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Doing College Right

Nine modest but essential tips to help you get your money’s worth.

Illustration by Marjainez.

Illustration by Marjainez.

Before I start giving you my totally unsolicited advice on the College Experience, let me just assure you that this is NOT a piece about WHY YOU SHOULD GO TO COLLEGE. I went to college, so that’s what I know well enough to write about—but a four-year institution is not for everyone, and there are plenty of people who benefit from picking an alternative route. This article is for those of you who have decided that you definitely do want to go to college. You’re about to sacrifice a lot of time—and, in most countries, money—for a higher education, so let’s make sure you get that education.

You’re not going to find anything here about the optimal dorm-room setup or why you shouldn’t be friends with Kelsey M. or how to act at parties or whatever. That’s personal stuff you’ll figure out along the way. (See tip #9 below.) But as far as the academic stuff goes, if you’re in the market for them, here are some things you should know, no matter what college you’re headed to.

1. You’re the customer.

Never forget that.

Even if you have a full scholarship, or you’re lucky enough to live in a place that doesn’t charge tuition (hey Norway, what up?) you’re still spending time—that you could be using to make money— studying at an institution. (That wage money you lose is called your “opportunity cost,” by the way, and if you take any class that strays close to the field of economics, they’ll probably teach you all about it.)

The education you get in college will probably impact your life in a thousand tiny, intangible ways. It’ll teach you lines of inquiry and ways of reading and learning you’ve never encountered before. You’ll be exposed to new topics and people and debates and scenes. But at its heart, college is a service that you are paying for in one way or another, and you should treat it as such.

Think of it this way: If you asked your hairstylist for a trim and they shaved your whole head, you wouldn’t hand over 40 bucks or whatever and chalk it up to “I guess that’s how they do things here,” would you? No. When you pay for a service, you expect to receive that specific service. Likewise, when you enroll in college, you should expect absolutely dynamite instruction from a dedicated and attentive staff, and if you’re not getting that, you have the right to complain.

2. Choose carefully.

Never enroll in a course you haven’t investigated thoroughly. Spend as much time reading up on potential classes and teachers as you would looking into the details of a used car you might want to buy. You’ll avoid unpleasant surprises that way.

So, how do you choose your first-year classes? Four to five courses per semester is a reasonable amount. Make sure they’re spread out over the week so you’ll have time between classes to do all your coursework and still live a life that doesn’t involve you sucking down coffee at all hours of the day and night.

Your education should focus on whatever you want it to at the outset, but give yourself room to maneuver. If you already have a major in mind, that’s great, but make sure, when you’re mapping out your freshman schedule, that you’re not screwing yourself over if you decide to switch majors sophomore year. That means you should…

3. Get the requirements out of the way early.

Not all schools have core requirements—survey courses that give you an introduction to a variety of subjects—but if yours does, try to take them during your first two years.

If you’re laser-focused on studying a specific subject, or you’re looking to design your own bespoke curriculum, you might turn your nose up at “boring” required classes like European History 101, Introduction to Microeconomics, etc. But I found them really useful. They’ll give you a glimpse into the dominant style(s) of teaching at your new school, and offer a sampling of various fields of study. Plus—and I know I said I wouldn’t offer any personal advice, but what the heck—you’ll get to meet students who travel outside your own academic lane, which you might find harder to do as you move toward upperclassmanship.

Finally, required classes are usually solid, straight-down-the-middle courses that have been taken and reviewed by so many kids that there are unlikely to be any unpleasant surprises. No wild-card professors, no chance of a vague syllabus. You’ll know why you got the grade you got.

The drawbacks, and they’re pretty big ones, are that (1) survey courses are always the biggest ones, attendance-wise; (2) they’re usually full of kids who don’t want to be there; and (3) depending on the subject and the teacher, you might be one of those kids. The first two things you just gotta deal with (it won’t be the first time, nor the last, that you have to be around people who don’t care about something as much as you do); but if you’re bored to death in a required class, don’t just sit there, struggling to stay awake. One thing that rules about college is that, unlike in high school, if you really, truly hate a class, you can switch to a comparable but different one, or the same class taught by a different teacher. How do you do that? You talk to your adviser. Speaking of which:

4. Visit your adviser.

Most colleges will assign you an academic adviser before classes start. If yours does this, try to meet with (or at least talk to) this person before registration, so they can help you figure out which classes to take. They’ll know more about how your specific college’s system works and can answer any questions you might have. If you hate your adviser, you can ask for a new one (not guaranteeing it’ll work), but if you don’t, be nice to them—they can do all kinds of nice things for you, like help you switch classes later on, be your advocate when you’re having problems that affect your coursework, and direct you to other resources when you need them.

