Laura MacCorkle Christian Blog and Commentary

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Free Advice for the College Bound

Next month, thousands upon thousands of young men and women will begin their college careers.  And lots of budgets are sure to feel the kuh-RUNCH of higher education’s cost.

I personally know a few of these wide-eyed, college-bound students and have wanted to send them off with something more valuable than say, just a Target gift card, a shrink-wrapped dictionary ‘n’ thesaurus combo or an eraseable wall calendar (although, those can all be great additional gifts, too!). 

In my experience, I’ve found that what I hold most dear is something that didn’t cost the giver a thing:  the wisdom imparted to me by those who have lived more life than I have

So in thinking about my own college experience, I racked my brain and wondered what nuggets I could share with those younger than me.  What do I know now that I wish I had known before starting college?  Or What was the best advice I got while I was in college?  Or What do I wish had done differently in college? 

Well, my pea-sized noggin could only come up with so much, so I cast a wider net and asked many friends and colleagues what kind of advice they would dispense to unsuspecting college students who are about to make this major transition in their lives. 

And to say that I received a rich return is an understatement!!!  Seriously.  I really wish I had read through this genius list of advice and life lessons before I went to school years ago.  But since I can’t time-travel, I’ll choose to help others by passing along what my astute friends and colleagues have learned about navigating the college years. …

I wish I had made more use of CLEP testing.

Don’t change majors every semester—it really slows down the process.  Just get plugged into something that makes sense and stick with it.  Good is better than best if it means avoiding a delay in finishing.  In other words, if you can’t decide what to pursue, go with business, education, English, etc., rather than Art History, Elizabethan Poetry or whatever.  Later in life, you’ll be glad you got something solid and useful, and can always narrow your focus in post-grad work.

Friends and fun are very, very important, but you must always be checking yourself and asking, “Is this person getting in the way of my ultimate goal?”  Relationships for a lifetime are big benefits from these four years, but one or two people whose only role is to keep you from going to class can really throw a wrench into the process.

Your GPA matters.  If you think it doesn’t, and end up with a 2.3, and then later decide to get an MBA, you’ve made it much harder on yourself to get it.

If a girl or boy seems crazy, clingy, unbalanced … don’t date them.  Seriously.

What do you wish you had known before college?  A major does not equal a career field.  Get an education.  That being said, everything is business, so no matter what you study, at least go for a minor in business.

 Also, something I did know before college (thanks to friends that went a year before I did) is how easy it is to blow a scholarship and not return for your sophomore year.  If you have to keep a certain GPA to renew your scholarship each year, do whatever you can to keep it.  It’s a lot easier to loosen the reigns and let your hair down later than it is to buckle down after everything has gotten away from you.

What was the best advice you got while you were in college?  Try out for theatre productions.  Seriously.  Made great friends, had a ball, and most importantly, learned confidence and tremendous public speaking ability.

Most useful classes which I still use to this day:  Business Communications and Western Civilization.

Go to whatever resume workshops, career planning events, internship fairs, and summer missions work booths you can, and it’s never too early.

What do you wish you had done differently in college?  Not much. I stayed out a year before going, and that was good.  Learned humility and job discipline.  I spent five years there, and that was good, as I experienced all sides of academic and campus life.  Spent two years in the dorms, two years in campus apartments, one year off-campus—definitely recommended to experience all types of living.  The only regret I have is signing up for a credit card in my final year.  Don’t do it!  It’s a trap!

Advice for college ... yes, I wish someone had told me that choosing a particular major (and, in fact an undergrad college/university) was not as important to "getting a job" as is finding a college environment (i.e., geography, people, church) where you can be "successful" and choosing a major where you can make the best grades.  If, at the end of four years (or so) of college, all you have is a 3.5 or better GPA and some amazing friends and some great experiences where you could be a big fish in a small pond, it doesn't matter if your degree is in Underwater Basketweaving.  You'll be ready for life as a grown-up college grad.

But if you go to a college because it's "prestigious" and choose a major because "it's what I need to get into ... (job, grad school, etc.)" and you slog your way through four-plus years of "survival" and end up with a two-point-something GPA, get ready for the next TEN years of your post-college life to be just like the last four.  Not that I speak from experience, but you get my point.

Do everything you can to set yourself up to succeed.  And build on those successes.  There'll be enough failures along the way in ANY college experience to teach you some "hard knocks" lessons.

Oh, and one more thing … spend at least one summer in "summer school" at your college.  It's a fun environment, and you can get one or two hard classes out of the way to free up your schedule during the school year for other, less demanding efforts.  And spend at least one (probably two) summers being an intern somewhere.  Even if it's a job not related to your major and even if it's unpaid.  The experience you can gain in two months in a different environment can be worth an entire college degree.  I'd encourage any college student to contact the Office of Presidential Advance at the White House and volunteer.

Take advantage of the college counseling service.  A shrink is much more expensive once you graduate.

