I wrote an open letter on Wednesday to the class of 2020 encouraging them to consider why they are in college in the first place, but there is so much more I want to say. In fact, I have a list of 52 things that I think every college student ought to know. This is not a list of life skills; you don’t need me to tell you that, as a college student, you need to know how to cook Ramen.
Rather, these are 52 tips that will help you survive and thrive through the academic rigors that are coming down the road.
1. Read the syllabus for every class. Believe it or not, they contain useful information including due dates that you won’t want to miss.
2. Be on time for class. Important announcements tend to come early in my experience. Also, being on time is certainly less stressful.
3. Buy the right edition of the assigned textbook. Old versions might save you money, but problem sets are often times modified. At the very least, have a friend who bought the new version or find it in the library.
4. Take a look at your professor’s research interests. Not only will this spark your imagination, but it might help you find research assistant opportunities down the road with professors you already know.
5. Actually do the homework. I know homework is not always collected or graded, but the practice is vital.
6. Plan ahead. It probably isn’t wise to write a term paper in one night. Divide that assignment over a few days.
7. Study ahead. Midterms are not aced overnight. Begin with a light review a few days before an exam and gradually increase the study load until the night before the exam when you finally feel confident about everything you have been working on. You will be much less stressed if you don’t cram.
8. Ask questions. If you don’t understand something, asking questions is better than continuing in ignorance. My linear algebra professor knew that I was not afraid to visit office hours and ask questions every week.
9. On that note, visit your professors during office hours. They are generally more than happy to help or simply enrich your knowledge of course material.
10. Never bet on the curve to save your grade. Some professors do apply heavy curves on exams, but there is always that kid who ruins the curve for everyone else. Try to be that kid.
11. Learn the background of your reading assignments. Authors have backgrounds, and you will get more out of a piece of writing if you understand where the author is coming from.
12. Don’t accept everything blindly. Even your professor might have something wrong, and you need to make sure that you keep your eyes open.
13. Find friends who disagree with you. Some of my best and most insightful conversations took place with people who bitterly disagreed with me. It forces you to articulate your own position as well as listen actively and intelligently.
14. Make time for something you enjoy. No one can go full speed ahead all the time. Relax a little bit.
15. Don’t become complacent though. While rest is important, try not to lose your focus especially as you near the end of the semester. For some reason, Civilization III was always more tempting right before exams.
16. Don’t lose the easy points. There’s nothing worse than having a paper drop from an A- to a B+ simply because you formatted your bibliography wrong. Don’t mess up what you could have easily done right.
17. Format your bibliography appropriately. Every discipline is different, and they might use different citation formats. APA is a lot different than MLA.
18. Proofread! Many grammatical errors can be spotted by simply looking over a paper before hitting submit.
19. Read the news. You might be surprised how many connections you can find between your studies and what is happening in the world around you.
20. Build priorities into your schedule. Due dates are different, and even though you might be really excited about a certain project, if other things have to be turned in first, make sure those are given priority.
21. Take a few seemingly irrelevant electives to round out your schedule. Variety is, believe it or not, a good way to challenge your mind. Different disciplines will help you develop different methods of thinking.
22. Don’t avoid professors based on their Rate My Professor reviews. Any class might be the best class you have ever taken even if some other people did not benefit from it.
23. Read beyond the syllabus. During my undergrad, I was not very good about this, but going through grad school, I realized that in order to find some answers, you might need to go in more depth than is assigned in class.
24. Enroll in at least one public speaking class. Wherever you go in life, that skill will help you. Every line of work involves communication.
25. Take one logic class. I originally took this class simply to fill a graduation requirement, but in our world of emotional appeals without substance, logic comes in handy.
26. Find a way to apply your studies in a real-life situation. As a business major, I tried to launch a few websites to work on my marketing skills. All of this knowledge becomes real when you use it.
27. Learn how to trust. As someone who definitely likes to have control, it was hard to complete group projects when I had to trust that other people would do their parts of the assignment. I had to trust them.
