Basic College Advice

by Steven J. Owens (unless otherwise attributed)

Note: I'll qualify this by saying that it's been a lonnnnng time since I was actually a college student. However, I've known a bunch of college students over the years (I live in an urban college area). Also, some of this is somewhat universal advice that just happens to become more important once you leave high school.

First, learn to work the system.

Second, play the game strategically.

Third, Don't let your schooling get in the way of your education, but see point two.

Work The System

College is very much unlike high school.

Part of that is the lack of structure. You don't have every hour of your day mapped out. You'll take a total of twelve to eighteen hours per week of in-class instruction and you'll expected to spend two or three times that outside of class, learning the material and studying. The classes will be spread out across the campus and across the week and at different times. You'll be free to wander around and waste time or get into trouble. Showing up at class, on time and prepared, is up to you.

Part of that is learning to work the system. This is more important at larger, more bureacratic universities (see comments on that below) but it's generally important in life. You don't want to spend your life standing around waiting to be told what to do, and college is where you should start on that.

The military calls it initiative, as in "to initiate", as in "to start", as in "don't wait for somebody else to get things started, YOU get things started". It's a good habit of thought to learn.

I don't know what the current statistics are, but twenty years ago the average college student changed their major three times. I don't know what you're planning, and the scary truth is, you might not know either. College is supposed to be at least a bit exploratory (more on that below), so don't go into it assuming you have it all mapped out. Be ready to learn and adapt and to reevaluate your plans.

There's this classic quote by Eisenhower; he said "Plans are useless, planning is essential." The process of planning is a good structure for thinking through the problem, so do it, but (an even older military saying), "no battle plan survives contact with the enemy" (in this case, no plan survives contact with reality) so don't get stuck on following the plan when it's time to adapt and diverge from the original plan.

Note: One of the most important aspects of working the system is simply: get it in writing. See the section below titled Degrees, Degree Requirements and The Basic Conventional College Format.

An Example of Working The System: Course Drop/Add

This example might make more sense if you first go read the section titled "How A Conventional College Format Works".

At conventional universities there's usually a period of a week or two at the beginning of the semester when students sign up for classes. Each class is taught so many times, and has so many seats open. First come, first served, usually. And they're not always taught every semester.

It's up to you to learn how that signup process works, to figure out your course schedule and which classes you need, what semesters they'll be available, and how to juggle your own schedule so you're not trying to take two classes simultaneously, and how to get on the list before it fills up. In theory you'll have faculty advisors to help you to with this, but in practice you'd better take responsibility for figuring it out for yourself.

If it's your senior year and you need that class to graduate and it's full, and it's not available next semester... tough luck Charlie, looks like you'll be back next year. Plan ahead, but also expect plans to change.

So, if a course gets filled up, you're out of luck. Only so many seats....

BUT! Don't give up so quickly. Professors have a lot of authority when it comes to their class. If they want to let you into their class, they can usually make it happen.

Also, most universities have an extended "drop/add" period after the initial sign up, when you can withdraw from a course or add a course. This is to allow you an opportunity to correct mistakes. It's also an opportunity for you to squeeze into that class.

Show up for the first class. Talk to the professor before class if you can, or after the class. Make a case for why you want to be in the class. Ask him if he can squeeze you in. If he wants to, he usually can make it happen.

"But I need this class to graduate this semester" is NOT a good case. Showing real interest in the topic IS a good case. Having had the professor in previous class and telling him you'd much prefer to take this class from him because you enjoyed his teaching style is a good case, as long as you don't seem like too much of a suckup. It helps if you did reasonably well from the first class and he liked your behavior (e.g. not showing up late, being engaged in class, etc :-).

Sometimes he'll either be indifferent, or there will be some outside factor - shortage of actual desks for example. He can't just go get one from a neighboring class room, god help him if he tried, usually there are university maintenance staff union rules involved. BUT, you still shouldn't give up just yet.

If he's just indifferent, ask him if you can attend the first week or two of classes and see if somebody drops, opening a slot so you can add.

