Now is the time of year that high school seniors are going to start getting either thin or thick letters back from the college to which they’ve applied. I’ve just had the chance to work with a number of high school kids and I was pleased to see them putting so much thought and effort into the issue of their higher educations.
So I have some advice I’d offer to kids getting ready to go off to school. If you haven’t got any letters yet, relax. Everyone gets in to some college; not everyone gets in the college of their first choice. Many high school seniors will be in the enviable position of having to pick between multiple acceptances, which leads in to the first of my tidbits of advice:
- All other things being equal and assuming that the financial resources to support such a decision are available, pick a college that is geographically as far away from your own family as possible. This will teach you a measure of personal independence that you wouldn’t get if your home and current support group are readily at hand. You will need to form a new support group in your new location. It will also encourage you to explore areas of the country and the world you haven’t been to yet.
- As soon as you can, take a class in symbolic logic. Not just critical thinking — symbolic logic. Take it for a grade, not pass/fail. Chances are excellent that enrollment in that class will be low, so you should be able to walk right in. Chances are good that the class will be offered to freshmen with no prerequisites. I don’t remember the instructor of the symbolic logic class I took my first semester of college. I do remember that there was no more valuable class I took, either in or out of my major. It made me smarter, it made me better able to assimilate all of the other information I learned in every other class or activity I was involved in.
- Plan your route to graduation early. Read the graduation requirements, pick a major and have a working academic plan — written down on paper, paper that you actually refer to and use when enrolling for your classes. While it’s okay to still not know what you want to be when you grow up, you should structure your academic efforts towards the goal of graduation. Figure out how many units (or semester-hours, or whatever your college calls them) you’ll need to graduate, what kinds of classes you need to complete your major (and minors, if you have any), and when those classes are offered. Plan your work, then work your plan.
- Pick a major that you enjoy. You’re going to be studying and working with the subject matter in your major a lot. You’ll be expected to demonstrate some intellectual mastery of the subject. If you find the subject matter dreary or tedious, you’ve chosen badly and need to do something else. If you like what you’re studying, it will not seem like work and instead you’ll be having fun in class as well as out of it.
- Particularly at a large college, competition for high-demand classes can slow down your academic progress. Therefore, do something to get priority in class registration. That might be athletics. It might be some kind of an academic priority. It might be student government. I don’t know what it might be in your case, because each college does things a little bit differently and it has been twenty years since I first enrolled in college so things may have changed a bit. Learn what that might be, so you can get into pretty much whatever class you want during registration.
- Yeah, it’s a lot of fun, but don’t drink too much or smoke too much pot. I won’t tell you not to do these things at all. They’re part of the experience. But remember that bad things can happen, rather easily, when you partake to excess — and yes, that includes pot, if only in that it has a strong potential to sap your ambition and make you act and be perceived as less smart than you really are. But there are worse things that can happen than that. Don’t get drawn in to the mythology about drinking to excess at parties or spend all your time in reefer dens.
- Make friends with members of the faculty. When you find a professor who challenges you intellectually, whose subject intrigues you, and who seems to be somewhat interesting, make time to visit that professor during office hours or to speak after class. Be respectful of the professor’s time — understand that most university faculty members see teaching and instruction as a sidelight to their real job, which is research. But at the same time, they are in the teaching profession because they like their discipline and probably will enjoy talking about it with a bright, interested young person. It is by cultivating these friendships, founded on a common interest, that you will develop faculty mentors and professors who can write meaningful letters of recommendation for you later. Bear in mind also that you do not necessarily need to agree with the professor’s politics in order to cultivate a friendship — the best kinds of faculty friends to have are the ones who will respect you for being able to defend yourself in areas where you have disagreements.
- College is, in addition to being one of the most fruitful times in your intellectual life, also one of the most fruitful times in your social life. Make lots of friends. Some of them you’ll lose touch with after graduating or even during school. Others you’ll keep for the rest of your life and they will be a source of comfort, joy, and support. The more friends you make now, the more of those great, lifelong friends you’ll have with you later.
- Over time, you’ll have the ability to pick classes with different grading formats. Challenge yourself to pick as many classes that let you write papers for your grade as possible. The writing skills you learn this way will be an advantage in life no matter what you do. If you acquire any kind of ability to write with proficiency, you’ll be distinguishing yourself from your peers, and your grades will rise as a result. The classes where you get your grade from a term paper rather than a final also tend to be lower pressure on you because you won’t be cramming for a final, and they also, well, won’t have a final and all the suckitude that goes along with final exams.
- Join a club or two — but not eight or nine. There will probably be about two hundred different kinds of clubs and interest groups you can join. Explore a bunch to see what you’re interested in and the kinds of people who are in them, but do not overextend your extracurricular time into too many other activities. Don’t neglect your studies at the expense of the fun stuff the clubs do. If you join a fraternity or sorority, you’ll probably be given guidance by the seniors who mentor you that your fraternity/sorority activity and school will leave you with very little time for anything other than one other group, athletic, or club activity. If you’re not in a fraternity or sorority, that’s still good advice.
- Particularly if you are staying in the dorms, make and stick to a regimen of physical exercise and a reasonable diet. It’s easy to put on the pounds — dorm food is heavy with the carbs, tends to be all-you-can-eat, and you’ll probably be drinking alcohol, both more frequently and in larger quantities, than you had ever imagined you would. That’s how I put on my unwanted extra weight, in my first year of college. Learn from TL’s mistake and pay attention to what you’re doing to your body. That way you’ll have an easier time achieving the last suggestion I’m going to make:
- Have lots of sex. Never again in your life will you have so much opportunity to have wild monkey sex with such a proliferation of available and willing partners. Be safe, but this is the very best opportunity you’ll ever have to experiment and enjoy yourself. The Buddhist master is exactly right:
Have a good time, kids. We’re all jealous of you.