Making the Most of College

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Background

This fall, my two brothers are both applying to college (used interchangeably with university throughout).  Both are in different situations, and separated by three years; they’re likely going to have very different experiences.  But the fact that both are going to be heading off to university for at least the next four years prompted me to reflect on my time at university, and what I’d do differently if I had to do it again.

The caveat with this reflection is that I know now where I wanted to go after college – into entrepreneurship – and I didn’t at the time.  That said, I think most of what I would change could be applied to almost all degrees, and without knowing what one wants to do after.  In fact, I think that doing these things will actually help reveal what it is you’d like to do.

I’m going to ruin the rest of the article by giving away what I believe is the secret to making the most of college: maximizing learning OUTSIDE the classroom.

I was a scholarship student during my time at McGill, and the only contingency on retaining that scholarship was maintaining a minimum GPA.  I still believe evaluating students on GPA alone is a huge mistake because it pushed me, and many other scholarship students, to focus entirely on grades.  My selection for the scholarship was a result of being involved in many different activities in high school, in addition to achieving academically.

8 Rules to Maximize College

  1. Don’t rush; in fact, do the opposite – consciously slow down.

The transition to university life is a big change, and just how big often depends where you go and what you study.  If you’re changing primary subjects, going from a small town to a big city, etc., it’s going to be an even larger adjustment.

When I went to McGill, I sat down with my advisor in the first week trying to figure out how to finish my engineering degree in 3 years.  Possible, perhaps, but I would have been miserable.  I did my degree in 4 years, and would have made it 5 and tried to do some summer courses if I was doing it again.

Your life will be changing enough in first year that adding more academic stress than necessary is not beneficial. I spent so much time on my academic studies that I wasn’t involved with nearly as many extracurriculars as deeply as I would have liked.

Specifically, I wouldn’t take more than four courses per semester.  Plan your whole degree in your first semester – this will be invaluable in future to make sure you don’t miss courses, or get stuck doing an extra semester (this happened to several of my friends).  Do a course review once per year with an academic advisor, and make sure there’s a record of those reviews.  You don't need to stick to the exact plan you set out initially, but it makes adjustment much easier in later years.

And don’t stress about taking your time.  More of your friends will end up doing it than you think, and even if they don’t, you’ll have more fun, and learn a lot more, by taking your time.  There are so many opportunities in college that aren’t available in any other setting in life, and you’ll need time to take advantage of them.

  1. So what should you do with your free time? Get involved in extracurriculars.

Now, what do I mean when I say extracurriculars?  In this case, I mean all those clubs (each college and university has hundreds) that get advertised during frosh week and the first week of school.

However, in this case, I’m talking specifically about clubs related to your field of study.  That is, if you’re doing engineering, you should be involved with a club that’s building something.  In my case, I was involved to a small degree with the team that built what were essentially dune buggies to race against other schools (SAE Baja).  SAE (initially established as the Society of Automotive Engineers) administers many design competitions you can find here that include designing and building off-road vehicles, electric snowmobiles and race cars, to name a few.  There are university design competitions for suborbital rockets, robotic sailboatssubmarinesunmanned aircraft and many, many more.

There will be lots of options at your school – just ask your faculty advisor or student association to point you in the right direction if you can’t find information.  And start a team yourself if they don’t have the one you want!

There are a couple reasons I suggest getting involved with one or more of these groups.  The first, and I believe most important, is to remind you of the reason you went into that field of study in the first place.  In my case, I loved building things growing up, and wanted to learn to build more complicated things.  But, as it turns out, my undergrad was mostly theoretical.  Most of what I built was on paper.  These clubs will remind you of why you enjoy the subject and keep you motivated in your studies.

The second reason is that you get to apply what you’re learning in practice.  I guarantee you will be more prepared for life after college if you actively participate in design teams or similar groups.  Not only will you have a deeper understanding in class, but you’ll have a greater appreciation for what you’re learning, and insight into what work may be like post-university.

Maybe you won’t enjoy the club at all!  But that’s okay, because you can leave, and then at least you’ll know early that maybe you should switch subjects, or you need to find a new niche, because that job or area of study isn’t what you thought and you don’t like it.  Either way, you’re going to be more knowledgeable.

The other benefit of groups like this is that if you find a club that you really enjoy, most of the other people involved are also going to also really enjoy that activity, and you’ll likely have lots in common.  The friendships formed in these clubs can be some of the most powerful and rewarding in college.

  1. Get involved in extracurriculars.

That's not a mistake, but this time I'm talking about a different type of extracurriculars.  This time I’m going to recommend getting involved in something that isn’t necessarily related to your subject at all, but is something you enjoy.  If you’re wondering what that is, just think “what did I do for leisure in high school?” and I’m sure there will be a club for it.  If not, start one!

In my case, it was intramural sports.  If you play varsity sports, that fulfills this goal too.  Either way, the aim here is to distract you from your studies.  For me, playing sports occupies my mind completely, and I don’t have the head space for anything else.