If it's a shortage of desks, ask if you can stand at the back of the first class or two and see if anybody drops.

Obviously you want to try to be on your best behavior here, paying attention and being engaged, etc.

Note, professors are usually very reluctant to add you to a class if you've missed the first few classes, because you'll have missed the beginning and be playing catchup too much. So, show up even if you're not getting credit yet. Plus it builds credibility for your case and will probably incline the professor towards helping you.

Prove You're Not A Fuckup

In practical terms, working the system means being thorough, systematic and persistent in looking for ways to solve your problem and learning the rules of the system, both written and unwritten.

Some of it involves making nice with university faculty (professors and such) and staff (bureaucrats and such). But it's not necessarily sucking up, so much as demonstrating that you're not a fuckup and that it will not be waste of their time to go above and beyond for you.

This is generally true in later life, too. If you ever have to deal with the courts or some other bureaucracy, bear in mind that cops and judges and the like spend most of their lives seeing see people at their worst. They also spend most of their lives dealing with lots of habitual fuckups, people who they see over and over again, screwing up in the same way. Out of self-defense against burnout or going out on a limb, they'll tend to quietly assume the worst. It's up to you help them reclassify you as somebody worth helping.

Prove You're Not A Doormat

It's a sad but true comment on human nature that positive behavior alone isn't always enough. Sometimes (all too often) you'll need to not only show that you're a worthwhile person to help, but you'll also have to show that you'll be a pain in the ass if need be. That they can't just hope you'll just shut up and sit down, that it will be easier for them to help you and send you on your way.

The trick to the pain-in-the-ass factor is to be careful not to go over the line. There's no hard and fast rules for this, you'll have to figure it out as you go. But here are a few tips:

You have to get angry, but be careful that you don't get abusive to the person you're talking to. Often, the first person you deal with only has the power to say "no", and you need to get them to kick you up a level to somebody who has the power to say "yes". Often the best way to do that is to show them you're going to be a pain in the ass.

Sometimes you have to show them you're going to go from being a polite-but-persistent pain in the ass to being a really-irate-and-pissed-off pain in the ass. Then they're justified in passing you up to their supervisor and won't get downgraded for doing so.

Absolutely avoid foul language, even when you need to get angry. Especially when dealing with people in formal/official rules:

First, it will antagonize whoever you're dealing with. Some people use "fuck" like they use a comma. Some people don't care unless the words are directed at them. Some people take it very personally no matter what your obvious intention. You won't know until it's too late. Even if you're being irate and they are required to say no, they may be secretly on your side, looking for a chance to give you what you want. But if you start being abusive to them, you lose that chance.

Second, most bureacracies have rules, either formal or informal, that when you use foul language, you cross a line; they don't have to play nice anymore. They can hang up. They can put you on hold forever. They can just say no and that's the end of the matter.

Note: no foul language especially when dealing with cops. A cop's going to think to him or her self, "you're either too stupid to not swear at a cop, or you have too little self-control." Whichever it is, it moves you further into the "potentially dangerous" category. That can result in increased immediate physical risk to you. Even if it doesn't, it also reduces the amount of discretion they can or will use in your favor. If they take it easy on you and you hurt somebody else, they get blamed.

Play The Game

Once you start to realize that there is a bureaucracy and that you can work it, you need to start playing the game. In other words, you need to look at your entire college academic career as a game, with different tactics and strategies, and be smart about how you play that game. Some of the rules of the game are written, some are unwritten.

For example, back to the drop/add period; one thing I usually did was to always sign up for one more class than I planned to take. Under the university rules then, it didn't cost me anything extra, nor did drop/adds cost extra.

I'd spend a week or two checking out the classes and teachers. For each class I'd see if it was really what I was looking for, or if the teacher's teaching style would work well with my learning style. Then I'd decide which class to drop.

Another example - and this is an important one - you have to worry about your grade point average, but it's an average. The general and core degree requirements are going to force you to take some classes that you will probably find easier, and some that you will find tougher. Be smart, don't schedule all tough classes in one semester. Make sure you take some easier classes so you'll have more time to devote to the tough classes, or so you can pull your GPA up.

