College Series Part 1: How to Make the Best of your Academic Experience

Everyone (or most people) say that college is the best time of your life. For some people it’s great, some good, some okay, some not so good. And while I can say I really wasn’t big on the whole social scene and therefore, can’t really attest to how great THAT is, I always had my head in the research articles and can tell you some of the things that I think can make your academic career in college the best it can be.

Some of the things on the list are things that I did. Some of the things on the list are things that I did not do, and wish that I had, and heard from others that I should (at the time) have done. So from one college student (who has graduated undergrad) to you, here are my 5 tips on how to make the best of your academic experience in college:

1 Take a class on something…

a) you’ve always been interested in

College is a time to explore, and a majority of universities (if not all) require you to take general education courses. Though you’re only required to take about one or two GE courses per section (physical science, life science, humanities, liberal arts, math, social and behavioral sciences, foreign language, etc.), it’s likely that some will interest you more than others, and that there might be a course or two with topics that you’ve always been interested in. However, if you’re not into the GE courses and are into something more specialized, you can take it up as your major or even a minor if you have your heart set on studying something else.

b) you enjoy

Almost the same thing from above applies. I always told myself to take a couple of language courses in college because I enjoy learning foreign languages. I mean, when else would be a better time to learn? Sure, I could always pay for a class when I start working or travel to another country, but studying something you enjoy while in college can help take some stress off of your other classes. This doesn’t just go for foreign language–if you really enjoy astronomy or dance, take those classes too! Though you already may know a thing or two, you might learn more and you could geek out with the professor, especially if they’re really cool.

c) that (you think) might benefit your future career or resume

This one might be the most difficult out of the three, especially because you may have to persuade yourself to take these types of classes. Even though you may be in college to get a degree that’s geared toward a certain job, if you’re in humanities or liberal arts or social sciences, it’s really beneficial to have certain skills under your belt so you can apply to a wider range of jobs after you graduate (if you don’t already have a specific career goal in mind). This could include foreign language classes (which I could argue is beneficial in any field of work), research courses (like qualitative or quantitative research courses), a writing course, communications course, programming, etc. It just depends on where you think you want to take your career.

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2 Take advantage of the opportunities around you

College is a time of opportunities; you might be a small fish in a big pond, that means the bigger pond can have more opportunities. This is most likely the first time (and arguably the last) in your life that you’ll have the amount and variety of choices for things to do, and these are my top 4 things:

a) Get a job

I’m guilty of this and didn’t do this during my undergrad, but I know so many people that had jobs during their undergrad career. And I think that’s really smart, especially if you didn’t work before (in high school). Getting a job while in college, while it might seem difficult to balance at first, teaches you not only the value of money, but also how to manage your time between work, classes, social life, and (a lack of) sleep. And you may or may not have a car while in college, but on campus jobs are pretty much the best things that exist in terms of getting a job in close proximity. Win. (Also, the fact that you can put this down on your resume for or after college is a huge huge huge bonus!)

b) Do research

Depending on what kind of university you attend, your professors or teacher’s assistants (i.e. graduate students) may or may not be conducting some type of research, and it’s more often than not that they need assistants. Getting involved in research gives you experience in academia, but also gives you the opportunity to learn about new findings or findings that reinforce other theories or ideas in the field. If you’re taking a course in your area of study that you really enjoy and are genuinely interested in, I would suggest contacting that professor to see if they’re working on anything they need help on. Apart from working with professors, I know some universities have research programs that students can apply to in order to gain research experience. Consider looking into those to see if your university has some.
Last note–depending on what your area of study is, some courses will require a final research paper. This is an easy way to get familiar with general practices of research.

c) Get an internship

Some people have jobs in college, some people have internships (and some people have both…). Internships are a great alternative to a job, especially if you couldn’t find a job that you liked or if it’s a company that you would like to work for after graduating. Internships are also great over the summer because it gives you something to do if you’re not taking classes or studying abroad, on top of that extra experience for your skills and resume. Internships, overall, give you an inside look to what a certain field or certain job is like, and can be extremely helpful if you already have an idea of what industry you would like to go into.

d) Look into studying abroad

My absolutely favorite out of the four, and arguably the most fun (tied with research, for me). Studying abroad during college is like comfort zone traveling. You’re out of your comfort zone because you’re in a new place with (maybe) a new language, new everything! But you’ll be with other students and taking classes. You get to experience new things but with security, so I feel like studying abroad with a university is one of the best ways to travel. A lot of the time, depending on the program, coordinators plan excursions for you, so if you’re traveling to a country or a certain area that you’re not super familiar with or comfortable traveling on your own, look into studying abroad. I could say countless things about how great studying abroad is, so if you’re interested to see how my study abroad experience was in Brazil, check out this post.

