5 ways to get the most out of your college years

January 14, 2022

Dr. Michael Nietzel

This year, millions of prospective college students will once again spend many hours and often thousands of dollars deciding where to attend college. Go to a small college, or a large university? Stay close to home, or travel far away? Accept the best offer of financial aid, or enroll where good friends are headed?

The time and resources devoted to these questions are understandable. They are important decisions that have a lasting impact on a student’s career, relationships, overall wellbeing, and life satisfaction.

Regardless of where students attend college and what they study, an increasing body of research shows that certain collegiate experiences are strongly linked to positive outcomes in later life. Do these few things at college, and your odds of a more fulfilling life improve. Miss out on them, and you run the risk of shortchanging yourself.

…if you want a life where you are more likely to become a leader, make important social contributions, and have greater personal and financial success, your college education should involve certain experiences.

According to The Evidence Liberal Arts Needs: Lives of Consequence, Inquiry, and Accomplishment by Richard Detweiler, if you want a life where you are more likely to become a leader, make important social contributions, and have greater personal and financial success, your college education should involve certain experiences. These are independent of the school you attend, the major you declare, or the type of degree you ultimately earn.

Here’s how Detweiler went about determining these essential college experiences. He conducted telephone interviews with more than 1000 college graduates across 3 age groups: 25-35, 36-45, and 55-65. The graduates he interviewed had attended different kinds of institutions, ranging from liberal arts colleges to large research universities.

He then statistically analyzed the relationships between specific college experiences and important outcomes later in life. He focused on leadership, social contributions, and personal success. Here, according to Detweiler’s study and other research, are the 5 college experiences that matter most.

1. Develop a personal relationship with a faculty member

Developing a personal relationship with a faculty member was one of the college activities most strongly associated with later positive outcomes. For example, students who frequently talked with faculty outside of formal classes – about academic or nonacademic subjects – were more likely to take on leadership roles, donate to charities, and engage in cultural activities later in life.

Even something as simple as having professors know you well enough to call you by your first name was linked to several social and personal benefits.

A particularly significant experience in this area is having a faculty mentor – someone a student can turn to for advice, support, and guidance on a regular basis. Although such relationships are vital to a complete education, another recent study revealed that only 43% of graduates strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement “While attending (institution), I had a mentor who encouraged me to pursue my goals and dreams.”

What’s worse, 19% of graduates “strongly disagreed” in response to this statement. Their years on campus lacked 1 of the most important elements that adds value to a college education.

2. Participate in a campus organization or an extracurricular activity

Actively participating in a campus organization, club, or extracurricular activity is another experience associated with lasting benefits. Students who led such organizations or activities in college show even stronger associations with later positive outcomes. These experiences help create a more intimate educational community, learning and living together. This is particularly valuable at large schools, where it’s easier to just get lost in the crowd.

Contrary to popular opinion, participating in intercollegiate athletics did not contribute any additional later advantages beyond those realized by being involved in any other college activities or organizations.

3. Take more courses outside of your major, especially in the humanities

Students who took more courses outside their major were significantly more likely to lead culturally involved lives. This was particularly true when those courses were in the humanities – like literature, history, and the arts. Those who took more courses in the humanities regardless of their declared major had a 45% higher probability of being culturally involved later in life. Cultural involvement was measured by how often they attended concerts, museums, and spent time reading or discussing literature and the arts.

Those who took more courses in the humanities regardless of their declared major had a 45% higher probability of being culturally involved later in life.

In fact, Detweiler found that taking courses outside of one’s major was more strongly corelated to positive life outcomes than the major itself. Students who took more than half of their courses outside their major were 24% more likely to report earning higher incomes as adults.

4. Do an internship

Years of research at hundreds of different colleges has shown that engaging in at least one “high-impact experience” can be a life-changing component of a college education. High-impact learning experiences share certain qualities. They demand concentrated time and effort outside of the classroom. They require meaningful interactions with faculty, supervisors, and other students. They facilitate interactions with people from different backgrounds. Finally, they provide frequent and meaningful feedback to participants about the quality of their work.

Internships have traditionally served as one of college’s most practical rites of passage, a stepping stone for graduates into their first job.

The college internship has long been regarded as one of the most beneficial forms of student engagement because it immerses students in real-world environments where they can learn and practice the crucial soft skills of employability. Internships have traditionally served as one of college’s most practical rites of passage, a stepping stone for graduates into their first job.

Colleges are increasingly recognizing the value of internships. When the COVID19 pandemic forced many companies to shut down their in-person internships, colleges quickly shifted gears and began working with companies to develop virtual or remote internships. A whopping 42% of employers told the National Association of Colleges and Employers that they were moving their internship programs to a virtual format during the pandemic.

5. Get involved in a research project

Another high-impact learning experience that can help maximize the value of your college education is becoming involved in a faculty research program. These can take multiple forms, often occurring in a sequence that gives you progressively greater independence as a researcher.

Typically, students begin by assisting a faculty member with his or her ongoing research, under the supervision of a graduate student or the faculty member. Then, as they learn more about the research questions and the techniques being used, students are given more autonomy and responsibility for the work. These experiences may culminate in the student writing a senior thesis on the research topic, securing a paid research assistantship, and sometimes even co-authoring a publication of the findings with the faculty supervisor.

For students planning to attend graduate or professional school after graduation, serving as an undergraduate research assistant is one of the best ways to earn strong letters of recommendation from a faculty sponsor.

Conclusion

The good news about each of these experiences is that they are available at every college. You don’t have to attend an elite school or a highly selective university to pursue them. What’s more, they won’t cost you anything extra. In fact, you might even earn money while serving as an intern or a research assistant.

The most important fact to remember is that each of these experiences can improve the quality of your overall education, creating intellectual skills and work habits that can serve you well in your career and personal life. More important than where you go to college or what you study is what you actually do to make the most of educational opportunities you encounter. These 5 experiences can give you a great start.

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