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Jan. 3 2010 - 4:40 pm | 476 views | 3 recommendations | 6 comments

17 things high school grads need to consider before leaving for college

I recently wrote about the idea of taking a “gap year” after high school. However, most high school graduates will go straight to college. For those students and their parents, I would like to offer 17 thoughts on the undergraduate experience, which I wrote to help prepare my former students for college. They are based on (a) what I did (and failed to do) as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, and (b) my experience as an academic advisor at the University of Virginia a few years ago, when I lived in a first-year dorm and advised 250 students. If there’s anything you think should be added to the list, please let me know!

1) If you don’t feel comfortable with your current counselor or faculty advisor, switch to someone with whom you are more comfortable! I had a great relationship with my advisor, and because she got to know me really well, she was able to help me make good decisions when I chose classes and tried to figure out what to do with my life.

2) Don’t feel pressured to figure out your major(s) right away! Exploring and changing your mind is what being an undergrad is all about! That said, it is a good idea to declare your major(s) by the end of your sophomore year or the beginning of your junior year.

3) Double major if possible—it will make you twice as marketable and allow you to learn about two fields in depth (even if they are totally unrelated!). For example, I know people who double majored in economics & philosophy, film & psychology, and history & Spanish.

4) In your first year or two, take a philosophy course and a psychology course, no matter what you are thinking of majoring in. Philosophy will teach you how to think critically, while psychology will help you understand how you (and other people think). Not taking classes in these areas early-on was the biggest mistake I made as an undergraduate.

5) In your first year or two, take one history course per semester that deals with recent events. Look for course titles such as: The 1960s; The Vietnam War; U.S. History from 1930 to the present; or 20th Century American History. No matter your major, it is important to understand the recent past so that you have some context for what is currently happening in the world with regard to the economy, politics, religion, war, etc.

6) In your first year or two, take a course on world religions. Understanding the history and major tenets of the world’s major faiths is very important given our religiously pluralistic society.

7) No matter what you decide to major in, take econ 101, econ 102, and accounting during your undergraduate years. The recent economic downturn has made it evident that everyone should have at least a basic understanding of how the U.S. and global economies operate, and how businesses and banks account for their money. This may not seem like a necessity at age 20, but when you’re 30 and trying to make a strategic career shift, or wondering where or how to invest your money, you’ll be thankful you were so wise a decade earlier. I was not this wise; as a result, taking these 3 classes has been on my “to do” list for about 6 years.

8 ) Talk to your professors! Introduce yourself on the first day. Sit near the front of the class. Participate in class if it is allowed. Go to office hours. If you don’t have a relationship with a professor, it’s your fault. You need to take the initiative. And trust me, it can help your grade if you are ever borderline in a course. I once got an A in a class where I had gotten an A- on both papers and a B+ on the midterm. My class participation and relationship with the professor gave me a boost. 

9) Find your school’s free tutoring resources and use them from day one. Most schools have peer tutoring centers, where you can make an appointment with an upperclassman or graduate student and get help with your writing assignments. Most students struggle with their writing when they first get to college, so it’s a good idea to use a peer tutor as much as possible your first semester. Don’t wait until you get a bad grade on a paper to take advantage of this terrific resource!

10) Study abroad if possible! As we move deeper into the 21st century, it will become even more common for people to travel and work in countries outside their own. Taking part in a study abroad program will give you a taste of this. You will learn about a different culture, eat different food, and possibly speak another language. You also will make friends with people your age from other countries and learn about their perspectives on the world. I very much regret not studying abroad when I was an undergraduate.

11) Find a way to balance your time between academics, extracurricular activities, friends, and (possibly) a part-time job. For example, it’s important to be involved (and eventually be a leader) in one or two student organizations, but you also have to keep your GPA at a high level. And though you may need to work part-time as a part of your financial aid package (or just to make a few dollars), you must make time for extracurriculars and friends. Time management is an important skill, and the faster you learn it the better.

One thing I found frustrating as an undergraduate was the reality that I couldn’t always give my best effort to all my undertakings. There were many situations where I had to do a cost-benefit analysis to determine where my time and effort would go. For example, in an end-of-semester crunch you might decide to spend 80% of your time studying for one exam, and only 20% studying for another exam. The reason? One class you need for your major, while the other class is just an elective. Or, in December of your junior year you may slack off on your studying and put all your effort into a project for your student organization. The reason? Elections for next year’s leadership positions are coming up in February, and you feel that doing a good job on this project will convince others in the organization to elect you president. College is all about deciding what your priorities are and making decisions accordingly.