5. Plan ahead.

Once you’ve done your research and met with your adviser, register for classes at the earliest possible moment. Not only will you be more likely to get the classes you want, you’ll also end up in them with other kids like you, who were smart enough to find the classes they wanted and sign up for them early, so you know they really want to be there. (College classes are a lot less fun when they’re filled with people—students and teachers alike—who don’t care.) (And no matter how early you queue up for registration, have a list of backup classes ready just in case.)

6. Petition for stuff you want.

Most students don’t know about this, which is unfortunate, because it’s a pretty awesome thing. If you can’t bear the thought of spending hours of your precious liberal-arts education sitting in a theater-style lecture hall with 400 other students for that required Introduction to Sociology course, for example, you can almost definitely petition the administration to fulfill your sociology requirement elsewhere—like in that nine-student transgender-politics class taught by your favorite writer. Just make an appointment with the dean or your adviser. If your claim has merit, and you’re respectful and levelheaded in presenting it, you stand a good chance of getting what you want.

Appeal for almost everything you want academically. If you’re dedicated enough, you’ll probably get it. If the course you want to take is for grad students only, email the professor and see if they’ll make an exception. If it’s full, visit your dean. Another nice little secret is that, while professors put a cap on class sizes, actual classroom capacities are usually larger than that, and your dean might be able to drop you into a class that the registration system has told you is full. (This is a solid reason to try to stay on the dean’s good side.)

Also, this probably merits a longer piece, but if you’re learning disabled and you need extra time on exams or some other academic accommodation, don’t be afraid to petition the administration for that. Go to your school’s learning center, or your adviser, and let them know what you need. You’ll need to provide an official diagnosis (or get tested by the school), and there will be some paperwork to fill out. (That paperwork can take up to seven weeks to process, so start on all this early.)

7. Form a study group.

If you find yourself struggling with a particular class or topic—and, you know what, even if you don’t—it’s always a good idea to get together with other students who give a shit about the subject to go over class material.

The most important thing is that you guys get together semi-regularly. That way, you can’t get out of spending some extra time on the subject in question, and you’ll develop a little group of friends who are taking it too—which will make it easier to speak up in class and make school more fun, which is always a good goal. I had a comedy-writing group like this when I was in school that ended up meaning a lot to me.

8. Take advantage of office hours.

Don’t just interact with students; get to know your instructors too. Almost every professor has this thing called office hours, where they’re required to be in their office, with the door literally and figuratively open to students who have questions related to the subjects they teach. You’re essentially paying for these hours whether you use them or not, so you might as well use them. Don’t be intimidated by the stature of the professor, no matter how famous or busy they seem.

Here’s something else most people don’t know: When you’re in college, you can meet with pretty much anyone who teaches there, even if you’re not taking a class from them. Absolutely do that. It’s the last time you’ll have access to so many experts in so many subjects, with whom you can just arrange a meeting anytime you want, and they have to talk to you. I can think of very few other post-childhood instances where “because I’m curious” is considered a valid reason to meet up with a virtual stranger. Professors usually have to offer office-hour slots to their own students first, but there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to get some time with that skydiving economist you admire. Also, it’s a good way to vet teachers you’re thinking of taking courses from in the future.

9. Don’t take personal advice from strangers on the internet (including me).

In 2008, when I was getting ready to start my freshman year at New York University, I read countless “So you’re headed to college!” articles. They usually started with the line “College can be one of the most _______ experiences of your life,” and the blank space was filled with some dramatic adjective like exciting or enriching or frightening. Because I was young and pretty scared of the unknown, I believed whatever they told me and took all of the advice that followed.

Now that I’m a few years on the other side of that “_______” experience, I realize that it’s a space you fill in yourself. College is what you make it. Work hard. Have fun. And watch out for Kelsey M. ♦

Alex Edelman is a comedian, writer, and NYU graduate. He’s currently performing a solo show called Millennial at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland.

