Vocabulary Words New College Students Need To Gain A Competitive Edge

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There is a set of vocabulary words that, if taken seriously, are designed to give students a competitive edge.

Hear me out ― I’m an English teacher. I believe in the power of words.

And by “new” students, I do not mean new college students, per se. I mean, specifically, first-generation college students; the chickadees who are the first in their families to attend college.

Why am I focusing on this group? Because I am a part of this group. And when you’re a first generation college student, you are inherently at a disadvantage when compared to your peers who are not first-generation college students.

(For those of you all too willing to quickly dismiss what I’ve just said, I’m going to ask that you suspend judgment for a hot minute. After all, “Nobody learned anything by hearing themselves speak.” As someone with a lot of opinions, some of which are not popular, I can assure you: Suspending judgment for a few minutes is a fabulous life skill. Don’t learn this important lesson the hard way.)

First-genners are at an inherent disadvantage because, unlike their non-first-gen counterparts, first-genners know less about how to navigate the system to gain a competitive edge. In thinking back to my days as a high-school-graduate-and-college-bound-freshman, I’ve compiled a few terms that new students should have as a part of their vocabulary:


You’re probably saying “no duh.” But hear me out ― I did not start pursuing internships until halfway through college. At the time, I believed that I did not have much to offer without having established my major (communications, at the time). This is categorically untrue at best, and a copout at worst. Sure, it might be hard to compete with the students who are more established in their programs, but this is where your own leg work and research factors in. There is something out there for beginning students. It is a matter of finding it. That summer waitressing job is nice for the extra cash, but at the end of the day, it is not going to cut it. You need as much experience as you can get, particularly in an era where finding a post-college-graduation job is tenuous, depending on who you ask.

Need the money? Do both. Wait tables on the weekends and intern during the week. You’re young, you can handle it. Sure, free time is precious, but so is the reputation of someone with grit.

Foreign Language

I took Italian for six years ― from 7th grade straight through to my first semester of college. I will admit that, at the time, I hated every minute of it. In all of my teenaged wisdom, I thought learning a foreign language was an offensive waste of my time. Why study Italian when I could be watching TV or hanging out with friends doing absolutely nothing worthwhile?

Now? One of my biggest regrets is not taking foreign language study more seriously. It took far too long for me to realize that I’ve become someone with an innate love of language, and with learning foreign languages in particular. I also became someone interested in the types of jobs that require bilingualism. And guess what? I do not qualify for those jobs. Because I did not take foreign language study seriously.

Already know two languages? Learn a third. No one was ever harmed by learning multiple foreign languages. At the end of the day, you cannot possibly anticipate the opportunities that will open up for you if you take your foreign language requirements seriously. But you will feel the sting of not qualifying for amazing job opportunities in countries where English is not the national language. (Yes, those countries exist. I promise.)

Study Abroad

As with studying a foreign language, you will not regret seizing opportunities to study abroad. This might be my biggest regret ― not taking advantage of study abroad opportunities when I had the youthful free-spiritedness to fully enjoy them.

Finding study abroad too expensive? Work and save. In a lot of cases, courses overseas are not much more expensive than college credits. Some programs offer scholarships strictly for the purposes of providing aid to students who want to study abroad. Some programs are need-based. Investigate them and apply. These opportunities are not going to beg for your attention (outside of the general advertising programs participate in). You have to find these opportunities, as well as the funding that might support them. I had my first true study-abroad experience when I was 27 years old. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. I regret not having an undergraduate study abroad experience.


I was a work-study student. The nature of work-study programs have probably changed in the years since I graduated, but if you have this opportunity, do not squander it. $1500 bucks off of tuition is $1500 bucks off of tuition (that was the going rate when I was a student). Do not squander opportunities to save money on tuition. Your student-loan bills will thank you.


Do not be afraid to say “yes” to opportunities you are given. Whether it’s a professor with extra credit opportunities, or a campus job (or internship) that has some additional work you can do. No one ever hurt themselves by taking on additional opportunities to learn. Learn from my mistakes.


Do not be afraid to say “no” to situations that are not in your best interest, or that you simply do not have the time (or money) for. Whether it’s a friend who needs their paper proofed (again), or the Thursday night outing that you cannot afford because you have to eat next week. “No” is a useful word. Use it kindly and strategically. But do not overuse it ― remember, there is value in being a good colleague and friend, and sometimes that means biting the bullet and taking one for the team.

And finally:

“Will you...[insert question here]?”

Do not, under any circumstances, be afraid to ask for what you need. And for the love of everything holy, do not apologize for it.

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