Suggestions for College Juniors: Balancing the Joy and Practicality of Learning

Suggestions for College Juniors: Balancing the Joy and Practicality of Learning
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In my Huffington Post post on higher education, I have been stressing the joy and practicality of learning. What follows is a sequel to my "19 Suggestions for Incoming College Freshman," "19 Suggestions for College Sophomores," "Suggestions for Seniors Graduating From College: Planning for the Future," as well as my "How to Prepare for College." A number of people wrote me asking to complete my advice for each year and say something about the junior year, the one year I have so far omitted. Drawing upon my 47 years as a professor since arriving in 1968 at Cornell, and realizing that others will have additional suggestions, I have thought about the junior year. After discussing my No. 1 suggestion -- study abroad for a year or a term if at all possible -- I will briefly discuss some other suggestions.

The problem for today's college students, and especially juniors, is how to balance learning for practical purposes -- career and graduate school preparation -- with the joy of learning. I think of junior year as a bridge between the college experience and the post-graduate experience. It is your last year in the college incubator, but one that looks forward to a time when the college experience is over.

It is a year for testing and refining values, for discovering who you are and who you want to be. Obviously this is a process begun in grade school -- and, hopefully, continuing throughout your life -- but it comes to a head in the later college years. Key words for the junior year are "proactive," "imaginative," "experimental," as well as, on the practical side, "dossier building" (which means summer internships and work experience before and after your junior year are important). Even as you zero in on career and graduate student goals, you should make an effort to hone your communication and listening skills.

Junior year is the time to separate the wheat from the chaff in terms of making lifetime friends as opposed to superficial partying and to emphasize health and fitness. If excessive drinking has been an issue, it is time for moderation and self-control.

Writing in the NY Times, Frank Bruni has observed that college is the time to move beyond sectarian enclaves:

"{T]here's another dimension to college. . . . I'm referring to the potential -- and need -- for college to confront and change political and social aspects of American life that are as troubling as the economy. . . . [W]e should talk as much about the way college can establish patterns of reading, thinking and interacting that buck the current tendency among Americans to tuck themselves into enclaves of confederates with the same politics, the same cultural tastes, the same incomes. That tendency. . .[is] at the very root of our sclerotic, dysfunctional political process." ('Demanding More From College,' New York Times, Sept. 6, 2014)

Junior year is the time to broaden your horizons, reach out beyond your immediate circles, and develop your skills at seeing the points of view of others. Certainly developing tolerance is a goal that encompasses the joy and practicality of learning. If the current generation learns to communicate ideas in civil nuanced discourse, logically and lucidly -- presented in such a way that there is space for discussion and rejoinders -- all of us will have the pleasure of living in a less polarized and more civil society where democracy functions and diverse perspectives are respected.


1) If at all possible, take a junior term or year abroad and participate in the Global Village.

Having studied abroad my junior year, I am a strong proponent of that experience and urge everyone to take advantage of the opportunity if it is possible. I still think after fifty years that spending a year at Edinburgh was a transformative year in my life. Without email and with phone calls being very expensive for my frugal parents, I was really on my own, even much more so than at a residential college in the US. I travelled all over Western and Central Europe and even took a month long train trip--rare for its day--into Eastern Europe, mostly Russia but with some days in Poland.

Going abroad often makes young adults better citizens by offering them a more cosmopolitan perspective on how the world works than they can get at home. Some of this comes from meeting students from other countries. Even students from other countries who are fellow guests may be more open than when in the US.

By encountering new challenges, you will learn more about yourself. Students usually return with greater self-confidence, poise, and maturity. Keep a journal of your experiences and think about the consequences of your experiences. Nothing teaches you how to think better and at a higher level than new experiences and new situations.

Although as an English major I was restricted to British universities, and Oxford and Cambridge in 1961-62 did not welcome American Juniors, today's students have a wide array of universities to choose from. They now take a term or a year not only in Europe but also in such places as Sidney, Seville, Cape Town, Prague, and Buenos Aires to say nothing of Nepal and Senegal.

Even though the world is far more connected electronically than when I did my Junior year in Scotland and my parents and I communicated entirely by snail mail--except for their one 3 day visit--you still will need rely more on you own resources when in a different environment and you will also need to make new friends.

