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What to Do in College to Get the Most Out of Your College Education

By Miranda Marquit

college examWith college tuition rates on the rise, it comes as no surprise that many people are concerned about the value of a university degree and education. One can easily end up finishing a four-year degree with tens of thousands of dollars of debt in student loans.

Even if you have some of your tuition paid for by college scholarships, the costs of housing, food, and textbooks can be astronomical. These rising costs have led some to believe that a degree might not be worth it.

If you have decided that college is something that you want to pursue, it is important that you get the best value out of your time there and the money you have invested. Remember, you (or someone you love) is paying for your college education.

8 Things to Do in College Before You Graduate

Here are a few things you can do to enhance the value of the years you spend at university:

1. Go to Class

This is a hard one, I know. As a freshman, I hated getting up for 8:00 am classes. Sometimes I didn’t, and I always regretted it later. If you’re tempted to skip, keep the following in mind:

  • You paid for this. If you don’t feel like going to class, just remember that you paid for it. A great way to make this hit home is to figure out how much you’re paying per individual class period. It will change your mindset completely if you know exactly how much money you’re throwing away with each class you skip.
  • Academic growth is important. Keep in mind that going to class – especially if it’s a class within your major – isn’t just about getting good grades. It’s about mastering the material so that you can be a better student. Besides, as you progress through school, you will have options to schedule classes at more convenient times.
  • Impressions are everything. Finally, you’re more likely to impress your instructors, leading to better letters of recommendation and maybe even some resume-building experiences, like assisting with a class or performing research. My regular attendance at one of my minor classes in my junior year in college landed me a position as an undergraduate teaching assistant. It’s not a lot of fun to grade quizzes and enter scores for a freshman general ed class, but it looks good on your resume, and the instructor wrote me a great letter of recommendation later on.

2. Don’t Over-Schedule

Perhaps one of the best ways to insure against the temptation to cut class is to make sure your class schedule isn’t completely overwhelming. Plus, you won’t have time to do your best if you create a class schedule that is more than you can handle. Most varieties of student aid do require that you are a full-time student, but there is no reason to go crazy with the schedule. There is no need to insist on cramming everything in and finishing a year or two early (unless you are testing out of some subjects).

A key part of creating a manageable schedule is making sure you leave time for some extra-curricular activities. Many internships, graduate schools, and employers are more impressed by someone who took four years to finish, but did so with good grades and a stint in student government. Someone who finished in three years with mediocre grades and no leadership experience might not get the same opportunities in a competitive job market.

3. Network

College is a great place to network with both instructors, and other students. If you have the grades, join the honor society for your major. Sign up for a club or two, or get involved with student government. These are great places to meet other students, as well as instructors, who can point you in the right direction. You might be surprised at some of the doors that can be opened by people you’ve met in college.

I’ve experienced the benefits of college networking first hand. Some of the fellow students I met during my graduate program at Syracuse University have proven to be great connections. I was even able to provide short pieces for a national magazine as a result of a network connection from my time there.

In some cases, you might have the chance to attend a conference, or present at a symposium during college. If you do, make sure that you take advantage of networking opportunities. My husband was actually offered a job at a conference he attended as part of his schooling.

4. Internships

In the same vein, an internship offers networking opportunities as well as real world work experience. Many colleges actually require that you fill a certain number of internship hours to graduate. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that you will be paid – although it isn’t always the pay that’s particularly valuable. There is no substitute for hands-on experience in your field.

While gaining that important work experience, you can also lay the groundwork for your future. Do good work, and the people you meet during your internship will be happy to help you later on. An internship can turn into a more permanent job later, be a source of positive references, and provide you with network connections that can be useful down the road.

Visit the university career office, or the department offices for your major, to find out what opportunities are available. At the very least, you will get college credit and a great resume item. If you are really lucky, you will enjoy yourself, and get paid to boot.

5. Research Opportunities

Research opportunities are a great way to ensure that you are getting the most out of your college education. Here’s how one opportunity opened doors for me:

When I was a senior in my undergraduate program, I completed a research paper. There were two different options for a senior project. I decided that research experience might be valuable. I did primary research, including survey design and interviews, and analyzed data using a statistical program.

The result was a research senior thesis paper that won an award, and was even publishable. Learning research techniques not only helped me develop a useful skill, but it also provided something helpful for my resume.