16 Comments

  • Abbey xoxo August 11th, 2014 5:36 PM

    I freaking love this article! Definitely going to make sure I read this again when I’m attending college. Very informational, thank you so much! :)

    http://dearabbeyxoxo.weebly.com/

  • mangointhesky August 11th, 2014 5:48 PM

    Love these tips/suggestions/ideas/whatever (and I love the addition of humor… Or is that just my weird sense of humor going off again?!)

    http://lescarousels.blogspot.com

  • NotReallyChristian August 11th, 2014 7:19 PM

    This is a useful article with some good general advice, but actually university works very differently in different countries so a lot of this isn’t relevant to, say, the UK where you pretty much choose your ‘major’ before you even go (Scotland is a bit more flexible, but not as much as the US) and probably the majority of your classes are going to be ‘required’. In general UK universities are a lot more idiosyncratic and have their own ways of assessing and grading students that aren’t based on a universal credit system. I’m not complaining because obviously Rookie is a US-based site, but just to let other Rookies know that your experience isn’t necessarily going to be like this! That said, points 1, 7, 8 & 9 are all pretty useful :)

  • xxrosee August 11th, 2014 7:30 PM

    Thanks so much for this!! As an incoming (NYU!!) freshman, I was slightly anxious about starting school, but this was really helpful and reassuring!

  • taste test August 11th, 2014 8:59 PM

    oh my god. so that’s what advisers are supposed to do, lol. I was stuck with a terrible one who pretty much ignored me for my first two years (and yes, I wish I had taken the advice in the article and worked to get transferred to someone better). now I have a major adviser who’s actually good and I have no idea what to do. most of my interactions with my old adviser consisted of awkward emails that basically followed the format “can you give me some advice on this?” “oh wow, I’m not sure what you should do!” “uh, thanks?”

  • izizansari August 12th, 2014 1:05 AM

    i’m off to college in a week and this article honestly reminded me that i have the right to fight all the way for my education. i went to US public school so i was used to being told what to do and just accepting curriculum and basically anything academia threw at me. but now that i’m paying for my education i gotta get my money’s worth!! so thank you!

  • Nadifa August 12th, 2014 2:19 PM

    Thanks for these input! I don’t know what I’m feeling about college, I’ll make sure I’m filling the “______” once I start my 1st year :)

    http://thebasementoffosterkids.tumblr.com

  • kendallakwia August 12th, 2014 4:40 PM

    luckily I’m going to a small small college in a large large city in one of my favorite places in the world. so excited xx

  • nola August 12th, 2014 10:09 PM

    How much of this is relevant for a 2-year school? I’m starting my college career at a community college [www.sheltonstate.edu] and I love it. We have advisers, but I’m not sure if the faculty maintains office hours…

  • rahima August 13th, 2014 3:35 AM

    haha this is so smart. the last part made me laugh.. though i’m not studying at nyu, some of the advice seems pretty helpful.

  • whiskeytangofoxtrot August 13th, 2014 1:29 PM

    If you are like me, and panic and go blank in exams and/or can’t write a decently composed, non-rambling (yet grammatically correct) paper to save your life, it goes SO FAR to interact with your professor and participate in class discussions and topics and never be late! I abysmally failed my final and couldn’t get higher than a C on any papers I handed in to a particular class, but I achieved a B+ based on the fact that my prof knew I knew my stuff! I even asked her about it, because it seemed like a strange grade for how I felt I did in the class, and she confirmed that she was confident in my knowledge of what she taught based on what she saw in class time and our discussions about materials.

  • ameliamad August 14th, 2014 12:26 AM

    very very helpful :) I feel less anxious about starting college next week. :)

    styleriottt.blogspot.com

  • tummy94 August 14th, 2014 8:21 AM

    hey rookies! heres another college protip!!!!:

    if you have a laptop (most peeps get one for college) download the kindle app!!! you can rent all your textbooks for like a third of the price…they automatically go back to amazon at the end of the semester. You can also search within the textbook (it pulls up and highlights every time the search word is mentioned) add notes, etc. I just discovered it and couldve saved myself hundreds of dollars on books and thousands of minutes flipping through pages. plus it saves paper! wooooo

  • hixbabez August 14th, 2014 10:10 AM

    These are all great tips. Other sort of perk things that may apply are:

    -Use your bus pass! I was issued one each year and rarely wandered out of my little college town when I could’ve explored other cities connected to the same bus network.

    -Go to the rec center. Mine was included in the cost of tuition, and although I did go a few times, I realize now it was a real luxury. Go swimming!

    -As a freshman, use your food passes. Sometimes if I had nobody to eat dinner with, I’d just snack on crackers in my dorm room. But the dining halls had such great food! Don’t waste them.

    -Counseling services. Your uni may offer a few free counseling sessions. Use them. So much stress comes with living away from home and performing well in school. Let someone help you feel better about all of it.

    -Career services. Especially if you’re going to major in something like Creative Writing (ahem… me), make them do as much of the work for you as they can in making your diploma useful for you.

    Tuition can be astronomically expensive. Get the most possible bang for your buck while you’re there.

  • Ehspen August 29th, 2014 8:00 PM

    Love this article!

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