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How to Make The Most of Your College Education

Published June 21, 2021

8 minute read

David Ning

By David Ning

Every year, a new class of bright-eyed students gets ready to enter college for the first time. We hope you are heading off the school of your dreams. When Fall rolls around, college campuses across the country will be flooded with freshman — just like you. It can be a life-changing experience. However, whether it changes your life for the better or the worse is often a matter of whether you make the most of your upcoming post-secondary educational experience.

Many students have to borrow money to attend college. You don’t want to graduate with crippling debt and hardly any hope of being able to pay it off. You can’t simply shrug off this financial burden as something you’ll deal with later, either. There’s over $1.5 trillion worth of student loan debt in America right now. It’s a huge deal. So, to avoid feeling like you’ve wasted your money (and years of your life), here are some tips on how to get the best bang for your buck when it comes to your college experience.

Studying is Important

First and foremost, make time to study. This should be obvious right? You would think so, but thousands of students fall into the trap of getting too caught up in the campus lifestyle. There’s parties and social gatherings almost every day, if you look hard enough. It becomes all too easy to neglect your studies.

Sure, your GPA isn’t everything. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it still matters (especially in certain fields or if you’re planning for more school after your initial degree). So make sure you carve out enough time to study effectively. You’ll want to be able to retain what you’re learning so it can help you down the road — whether during exams or interviewing for your first post-college job.

Be Open Minded

Don’t assume that anything you learn is useless. Sure, not every college class is going to be lifechanging. I remember complaining about having to learn about eigenvectors in first year Algebra. I mean, who the heck really needs an intimate knowledge of eigenvectors for their day-to-day lives? It turns out I was right. Not remembering these random algebra calculations hasn’t prevented me from becoming a functional adult, earning a good living and contributing to society.

However, there were plenty of other “useless things” (or so I thought at the time) that turned out to be pretty valuable. I learned some basic economic theory, which helped me build a strong understanding of personal finance through concepts such as compound interest. I also learned coding, which gave me the know-how to launch a website on my own. This website now forms the basis of my company, an entity that puts food on the table for me and my family. So pay attention, because you never know which skills might end up being useful down the road.

Some Classes Really Are Life Changing

I took a ton of research, technology and logic classes. They have allowed me to dive deep into how the investment markets work. That, in turn, has helped me to build a good little nest egg. These days, it’s also helping me sort out what cryptocurrencies are. Even more important, they are helping me figure out which ones might change the world and which ones are parasites.

You should never underestimate which classes will help your future. Not only that, but you’re literally paying for every single class you take — whether it’s a core part of your program or merely an elective to fill out your schedule. You don’t want that money to be wasted, right? While you might never need to know about eigenvectors again, there’s certainly nuggets of valuable information in every class you take.

Make a Smart Schedule

You will be doing yourself a huge favor by making yourself a balanced schedule. You’ll obviously need for your classes, but you should also carve out time for studying, work (if you have a part-time job), and some sort of social life too. One of the best ways to do this is to make sure you’re not overloading your class schedule.

Start out with 12 or 15 credits a semester. That will give you some time to settle into your life routine, (hopefully) without causing you too much stress. There’s no reason to cram in 18 or 21 credits into a semester, especially in your first year. You’ll just end up burning yourself out, destroying your GPA, and wasting your tuition money.

Join Societies and Clubs…

Like I said, GPA isn’t everything. My cousin found that out when he applied to grad school. He had an amazing academic record, but not much else. There were no extracurricular activities or clubs on his transcript. He basically had nothing to showcase except for his impressive GPA. It made things a bit more difficult for him, as his first choice of grad school rejected him. Don’t worry, though, he still got into a really good program.

The whole thing was a big wake up call for him. He was a bit lucky to still land a spot in a great grad school program. He likely could have landed his first choice, if he had only made some time to diversify his college activities a bit more. Taking part in student societies, sports teams, or hobby groups can all help you get the most out of your college days.

…But Don’t Go Overboard

On the other hand, don’t go overboard with extracurricular activities either. Your time is already a precious commodity, so don’t give it away too freely. Start with something that you’re naturally interested in. Or join the honor society for your major and work toward becoming an officer. You could also join a campus service club or organization. Involve yourself in music or drama, if that’s where your interests lie.