28. Do not trust blindly though. In my experience, when certain benchmarks are built into a process, it is easier to catch people who are not doing their part of the project. It also helped me make sure I did my part and stayed on track.
29. Be straightforward when addressing problems with group projects. If someone does not do his or her part of the project, everyone is going to suffer unless someone steps in to address the problem.
30. Don’t think about college as just a means to a career. It can be that, but there is a higher purpose to education.
31. Don’t think about college as a nonstop party. You probably won’t be in college very long with that perspective, and if that is your purpose, there are frankly much cheaper ways to party.
32. Think about college as a way to engage with ideas. That is what you are there to learn.
33. Never be afraid of engaging an idea. It might challenge you, but that is a good thing. Education is not meant to be an exercise in hiding from things that make us uncomfortable.
34. Word limits exist for a reason. Even though it might be tempting to ramble or prove that you know everything ever written about medieval France, chances are your professor doesn’t want to read 25,000 words when the assignment called for 1,000. More is not always better.
35. Cross train your mind. Recently, my interests have been gravitating towards applying free-market economics to the marketplace of ideas. My background in business and economics is leading me towards this type of nontraditional synthesis with philosophy.
36. Have a solid Spotify or Pandora playlist. There will be that time when you need to block out that annoying background noise. Be prepared.
37. Build a network. Obviously this terminology usually applies when searching for employment, but more generally, connections will help enrich your education. Talking about different ideas with different people is a good thing.
38. Take good notes. I never took notes in high school. I didn’t really need to. However, there is simply too much material in college to get by without some form of outline or way to jog your memory while you are studying later.
39. Write while or soon after you read. I began a daily Bible study blog because I knew that I would connect more with the content if I wrote about it. It is an exercise in application that helps avoid skimming. Other people write in the margins for similar purposes.
40. Learn basic statistics. How many people confuse correlation with causation every day? Statistics can help you avoid that and see through many other claims the media makes every day.
41. Realize that you don’t know everything. The world becomes a lot bigger in college and much more mysterious.
42. Embrace the mystery and enjoy exploring. Ideas are meant to be considered and eventually accepted or rejected.
43. Keep an open mind, but don’t be afraid to hold on to truth. As GK Chesterton said, “The purpose of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to close it again on something solid.” You don’t need to become a radical skeptic.
44. Rebellion is overrated. College can change people without a doubt, but rebellion for the sake of rebellion is not worth it. Rebellion is only beneficial when it brings about something better and something beyond itself.
45. Read the Great Books. Every level of my college experience has had an element of learning from the classics of Western literature. Do I agree with everything this generally accepted group of authors said? Certainly not, but these foundational ideas are necessary for understanding our society.
46. Keep things in perspective. Failing one test is not ideal, but it is also not the end of the world. Don’t let everything unravel.
47. Draft a paper you don’t agree with. I’m not saying that you should turn in this paper, but learn to evaluate ideas from opposing perspectives. It will strengthen the paper you do turn in when you understand where the other side might be coming from.
48. Learn joyfully. Education is certainly challenging, but the thrill of the pursuit of knowledge never dies at least for me. Get excited and enjoy your academic adventure. If you are there, why not have fun on the journey?
49. Learn gracefully. As you learn, you’re going to make mistakes. Rather than entrench yourself in wrong ideas, have the humility and grace to acknowledge the problem and do better next time.
50. Learn coherently. A worldview is meant to be comprehensive. Everything you learn contributes to that picture of the universe. Think about how to put those pieces together in a way that ultimately makes sense.
51. Make the most of every opportunity to learn. While there are certainly ways to remain a lifelong learner, college is a special time where you are specifically dedicating a majority of your time to higher education.
52. Enjoy a Ben & Jerry’s milkshake with a shot of espresso at least one time every week (in the Davis Center at UVM). This is the most important purpose of education.