Your successful college career starts now

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.

College prep

Are you really preparing for college?  Not just taking classes labeled "college prep," but also developing the important skills you'll need?

Getting ready for college means getting ready for life.  Here are a few skills you can start developing now if you wan to be a successful college student (and a successful college graduate).

•    Learn to do things for yourself, without relying on your parents to take care of them for you. (If your parents email your teachers and counselor on your behalf, you're not preparing for college like you should be.)

•    Find the confidence to ask for help or guidance when you need it.

•    Develop the skill to thoughtfully consider an idea or opinion very different from your own.

•    Gain an appreciation of differences and the ability to get along with people very different from you.

•    Learn how to take lessons from failure or disappointment and then move on. 

•    Develop the curiosity to find a subject or idea that interests you and dive in to learn more.

Getting ready for college means more than just taking the right classes.  In fact, that's why so many colleges' applications require multiple essays, letters of recommendation and interviews–to look for evidence that you've developed some of these skills. 

They could easily just look at your GPA alone, but colleges know that you're preparing for life, too.

How much time do you spend really focusing?

Here's a study experiment to try.

Next week, promise yourself that you'll spend one hour a day studying or doing homework with absolutely no interruptions, totally and completely focused on your work.  When you do it, set a timer to go off in one hour.  Then turn your phone off, turn your computer off, close the door and don't pick your head up from the work for an hour.  Then reward yourselves with some email, text, music and Facebook time for 10-15 minutes.

When you turn everything else off and turn your focus on, I'll bet you spend less time studying, you'll be done with your homework earlier, and you'll remember more of what you learned.  Wouldn't it be worth it?

The power of just being nice

There's no place to list "I'm a nice kid" on a college application.  But that doesn't mean that nice kids don't get a lot of benefits.

Nice kids get extra help from teachers and counselors when they ask for it.  They get more effusive letters of recommendation.  They'll make a better impression on college interviewers and have a better chance of being taken off wait lists.  They're more likely to have people in their corners, ready to work and lobby and fight on their behalf.  They've earned those benefits by just being good to other people.

Being nice is free and easy.  It puts you in line for karma points.  And I have never once seen a nice kid who worked hard end up without colleges to choose from.  You might not be able to list it on a college application, but don't underestimate the power of just being a nice kid.

Where to find study guides for final exams

If you're studying for finals and want a good study guide, one that pretty much comes out and tells you everything your teacher thinks is important and is most likely to test you on again, check your past exams from the course.  They'll be the best study guides you can find.

Tests are teachers' way of measuring what they think is most important.  And that's not something most teachers change their minds about later.  Unless they tell you otherwise, if it was important enough to put on a test before, it's important enough to ask you about again.

Go back through all your tests first.  Deconstruct everything you got wrong and re-do it. Review and remember everything that you did right.  Make sure you'd get a 100% if you had to take the test again because there's a good chance it will look familiar when you sit for the final.  And if you didn't keep your tests, you've now got a new study skill to try next semester.

Start by impressing yourself

It's hard to guess what might impress someone else.  It's easier to just be the person you'd be impressed with.

If you're building a college counseling business, build the one you'd want to send your own children to.

If want to run for president of the Key Club someday, start by being the member you'd want in the club if you were already in charge.

Be the player you'd want on the team if you were the coach.  Be the student you'd want in class if you were the teacher.  Be the musician you'd want in the first chair if you directed the jazz band, the worker you'd hire if you were the boss, or the volunteer you'd want dedicating time if you ran the non-profit.

If you can be the person who'd impress yourself, chances are you'll impress colleges, too.

Protecting your real downtime creates more of it

I'm taking five flights to and from conferences in the next few days.  It will probably be close to 10 hours of time just sitting on the plane.  So I'm going to try to do as much work as I can during that time.  It's not because I want to be productive all the time.  I actually want more time to be unproductive.

It's important to have downtime to do what you want to do, time that's protected from work and other obligations.  But there are two kinds of downtime–1) Time when you could work, but could choose not to.  2) Time when you absolutely do not want to work, when you choose to do whatever other things you want to do, without guilt or apology.  That's real downtime.  If you want more of the second, shift more work to the first.

I don't have to work on the plane.  But while there's nothing particularly fun or rewarding I want to be doing during that time, there are a lot of things I want to do on Tuesday when I get home.  So I'll protect that real downtime on Tuesday by filling the time on the plane.  Using more of the first kind of downtime will create a lot more of the second kind for me when I get home.

