The professor pulled his notes from his pocket and began speaking. He started with all of the things a student should not do: work, focus on too many extracurriculars, or take classes outside the main curriculum. He ended with a heartfelt plea to study as much as possible, focusing intensely on one’s GPA and the CPA exam, excluding anything outside those narrow boundaries.
On stage with the other speakers, I fought to hold back a grimace – or even interrupt. He was a dedicated professor, giving nearly 30 years to the University and its students. And he just wanted them to succeed. There was only one problem. His advice was dead wrong.
I’ve hired graduates that took his advice literally. They can dissect a textbook with incredible ease, but struggle to apply the principles to real world situations. They can aptly recite the tax code and other granular facts, but aren’t sure when that fact applies. Most concerning, they often don’t know how to communicate with clients or peers.
Ten years after my own graduation and dozens of hires later, I decided to compile my own list of suggestions for college students.
- Get real-world experience, and pay attention. It doesn’t matter whether it’s in your field of study. In fact, it may be best if it’s not. Work as a server in a restaurant? Great, polish up your communication and selling skills. Pay attention to the trends in your average tickets, noticing which promotions work best.
- Travel. Develop an understanding of the world beyond your own backyard. Whether your journey is across town or around the world, focus on identifying natural assumptions that don’t stand up to the challenge. That increased awareness can lead to tremendous personal growth. And, if you enjoy learning languages, now would be a great time to do that too.
- Become interested – and interesting. View the plethora of student groups as a real-life passion test. Look into and visit several groups, particularly those outside your normal scope of activities. You never know what you’ll discover. (I was fascinated by a parkour group practicing at my daughter’s college last semester.) At a minimum, you’ll broaden the range of topics you’re familiar with. And you may even discover something you’ll want to devote your life to.
- Experiment with building a business. During this period in your life, you likely have the least to risk. In most cases, you don’t have a family to support or a mortgage to pay. Use that flexibility and low overhead to test out business ideas. Even if you don’t hit the grand slam like Dell, Gates, or Zuckerberg did, you’ll learn very valuable lessons along the way.
- Recognize that you live in a fishbowl. This doesn’t mean that you can never make a mistake or need to always worry about what’s online. But it does mean that you’ll leave digital footprints all around you. Share your experiences, live with integrity, and enjoy life.
What do you think? Did I miss any other critical advice for the college years?
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Updated for 2018 and beyond