I have very rarely heard a student returning to her or his home university with regret about taking a term or year abroad. The experience of studying in a different country and in many cases in a foreign language enables you to live in different cultures and among a diverse group of students unlike those in your American University. While many US colleges and universities now have an international inflexion with more and more foreign students coming here to study, the normative values--educational and otherwise--reflect those of the United States; foreign guests tend to adapt to the dominant US culture. But when you are the foreign guest in another country the values of that country's culture of course dominate and you need adjust.

Virtually every country in the world has a concept of its own exceptionalism, something we in the US may assume is ours alone. People take pride in their history and culture even if they come from countries that some politicians and even news media in the US either patronize as "Third World" and insignificant to the world's geopolitics or regard as in social and political disarray. For example, one might reductively think of Nigeria as a place where a radical Islamic group called Boko Haram kidnaps young girls, but Nigerians take great pride in the positive achievements of heir country.

During your term or year abroad, you may not work as hard or learn as much in terms of course work as at your home university. But learning takes place outside the classroom as you are exposed to different political systems and different social customs. Living in a different culture outside the comfort zone that you have developed in your first few years of college, your learning will take new forms. You will not only be reading history, you will--as you immerse yourself in another culture--be living history.

Your assumptions about how the world is organized politically and socially will be challenged. You will discover that many of the truths that you were taught and take for granted will be questioned. You may think that the US is the land of opportunity as well as the protector and paradigm of economic and political freedom, but others may see the US differently.

Learning about other cultures and languages is best done, in my judgment, through travel. Students from other countries need to visit the US and we need to visit other countries. Travelling is education by life experience and complements education by books and professors. While abroad, you should travel as much as possible. The opportunity to complement the experience of studying at another university with travel within and beyond the country where one is studying is another major benefit of a junior year abroad. Be sure to visit as many countries as you can and to see as much of your host country as you can. My junior year abroad turned me into a lifetime traveller.

If you study in Europe, you will be much more conscious of Hitler's rise and fall, of the effects of the World War, and of the Holocaust. If you study in Eastern Europe, you will discover that the military presence of the USSR from 1945 to 1989 and the effects of the Communist experiment inform every day of life in 2014. In the Balkans, you experience firsthand the costs of the terrible wars that divided the old Yugoslavia. In Russia or China, you will not only be living under different social and economic assumptions, but will also be exposed to far different views of the United States.

A personal note: In 1962, while driving across Germany in an inexpensive car that I bought, I stopped at a Bed and Breakfast. I came downstairs the next morning to see pictures of an SS officer on the wall. In Rome, a Jewish woman with a number from the camps came up not to beg but to greet me as someone she correctly took to be an American Jew. One night I wandered around Moscow with a friend because the subways had stopped running and we were miles from our hotel. In St. Petersburg, we met a young woman who was the granddaughter of a nuclear physicist and who wanted us to help her leave Russia; we went to the American Embassy on her behalf and were told something might be possible were the physicist the person who wanted to leave and that we were in all probability being follow by the KGB. These experiences taught me a great deal about Post-War Europe.

If you are not doing your study abroad an English speaking country, you will develop a new language facility. While some assume that English is the lingua franca of the world, learning foreign languages is more important than ever. Yes, many US campuses have international diversity, but people who are guests may be more inhibited about expressing their views and in some cases they may have not as good a command of English as they do of their native language. If you understand the indigenous language spoken in their own country, you may be exposed to a wide variety of views and perhaps more nuanced ones.

While in some fields--particularly engineering-- It is difficult to study abroad because of the large set of required courses in a tight four year sequence, more and more departments and colleges are encouraging students to try to find a way for students to do so. For example, the Cornell College of Engineering manages three exchange programs Universidad de Cantabria in Spain, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and Technion--Israel Institute of Technology. Yet at this point in most places, only a small fraction of engineering students go abroad.

Practical Advice on Junior Year Abroad Planning

Do not spend too much of your time with students from your own US college if they are in the same program. Take courses with host country professors rather than with American professors that are sent along with students in some programs. Usually it is best to enroll directly in the host university rather than be part of a satellite program provided by an American university. If possible live with foreign students or a host family rather than fellow Americans and certainly not with close friends from your own US college.

If you are planning an entire year abroad, you need, at your US college, to choose courses during your sophomore year that put you on track to fulfill a major and, in some cases, do an honors program. If you need to take Honors seminars before writing an Honors essay, be sure to do so.

Even if you are only going abroad for one term, you will still need to be attentive to what courses you need take and what will count of your courses abroad. The key when going abroad is to be sure that all your requirements for graduation and completing your major are covered and that your major advisor and the major department's Director of Undergraduate Study and/or whoever needs to sign off on your plans are consulted and in the loop so that there is not any misunderstanding about credits and requirements for the major upon your return.

Further Suggestions

2) Offered by more than fifty colleges, the best alternative to a term or year abroad may be a term in Washington, especially for a Government or American History major. David Silbey, Cornell '90, Director of Cornell's Washington program, observes: " I think the value of the Cornell in Washington program comes from its combination of academic and practical challenges. By marrying intensive classwork with the on the ground experience of working in DC, students gain an understanding of the political and policy world in a way not possible in Ithaca." Cornell's semester in Washington program includes an internship where you will get practical experience. Another possibility at some colleges is a term in New York, especially for those focused on the Arts; for example such a program is offered by the Cornell College of Architecture, Art, and Planning.

Changing your venue and your immediate associates will open doors and windows to new of ways of thinking and new experiences.

Many colleges, including the Cornell's College of Engineering have Co-op programs in which students may spend a term in industry, preceded by an extra summer of course work when they take the courses they would have taken in the first semester of their journey year. At Cornell the program is also open to Arts & Sciences Sophomores in Computer Science, and College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Sophomores in Biological and Environmental Engineering,

3) The Junior year is a time for engagement in a field of study, otherwise known as a major, and that concentration of courses in a particular area can not only bring depth to your learning but also the satisfaction of knowing that you have the tools and information to solve problems and to confront issues with competence.

If you are in STEM programs--STEM is an acronym referring to the academic disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics--your curriculum will have more required courses in sequence than other programs and thus be more tightly organized. You will be taking courses in your major that build on proficiency attained in more basic courses. If you are in the sciences, you will be developing necessary skills for a job after graduation or for graduate school. In most of the aforementioned fields, you should explore the possibility of doing research under the umbrella of professors' labs and research grants. Honing in on individual research projects will enable you to see if a research career is for you.

At the Cornell College of Engineering, Mark Eisner, Harvard '60, Cornell Ph.D. '70, Senior Lecturer in the Cornell School of Operations Research and Information Engineering 1997-2007, writes, "[T}here is an active program to engage the students in research . . . .Really strong undergraduates do get their names on published papers from time to time. . . .[U]ndergraduate project teams. . . are particularly popular and valuable in engineering." (See Professor David Delchamps, Cornell Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, adds: "Many engineering undergraduates participate in research. Sometimes they do it for pay (which often comes from external research grants and contracts), but usually they do it for academic credit."

In the liberal arts, the major may be a bridge to a career path. Contrary to popular wisdom, a major in the humanities is not a passport to unemployment and living at home with your parents, something I have discussed in prior Huffington Post articles:
"What to Do with a BA in English,"; "Why Study the Arts and the Humanities,"

For any field, among the most important skills that you need to develop are thinking critically, writing lucidly and precisely while marshaling evidence to make an argument, and expressing yourself articulately without a plethora of "umm"s and "you know"s.

If you have trouble expressing yourself in class or simply want to improve your speaking skills, junior year is an excellent time for a public speaking course if your school has such courses. Another place to develop verbal facility is the debating club, albeit the earlier one begins that activity--even in high school--the better.

Mark Eisner observes: "It may be easier to teach humanities graduates how to use a spreadsheet, prepare a specification and build a financial case than to teach STEM graduates how to write, speak, read, reason, understand, relate and create. Of course these humanities graduates need to be open to applying their intellect to mastering such mundane tasks, rather than falling back on 'I'm not good at math' and running away from them."

