6 Ways to Get the Most Out of College


I created a slideshow for my college blog at CBS MoneyWatch today that shares 10 tips for writing a winning college essay. Minerva, my eight-year-old golden retriever, illustrates Tip. No. 3. Please check it out! LO

I wrote the following post in August, 2011, but with college students heading back to school, I decided it was well worth running again. A friend took the photo of Ben while he was studying last year in Hungary with other mathematics majors who participated in the Budapest Semesters in Mathematics. Boy do those Eastern Europeans take their math seriously! Lynn O’Shaughnessy

Before my son Ben left to start his sophomore year at Beloit College, we talked about the advice in a chapter of The Thinking Student’s Guide to College: 75 Tips for Getting a Better Education. I’ve mentioned before how much I love this book and I think every college-bound student should read it.

Andrew Roberts, an assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University, wrote this valuable book that can help students squeeze far more value out of their college years than any other titles that I’ve seen.

Here are some of the subjects that Roberts covers in his book:

  • Choosing a school (If you don’t know the differences between a college and a university, you really should read this book!)
  • Selecting a major
  • Picking college classes
  • Being successful in college
  • Interacting with professors
  • Learning outside the classroom
  • Attending graduate school

Choosing the Best Classes

I thought Ben would benefit the most from reading the book’s section on choosing classes. I’m not going to lie — Ben reluctantly read the chapter.

Because Ben is a math major, he knew long ago that he’d be taking Real Analysis with his favorite math professor at Beloit College in the fall and an art class since art is another one of his passions. And with a minor in physics, he’ll take a course in that subject, but that still leaves him with extra slots. (Note: During the second semester of Ben’s sophomore year he decided to double major in studio art and mathematics).

Here is what Roberts suggests that Ben and other college students do to fill their dance cards: visit five to 10 extra classes during the first week of the semester.

Sampling classes can provide an early impression about which professors are topnotch and which are busts. His reasoning is sound. Why end up in classes with professors who are just okay when there are always lots of excellent teachers scattered across a campus?

I’m going to insert my own tip here:  Try to find out who the teachers of the year are at your school. Ben’s math professor  happened to be the college’s teacher of the year twice so no wonder Ben loves this guy.

A Professor’s Advice

Here are a few more tips from Roberts on course selection:

1. Aim for variety.

High school students are not familiar with most subjects that colleges offer. That’s a great reason why underclassmen, in particular, should sample as many different disciplines as possible. By dabbling, they are more likely to discover a discipline that they like.

Some of Ben’s favorite courses at Beloit, including a philosophy class he particularly loved, have had nothing to do with his majors.

2. Don’t rush to complete general-ed requirements.

Freshmen and sophomores tend to focus on fulfilling their general-ed requirements early, but Roberts says that’s a bad idea. If you postpone some of the general-ed requirements, you can better determine which subjects that you’d really like to focus on in college.

3. Read faculty evaluations.

Most universities have students complete faculty evaluations at the end of each semester. If the results are made public—and they often are—pour through them. Students tend to agree with each other on what classes are best, and these also seem to be correlated to performance. Students perform better in classes that they rate highly.

4. At least once a year, take a class that challenges your beliefs.

Leave your comfort zone and become acquainted with world views that don’t sync with yours. If you’re a conservative, consider taking a class on Marxism or perhaps women’s studies. If you’re an atheist, try a theology course. A liberal could choose a class on conservative political thought. Even if you ultimately hate the course, Roberts suggests that you should learn more than if you had simply chosen a class that confirms your beliefs.

5. Take writing-intensive classes.

Choosing classes that requires copious writing sounds grueling, but Roberts offers pragmatic reasons for volunteering for this torture. Employers want graduates who can write, and you’re not going to get a pass even if you’re majoring in a technical or scientific field. You will also receive more attention from a professor in a writing-intensive class since he/she must review what you write.

6. Consider auditing classes.

The typical college student takes around 30 classes during their college career. In contrast, a university may offer 1,000 or more. If you want to soak up as much learning as possible, audit some classes.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of  the second edition of The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price.

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  1. Just wanted to point out for those in STEM majors, the flexibility for what courses and when may be much less. Often these courses are sequenced and scheduled based on the number of students in a cycle, and if you skip one course to take later, it may be a full year or even longer before it comes around again. And if that course happens to be a prereq for something else, the whole chain of dominos starts to fall.

    One comment for Wendy if I may. It may be worthwhile looking closely before using an AP credit to bypass a class. If the course is a stand alone, fill a credit type course it’s one thing. But if the course is in a sequence or a prereq for later coursework, you should make sure the AP content taken in high school is sufficient to prepare you for the follow on coursework in college.

    1. Jim, I absolutely agree with you on the AP credit. The reason I discouraged my daughter from jumping right into that class first semester was because she hasn’t made a decision yet on majoring or minoring in Art History. The AP credit basically got her an art elective that could be used to fulfill a gen ed. If she decides she definitely wants to go for art history, she will need to take 2 college-level basic art history classes, including the one she didn’t take now. I just didn’t see a benefit in taking one first semester if it might not be something she will need in the long run. We are trying to encourage her to be efficient in her course selections so she can do a double major and still graduate in 4 years!

  2. I disagree with the point about postponing gen ed requirements. I think gen eds are designed to cause students to be exposed to a variety of different classes. I’m sure some colleges are better than others at providing a wide variety within their gen ed course selections. If there is decent variety, a student should step out of his/her comfort zone and pick something new, something he/she didn’t take in high school, and also look for the more controversial or thought provoking topics.

    When my oldest daughter registered for her freshman classes this fall, she immediately went towards content areas she was comfortable with and came out of registration with a class that was a duplication of one she already had AP credit for from high school. I suggested that she should look at her gen ed requirements instead and see what she could fit into that spot that would be a brand new content area for her and would fulfill a requirement. She ended up with a Logic class. Who knows, she might even like it!

  3. Lynn, I agree that these are valuable ideas for our kids to consider. I would also say that by taking a variety of classes, including those that challenge beliefs, they will grow socially as well as intellectually. It’s a lot easier (and safer, emotionally) to bond with students who have similar goals and mindset, but ultimately it’s a richer experience to branch out into the unknown.

    I just dropped off my science/math son at St. Lawrence Univ in upstate NY, about as far away as he could go from SoCal. Since he was game for such a dramatic change in climate and distance from home, I encouraged him to keep exploring by considering courses in other sciences, trying new sports, or joining some oddball club. The growth potential is immense.


    1. Thanks for sharing Denise. You shared great advice with him. I wish him all the best at St. Lawrence! I hope he enjoys the snow as much as Ben did that first winter. It was a treat for a kid from San Diego.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy