Mike Gemmell is the founder and president of Restore Our American Republic (ROAR). Prior to founding ROAR, he was a geologist specializing in groundwater resource development, a technical writer, and a freelance writer addressing environmental and other cultural issues. For more information on his professional background please see: https://www.linkedin.com/in/michaelmgemmell.
How to Make the Most of Your College Experience
I originally wrote this essay for an online educational clearinghouse in 2006. Although the ideas and principles presented in the essay are still valid, the costs for tuition and other fees are a bit dated. Also, the section discussing political correctness is accurate, but activism has actually increased on many campuses in the last 10 years concerning certain issues such as anti-Semitism. – Mike Gemmell
Although the college years for some people can be “the best years of your life,” if you enter it in a blindly naive fashion it could be more like the undergrad who screamed at her exasperated parents during one phone call home: “I can’t wait for the best years of my life to be over!” My goal for this essay is to give you information that will help your college years to be among the “best years of your life” rather than the alternate scenario above.
What’s It Like Out There Today?
In a nutshell: the same in some ways, and different in others. It is the same in that whether you are of traditional college age, (18-22) or entering college from the workforce, academics and learning is time-consuming, but rewarding if a field of study is well chosen. It is different in a number of ways, but most obviously by how the demographics have changed from the 1960s to the early years of the 21st century. In 1960, 94% of college students were white and 63% of the college population were men. By the year 2001, 30% of college students were minorities, and greater than 50% of the college population were women.
The top four reasons for going to college as listed in a 2001 survey were:
- “To learn things that interest me.”
- “To get training for a specific career.”
- “To make more money.”
- “To get a better job.”
Student political activism has gone down considerably from its peak in the 1960s. In 1966, 58% of students considered themselves to be politically active, but by 2001 the figure had dropped to 31%. Although students are less active politically, their professors and others in the administration are perhaps more so. Most humanities classes are filled with varying degrees of “political correctness.” Group consciousness is what the student will hear in and outside of classes with personal identities supposedly being more a function of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation, rather than a more traditional individualist value system of a generation or two ago. Political correctness has led to a decline in the emphasis on the ideas of Western culture on many campuses with a corresponding increase in emphasis on non-Western cultures.
Technology has been significantly upgraded from the days of the slide rule used by engineering students of yester-year. Today computer use is nearly universal with Internet and email being an accepted part of the college experience. Many campuses now have wireless connections as well. Fraternities and sororities have also made a comeback. Their membership was at a low in 1971, but since then numbers have reached as high as 400,000 people on over 800 campuses surveyed.
And lastly, it is easier to stay in shape while you’re burning the midnight oil. Health and sports facilities are much more varied and sophisticated than a generation ago with many campus sports facilities possessing all of the following choices and more: weight rooms, saunas, pools, basketball courts as well as tennis courts.
Before you Select a College
One of your most important decisions in your college career is to select where you are going to spend that career. There are many excellent guides that offer profiles of colleges to help you in choosing a school 1. However, I am going to suggest that before choosing a school, take a close look at your skills, strengths, weaknesses, and overall personality/character before finalizing your selection. College is a springboard toward your career and for many a better adult life. But knowing who you are, will help a great deal in deciding where you want to go.
A simple way to perform a self assessment is to begin with a sheet of paper and make two columns with one being labeled strengths and the other weaknesses. List what you think your strengths and weaknesses are and then have someone you trust, and knows you well, such as a family member or close friend take a look at your list and give you some honest feedback. If your initial assessment differs greatly from what they think your strengths and weaknesses are, repeat the exercise until they match fairly closely with your reviewer.
On the same piece of paper, but further down in each column, list your likes and dislikes in terms of your activities, both activities you think are academically or professionally oriented, and those that do not have academic or a professional orientation. If your likes are also your strengths, then put those in the same columns as your strengths. However, if your likes are a weakness, then they go in the weakness column. For instance you may like playing basketball or ballroom dancing, but if you are just beginning to learn these, they do not belong in your strengths column.
This should help you evaluate whether your strengths and likes make for a sensible match for your major, which in turn is usually the most significant factor in choosing a college. If this exercise is new to you check the self help or career center portion of your local bookstore for further references2. Also, you may want to talk with a career counselor to help you develop your self assessment.
Please note if you have your heart set on being a doctor, lawyer, or any other profession, and you find that you have weaknesses in some of the skill areas needed, this does not mean your dream of entering these professions is over. It merely means you may have to make some extra effort to gain needed skills to pursue that profession. And after all, this is one of the primary reasons people enter college, to gain skills in order to pursue specific careers.
Developing Your College Mission Statement
After selecting your college and — I hope — performing a self-assessment, my next recommendation is to develop your personal mission statement defining what you want from your college experience. Developing and writing down your mission statement will help you to focus and integrate your efforts during your college career. Although academics will likely be the most important element, college offers many other opportunities to enrich your life. Below are three example mission statements that incorporate both academic and non-academic values:
Science Major — Master the science methodologies needed to gain my science degree and pursue a career as a research scientist while also improving my communication skills so that I may promote greater interest in science to the general public during my professional career.
Art Major — Pursue an art degree with emphasis on painting and sculpture while broadening myself into areas such as business and finance so that I may find a way to both create meaningful art and also have a financially successful career.
Business Major — Learn the skills needed to start my own business after graduation while broadening myself into other areas in my recreation hours such as art and politics.
Give a significant amount of thought to your personal college mission statement. It will help you focus your efforts and prioritize your time spent in college.
Finding Funding for Your College Experience
We live in a material world, and although you may have grand and glorious thoughts about college, you still need to address the nitty gritty detail of finding the money for it.
