The High Cost of Education? Making the most of your experience

In the next couple of weeks I will be introducing you to some of my student friends who got the most out of their education, even though they did not have a lot of money for college.  But today I want to give you a few tips for making sure your (or your child’s) college experience is the best it can be.

In the documentary Inside the Ivory Tower – Is College Worth the Cost that I referred to in my last post a parent asked an Admissions Counselor at Wesleyan College “I am going to be spending a lot of money sending my child here – can you guarantee that he will have a job when he graduates?“.  The counselor seemed somewhat perplexed in answering the parent (obviously CNN chose the best footage to make the point).  My answer to that question would have been “it’s really up to your child“.  Here is what I mean: in today’s economy it isn’t enough to just have a college degree.  It isn’t enough to have a high GPA.  What you get out of your college degree, and your chances at a job, have a lot to do with what you put in to the process.  Here are some top ideas:

Choose the right major: if your college experience is to simply enjoy college, then choose any major that makes you intellectually satisfied. There is nothing wrong with that if you make that choice going in.  But, if you major in religious studies or something similar don’t be surprised if the job prospects aren’t that great.  I have a student friend who is going to minor in religious studies (he would like to be a youth pastor) but he is majoring in computer science because he knows that will give him the income to sustain his life.  That is a very wise choice.

Choose the right major for you: I see lots of students who are miserable because they chose a major they thought would get them a job or one that would please their parents.  Look, if you are a really creative musician but bad at math then maybe you shouldn’t be a Math major.  Instead, think about the kind of majors that would play to your strength AND give you a good prospect for employment.  In this example, maybe Sound Engineering, or perhaps a concentration in Media Production through the Communications Department would be a good major or minor to correspond to your interest in music.

Get in the lab with a Professor: If you’ve chosen the route I laid out in the previous post, then you are in a school that most likely focuses on undergraduates.  That is what we do at Salisbury University.  Remember, both in school and the future job market, you are competing against your peers.  Nobody is going to hand anything to you.  I certainly don’t chase students around begging for them to learn from me, but I am thrilled to have them work with me when they have the interest.  So, while your friends are learning to play guitar or getting better at hacky-sac, go and knock on your Professor’s door and say “I like what you are doing – is there any way I can work with you in your lab?“.  Chances are, by the time you graduate, you will have a peer reviewed publication under your belt, and maybe have even presented at a professional conference.  This is great for a future job in addition to an assistantship in graduate school.  I know a Communications major who, in his Freshman year, volunteered with SUNews to operate the $70,000 camera for the campus news – a small school like Salisbury gives a freshman the opportunity to do that.  After 4 years of school, this kid is going to be an expert in all aspects of media production, and his resume will have more to show than a student who perfected his hackysac skills.

Get a summer internship:  Lets face it, there is no better job for an 18 year old boy than being a lifeguard.  The sun, the fun, and the girls – who could ask for anything more!  So, get that lifeguarding job next summer after Freshman year and have fun.  But at some point, if you want a job in your field, you are going to have to kiss that lifeguard job goodbye and get an internship in your field.  Here is the dirty little secret: if you take an advanced GIS class from me you will learn a lot, and spend about 28 hours in lab learning from me.  But, during your first week of your internship as a GIS technician you will spend 40 hours doing GIS work.  After two weeks you will have spent 80 hours, then 120, and so on.  There is no comparison about what you can learn in a professional summer internship and when comparing your resume with the kid who lifeguarded for the last 3 summers, you will stand out.  Getting an internship is the single most important thing you can do – I have rarely had a student who had a summer internship that did not get a job.  If you don’t do this, you only have yourself to blame.

Stay on campus, not in your room: One of the biggest mistakes I see students make is after class going back to their dorm and taking a nap.  Once you are out of the dorm, stay out of the dorm.  Go to the library, recopy your notes, study, see a tutor.  If you focus your entire day on school then it is very likely that your nights will be free to have more fun.  So much of college is about time management.  This is also true for commuters – it is so easy to go home after class, or back to your car and wait until the next class.  If you are a commuter, plan to eat on campus a few nights a week – it is a great way to stay connected to other students.

Have fun and stay engaged: Don’t isolate yourself, whatever you do.  At Salisbury University we tell the parents of Freshman that when they call their kids after the first place week of school, don’t ask them about their classes, their roommate, or the food in the dining hall.  The number one question to ask them is “have you joined a club“.   If you don’t plug in with other students your first few weeks of the semester, the chances are you never will, and may find yourself adrift.  There are all kinds of clubs on campus (surfing, skiing, Quidditch, debate, intramurals, etc.).  Join one!

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