Speaking of GPA, although everybody will put a lot of weight on GPA in college, it only really matters for your first job or two. Once you have two or three years of work under your belt, nobody cares about your GPA. It's still important, because that first career job is going to be the hardest one to get, but it's not going to haunt you for the rest of your life (unless you stay in academia).

Also, in a lot of fields, after a few years in the workforce nobody cares about what degree you have, or where from. This is especially true in software development, by the way. Getting a degree primarily proves you can stick with a difficult, challenging task for four years and see it through to the end.

Finally, while I have a fair bit of personal disdain for the meaning and importance of GPA, there actually is some correlation between GPA and how much you learn.

Late Withdrawal

Here's another example of working the system.

In finance, there's something called a "strategic default". This has been in the news lately, due to the housing crash. Most states have "walk away" laws, sort of a limited form of bankruptcy for house mortgages. There was a bit of a flap over the moral implications of people choosing to default on their mortgages early and get out with their finances more intact, instead of trying to keep paying until they were financially ground into dust and had no choice but to default.

The funny (and sad, and evil) thing about all the financial pundits shaking their fingers at this immoral behavior is that the very same thing is so common in the business and finance world that there's a name for it, "strategic default" - much like the military term "strategic withdrawal".

The reasoning is sort of like folding your hand in poker. Yes, you may have a lot of chips in that pile, but if you don't have a shot at winning the pot, it's stupid to continue throwing away resources. Better to conserve those resources for a later investment.

Well guess what, there's something similar for grades. A bad grade can really screw your GPA, and it's numerically almost impossible to recover from. But besides the early drop/add period, typically there's an option to late withdraw, without getting a grade. You don't get your money for that class back, but you also don't screw your GPA.

The details vary, sometimes you can just withdraw (especially if you do it in the first half of the semester), sometimes you "withdraw passing" (meaning you weren't in trouble yet) and sometimes you "withdraw fail", but in either case, it still shows up on your transcript but it doesn't drag your GPA down.

Depending on the university rules, there may not even be any monetary difference - at my university, it was so many dollars per credit, up until you reached "full time" status at 12 credits. You could take more classes, up to 18, but you weren't charged any more for them. (see the section labeled The Basic Conventional College Format, below).

So if you take 15 credits and a month or two in realize that the extra class is the straw that broke the camel's back, you can withdraw without it costing you GPA or money.

Sometimes it's only temporary - it defers getting the failing grade right now, and you can take the course again next semester and get a better grade.

Even if you don't withdraw, there may be rules that enable you to recover from your screwup. A friend who recently finished his degree at my old school failed a class, but was able to re-take it. The second time he made a passing grade, and the failing grade was simply wiped out.

Again, remember, some of these things are defined by rules, some of them are left to the discretion of the professor. I recommend finding out what the official rules are first, then worry about the professor.

Schooling Versus Education

"Schooling" is my sarcastic way of referring to the official college process structure, as opposed to actually learning stuff. The two sometimes overlap, and I suppose for the average college student, staying with the imposed structure is a safer bet than departing from it. Even for you, it's a safer bet most of the time. But not always.

The point is that college is not just a set of classes. It's an environment, a context, a community and an opportunity to do and learn things, that you will never again have available. So don't get so focused on following the structure that you neglect less formal learning opportunities.

This cuts in both directions, by the way - besides opportunities to hang out with other interesting, smart people your own age (and they'll be there in college, but you'll have to go looking for them) you can get more out of the formal education opportunities than simply attending classes and taking tests. But it's up to you to look for those opportunities, to seek them out.

One example; there are of course all sorts of extracurricular activities and some of them are just fun and/or silly, and I'm not even talking about parties (or, later in your college career, drinking). But there are also extracurricular activities that involve areas of study - which ones depend on where you go and what you study.