12) On most any day of the week for the next four years, you will have the opportunity to attend concerts, plays, and sporting events, and to visit museums, art galleries, and cultural festivals. As a student, these things will cost little or no money, so take advantage and try new things! Attend a student-produced play, a women’s field hockey game, or a swim meet, even if you don’t know anyone who is performing. Meander through an art gallery, and enjoy the quiet atmosphere and the beauty of the paintings and sculptures. You can find a calendar of upcoming events in the student newspaper or on the Web.

13) Most students in the United States attend high schools that are, for the most part, racially homogenous, and college is the first time they will attend classes with or live among people who don’t look like them. College is also the first time many students will meet someone their age from another country, or someone who practices a different religion. It can be tempting to hang out exclusively with people who look like you or come from the same background as you, but I encourage you to broaden your social circle. Becoming friends with people who are different than you erases stereotypes and is a great way to learn about other countries, other parts of the United States, and other ways of life.

14) Keep your computer files organized and back them up regularly. In today’s world, it is important that you can access information quickly. The files and folders on your computer should be named so that you can find what you need without any difficulty. And make sure to back up your files at least once per month. You might do this by saving them on a flash drive, burning a CD, or copying them onto your university-provided virtual storage space.

15) Frontload your effort. The worst thing that you can do is get yourself into a hole academically. So from the very first day, give your maximum effort, do your best work, and do more than is necessary. Then, if you find you are successful, you might be able to back off a little bit. But if you start off by not working as hard as you can, you might spend the whole semester trying to recover. How can you frontload your effort? Take advantage of peer tutoring services, especially for writing. Visit your professor and/or TA during office hours to ask questions. Set up a study group with 3-4 other people in some (or all) of your classes. Never skip class. And do the reading! If you do all of this from day one, you will never have to worry about “catching up.”

16) Proofread your papers. Never use grammar check in Microsoft Word—it is virtually useless because it applies the same set of grammatical rules no matter what or how you are writing. Also, don’t rely solely on spell check to catch your errors. For example, if you use “there” when you should have used “their,” the computer won’t realize you made a mistake. The best thing to do is finish your paper 24-48 hours before it is due. That way you can put it aside for a while, and when you come back to it with fresh eyes you’ll find that your errors will jump out at you. Also, don’t proofread the paper by reading it on your screen. Print it out and make corrections with a pen, just like you are a teacher grading a student’s paper.

17) Finally, regardless of the situation, never ever ever cheat or plagiarize! One of my English professors used to tell us, “If it’s 2 a.m. and you are so desperate that you are thinking about plagiarizing, call me.” The worst possible thing you can do as a college student is to cheat on a test or assignment, or plagiarize when writing a paper. One grade in one class is not worth getting kicked out of school. Don’t do it, no matter what!


One T/S Member Comment Called Out, 6 Total Comments
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  1. collapse expand

    Hey Michael, great list! I have long argued that universities should require students to take at least one economics class. Many students do not, and will not voluntarily. So in our country today, we have an “educated” populace with little or no understanding of the economics of our society.

  2. collapse expand

    This is great.

    I’d suggest, however idealistic, also taking care of your health, mental and physical. Depression is a serious issue on college campuses as is suicide. Binge drinking is widespread and dangerous for both young men and women; it can create situations where date rape is easier, which can add even more trauma. There can be tremendous peer pressure when it comes to drugging, drinking and sexual behaviors; students need to find, and use, support systems to help them make smart(er) choices.

    Every female student needs to know how to access, use and insist on the use of condoms. And know how to get and use Plan B.

  3. collapse expand

    Re: #10: I couldn’t agree more. My biggest regret about my undergraduate years is not taking a semester in another country. And while I did the Eurail Pass tour for about four weeks after graduation, it’s not the same as getting immersed in a different culture for several months.

  4. collapse expand

    I agree with Caitlin Kelly; her comments would qualify as #18. Economics used to be a required class in college–I guess that has changed (back in the 70’s).

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    About Me

    I'm a Teach For America alum and spent three years as a high school teacher on the west and south sides of Chicago. I've conducted research on turnaround schools with a team from the University of Virginia, consulted for school districts across the country, and done work with New Leaders for New Schools, the Consortium on Chicago School Research, and DonorsChoose.org. Currently I'm finishing my PhD from UVa's Curry School of Education.

    My work has been published in Education Week, the Phi Delta Kappan, and a number of academic journals, and I'm a co-author of the book Teachers' Guide to School Turnarounds. I also contribute monthly to GOOD, the website "for people who give a damn": www.good.is/community/MichaelSalmonowicz

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    I am a contributor for GOOD, the website “for people who give a damn.” You can read my June column here. Past columns can be found here.