The idea isn't to fill every waking second with work.  It's to acknowledge that real downtime is sacred.  You need it to function well.  So protect it from work.  When that time is off limits to obligations, you'll feel a greater sense of urgency to focus and get things done when you get down to work.  And you'll end up with more downtime because of it.

How successful people handle rejection

Steve Jobs is Apple's visionary CEO.  Without him, there'd be no iPhone.  No iPad.  Nothing on which to use all those apps.  Jobs also knows a little something about rejection.  Back when he was 30, Apple's board of directors fired him.  And Jobs admits that he was devastated.  But here's his take on it:


I didn't see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me… During the next five years, I started a company named NeXT, another company named Pixar, and fell in love with an amazing woman who would become my wife. Pixar went on to create the world's first computer animated feature film, Toy Story, and is now the most successful animation studio in the world. In a remarkable turn of events, Apple bought NeXT, I returned to Apple, and the technology we developed at NeXT is at the heart of Apple's current renaissance. And Laurene and I have a wonderful family together.  I'm pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn't been fired from Apple. It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don't lose faith."

It's disappointing when a college you wanted to attend doesn't accept you.  But if you let yourself be devastated by the decision, angry at the college, and resentful of those who were admitted, you're not doing anything to better your situation.  In fact, you're guaranteed to feel worse. 

Take a page out of Steve's book.  Life may have hit you in the head with a brick, but don't dwell too long on the bad news.  Remind yourself that things could have been worse.  Start imagining yourself at one of the colleges that had the foresight to say, "Yes!"  Plan a visit.  Meet some fellow future classmates.  Take control of your college future.  You've only got until May 1 to pick your college.  It's important to use that time to create the future you want rather than lament the one you thought you might have. 

Steve Jobs got rejected and went on to change the world.  Whatever happens, don't lose faith.   

For parents: Five things to consider before you hire a tutor

When a student is struggling in a class, a lot of well-meaning parents throw a tutor at the problem.  A good tutor can be wonderful for a student who's struggling.  But if you want the investment of your money and your student's time to pay off, here are five questions to consider before you enlist tutorial help.

1.  Is your student getting at least a "B" in the course?

No student excels equally in every subject.  A kid who's trying his best in chemistry and getting a "B" should be proud of the effort he's making.  Hiring a tutor can send a message to your kid that his best isn't good enough and that only "A's" are acceptable.  Some over-achieving kids put that pressure on themselves and they're prepared to handle it.  Many others are not.

2.  Is the problem something that a tutor can fix?

Before you hire a tutor, try to diagnose the problem first to see if it's something a tutor can address.  If your student isn't paying attention in class, or just isn't studying for exams, those aren't problems that a tutor can fix. 

3.  Is it a comprehension problem, or a study skills problem?

A tutor can help a student who just can't seem to wrap her brain around trig.  But if the student's study skills are lacking, it's a problem that a math tutor might improve, but probably won't solve.  That would be like hiring a hitting coach for a player who's got a pulled muscle in her back–you're addressing the wrong issue.  I've written a couple posts about study skills here, here and here, and they recommend some resources that might help.

4. Has your student talked to his or her teacher?

The first step with any academic struggle (assuming you've considered #2), is for the student, not the parent, to approach the teacher and ask for advice.  Any teacher will appreciate a kid who comes to her and says,

"I studied like crazy for that last test and you saw how badly I did.  I really want to get better at this.  Can you give me some advice where I should focus?"

Most teachers will be willing to help a student who takes ownership of the problem like this and genuinely wants to improve. 

5. Does your student seem relieved by the idea of a tutor?

If your student seems relieved by the idea of a tutor, you know you're doing the right thing.  A tutor should be like an academic lifeline that a student is grateful to receive.  It should be a positive thing where your student feels, "I'm struggling, I can't seem to fix it myself, and my parents are getting someone to help me."

If you wouldn’t put your name to it, don’t do it

Mark Memmott of NPR reminds blog readers in this story:


Finally, here's a suggestion based on my more than 30 years of reporting and editing experience. Before you submit a comment, ask yourself this question: If I had to put my real name with this, would I hit 'publish?'  If the answer is no, the better move might be to hit 'delete.'

This is actually good advice even when you're not trying to be annonymous.  While the internet makes it easy to share anything, it also means that you're on stage all the time.  Every email, status update, tweet, photo, and video goes out with your name or image on it.  And anybody who receives it can spread it to a much wider audience you might never have intended to see it. 

Before you hit "Send," "Submit," "Upload," or "Post," ask yourself this question: Would I feel OK if this were shared with (a lot of) other people without my consent?  If this answer is no, don't share it.