For students in technical fields, some of these extracurriculars can be pretty serious. Some of them are more formal, independent projects with more or less degree of official recognition from the university. Some of them are informal, even just clubs, but there are some merits to the way they enable a less structured way of pursuing your education. It's more exploratory and experimental, fosters more collaboration and learning through discussion.

Another example: All instructors are generally required to hold office hours; scheduled times when they will be in their office and available to students from their classes for consultation about course work, etc. Most professors will be happy (assuming they have time and there aren't students waiting behind you) when students go beyond the basic curriculum, and will be willing to talk about more general academic topics.

So, if you find professors you really hit it off with, try to take more classes with those professors and try to develop that professional relationship. These professors may be able to advise you informally about the field you're studying. They might be able to advise you about the career field you're likely to enter after college. Best case, they may even be able to help you get an internship or help you network for job hunting.

It's hard to say exactly what you'll get out of this, but it's worth exploring. The topic is a little tricky because there are no set rules to how this works. Of course there are conduct rules for the professors about fraternization, etc, but they're generally far less codified than in, for example, the military. And professors are teachers, they are generally interested in general mentoring of students, beyond simply teaching whatever class. Even the professors who see teaching as a burden imposed on them from above are generally not going to be complete jerks about it.

Also, there's a big difference, strategically, between going to college to get a four year degree and then go get a job, versus going to college with the intent of getting a master's degree and/or a Phd. For the latter, the rules are very fluid and you're best off finding a mentor who can help guide you there.

Orientation Day/Week/Whatever

Usually there's an orientation period for freshmen at the beginning of each year. Sometimes it's an orientation day, sometimes it's an orientation week. This is a time when a lot of people and sub-organizations at the college will go out of their way to get freshmen started off.

Some of this is very official and is about brain-dumping bureaucratic process info onto you, and walking you through the preliminary process of your academic career.

But some of it is socially oriented. At most colleges there are all sorts of clubs and organizations and activities. Some of them are identity/affiliation-based (e.g. cultural or ethnic, not to mention frats and etc). Some of them are interest based, for example at my college there was a science fiction and fantasy club, a computer club and a gaming club (you can guess what kind of geek I was :-). There's the stereotypical glee club, and political clubs, there are activist clubs, etc. There may be a radio station, and/or a HAM radio club.

These organizations can be (depending on the organization, the people in them, and you) a good way to start getting connected at the college. Even if you don't stick with them, I recommend trying some out.

The social aspect of orientation day/week can be more or less organized, depending on the college or university:

At the University of Pittsburgh it was just something like a mini-trade show in the student union, with various organizations/clubs setting up tables to hand out literature. This was mentioned in some schedule or pamphlet I'm sure, or you stumbled over it in the course of wandering around for the first day, like I did.

Meanwhile, a fraction of a mile away, Carnegie Mellon University actually had organized summer-camp-type activities. Basically making the students engage in games or exercises that were intended to break the ice and get them socializing.

(The Student Union, by the way, is a building/place on the campus that is more focused on fostering the social aspect of college. It usually has some sort of lounge, it may have a cafeteria, it may have some cafes or an arcade.)

Where Are You Going

Going away versus staying near have different up sides and down sides. Going far away is good because it forces you to learn independence. On the other hand, maybe you don't need that, so staying near makes sure you have a support network and local resources.

Also, this is going to be one of your biggest chances in your life to get out there and see something of the world. Maybe you'll travel the world later in life, maybe you'll join the military and see the world, but maybe not. So don't shy away from this chance to go to distant places and experience something new.

Also, there's nothing at all wrong with, for example, spending your first year or two at a community college and then transferring to another college. For most students, the first year or two are very exploratory.

Also, there are colleges that are off by themselves in the countryside, and there are colleges that are smack in the middle of major cities. Both kinds come in both the prestigious and non-prestigious variety. The sleepy little rural college is a cliche, as is the also-ran city college, but MIT is in the middle of Boston, Caltech is in Pasadena, a suburb of Los Angeles. So don't assume based on any of these factors that a college/university is better or worse.

