How to Succeed at College
By Dr. John Leddo
Graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy and Yale University, owner of MyEdMaster, a tutoring company.
This is the time of year when students hear from the colleges they apply to. Hopefully, they’re hearing yes instead of no. Undoubtedly, students put a great deal of effort into gaining those acceptance letters and will also put give some serious thought as to what college to attend. But getting into college isn’t an endpoint. It is a transition to the next phase of your life. When you graduate four years later, one of two things will happen: you will either get a job or apply to a graduate program such as a medical, law, business or other graduate school for an advanced degree. Since the purpose of college is to prepare you for that next phase, you need to give some thought as to how to use your college experience wisely. My suggestions can be broken down into three categories: courses, connections, experience.
Obviously, the most important part of college is getting your degree and to do that, you have to take courses. For those of you who don’t know what you want to major in, colleges offer a wide range of majors. I suggest you follow the strategy that the mother of a former student of mine used to help her daughter. She told her daughter, “I enrolled you in lots of different things, so you could find out what you liked and what you were good at.” Take a range of courses and see what you like. Talk to the professors and see what kinds of work people who major in those fields do. Do research on job opportunities, salaries, etc. to see what you might like to pursue. For those of you who already know what you want to major in, you have a good head start. However, generally speaking, courses in your major make up less than half the total courses you need to take in order to graduate. This gives you a wide range of options for your additional courses.
There are two strategies you can take to help you decide what other courses to take. The first is to pick subjects that interest you or help you become a well-rounded person. After all, college is designed to help you develop intellectually and broaden your horizons. Developing a breadth of knowledge can also provide inspiration to your later career. Steve Jobs famously used what he learned from a Chinese calligraphy course to help him design Apple computers. I use the AI knowledge I acquired from my professor at Yale to help me create educational software with the students I work with. The second strategy is to think about what supplemental knowledge you’ll need to excel at your profession. Reading and writing skills, for example, are always critical. All successful people need to be good communicators. Since careers are always done in some sort of context such as a business, it could be highly useful to take courses that supplement the knowledge you need to have to succeed in your chosen field. Business classes may be highly useful in most any career. Psychology classes may help in careers that involve dealing with people like sales, law or even medicine. When I left Yale and took my first professional job at a research company, I felt very well prepared to conduct educational and training research. However, I was working in a business where people were expected to win research grants and manage projects. I knew nothing about these things. Taking more courses in sales, marketing and project management in college would have been an enormous help. Instead, I had to first learn these things on the job.
The second category of my recommendation is connections. There are many people you will meet in your educational and professional careers who are very much worth staying in contact with, not only for personal, but also for professional reasons. It is never too early to start. This was a lesson I didn’t appreciate until much later in life and, as a result, I wasted a lot of opportunities. When I was at Phillips Exeter Academy, I ran track with the grandson of the emperor of Thailand. My 10th grade English classmate turned out to become the valedictorian of my class and was a recent candidate for president of the United States. I was friends with the son of the UN ambassador, but I failed to keep in touch with him. Imagine the professional benefits of knowing these people might have brought me if I only stayed in touch. Early on in my career, I managed a project to study training methods used by the US Army. I visited one of the Army’s schools, which was used to groom officers for future leadership positions. Since my expertise was in education and not military doctrine, I hired a retired general to be my consultant and guide me through the military protocols. At the school was a lone officer on assignment from Saudi Arabia. I noticed that the US officers generally ignored him. I asked the retired general about that and he replied, “These guys are making a huge mistake. The only reason why this officer is here is that his family is well connected with the Saudi royal family. He is being groomed for a high position in the Saudi military. In the future, when our guys are generals, they will have to deal with people just like him. They are wasting the chance to build a relationship.” My advice to all students is to be on the lookout for people who will be potential mentors and future success stories and build relationships with them. As the old saying goes, “It’s not what you know, but who you know.”
The third category is experience. Taking classes provides foundational knowledge for a career, but success in a career and even in finding a job depends on experience. The first task of a student entering college is to find a mentor and start an internship in a lab. Really, the mentor should be identified as part of the college application process or at least before picking which college to attend. But if you haven’t done so already, find a mentor and start gaining experience. The right mentor is one who will nurture you as my Yale mentor did and will help you gain the knowledge and credentials you need to succeed in life. Avoid people who just want to exploit you for their own gain. Often, you can tell the difference between the two by looking at the other students who work with the professor. Are the students excited and motivated? Are they achieving? Or do they look unhappy and stressed out? I can’t stress the importance of the right mentor enough. The projects you work on should be exciting and cutting edge. See what the trends are in your field and make sure you are working on the future and not on the past. Make sure your work leads to publications with your name on them as this is a credential that stays with you for life. If possible, try to get your work presented at conferences to increase your exposure and become known in the field. This is a good way to make contacts as well. If you have a good mentor, he or she is likely to be consulting with organizations outside the college. See if you can get involved in those to further increase your exposure. Your professor is likely highly involved in grant writing (otherwise, he or she wouldn’t have a job at your college). See if you can get involved as well. Anyone that learns how to bring money into an organization is highly sought after. You can also ask if you can be included in the grant’s budget, so that you can get your tuition paid for and receive a small salary for your work on the project. In the summer, look for internship opportunities outside the school to increase your experience, build your resume and possibly identify potential future employers.
The bottom line is that by the time you graduate college, you should have both foundational and practical knowledge in your field. You should know a range of people who can help you in your career. You should be as widely known as possible, so that graduate programs and employers consider you to be a hot prospect. And, of course, continue these strategies throughout your career. I am happy to work with your kids as their success mentor. You can visit www.myedmaster.com, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 571-242-6986. Let’s build a success story together.