student

5 Things I Wish I knew As A University Student

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day, it could take you years to find out these answers, but since we live in the information age (even that’s such an outdated term), all you have to do is Google it!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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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