Also, there are up sides and down sides to a smaller college versus a bigger college. Smaller colleges focus more on teaching but bigger colleges have a lot more resources - libraries, equipment, and more serious research going on, and a bigger academic and student community.

When I was in college I thought that the big university emphasis on research/publishing was kind of beside the point, educationally speaking, and mainly about the universities wanting prestige and research grant money. Later I learned that it's not just about the money, that the idea is to teach by example, by engaging in what you're trying to teach the students to do, learning, researching, etc. There is some validity to this argument.

Make sure the colleges you look at are "accredited". This basically means that all of the other colleges and universities agree that they're in the club. Do a little research on any college you're seriously considering.

Finally, while both of the universities I went to were very conventionally formatted, so many credits for a course and so many credits for a degree and etc, that's not the only way it has to be. You are allowed to explore other options and non-traditional formats aren't necessarily bad.

One college I heard of (a friend taught there for a semester) had a program where instead of taking so many credit courses per semester, you took ONE course per semester, and worked 8 hours a day on ONE topic. This doesn't necessarily suit all sorts of topics, or all degrees, or all people, but I give it as one example of a profoundly different format.

Degrees, Degree Requirements and The Basic Conventional College Format

If you do go the community college route, just make sure you can transfer the credits, and don't expect rhyme or reason in sorting that out. It's up to the colleges and universities you're involved with to decide which courses they will accept as equivalent to their own courses. You should be able to find out ahead of time, but get it in writing if you can, they might change their minds.

Speaking of getting it in writing, KEEP EVERY PIECE OF PAPER YOU GET FROM THE COLLEGE, with respect to grades, policies, etc.

That goes TRIPLE FOR DEGREE REQUIREMENTS. Many/most colleges give you a thick book full of all of the different degree requirements when you first enroll. Keep that. Any time you deal with courses, degree requirements, etc, get and keep a copy of the current requirements. See the rule about learning to work the system.

You don't have to have it sorted and categorized, you just have to have it all in one place and in some sort of order, chronological order will do fine. If nothing else, get a box about 9 x 12 and just put every new piece of paper on top of the stack.

Ideally get some manila folders and a box or file folder keep them in. Date the first folder and put the paperwork you get into it. Stick it somewhere safe. Start a new folder every month. (This is, in general, an excellent way to start getting your financial life and paperwork in order - just enough structure to be helpful but not so much that you never get around to doing it).

In a nutshell those degree requirements constitute a legal contract - you take these classes and we'll give you that degree. And guess what, the requirements change, and if you don't have a copy of the original requirements -- the original contract -- you might get left high and dry.

My dad gave me that advice and boy did it come in handy. I'll tell that story in a moment, but it occurs to me you might need some basic terminology about this stuff, so...

How A Conventional College Format Works

(Or at least how mine, which was pretty conventional, worked twenty years ago.)

In the modern college system a college is usually specialized in some field (e.g. college of engineering, etc) and an institution that reaches some critical mass of accredited colleges is allowed to call itself a university. There's a quasi-private accrediting body whose name I can't remember right now, but it is generally believed by most people that accreditation is important (which is pretty much the definition of accreditation - do the right/enough people agree with it).

Generally speaking you are IN a college AT a university. Note that depending on the university and the bureacracy, it can be as hairy to transfer from one college to another even within the same university. It was very easy to transfer between colleges at Penn State and a bit of a mess to transfer from Penn State to the University of Pittsburgh, but a REAL hairy mess to transfer from one college at Pitt to another college at Pitt.

In general any degree is so many credits of "general" requirements and so many of "core" requirements. When I went to college, Penn State and Pitt were very similar, it was:

Core requirements are courses about your degree specialization. This varies a lot depending on the degree.

General requirements are a laundry list of the sort of topics that everybody who graduates from college and is, in theory, a generally well-educated person ought to have studied. For example, basic english writing, basic science, philosophy, art, etc. A lot of the courses that fulfill the general requirements have "intro to" titles. Some of them are universal - everybody has to take some intro english. Some are specific - you don't have to take specifically intro to linguistics or intro to astronomy, say, but you have to take some sort of science classes.

