College Bound? Summer Advice

June is the month when high school students joyfully celebrate the end of their K-12 journey and breathe a deep sigh of relief as they firmly grasp college acceptance letters. After high school graduates (and their parents) rejoice, the remaining summer months should be spent wisely by planning how to maximize value from the upcoming college experience.

Maximize value? Yes. A college education is a significant investment. According to the College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2013-2014 school year was $30,094 for students at private colleges, $22,203 for out-of-state students attending public universities, and $8,893 for in-state students at public universities. Due to the substantial financial outlay, students need to think carefully about how they can get the most out of their college years.

Here are some strategies for students to contemplate before they leave home this summer:

  1. Find a good advisor. A good academic advisor is an essential component to a successful college career. Most colleges will assign an advisor to incoming students. After meeting with the assigned advisor, students should assess if there is a good match. Does the advisor appear knowledgeable about requirements? Does the advisor appear genuinely interested in students? Does the advisor take time to get to know students and talk about course options? If there's not a good match, students should find out when and how they can change advisors. Often, the student grapevine is the best source to identify student-friendly advisors.
  2. Don't get locked into a major too early. First-year students often feel that they should declare a major. Some may feel pressured to choose a major suggested by parents or significant others. This pressure is counterproductive. The average student entering college with a declared major will change majors three to five times, while those students entering college with an undeclared major will only change majors one or two times. Students should sample courses not directly related to their intended field of study and expand their intellectual horizons. An academic advisor can help students understand what is required of various majors and identify those majors (such as engineering) which have a curriculum of tightly sequenced courses allowing less flexibility to experiment.
  3. Go to the career services office the first and every semester. Most students have an incomplete and, perhaps, inaccurate knowledge of the breadth of occupations that exist; they will benefit from an intentional career exploration plan. This exploration might start in the career services office with tests to explore strengths, preferences and interests. While these tests will not tell students what to major in, the results should be critically examined and factored into a decision-making process along with other considerations. Early on, students should find out what other resources are available in the career services office (e.g., internships, job shadowing opportunities, summer employment opportunities, and alumni mentors) to inform and support their career explorations.
  4. Get to know individual faculty. Most faculty members choose to go into the education profession due to a love of knowledge and a desire to convey that knowledge to the next generation of learners. Faculty members resonate with students who express an interest in their subject matter. Beyond regularly attending class and actively participating in class discussions, students also need to take advantage of faculty office hours. This one-on-one faculty-student interaction is valuable as learning occurs both inside and outside the classroom. On a more practical note, when students graduate, faculty members will be asked to write letters of recommendation; they need to know more about students than simply the grades earned in class.
  5. Get engaged in campus life in the first semester. Students often experience a separation phase as they leave home, then a transition stage where they feel that they no longer belong at home but are not fully integrated into campus life, and finally an incorporation stage in which they are fully integrated into their new campus lives. To ease the critically important transition stage (as the first few weeks of college are often when students make decisions to drop out), students need to proactively make connections with other students. Joining campus organizations is a great way to do this...not only for enjoyable social interactions, but also for opportunities to strengthen teamwork and leadership skills.

College is a wonderful, life-changing experience. It is a remarkable time of personal and professional growth for students. While no two students will share the same collegiate journey, these basic strategies will help to increase the value and enjoyment of those very special years on a campus.