Find a niche in the university or the town a small group of people who are interested in something you like. College/university can feel really anonymous and it often seems like everyone is doing the same thing.  Even in a small school, finding a handful of nice people in a choir, church, music group, book club or film club can be very rewarding.

What do you wish you had known before college?  I wish I had known that everyone else in my classes would be as clueless and apprehensive as I was.  When you’re a freshman in college, nobody knows what they are doing. So it’s okay to not know.

What was the best advice you got while you were in college?  The best advice I got was ‘Be the nerd.’  Raise your hand, ask lots of questions, don’t just ‘figure it out later.’  Intelligent people go to the source for answers.  Make appointments and visit your professors (the ones you like anyway) and make the most of the opportunity you’ve got.

What do you wish you had done differently in college?  I wish I’d been more authentic, truer to myself, instead of oftentimes following the herd for the sake of being popular.

Taking an internship in your desired field of work before you graduate could guarantee you a job out of college.  If they can't take interns, ask to "shadow" an employee for a day and do this with as many companies as possible.

Studying outside the country for at least a semester is very beneficial to your global perspective. It opens your eyes and makes real the privileges and rights we take for granted.

Getting rid of all your "Gen-Eds" as early as possible can leave your later years of college to focus on your major as well as supply you with more time to search for your post-graduation career.

Summer jobs are great ways to gain experience for your future career.  Most employers are looking for experience ... so try finding something in your field of study and get the experience.

Managing your time is going to be very challenging.  So pick a routine that works and stick to it!

Taking two years at a community college before finishing at the university can really help your financial state later in life.  Just make sure your credits are transferrable to your desired university.

Scheduling your classes will be a nightmare.  Talk to a senior in your major and ask advice on what to take first.  Remember even though you get to choose your class schedule, some classes are only offered at certain times of the year.  Be informed of these necessary classes and when they will be offered.  Planning all your classes for all four years is not a bad idea.

If a graduate degree is part of your future, don't stress yourself out by trying to complete a double-major, or exploring a minor not related to your major.   It's best to focus your efforts on getting into your graduate school of choice and then stress out all you want!

If you want to graduate with honors, you need to seek out the requirements to obtain these awards.  No one tells you about them.

College life is the best time to make wholesome lasting friendships.  Make the most of your time with them and gather as many as you can.  These friends last a lifetime and will be a huge help when starting the post-college life.

The best advice I received in college was from the Dean of my school.  George Hasslein told us, "Don't let your classes get in the way of your education" ... meaning, there are so many ways and so much to learn outside of the classroom.  Don't "stop" learning when you get out of class and don't expect to learn everything between the four walls.  

Not sure what I would say to a college student … maybe to not be afraid of the years it may take to get the degree you need for the job you want.  Eight years of education for the job you want is time well spent vs. four years for one you don't really want.  Also, make faith a priority because it will surely be tested!

What do you wish you had known before college?  I wish I had spent some time talking to people in professions I thought I might want to pursue, so that I had a better idea of the day-to-day skills that would be most useful.

What was the best advice you got while you were in college?   Don't put off until tomorrow what you can do today. I wish I had followed this more strictly, and I would have had plenty of time to do all the activities I wanted.

What do you wish you had done differently in college?  I wish I would have managed my finances better and tried to learn more about personal finance, insurance, buying property and cars, and credit—all the really practical stuff that sometimes gets ignored.

From a practical standpoint, I wish I had been better at time management and in a related area, study skills.  I guess I really didn't "get it" until I was in graduate school!

My advice is to graduate.  Get your undergrad degree. Don't believe that the world hangs on what you decide will be your major.  Believe it or not, you'll have time to refine your professional goals after you graduate.  You don't have to have your entire career plan mapped out as you enter your freshman year.  You can always return to grad school and get a master's degree once you really know what it is you'd like to do.  And if you already know what you want to do with the rest of your life, good for you—you're way ahead of the crowd, and that will serve you well.  But the majority of kids who don't have specific career plans shouldn't feel overwhelmed, or even worried, by such concerns.  Few of us knew, when we were 17, where life would take us by the time we were in our late 20s or mid 30s.  And that's ... OK.

Go to class.  Even if you are allowed a certain number of "skips," don't take them, or at least hold on to them for a while.  That way if you get sick you won't be out of luck.  Plus, many professors have a "participation" grade, which is basically a free grade if you are in class.  If you skip, you've just automatically lost easy, easy points.

Always, always, always talk to your professors.  If you will miss class, send an email. If you are sick, let them know.  If you will miss a test, ask if you can take it early.  The most important part of this is letting the professor know BEFORE you miss.  It doesn't matter what your reason for missing is—didn't feel like coming to class, illness, death of a family member—you need to remember that your professor doesn't care why.  That's not his or her problem. (this is not to say professors don't care about their students, just that they have rules and guidelines that they follow).  After the fact it is unlikely that you will get any sympathy.  However, by asking beforehand, letting the professor know what's going on, and keeping him or her informed, you are more likely to receive grace.

