10 Things Not Enough Kids Know Before Going to College

Professor Christopher Blattman has three years' teaching experience at Columbia and four at Yale. Here are some of his suggestions to help make the most of college. Full first person essay: http://bit.ly/20JG7eT
  1. 1.
    Try careers on for size
    Your career is going to be a huge part of your life, and you'll be happier if it suits your strengths and you find it fulfilling. Some people are lucky on their first try. It took me three or four tries to get close. Don't wait until you finish law or medical school to discover you hate working in your specialty. Try early and often. Test out different careers in the summer — researcher, journalist, medical assistant, nonprofit worker, congressional aide, and so on.
  2. 2.
    Develop skills that are hard to get outside the university
    Some of my fondest memories are of history or psychology classes that opened my mind to new places and ideas. But don't forget to also use university to build your technical skills. By technical skills, I mean specialized knowledge that is hard to teach yourself on your own. I put things like math, statistics, ethnography, law, or accounting in this category. These are topics where you need a knowledgeable guide plus the hard commitments of a course to get you through hard material.
  3. 3.
    Learn how to write well
    Take writing seriously. You will use it no matter your career. Being able to take complex ideas and explain them in short, straightforward, plain sentences is a skill you will use, whether you're a lawyer, a salesperson, a blogger, or a doctor. You want to learn to think clearly and then write like you speak. You'll be surprised how many proposals, pitches, reports, and letters you'll write in life. So how to get better? The short answer is practice.
  4. 4.
    Focus on the teacher, not the topic
    In my experience, you learn more from great teachers than from great syllabuses. I had too many classes taught by droning bores. I didn't show up, even when I was sitting in the chair. I didn't learn much. I tell my own students to pick eight or nine classes based on the syllabus, to go to them all, and then keep the four or five classes with the most engaging professors.
  5. 5.
    When in doubt, choose the path that keeps the most doors open
    If you're like most students, including me at that age, you have no idea what you want to be when you grow up. In cases like this, try not to narrow your options. Sure, take the boutique courses. But stick to mainstream majors, ones with plenty of options at the end: the sciences, history, economics, politics, and so forth. Take the classes that are the basis of social and natural science: statistics and math.
  6. 6.
    Do the minimum foreign language classes
    This is one of my most controversial pieces of advice. A lot of people disagree. Languages are hugely important. And you should learn another (or many others) besides English. But I think they're better learned in immersion, during your summers or before and after college. Maybe take an introductory course or two at university to get you started, or an advanced course or two to solidify what you already know, but only that.
  7. 7.
    Go to places that are unfamiliar to you
    Use a summer or a school year to live abroad, ideally a place completely different from home, where you'll come to know local people (and not just the expatriate community).
  8. 8.
    Take some small classes with professors who can write recommendations
    If you're not interested in graduate school, skip to the next piece of advice. But if a master's or a PhD is an option, you will want at least two or three high-quality recommendations from faculty. To do this, you'll need good relationships with professors. This means one or two small classes with the same faculty member, and several visits to office hours. Maybe a research or teaching assistant position. Or ask the professor to be your thesis or independent study adviser.
  9. 9.
    Unless you're required to write a thesis, think twice before committing to one
    An independent research project can be the perfect capstone to your college years. Sadly, I often see theses that weren't worth the students' investment of time and energy. Some people's time would be better spent acquiring technical skills.
  10. 10.
    Blow your mind
    At the end of each year of college, you should look back at your thoughts and opinions 12 months before and find them quaint. If not, you probably didn't read or explore or work hard enough. Come to think of it, this is not a bad rule for life after college, too. It gets harder to surprise yourself and change your worldview, but there are an awful lot of new facts to learn.