Research opportunities for undergraduates are available in data collection, data analysis, and other areas. You can learn valuable skills and meet people you might not otherwise cross paths with. Helping on a project can introduce you to people who have other connections, and may be able to provide you with guidance and letters of recommendation.

6. Explore Different Areas of Study

You may enter college passionate and determined to focus all of your energy on a specific major, or you might be totally unsure as to what you’d like to do. Either way, amazing opportunities to explore new fields and discover yourself are part of the college experience. There are many reasons why you should go to college, besides just getting a job.

If you see something in the course catalog that interests you, and you have room in your schedule, take it! Even if you are dead set on your major, you’ll most likely need a variety of electives to graduate. Take advantage of the wealth of knowledge surrounding you. Who knows, you may find that your true calling is something you never dreamed of. At the very least, you’ll learn new things and become a more well-rounded person.

7. Study Abroad

Another way to grow through new experiences is to take advantage of the opportunity to study abroad. Many universities have special relationships with sister schools in other countries, allowing your tuition to be transferable. There may be a few extra costs involved, but you’ll get everything at the student rate. You never know what life will throw at you once college is over, so grab the chance to experience a different place and culture for a long period of time.

If you don’t want to commit to an entire semester or year abroad, watch for department-organized trips or field schools. These tend to range from one to six weeks and can be a fantastic way to test the waters if you’re unsure about travel. Get out there and see what the world has to offer.

8. Find a Mentor

One of the most valuable things you can do while in college is to find a mentor. A mentor can offer you help and direction, and provide useful pointers when it comes to finding work or getting into graduate school (e.g. MBA program). You should choose a mentor who has experience and extensive knowledge in the area you’re interested in.

You will need to work hard, and show your mentor that you are worth the time and effort he or she puts into you. A good mentor will go to bat for you, and can help you with introductions, letters of recommendations, and good advice.

Final Word

College isn’t just an overpriced extension of high school. It is a choice you make to further your education and figure out who you want to be. You can only get out what you put into it. If you take the time and make the effort, you will find that you can get more value for your money. You will graduate with more knowledge, experiences, a better resume, and connections who can help you.

What are some of your best tips to give to college students? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

(photo credit: Shutterstock)

Miranda Marquit
Miranda Marquit is a freelance writer and professional blogger specializing in personal finance. She writes for several web sites, and her work has appeared in numerous online and offline publications. You can find Miranda's personal finance blog at AllBusiness.com.

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  • http://financiallyconsumed.com/wordpress/ Hunter

    I took advantage of a study abroad opportunity and it really was a defining experience for me. I met my future wife, and ultimately moved to the U.S. permanently (from Australia).

    College is so expensive, and increasingly more selective, it’s important to get the most out of it.

  • Tomare Utsu Zo

    “These rising costs have led some to believe that a degree might not be worth it.”

    College IS a bad investment for most people who take. Lost wages. Lost experience. Increased Debt. A degree can be valuable, if you are going into a field where you can’t just learn on the job. But, being a secretary, or just about any of the other soft fields, can be learned on the job. And, experience counts for more then education in many fields of work. I didn’t even go to high school. But, there is no job recession for me. I get job offers all the time. Because I didn’t waste my time getting a sub rate education from people who’s experience lies inside the walls of academia.

    So, to all you with 40k in student loans making 45k/y *points and laughs*

  • http://winningcollegegame.blogspot.com/ Ryan

    With all respect, I have to disagree – college is NOT a bad investment. If a student in unconscious about their actions (i.e. their major, their experiences, and their financing) they can have a very bad outcome. However, college graduates still on average make much more than their non-educated peers, and have better job security. And let’s not forget that college graduates, even when making the same amount of money as someone who did not attend college, tend to have far broader knowledge of the world than non-graduates. Post Secondary education may have its faults, but I would still prefer to hire a graduate than a non-graduate.

    If anyone wants to find out more about how to successfully navigate the corridors of academia, a good place to start is at http://winningcollegegame.blogspot.com/. I really like that the author tells it like it is.

  • http://www.mirandamarquit.com Miranda Marquit

    Thanks for your different opinions. I think that, ultimately, any experience is what you make of it. Different people benefit from different experiences, and what is right for you may not be right for someone else. In the end, though, you can make the most of just about anything.

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