Updated: Feb 26, 2020
College in the United States is expensive. And overwhelming. If you choose to go to a big state school, like I did - the possibilities will seem endless. How do you pick which people to talk to, which classes to take, which clubs to join? How to find internships and summer research and fellowships? How do you ensure you're spending every moment making the most of every dollar you're spending?
As a recent online pymetrics test confirmed, I'm a strategist. I like having a plan of action, a reason for every decision. Showing up to a campus of 40,000 students overloaded my circuit. How was I supposed to uniquely determine which ones would become my best friends? Obviously, talking to everyone was not an option. I watched with horror as time passed and cliques formed in front of my eyes.
Similar internal conflict ensued with finding organizations, searching for summer placements, familiarizing myself with every "resource" available to students on campus. As a second semester senior, I've had over 3.5 years to explore every nook and cranny of my campus. This list should be applicable to most universities, and is a very useful guide for those who are indecisive, like me.
The most obvious resources to check out are the ones that the university will repeatedly advertise during welcome week and orientation. Common ones include:
Gym/Rec. Center Definitely make use of this, gym memberships become really expensive once you graduate ($30-$45/month). Often these include pools, group fitness classes, hot tubs, massage specialists, and intramural sports. Studying in college takes up a lot of time, and can cause a detrimental effect on your health, and henceforth on your academic performance. It's important to take care of your physical health consistently, and from the beginning. It can also be a fun activity to do with friends!
Mental Health Resources This is a big one. High school glorifies bad mental health practices. Among competitive and intelligent students, not sleeping and not having a life for the sake of studying is a point of pride. I remember my friends in 10th grade bragging how many AP classes they were taking, and how little sleep they were surviving on. As an adult, you should understand that there are long-term ramifications to this kind of behavior. You will eventually stop being able to sleep 3 hours a night. You will start hating what you used to love studying. You will receive your first F, fail for the first time (if you haven't already). Those moments are going to be hard, especially if you haven't put in the effort to build a support network. Don't wait for a failure to figure yourself out. Start early. Common issues mental health specialists deal with: test anxiety, generalized anxiety, stress-induced symptoms, depression, etc. All of these can lead to debilitating sadness, fearful avoidant behavior, headaches, fatigue, and many others. What most college students don't realize is that those aren't intrinsic characteristics that you just need to push through. With specific techniques, it's possible to lead a functional and successful existence!
Writing/Career/Fellowships Center Many universities will help various centers and offices helping their students get to professional development opportunities. Whether it's drafting resumes/cover letters/personal statements, or mock interviews, they have your back with preparation! If you're lucky (and by that, I mean searched for a school that has this), you will also have a scholarships and fellowships center. Coordinators at those offices are experts at helping you compile applications for elite opportunities like Rhodes, Boren, Fulbright, CLS and many others. Having a notch like that on your belt is internationally recognized in any vocation.
Career Fairs One of the main reasons tech-oriented students choose to go to very large state schools like mine, is the possibility to get recruited by large tech firms right on campus. At my university, companies like Boeing, Caterpillar, Wolfram Alpha have their own offices on campus! Being such an active recruitment pool really helps with networking to land that dream tech job, having the opportunity to test drive resumes and practice elevator pitches and interview skills starting with freshman year. Additionally, small startups from Silicon Valley, that would be difficult to spontaneously come across online are also present. Think of this as LinkedIn Live!
Libraries and Tech Labs Universities love boasting about their world-famous libraries. In a world of digital resources, who even reads books anymore? Why is this important? Well, libraries aren't just big buildings used as studying facilities. Nowadays, libraries are powerful digital databases, with subscriptions to the most common academic resources - SpringerLink, JStor, etc. Don't forget this is a possibility when writing your research papers - a lot of this information is no longer available in public domain online! Additionally, often universities will have "specialized" libraries. This could mean a library specifically for your subject area, or my personal favorite - "Rare Book and Manuscript Library." Any student has access to "hang out" with books from for example, the 15th century! Artifacts like that are usually kept in museums, with access given only to museum researchers.
Never forget, learning is your #1 priority in college. What kind of learning is up to you, but if you're opting to pursue a university degree - really be sure that you want it. Be sure that you want to attend lectures, spend time bent over homework assignments, meet with professors, do research. If that's not the best way you learn, that should make you rethink what is the right next step in your career path. College isn't for everyone, and no one deserves to be miserable for 4 years, only to end up in large amounts of student loans - just because going to college is the status quo.
Attend lecture This isn't high school. You chose to be here, chose to pay thousands of dollars to be able to sit in these lecture halls. Why do that if you have no intention of actually learning? I used to be a huge proponent of ditching class. I justified it by telling myself my time is better spent doing homework or studying by myself for the same class. So why did I not know how to get enough out of those lectures? Why did I not find them as useful as sitting alone with a textbook? Turns out, preparing for lecture is a learnt skill. Even with not the best professors, with a little preparation - lectures become a worthwhile experience. Figure out how to best take notes, or maybe even not take notes - and just voice record. Read portions of the textbook or reading materials before each lecture - familiarizing yourself with the vocabulary will make the steep learning curve more manageable. If you're not sure what you can read to prepare - ask the professor! The good ones will be telling you which sections to review before class on their syllabus.