The numbers presented below show the wide range of potential costs for attending college:
State University of New York at FarmingdaleTuition — $3,200 per year
Room and Board — $6,100 per year
Miscellaneous fees — $700 per year
Tuition — $25,000 per year
Room and Board — $7,200 per year
Miscellaneous fees — $2700 per year
As you can see, there is a wide range in cost depending on whether you choose a public or private college. Out of state tuition and other factors also enter into the cost equation.
Financial aid is usually based either on merit (scholarships) or need (grants and loans)3. To help decide on what, if any, financial aid you need, follow the steps below:
- Check out the financial aid policy of any college you are considering before you apply to that college.
- If you are a dependent, discuss with your parents, or appropriate family members how much your family can afford to pay.
- Understand how financial aid is awarded (merit or financial need).
- Find out whether outside scholarships will affect your possible financial aid package.
- Obtain the needed forms for financial aid. For federal aid you will need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). FAFSA forms are available at: fafsa.ed.gov. Private colleges and other institutions may have additional forms for other types of financial aid.
- Meet the deadlines for filing of the forms, and set up a filing system for college applications and financial aid packages you are applying for.
- Check the conditions (strings attached) of your financial aid package. If your financial conditions change, your payment schedule may change accordingly.
Coping with the Academic Issues of College Life
In order to be an effective student you will need to organize your time for studying. There are volumes of books in the self-help section of your local bookstore on time management and personal organization, so I will concentrate on a few ideas just to get you started. It will probably be helpful if you can schedule a time each day for your studies, and, if possible, a specific time for those subjects that are the hardest for you. For instance, for most people their problem-solving abilities peak in the morning. If you are one of those people it is probably a good idea for you to do your math and other classes involving problem solving in the morning hours. Immediately after lunch for about 2 hours, our thinking abilities are at a low point, so you might want to take this time for studying your easier classes, or even taking a break to go out and have some fun.
Another issue to be aware of is the amount of time you spend during each study session. Studies indicate the mind needs some sort of break after about 30 to 40 minutes of intensive studying. That break may be for only 5 or 10 minutes, but taking some kind of break will help your mind to stay fresh longer.
Learning consists of several steps:
- Identifying new facts and their logical relationships
- Integrating those facts, logically, with your existing knowledge, and
- Applying your new knowledge to a real-life problem or situation.
For a separate essay on effective study techniques click here.
College, although rewarding, is also hard work and along the way you will almost certainly have setbacks such as troubles with your studies and maybe a bad exam score or two. This is where the non-academic aspects of college life come into play. Accessing services such as counseling, and developing personal relationships that can help you through the tough times are important issues to be aware of during your college experience.
Coping with the Non-Academic Issues of College Life
Perhaps the most important non-academic issue to most students is where to go when you are starting to feel overwhelmed and in need of help. Virtually all colleges have student centers and career counseling areas that should serve as a good place to start in your search for help. During the traditional orientation week that precedes the start of classes, the trainer, or person conducting the orientation, will probably give you a range of information about these services at your selected college.
Some of the non-academic issues you will be coping with include the following:
- Learning to manage your money
- Learning to manage your time
- Living and coping with roommates
- Finding a mentor or adviser, and
- Developing a “moral compass” to help you make intelligent choices and avoid unwanted distractions.
The first step in learning to manage money is to make up a monthly budget. Calculate your expenses and, if you are working, any income to let you know how much money you have to spend each month. Avoid getting started on credit cards if you can help it. If an offer of credit appears too good to be true, it probably is.
For time management issues, see the first paragraph under the previous section: “Coping with the Academic Issues of College Life”
Roommates are something that most students will have to address during their college years. After you address the primary issue of finding someone who is compatible with you, I recommend concentrating on another very important issue, namely, limiting the number of roommates and people you live in close contact with. In other words, avoid the dormitory experience, if at all possible.
It is not necessary to live in a dormitory to enjoy a satisfactory social life during your college years. You will need rest and “down time” from studying, and it can be very difficult to get in a dormitory with constant noise, music, and other distractions. Living in an off-campus apartment where your roommate gives you some space, and vice versa, will keep you much more rested and ready to approach your studies.
It is highly desirable to find a mentor or adviser during your college years. You will be making many difficult decisions, and the counsel of someone older and wiser can greatly help. Seeking a mentor does not reduce your intellectual independence. You will still be the one making the decisions in your college life. However, a good mentor will present information to you that you may not otherwise be aware of, and thereby help you in your decision-making process.
Lastly, there are many distractions at most colleges such as: parties, sex, alcohol, drugs, lack of parental directions, etc. If you do not have a “moral compass” to guide you when you enter college, then you will need to develop one during your time there. A mentor can help you with this, but ultimately it is up to you. Your college mission statement and values learned during your growing-up years will also help you here. If you still feel lost, consider the self-help section of your local book store for self esteem and self development issues.4
To make the most of your college experience, consider doing a self assessment and writing a mission statement as early steps to guide you in choosing a college. Work hard, but don’t forget to play as well, and take advantage of at least some of the non-academic opportunities available that can help you broaden your perspective. Rely on, or develop, a “moral compass” and you will be well on your way to making the most of your college experience.
- The Insiders Guide to Colleges, 33rd edition, Yale Daily News, 2006.
- What Color is Your Parachute, by Richard Bolles revised approximately every year since the 1980s.
- The Complete Idiot’s Guide to College Survival, by Laurie Rozakis, 2001. Chapter 15 addresses the issue of obtaining financial aid.
- The Six Pillars of Self Esteem by Nathaniel Branden. Branden is the father of the self esteem movement and has written extensively on the subject of self development. The Six Pillars of Self Esteem is his summary work on the subject.