A little extra effort in these areas can impress recruiters. It can also enrich your life. There’s a good chance you’ll make friends in these areas that will last a lifetime. College is about more than furthering your education, after all. It’s also your first real experience living life as an adult. It can be easy to get too caught up in your new social circles and forget that you’re paying thousands of (possibly borrowed) dollars to be there.

Non-School Activities Will Benefit Your Life Too

I wish I pursued playing basketball more. By no means was I ever going to be a basketball star, but I loved playing. When I was college, though, I was just too lazy to go to the gym regularly. Had I continued playing through college, I likely would still be playing to this day — even just recreationally.  I miss the on-court camaraderie and the banter. I wasn’t the biggest trash talker, but I even miss those exchanges too.

Sure, I could always try to pick the game back up now. However, it would be a very tough climb. I haven’t really touched a basketball since school, so getting back into game-shape would be hard. Don’t make the same mistake I did. If you love doing something, don’t abandon it during college. You’ll end up regretting it.

Seek Out Internships…

You should definitely try to find out about any internship programs your school offers. You’ll get college credit, plus some valuable work experience. Nothing can help you land a better job than real world experience on top of your education and knowledge. These internships often turn into paid positions once your graduate, so getting your foot in the door is a smart move.

Some schools even build them in to certain programs. For example, my sister went to the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. They ask their students to rotate between four months of class and four months of intern work. It’s called a “Co-Op Program.” It’s also insanely successful. Their studies show that 96% of co-op students find jobs related to their field within six months, compared to 79% for all other university graduates in Ontario. It’s no wonder that University of Waterloo is regarded as one of the top universities in Canada.

…Or Research Opportunities

In some majors, your research experience can work just as well as real-world experience when it comes to getting a graduate assistant-ship at the next level or landing a job. There are undergraduate research opportunities at many universities. Try to participate if you have the chance. You’ll learn valuable skills and make good connections. You might even get rich if you are lucky.

My friend was in electrical engineering. He helped his professor invent something that ended up being sold to a major company. He didn’t specifically disclose his share of the pie, but the project was sold for many millions. I’m sure his share was well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Imagine getting that sum before you even graduate!

Connect with Mentors and Others Who Can Help

Look for mentors who can help guide you along the college process. Personally, I met one great professor who helped me out. He would meet with me regularly and always offered ways I could improve my situation. He guided me to industries related to my field of study — some that I never knew existed. I was always happy to help him with projects and he wrote me a great letter of recommendation.

These types of connections matter. Not only are they personally enriching, but they can also be a huge help professionally. Having these kinds of solid references when applying to grad school or new jobs are extremely valuable. Make a point to connect with your school’s advisors, professors, and other campus professional. Even networking with your fellow students or alumni can produce career opportunities down the road.

Think Long Term

It’s not just mentors. Anyone can end up changing your life so network and connect with people often. My sister spoke with an uncle in high school that steered her towards becoming an actuary because of her high aptitude in math. Before he made the suggestion, my sister didn’t even know that actuary was a profession and would never have entered the field. Years later, my sister is thriving and climbing the corporate ladder at a feverish pace. She’s literally on track to become those power women you see in the magazines.

She forwarded me a newspaper article the other day with a feature of her. We were joking that none of us could read it because it was in Korean and that the article might be saying bad things about her. She’s also forwarded us footage of her meetings that were shown on the nightly news. She’s a big deal. I’m so proud of her, but we all have that mentor to thank because her career trajectory might be very different if she picked a different field to study in.

The Bottom Line

College is much more than about getting a degree and being done with it. What you learn will not only start you off on a good (or not so good) career, but it’ll also be useful for you for the rest of your life. College is generally four years of your life and that’s too much time to waste. Remember this at all times. Enjoy adulthood and meet new people. Absorb the new atmosphere and soak in the new lifestyle, but don’t go overboard and totally neglect your studies.

With a little planning and the right attitude, your college education can include all the glamorous of campus life and the usefulness of everything you learn in class too. Both of these will benefit you in the long run, so don’t neglect either.

college students on campus

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David Ning

Experienced Finance Writer

David is a published author, entrepreneur and a proud dad. He firmly believes that anyone can build a solid financial foundation as long as they are willing to learn. He runs MoneyNing.com, where he discusses every day money issues to encourage the masses to think about their finances more often.

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