Talk to your professors. Go to Office Hours. This brings me to my next point. Even if you think you don't get much out of attending lecture, hopefully you're at a university where the professors are of worthwhile caliber - stars you aspire to be. I have found it more rewarding at times to schedule one on ones with the professors, so I can ask particular questions and guide my own learning process towards what makes most sense in my head. However, that requires having a relationship with the faculty member. Professors are required by university code to host x hours a week, where any student can show up to their office and ask questions. Make full use of this! The entire professional world runs on relationships and on established people vouching for you. The earlier you start building that infrastructure the better. At the same time, don't do this just out of professional motives. Having mentors is part of the circle of life, and having people you respect you can come to for guidance at low times in your life is essential for Surviving College 101.
Go to departmental events. Socials/Colloquia. Just because you're an undergraduate student, doesn't mean you cannot participate in the rich out-of-class life of the department. Especially in research-oriented fields, departments host a plethora of events, ranging from various regular socials to seminars and colloquia. This is an amazing opportunity to talk to older people who are super enthusiastic about the same thing as you! Additionally, it's a great way to get to know professors you might not have had in lectures, professors from other institutions, and in general, about professional opportunities available in your field. Last but not least, these events usually feature excellent catered food - which should be a dead selling point.
Represent your school at conferences. Most undergraduate students aren't aware, that you don't need to be a professional researcher to start talking about your thoughts and learning more about contemporary investigations in your field. There are many conferences specifically designed for undergraduate students! If you do your own research, it's fairly customary to also get fully funded by your department or your university to travel. However, if you just want to go and learn - that is also a possibility. Each university is its own bubble, and you should take advantage of any chance you get to educate yourself about opportunities outside of this bubble. Conferences are a really great resume point - it shows strong interpersonal and public speaking skills, which are highly valued in today's world.
Actually spend the time to learn class material. This is yet another of one of those unspoken rules students are supposed to just figure out by themselves. At my freshman orientation, one of the professors told us, that we were supposed to spend 3x time studying for a class, than we spent in class. I was unsure what that meant, since homework assignments were either completely incomprehensible, or ones I could do in under 1 or 2 hours. Only recently did I finally understand the wisdom of her advice. Throughout our scholastic careers we were used to information being spoon-fed and force-fed to us - a passive take on learning. College is all about active learning. You will not learn optimally unless you adopt a "taking" mindset. You need to take the initiative to find learning opportunities, to read outside of class, to do extra exercises, to ask professors supplemental questions. The course requirements are a bare minimum, used to guide your education. If you're genuinely interested, the expectation is that you should go above and beyond. Most importantly, if you're using homework assignments and papers to guide your investigative process - start them early. It is the only way to give yourself ample time to truly explore.
3. Extra-curriculars (Clubs)
One of the most common tropes regarding making the most of your undergraduate experience is the active participation in Extra-Curriculars. Why engage in activities outside of the classroom? Well, being a good student is not an indication of being a good choice of employee. Succeeding at schools tests only a few skills: such as memorization, time management, and my personal nightmare - test taking. Employers in the 21st century (regardless of discipline) want to see leadership, collaboration and teamwork, strong spoken and written communication skills. Your average university class will give you theoretical background, but it will not teach you how to apply it. Extra-Curriculars are like mini job incubators, where you get a chance to develop these vital life skills. Here are a few of the most common types of useful clubs to join on campus:
Professional and Honors Organizations/Fraternities Did you know that the Greek system was not confined to frat parties and drinking? In fact, true to its origins, many elite professional and honor organizations exist within the Greek community. Their sole purpose - uniting a community of outstanding scholars or professionals in a particular subject area. Requirements to join are typically fairly strict: academic fraternities require a very high GPA, and business fraternities have a grueling interview and selection process. However, being a member gives you access to an unparalleled network, training opportunities, and a very strong notch on your resume.
Outreach and Volunteering You thought pretending to care about other people to get into the university of your dreams ended in high school? Wrong. Unfortunately, caring about contributing to this messed up world of ours is a lifelong important task, that you should try to work on, in parallel to your professional and personal responsibilities. In college this can manifest in many ways - volunteering doesn't always imply soup kitchen. For instance, APO (Alpha Phi Omega) is a national service fraternity, that gives you both an amazing community of students who care about the world, and tons of ideas on how you can help. Additionally, you can choose to volunteer within your vocation. A lot of outreach initiatives within the scientific disciplines surmount to running engaging instructional events for K-12 students, in hopes of inspiring them to be interested in the field. Plenty of opportunities - find what interests you!
"Sports" and Recreation For those of you who are jocks, this is obvious - playing on some team, either for the university or just for fun. However, this category encompasses all other stereotypical high school clubs that involved a "team" and "competition" component, such as Speech and Debate. Reasons to join these types of activities is for demonstrating ability to be a leader, AND be a good team member.
Academic and Research Last but not least, for us nerds - universities (especially big research ones) provide a unique opportunity for young scientists to get their hands on research. Plenty of labs on campus are constantly on the lookout for more hands on deck. The sooner you can get started doing research - the better. This experience will be very worthwhile long term, and you can get it in parallel to your education! Additionally, doing research during the school year strengthens your connections with faculty - and thus letters of recommendation, and increases your chances of scoring more prestigious summer research placements.
TL; DR: If you do even 20% of the things on this list, you will have had a very successful college experience!