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3 Network

Some of us go to college to get an education, and some of us a job. But sometimes jobs are the hardest things to find if you don’t know anyone, and if you’re considering going for your Master’s or PhD, that’s even harder to do if you don’t talk to your professors.

a) With your professors

Networking or at least talking with your professors is crucial if you want to pursue another degree after your undergrad. Some programs MAY accept letters of recommendations from teacher’s assistants, but whats preferable are tenured professors. And on average, most schools want 3 letters of recommendation.

Talking with professors, for some people, can be really difficult. I know it was for me, and if you attend a large university, it could be really difficult to get to know a professor who is neck-deep in research, being the chair of the department, mentoring graduate students, and teaching. University professors have a lot more on their plate than you can imagine, so take advantage of office hours to talk to them one-on-one. If you’re comfortable speaking in class, talking during discussions and ask questions if they ask “are there any questions?”

One great thing to do is, if you’re really curious about something that’s related to the general course but not in the course material, go ahead and ask about it if you’re comfortable. We didn’t really cover Catalan/Spanish relations in my sociolinguistics class, but I was really curious about it and talked to my professor in office hours about it. He said “great question!” and was happy to talk to me about it. I later had coffee with him to discuss graduate programs and asked him to write me a letter of recommendation.

b) With your TA’s

TA’s (teacher’s assistants, GSI’s….graduate student instructor, whatever you call them) can also be really important if you want to pursue higher education. Talking with a TA might seem a lot more relaxed than with a professor, and if you’re at a big university with discussions or sections taught by a TA, getting to know them might be a good idea. Even though it’s preferable that professors write letters of recommendation, TA’s can also write them. Naturally, they may come to know you better than your professor.

If you have a good relationship with a TA, in some ways, they might act like a mentor to you, even after you graduate. I asked one of my TA’s who was very familiar with my work to write me a letter of recommendation, and even after I was in a Master’s program and considering PhD programs, I would email her telling her what I was up, along with certain questions about specific graduate schools. She was a tremendous help, and even connected me with one of her colleagues through email (because he was attending one of the universities I was interested in applying to).

c) With your peers

Peers and friends, friends and peers, but peers don’t have to be friends and friends don’t have to be peers. Joining clubs or associations or even just having friends in your classes can help a lot. Whether you study together, have the same career goals, or just get along, it’s nice to know people because you never know where they’ll end up. They also just make your college experience a lot more fun.

d) With your employers

Whether it’s your employer or someone you interned for, they’re one of the best people you can network with, especially if you plan to work right after college. They’re familiar with your strengths outside of the classroom and are familiar with your work ethic in a specific setting, and that can be really valuable. They can attest to certain characteristics that professors or TA’s or even peers may not see.

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4 Use campus resources (career center, get check ups if you have university health care, events)

College may seem hard, but when you’re in life-ing post-college, life could seem a lot harder. Universities have so many resources like the career center, and maybe an on campus health center, and various other services. Though I’m also guilty of not visiting the career center or the health center as an undergrad, these are good resources where you can get some guidance on your future and talk to someone who is knowledgable, and a routine health check-up (if you have university health care). Utilize these types of services while you’re in college because 1) you may have to pay to use these as an alumni and 2) you probably won’t have these things straight away after graduating.

5 Don’t be afraid

Last tip–don’t be afraid. Of anything. To make the best of your college experience, don’t be afraid to take a class that you’re interested in just because “it’s programming and seems difficult.” Don’t be afraid to take an Arabic or Mandarin or French class because “it seems really hard.” Don’t be afraid to apply for jobs or internships or research positions because “what if I get rejected?” The worst thing is that you have to drop the class because it wasn’t for you, or that that place you applied to responded with “I’m sorry but…” That’s not just college. That’s life. College is just your first taste of it. So don’t be afraid and make the best of the time you have in college.

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