For more technical degrees, like electrical engineering, the requirements are more rigidly spec'd out; your second year you might get one "elective" - you get to choose, for this slot, one of these three classes. For other degrees you'll have much more freedom of choice and more options. The Liberal Arts degree, on the other hand, seemed almost structureless...

Courses also have prerequisites - you have to take Calc I before you're allowed to take Calc II, for example. See the rule about working the system though, no rules are hard and fast. Professors had a lot of autonomy and if you could convince the professor that you could handle it, he could let you into the course. He might make you take a test to prove it, which was called "testing out" of the prerequisite course.


Speaking of testing out, look into something called CLEP, College Level Examination Program. I don't know if this is still around, but if it is, check it out. Basically CLEP was a series a standardized "testing out" tests that you could take for a relatively small fee, like $30-$40 when I took them.

If I recall correctly, a course back then was $110/credit, so $30-$40 versus $330 for a 3 credit course was quite a deal. I think course credit prices have tripled or quintupled since then (especially in the past 5-8 years)

Mostly CLEP was only for general requirements, like geometry, algebra, etc. But it could take care of a few or even several simple courses you don't really need to sit through class to learn about, if you know them already.

As with transferring courses from another college/university, the college/university gets to decide which CLEP tests they would accept for which courses.

How Dad's Advice Saved Me From Having To Take An Extra Year Of Classes

When I started college the degree I ended up getting after wandering through two other majors (like most college students) had a single, rather broad set of requirements, 30-40 credits of any of this rather long list of classes.

In my second-to-last semester I went in to the student counseling office to do the paperwork for graduation.

"Professor Smith's not here."

"Oh, right, it's noon, lunchtime," I said, remembering that the rest of the world isn't quite as blase about lunch schedules as college students, Sorry, I'll come back in an hour."

"No, I mean he's not here. Not at all. He retired last semester."

One of the down sides of going to a much larger university.

What was worse, once they got me to the faculty advisor assigned to clean up Professor Smith's backlog, it turned out that the large list of eligible core courses that I'd been given when I started on this degree had since been broken up into three separate "concentrations." The courses I'd taken were now spread across all three concentrations, and I didn't have enough in any one concentration to qualify for graduation. They tried to tell me I couldn't graduate without another year's worth of courses.

I went home, went through my files, got the original requirements, went back in and told them that yes, thank you very much, I was going graduate that year. And I did.

Avoid Huge Debt

The student loan bubble is just starting to enter the popular consciousness, so maybe I don't need to say this but...

This is a complex topic, so I'll boil it down to this:

a) don't go into huge debt to get your degree.

b) colleges have gotten massively more expensive, but not all colleges.

c) there have been studies that show that the superexpensive colleges don't correlate at all with better career outcomes years down the line (without even taking into account the effect of that huge debt).

For point c), I'm trying to track down a reference for this, but all I can recall so far is that there was a guest on The Daily Show, a fairly respected researcher, who discussed this.

d) If you do go into massive debt, for god's sake, only do it for a degree that has a proven track record of being a good earner. I have nothing but respect for all fields of study (my own degree is in rhetoric) but you have to plan for when and how you're going to pay that debt off.


On a social note, college is going to be one of the last situations where you're thrown together with a bunch of mostly compatible people. When you leave college, you'll be rebuilding your social life. The majority of your chances for social interaction will be at work, but of course there are limitations, disadvantages and risks to that.

In a nutshell, don't take that social context for granted, because believe me, it's a lot harder to meet people, make connections and friendships once you leave that college community.

Also, socially, college is signficantly more forgiving than real life or work. You don't learn and grow without taking chances, and college is one of the better opportunities you'll get to take those chances with less grave consequences. Yes, you're going to be an adult and you're going to be stuck with taking a lot more responsibility than as a high school student. But in college you can still afford take social chances and screw up without permanently screwing yourself.

See original (unformatted) article


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