You will never have as much time and opportunity available to you as you will during your four years of college. And while there are plenty of things you can do to make that time as productive and fun as possible, here are my top five college to-do’s that will help you become a successful and employable college graduate.
1. Major in a subject that fascinates you. Too many college students study what they think they should study. Or they pick a major for all the wrong reasons. (Do you know how many college students major biology or political science because they mistakenly think those are the pre-med and pre-law majors?) You should major in something that you actually want to learn about, something where studying doesn’t feel like work. The benefit here is obvious—the more you enjoy what you’re learning, the better you’ll perform academically and the more engaged you'll be.
2. Discover and develop a talent. Coaching intramural volleyball, doing scientific research, painting, translating Spanish, writing, peer counseling, public speaking—all of them are talents that could be put to use in a successful career. College is your opportunity to figure out what you’re good at and then get better at it. But you can’t just sit by passively waiting for your talents to reveal and perfect themselves. You’ll need to work every day to find and develop them.
3. Find at least one activity that you love, and commit yourself deeply to it. You should try lots of things in college. But successful students eventually find one activity where they dedicate substantial time. It’s the resident advisor who works as an RA for two years, then gets promoted to help hire and train new advisors. It’s the fraternity member who holds several offices and eventually becomes the president, who can proudly talk about the improvements he initiated and why the chapter is bigger and stronger than ever now. It’s the social science major who starts working with a professor to do research and is eventually invited to TA the class. Those students won’t just list their primary activity on a resume. They can talk about the impact they made, what they learned, and how they could bring those experiences to a new job.
4. Cultivate mentors. You will be surrounded by smart, dedicated people in college—professors, faculty, internship directors, advisors, etc. Successful students graduate with one or more mentors who have taken a personal interest in them, who can give them advise, serve as references, or write letters of recommendation. But this is a question of effort. How hard are you willing to work to learn from them? What are you willing to give back in terms of time and effort for them to take a personal interest in your development and success? The best way to do this is to follow suggestions 1-3 and be willing to ask for help or advice while you’re doing them.
5. Don’t be afraid to fail. You can have a safe college career with a safe major and a safe list of activities that don’t challenge you. Or you could take smart risks. You could enroll in one class every semester that looked interesting but also very difficult. You could apply for internships that would force you to learn new skills, try new activities that push you, and contribute to class discussions even though you don’t feel confident. The students who are willing to do those things are the ones who will trasnform during their time in college. They’ll be smarter, more talented, more confident and better supported by smart people than those who played it safe.
Now, here’s the surprise—you don’t have to be in college to do these things. The students who get accepted to college are already doing them. So if you’re in high school, what are you waiting for? Your successful college career can start now.