Take advantage of the services your campus offers:  Library, computers, dining hall (as unappealing as it may sound, most first year students are required to have some sort of on-campus meal plan, so you might as well make the best of it and save your money for something else, like books, however having a few snacks in your room is great for when the main entree is broccoli fish divan or mystery meat), health services, counseling, career counseling/guidance, etc.

Set ground rules with your roommate when you first start living together. Don't wait for conflict before discussing things.  Be on your best behavior and treat said roommate the way you want to be treated. With respect.  Respect each other's space, belongings, and feelings.

Choose friends wisely.  Don't be tempted to fall in with the party/drinking crowd.  Staying up all night and getting drunk do not make it easy to go to class or get assignments/studying done.

Do the assignments and assigned reading.  Again, possible "free" points. Many professors just count these as "turned in" or "not turned in."

Don't bother with late work.  Organize yourself and your time in such a manner that you are able to get your assignments done in a timely manner.  And then TURN THEM IN.  Most professors do not accept late assignments anyway, so again, you've lost points.  Pointlessly.  

What I wish I had known before college?  Always wear flip-flops in the showers!  Sometimes it seems like a competition to see who can be the busiest.  Don’t feel the need to join a million organizations and groups.  Not having time to sleep does not mean that you’re an incredibly important, just incredibly tired.  Really, really tired.

What was the best advice I got while I was in college?  Don’t miss an opportunity for a good internship!  If your school has a career services department, take advantage of them as much as you can.  Their connections and advice might help more than any academic advisor as you figure out your calling.  Take classes outside your major that aren’t 101 courses – it’s worth the challenge.  My college’s unofficial motto was, “Look to your left, look to right, your future mate might be in sight!”  Some of the best advice I ever got was to ignore that.  Cultivate friendships with groups who share your interests, passions, and especially faith, and you’ll make lifetime friends.  College grads constantly reminded me to cherish the spontaneous moments that come from living with your best friends in dorm and college apartment life. College is probably the only time you’ll have so many friends in such close proximity, so invest in the relationships and be thankful.

What do I wish I had done differently in college?  This is the tough one, because there are so many opportunities to learn and do and meet in college that you can never take advantage of them all.  I wish I had been more deliberate in who I spent time with and how I spent it, because the four years sure did fly by.  I did learn—but not until my senior year—to quit worrying about grades.  Not to ignore them, but to be diligent in the work and trust God for the results.  One caveat: diligence means not cramming in the library the night before the midterm.  God gave me so many opportunities to share His love in college, and I’m sorry to say that I missed a lot of them because I hadn’t been diligent and had to cram.  Spent less time stressed and more time enjoying the opportunity in front of you!

I wish that I had known how easy it was going to be to fall away from things spiritual.  I was away from all that I knew.  Perhaps I had "high schooled" in a little Christian bubble and need to accept part of the naive blame.  BUT, I had no clue.  I didn't go wild, but I did easily fall away from church and spiritual organizations and friends.  Took me years to return, and those years were bad.  In retrospect, I really wish my church and/or parents had warned me.  The best advice I received in college was actually from my dad, and it is still good today and has served me very well over the years.  The advice was "It never hurts to ask."  

The best thing to know about college is that it's four incredible years of your life that in no way will resemble what your life is like once you graduate.  You'll no longer be able to do walk across the hall of your dorm to chat with a buddy at 2:00 a.m.  Or have unlimited closets from which to borrow clothes.  Or order pizza so much in the span of a month.  But what you will have is a truly unforgettable experience of learning in the classroom, but mostly, learning about yourself apart from the cozy confines of Mom and Pop's home.

The best advice I ever received was to spend a little bit of time with God each day, even in the midst of the busyness. In fact, the busier you are, the more crucial it is.  Another helpful pre-college reminder was to always make sure the company you keep is the best company.  After all, who we hang out with reflects who we are.  And if you happen to go to a Christian university like I did, it's important to remember there's more fish in the sea opposite sex-wise.  Just because everyone else is getting married doesn't mean you have to if you don't happen to meet the love of your life there.  It's also wise to keep in mind that not everyone at a Christian university will be on the same page beliefs-wise, so don't be disappointed if people aren't exactly walking the talk.

Before college, I wish I would have known the steep increase in the level of study time necessary to achieve really good grades compared to high school.  A's were a breeze in HS; hard work in college.

The best advice in college came from a great English Lit professor:  When you learn about the difficult challenges those around you face, don't forget to immediately thank God for "giving" you your challenges, as they will usually look pretty small compared to theirs.  Then she added, "and be sure to reach out to those for whom you can offer some relief and yours will become even smaller."

If I could have done anything differently, I wish I would have studied even more, once I realized what it was going to take to keep up and attempt to excel.

EXTRA SPECIAL NOTE:  Please share this advice with anyone you know who is college bound!  And then share your own in the User Comments section below.  This is good stuff, folks.  And it’s a free gift that will (hopefully) keep on giving for semesters, and perhaps years, to come.