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How to Maximize Your College Education

For many students, getting accepted into college is viewed as something of a finish line — especially after working for 12 years to get a high school diploma. While making it through high school and gaining admission to a college is certainly an accomplishment, it’s easy to think that you’ve “made it” once you move into your dorm. Classes aren’t all day anymore and you’re surrounded by a community of people your age looking to make lifelong memories. The hard part is over, right?

The hard truth is that only an astounding 36 percent of public university students graduate in four years, and 40 percent will still be trying to get that degree six years later. Less than two-thirds of students end up graduating at all. And if you do manage to stick it out, there’s a decent chance you’ll find yourself with a debt load to overcome: the average student in the class of 2014 owed $33,000.

While these statistics sound scary, there are ways to make sure you get the most from your college experience and the money you spend is not a waste. While it’s true that spending so much money — whether it’s yours or your parents — means you should do your best to get a return on that investment, it’s also true that college is a time to meet new people, learn more about yourself and have fun.

Here’s a guide with our college tips to help you have a well-rounded, productive college experience.

Preparing for Professional Life Outside the Classroom

Before you hit the classroom and the books, it’s important to prepare for your journey. Figuring out your passions and the types of topics you enjoy studying is important. You should also factor other educational experiences into your college track, such as internships and study abroad opportunities. Learning outside the classroom can offer equal benefits to the work you’ll be doing in the classroom.

Choose a Major

Choosing a major can be an intimidating and daunting process. Few people know what kind of career they’ll want to have when they’re only 18. But choosing your major doesn’t necessarily mean you’re selecting your entire life path: only 27 percent of graduates are working in jobs related to their major.

Still, choosing a major with a career in mind is a good idea. According to The Wall Street Journal, majors like Actuarial Science, Pharmacology and Education have a zero percent unemployment rate. An engineering or accounting degree can offer you enviable job prospects come graduation, and it’ll also save you from hearing “And what do you plan to do with that?” every time you tell someone what you’re studying.

However, don’t choose a major based solely on its job prospects. If you don’t like engineering, don’t put yourself through four years — and then maybe a career — of doing something you don’t enjoy. If you have a real passion for art or literature, major in the humanities. Try to go into it with a clear idea of how that major can help you get a leg up in the industry you actually want to be in.

Everyone is different, but try to make the decision about your major early on and stick with it. It takes many people more than four years to graduate because they spend too much of their college career taking classes that didn’t count towards their major. The sooner you choose a major you know you want to graduate with, the better. This will help you get the most from your college experience in the long run.

Find Internships

Internships are probably the best way to maximize your college education. An internship can help make up for a lackluster GPA and bolster a good one, because it offers you something that is generally a scarcity among college grads: practical, real world experience in a professional field.

It might be tough and financially impossible for many college students to give up a summer job for an unpaid internship. However, if you can make it work, an internship will benefit you in the long run. If you work hard and build your skills, an internship can give you almost everything you need when you start the job hunt: references and experience. Even better, some internships are paid.

If you do well enough where you’re interning, there’s a chance you can have a full-time job waiting for you at the same company when you graduate. 69 percent of companies that employed 100 or more people offered full time jobs to their interns in 2012. Not only will interning possibly give you a 7 in 10 chance of getting a full time job, but it will also help you learn if the job or industry is the one you want.

Study Abroad

Studying abroad is another opportunity that can help you get the most from your college experience and get an education outside of the classroom. Some of the appeal is undoubtedly related to exploring and partying in an entirely new country, but there are plenty of academic benefits as well. In a large survey of study abroad alumni, more than 80 percent of students said studying abroad increased their interest in academics and 35 percent learned a language they still spoke more than twice a month.

The positive results can also be more personal. 97 percent of respondents said their experience abroad helped them learn something new about themselves; 63 percent of students who studied abroad way back in the ‘50s and ‘60s reported they’re still in touch with friends they made on their trips. Studying abroad can help you succeed within your classes, help you learn about yourself, and help you gain lifelong friends. Why wouldn’t you take advantage of that?

Preparing for Professional Life in the Classroom

It goes without saying that academics should be your top priority throughout your college experience. You may hear the phrase “D is for Diploma” tossed around a few times by some of your peers, but a bad GPA can limit your opportunities post-graduation.

Though some employers may not ask for your GPA, many companies will. These companies can use your GPA as an easy way to manage recruits. Some won’t even consider candidates with GPAs below 3.0 or even 3.5. And if you decide you want to attend some sort of grad school, the string of Cs you got your first semester can severely limit your chances or disqualify you.

When it comes to getting good grades, what you really want to know is how to do it. There are plenty of study tips for college students that you can implement both during and after class.

Go to Class

The first, most important rule of doing well academically involves going to class. This sounds easy enough, but the temptation to stay in bed and sleep through an 8 am class proves too strong for some students — and their grades suffer. As Woody Allen once said, “80 percent of success is showing up.” That’s especially true for your classes.

