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Archive for Saturday, May 17, 2008

Busting some common college myths

May 17, 2008

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Congratulations! You've spent thousands of dollars on test-prep books and enrichment camps and sunk hundreds of hours into applications, to say nothing of enduring countless sleepless nights - and it all paid off. You got at least one fat, flattering acceptance package, it's just a couple of weeks till graduation, and before long you'll be headed to college. It's a walk in the park from here, right? Aside from coughing up the tuition, how hard could it be to get your money's worth out of your university years?

Harder than you think. Teaching, advising and actually being college students has given us front row seats to undergraduate life. We've seen some students get a lousy education at renowned schools and others get a great education at uncelebrated ones. What they don't tell you in SAT prep courses is that, though where you go to college matters, what you do there is much more important.

So how can you make the most of college without giving yourself a panic attack? The first step is rethinking some common myths.

1. Your major determines your career success.

The unemployed graduate with a bachelor's degree in philosophy is a popular cliche, and we won't kid you: An electrical engineer who graduates with a second major in accounting has, at least at first, more lucrative options than, say, a history major vying for a coveted (and unpaid) internship on Capitol Hill. But many excellent opportunities are still available for graduates with seemingly "useless" degrees, as long as you can show potential employers that you know how to learn and will continue to do so as your field evolves.

Many companies don't care whether you majored in medieval literature or international business; they want to know that you're passionate about succeeding and are probably hoping that you'll apply the keen eye you used on "The Canterbury Tales" to their long-standing clients' portfolios. That said, if all your courses have "Canterbury Tales" in their titles, it's best to hedge your bets by tossing in a few accounting or economics courses to demonstrate your readiness for the marketplace.

2. You should check off graduation requirements as quickly as possible.

What a waste of tuition, especially when you consider that most college lectures cost about as much as a ticket to "Monty Python's Spamalot" (but are not, we are sorry to say, nearly so entertaining). Every semester, students rush through general-education requirements as if college were a game of beat-the-clock bingo. Far better to treat those requirements as invitations to explore subjects outside your comfort zone, such as Legal Linguistics, History of Strata or Ancient Egyptian Mythology.

You should pick courses based on the professor's reputation, the course's reputation, your interest in the topic, graduation requirements and convenience - in that order. A great professor can make an obscure area of study come alive, and a lousy one can make even the most titillating topic tedious.

3. The more extracurriculars, the better.

Only if you want to be a fifth-year senior. If everyone around you is smiling, giving you freebies and telling you how swell you are, you're either at your bar mitzvah or your college's annual activity fair. If you aren't careful, by the end of the hour you'll have signed up to sing in an a cappella choir, read to the blind, coach soccer for inner-city youth and write for the campus newspaper.

Resist! You can't do it all, and you're asking for a nervous breakdown if you try to juggle as many activities in college as you did in high school. When it comes to extracurriculars, less is more; you already have dozens of papers and lab reports and hundreds of pages of reading to keep you busy. Picking a few diverse activities and engaging in them deeply is better than being a superficial (and overstressed) participant in lots.

4. You should study all the time.

You won't, and you shouldn't. But perhaps you are wary of Myth 3 and have forsaken all earthly pleasures (including extracurriculars) to focus on academics. You may have spent 40 hours a week locked in classrooms back in high school, but you'll be in the university lecture hall more like 15. You'll find that it's tough to fill that vacuum with studying alone, especially when deep, imponderable questions are crying out to you: If I watch another edition of SportsCenter, will it have new scores to report? (Answer: Yes.) If I party on Tuesday like it's Saturday, what does that make Wednesday? (Answer: Painful.) Is it possible to play "Guitar Hero III" for 24 hours straight without getting carpal tunnel syndrome? (Answer: We were too scared to try.) The discipline that a well-chosen mix of courses and extracurriculars imposes is better than a routine devoid of fun.

5. If your roommate is a dud, your social life will be too.

You will be thrilled to know that this is also a no. We consistently find that students tend to underemphasize what they should take seriously - such as selecting the best professors and classes - and overemphasize what they should take as it comes - such as roommates. We have known roomies who forged lifelong friendships (and billion-dollar partnerships) and others who were undone by the polka music blaring from one side of the room or the dirty boxers piling up on the other. (Our favorite was the smoker who requested a nonsmoking roommate because "two smokers in one room would be too much.") Your safest bet is to lower your expectations about roomie-bonding and seek out other avenues for fun.

Peter Feaver is a professor at Duke University. Anne Crossman, a Duke graduate, is a freelance writer in Seattle. They are co-authors, with Sue Wasiolek, of "Getting the Best Out of College."

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