4) Balancing the practicality of learning with the joy of learning, the junior year is also a time to stress the joy of learning and to explore campus resources. You should strive to develop a few new interests, whether by taking a creative writing course, writing for the school newspaper for the first time, learning about classical music, yoga, acting and trying out for plays or maybe taking up a new musical instrument.

5) Choosing a minor in either a parallel or unrelated field to your major can be broadening. The minor is fairly new at Cornell and it enables upperclassman to branch out and complement their practical major with forays into the humanities, and, vice versa.

6) If you have an opportunity to do an Honors thesis, and thus do independent research, I advise taking it. To work on and complete an independent project is a wonderful experience in building self-confidence and developing intellectual curiosity and love of learning as well as way to polish your resume for the job market or for your graduate school application.

7) As you prepare for the future, junior year is a time for growth and maturation. This can take many forms, including expanding your competence and experience, both intellectually and personally. Even partial mastery of complex academic fields and completion of relatively sophisticated projects builds self-confidence to pursue even more difficult projects. If possible, it is a time to test and develop your leadership skills in one of the extra-curricular activities in which you are involved.

Choose some extra-curricular activities with your future career in mind. Debating club would be a good activity for law school or a career in politics, the student newspaper for a career in journalism, and so forth. If you want be a professional musician, you should obviously be in band or orchestra or the jazz ensemble or in a band you put together yourself with fellow musicians, or in a few of the aforementioned.

But don't ignore your avocations. If you wish to continue to develop skills in music or dance or stand-up comedy, you can do so by performing while in college. Moreover, you should try to develop at least one new activity that is fun and has lifetime potential, whether it be athletic such as biking, tennis or golf, or cultural such as joining a drama group or developing an interest in African art.

8) What you do in the summers between your sophomore and junior years and between your junior and senior years is important. Look for internships that might expose you to job opportunities or build references and experience for graduate school placement. In media fields--newspapers, magazine journalism, television, internet companies-- this seems particularly important for getting post-graduate employment. But building networks to help with placement after graduation--whether in employment or graduate school--matters in every field.

9) In looking for jobs on campus during your junior year, think about the future. Thus if you are interested in publishing, positions with the university press (if your school has one), the university publication office, or the alumni magazine will help. If you are a STEM student and can find a paying job, working in labs and on technology projects would be a good idea.

10) If graduate school--in medicine, law, STEM advanced studies, humanities--is in your sights, you must think about such admission tests as MCAT (Medical School), LCAT (Law School) GRE (Ph.D. or MA), GMAT (Graduate Management programs), or DAT (Dental). Many students take preparation courses for these exams, and others choose to study for themselves. But doing well on these exams is a component of successful application.

Paradoxically, with grade inflation--and this means grade conflation where so many students have similarly high grades--these exams tend to count more in the admission process than they once did. One argument for using standard tests--one made by graduate schools-- is it can weight a high GPA from one school against another school. Thus if one etudent has a 3.9 GPA from Dartmouth and another one has the same GPA from a much less prestigious college, the test enables a graduate school program to see if they are equally qualified or not.

This reliance on standard tests is especially true of law school admission where I find that, based on LSAT numbers, I can predict with some exactness to which schools a student will be admitted. Med Schools still have an interviewing process, but most other graduate programs do not.

11) Juniors need be thinking about who their references will be if they have not done so already when applying for summer positions and other positions requiring references. They should get to know some of their professors in smaller classes or, if they are only taking larger ones, cultivate a relationship with their major advisor and at least one professor. Another reference can come from faculty supervising research or supervising summer employment that is relevant to the post-graduate career or graduate school program.


Junior year is the time to both narrow your focus on what you plan on doing and expand your focus in terms of interests, skills, and who you are and want to be. Test yourself and enjoy the process.

Author of the well-received 2012 book Endtimes? Crises and Turmoil at the New York Times (Excelsior Editions of SUNY Press), which recently appeared in an updated 2014 new paperback edition, Daniel R. Schwarz is Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow at Cornell University where he has won Cornell's major teaching prizes. He also writes on higher education, including his book In Defense of Reading: Teaching Literature in the Twenty-First Century. He blogs on higher education and the media for the Huffington Post. Prior blogs on Higher Education can be found at

He can be reached at and followed on twitter at and

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