Whether it’s sports, chess, playing Quidditch (yes that exists), or whatever else you’re into, get involved in something unrelated to your studies.  As with extracurriculars related to your field of study, you’ll likely share other common interests with people who are just as excited about your activity, and it’s a great way to make other friends.

  1. Get involved outside school.

The relevance of this may depend where you go to school.  If you go to school in a university town of 3000 permanent residents, there may be fewer options to get involved outside your class.  That being said, I know lots of students in university towns who found extremely interesting ways to get involved in the larger community.

Where I went to school (in Montreal), there are thriving communities of professionals and enthusiasts for just about everything you can imagine.  Often they get together each month, or even more frequently, and this is a great way to connect with potential mentors, build your network, and get a fast track into life after college.

Meetups is a great place to start.

Getting outside the school “bubble” that often exists is liberating, and will give you a much broader perspective, particularly if you connect with people who have passed through college.  Many of them will have advice about their experiences, just like I do, which is specific to your domain or interests, and often post-college job opportunities come from these connections.

  1. Read – and not your textbooks.

I mean, you should probably read your textbooks too.  But I’ve learned at least as much since graduating from non-academic textbooks as I did during my degree.  And in general, it’s way more interesting.

Those Top 10 lists of books that every entrepreneur/economist/fill-in-the-blank should read are a good place to start.  There’s a reason that many books will pop up frequently on those lists – they’re good!

Often, these can give you some perspective as well.  Getting bored with your engineering work?  Read about Elon Musk and how he’s changing the world.  Think your life sucks? Read Siddhartha and remember to value the simple things.

It’s easy to get caught up in day-to-day stresses when in university.  Reading things other than textbooks is a great way to put those in their place.

  1. Do well enough.

Two of my best friends throughout university subscribed to the “C’s get degree’s” (or, sometimes, D’s get degrees) mantra.  While I didn’t agree, I certainly think there’s a balance to be struck.

I mentioned earlier that my scholarship in school stipulated I maintain a particular GPA.  Supposedly, this represented the top 10% of the school.  Based on the statistics I’ve seen, it was much higher than that, but regardless of what segment it represented, it was, in my opinion, much too high.

If I went back to first year, I’d push hard to renegotiate that term, and instead put in place a lower GPA and an interview, or similar process, to renew the scholarship, so I could show how I was contributing or learning in other ways.

Assuming you don’t have restrictions on what you need to achieve for a GPA, I'll try to give you some. In general, in life after college, people won’t care whether you have a 3.3 or a 3.9, and in many cases, they won’t care what your grades are at all – your degree is what people look at.

Now, I don’t advocate aiming for the minimum pass grade.  High achievements in academics are important for certain things, like if you want to continue in academics, or for certain placements in professional schools.  But, in general, I believe your time will be much better spent getting deeply involved in extracurriculars, networking, and building experience, rather than spending hours of extra time in the library.  In my opinion, anything above 3.3/4.0 is great, and will not restrict you in any way 90% of the time, provided you use the time to fill out your experiences (read “resume” if you like).

  1. Take computer science classes.

This one is applicable to every person in every faculty, and I’d recommend taking at least 2 (I'd get a minor if possible).

Going into my degree, I had no experience with computer science whatsoever.  I was definitely nerdy, and involved with technology more than most of my peers, but the concept of programming, coding, or anything related was pretty foreign.

I won’t tell you it’s necessary to know how to code well, as some people advocate.  I don’t know how to code well.  But I wish I knew how to better read code, and occasionally write it, and it’s high on the list of things I’d like to learn.

The reason I recommend this is that most fields – finance, marketing, economics, engineering, math – now require coding at some level or another, or at least give a significant advantage to those who have knowledge of the domain.  Getting through a few computer science courses in your undergrad degree will pay dividends later.  The best option?  Find yourself a friend who actually studies computer science first, so they can save you a lot of troubleshooting time.

  1. Go on exchange. Multiple times if possible.

This is actually something I didn’t do, so take it with a grain of salt.  That said, I had plenty of friends who went on exchange, and it was a key part of university for all of them.  Going on exchange is an opportunity that won’t happen again; when else do you get to travel to a great place and immediately have a great group of friends (usually the other exchange students)?  Or an excuse to travel and explore?

My logic for not going on exchange was based on this:  I went to the information meeting, it looked like I would have to take an extra semester because the courses wouldn’t correspond, and it seemed like a bit of a hassle anyway.

That’s all bullshit.  Most people I’ve talked to get lenience when they finished their courses (they got credit), and if they didn’t, they just took an extra semester – no big deal.  The hassle is relatively small; take some photos of your room and sublet it.  Do it for half the normal rent if need be and then beg your parents for some money to make up the difference, or take out a student loan.  Whatever the obstacle preventing you from going, it’s not as big a deal as you think it is, and the exchange is going to be worth it.

I had one friend who went on exchange in Singapore, only to spend a full month of that learning to windsurf in Thailand!  I had others go to the UK, France, Australia, and Asia, and all loved their experience.  You don’t want to miss out on this.

As I’ve said, to make the most of university, you need to learn more outside of the classroom.  Take your time, and enjoy yourself!

Let me know if you have more suggestions for maximizing university in the comments!