If you get in the habit of showing up and arriving on time, you’re already ahead in a few ways. When you’re in the habit of rarely missing class, many classes with an attendance policy give you a free 15 percent of the grade just for being in the room.

When your professor doesn’t have an attendance policy, the temptation to skip may be stronger, but the need to go to class will be equally as important. Sometimes, changes in the syllabus are made — such as a pop quiz — that you won’t know about if you’re not there. And when it comes time to take your midterm and finals, you want to be confident that you’re studying all of the possible material on the exam. You can’t always count on notes from a classmate to give you the full picture.

Find ways to enjoy going to class. It may be easier in some classes than others, but do your best to think of learning as something that can directly affect you as a person — not as some abstract exercise you have to endure to get a grade. If you can relate class material to your own life or think of ways the classes are making you a better, more knowledgeable person, you’ll actually want to go to class. The best students are the ones who have a desire to learn.

Take Notes

There are different note taking styles, and it all comes down to personal preference. Some students prefer typing notes during class because you can write more things faster, keep your notes more organized, and search your notes for key terms instantly.

But the old pen and paper method still has a lot of value. Laptops offer a lot of distractions and you’ll notice many students in your lecture halls spend more time on Facebook than a word processor. A pen and paper might not distract you as easily as a laptop could.

Additionally, being able to type more sounds better, but it can often make students think they have to write more. These students end up taking down a lot of extraneous information. A recent study found that the relatively slow speed of handwriting notes forces you to select key ideas to write down. Handwriting also helps you process information in a more substantive way. Taking notes in longhand can help students remember and understand lectures better.

Participate

No one likes the student who raises his hand to ask questions the professor just answered, to give long speeches designed to show off some unrelated knowledge, or to answer every single question the professor asks. But there’s a middle ground between over-participating and never making a sound the entire semester. Participating in class is one of the most helpful ways to get the most from your college experience and build relationships with your professors.

If you’re in a discussion-based class, find that middle ground by not being afraid to offer your opinion. However, recognize when it’s time to give someone else a chance. Don’t be timid when you don’t understand something. As many professors will tell you the first day of class, if you’re having trouble understanding something, another student probably is too — they’ll be grateful if you speak up.

Understand Your Studying Style

You’ll find many study tips for college students, but what will work depends on what kind of learner you are. Visual leaners need to see things to understand them, and they often have trouble with spoken directions. Visual learners should try rewriting and color coding their notes while studying, and make use of diagrams and charts as much as possible.

Conversely, auditory learners have difficulty following written instructions and understand things better when they hear them. If this describes you, try recording lectures, identifying key parts, and listening to those clips again and again. Join a study group where you can talk about difficult concepts and hear solutions verbalized.

Kinesthetic learners can find it difficult to learn in a lecture-based class. These learners prefer hands-on learning, can assemble things without reading instructions, but have difficulty sitting still. To study kinesthetically, try going for walks when you study to connect the movement with the class concepts. Take frequent study breaks, make models and role play whenever possible.

No matter what kind of learner you are, do your best to plan study sessions throughout the semester. Even if you only have a midterm and final exam, you don’t want to get in the habit of cramming. Try to set aside a little bit of time every day to review your notes, so you don’t have to reteach yourself a semester’s worth of material the night before an exam.

Go to Office Hours

This is an obvious college tip that many students hear, but still avoid doing. Office hours are regular times you can meet with your professor and talk about difficult concepts, paper ideas, exam questions or whatever you want. You can truly maximize your college education by being proactive about learning and gaining knowledge. You’ll quickly find that professors can provide you with a large amount of wisdom in a one-on-one setting versus a student-filled lecture hall.

If you’re attending class regularly and participating frequently, the professor probably already knows your name. However, visiting during office hours will give them a broader idea of who you are. Inevitably, office hour discussions can turn to what your plans are beyond graduation — professors can often give you a lot of help in finding future opportunities. And if the worst happens and you find yourself needing an extension on an assignment deadline, professors will be much more understanding if you’ve come in and seen them before.

Have a Good Time

Getting good grades and finding jobs are certainly important, but don’t get burnt out. Take advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime chance to have fun and meet new people.

Lots of students start their college experience hearing the phrase, “The best years of your life!” and feel a lot of undue pressure to fit in with a social scene right away. Don’t worry too much if you haven’t found some BFFs your first week on campus. Everyone else is trying to make new friends too, so resist the urge to stay holed up in your dorm room with your roommate. Keep your door propped open when you move in to encourage your neighbors to say hello.

Even if you’re not living on a college campus, joining clubs is another great way to meet people. Typically, you’ll already have a common interest if they’re in the same club as you. Depending on where you go to school, parties may be sparse or ubiquitous. If you get your work done during the week, you’ll have plenty of time to have fun on the weekend. But it’s crucial to plan your party attendance around your schoolwork, not the other way around.

College can be fun, expensive, challenging and, at times, surprisingly easy. If you’re looking to get the most from your college experience, follow these tips to get the most bang for your buck.

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