How to Crush It in College

Two recent high school graduates that I admire, respect, and love just started college. Earlier this summer, I sat down with them to give some advice -- the stuff that I wish I had known when I started college. Here's the list.

 

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Take Advantage of Every Opportunity

Say "yes" to as much as you can — even if it means a little less sleep, a little more responsibility, or a little more work. This means going to the free events on campus, signing up for the mentorship program, going to professors' office hours, taking advantage of leadership opportunities, studying abroad, taking service trips, and everything in between. It also means saying yes if your friend says, "Let's go to the beach!" on Sunday evening with no warning and for no reason. Yes, you have to strike a balance. Yes, you need to learn when to say "no." But your four years will fly by -- do everything you can. One of the things that makes college so valuable is that there is so much happening all the time. Take advantage. Live it up.

 

Forget Your GPA (kind of)

College is not about grades. I knew a lot of people in college who would turn down leadership opportunities or fun experiences because they needed more time to study and focus on grades. That's a mistake. Here is the caveat: if you want to apply to a prestigious graduate or law program (or a scholarship), your GPA will matter -- a lot, even. You should know the GPA range that you'll need for your long term goals. But remember, even the best schools in the world don't require a 4.0.

It’s not healthy to obsess over your GPA. If you have an emotional reaction to a tenth of a point (which is not uncommon), my advice would be to take a breath, take a step back, and chill. 

Here’s the thing, though: don’t forget the context of this advice. “Forget about your GPA” definitely does not mean that you should skip class for no reason or make dumb decisions on the weekend. It means that if you’ve got other opportunities that you’re passionate about or that could set you up for success, never say no because your GPA for that quarter might be a 3.6 instead of a 3.8.

 

Intern early and often

In the 21st Century, internships are as critical to your success as your academic experience. I know that my first job out of college was a direct result of an internship -- they didn't ask to see my college grades or classes. They knew I had the skills to be successful because I had proven it with an internship.

When Seeds Training teaches goal setting to high school students, one critical piece of the lesson is finding "assistance." Here's how it might be framed to a group of high school students: if you want to be the best real estate agent in your city, who should you meet with to find out how to do it? Answer: the best real estate agent in your city.

Young people have a huge advantage; you can reach out to pretty much anyone and ask for their help, their advice, their mentorship, an internship, whatever it may be, and most times that person will say yes. They'll be flattered and honored that you look up to them, and they'll want to invest in your success. That generosity will gradually decrease as you get older, so take advantage in college.

My recommendation to college students is to intern at least once a year. Bonus points if you can intern in each of the three major sectors: government, non-profit, and business. That will give you a well-rounded network and experience in the "real world." It will also help you figure out what you actually want to do after college. The best way to do it is find someone doing something that you find interesting, call/e-mail, explain who you are and what you want to do, and ask them for an internship -- even if they don't have an already existing program. 

 

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Don’t Neglect Your Resume (even if you don’t need it yet) 

Many of my friends in college did not have effective resumes, and it limited their opportunities and their self-confidence. Start early. You'll need one, eventually, to apply for internships, for graduate school, for jobs, for scholarships. As you're navigating through college, keep your resume in mind. Have you learned any relevant skills you could list? Any volunteer or leadership experience you could describe? Did you win any awards that could differentiate you from a similar applicant? If you notice a place on your resume where you're weak, look for opportunities that could address it. 

A good resume is a lot more than a list of experiences and skills. It's part of a personal narrative that explains what you're good at and why you should be hired. You've got to figure out how to make yours different from every other recent college grad. Additionally, keep your LinkedIn updated and learn how to use it to network. Your school's career center will have resources for how to do all of this, but it will be 100% up to you to take advantage.

 

Relationships = Success 

Relationships are huge. Cultivating meaningful relationships is the best way to land a good job, get a cool internship, earn a great letter of recommendation, etc. Let's break down the letter of rec piece as an example: every student who wants even the possibility of continuing their studies after undergrad should develop a personal relationship with at least one professors (many grad/law schools and scholarships require at least one letter to be from a professor). This means registering for their classes, showing up, sitting in the front row, asking questions, going to their office hours, taking personal interest in their research/publications, and doing your best work in their classes. It also means asking their advice for major life decisions and knowing what they care about on a personal level. The college professor who I developed a close relationship with in college (who wrote my letter of recommendation for Stanford) was also there for me and incredibly supportive during a really difficult personal time in my life, and it made a big difference. 

Definitely invest in professional (at your internships) and academic relationships -- you will benefit tremendously. But also don't forget to invest in your relationships with your family and your friends, those who are experiencing college with you and those who are far away. It's hard, but worth it.

 

Take Risks

If you don’t lose, you haven’t stretched far enough. 

An example from my undergrad experience: I wish someone would have sat me down as a freshman and said to me: “You are going to win the Harry S. Truman Scholarship.” I didn’t even know what the scholarship was until a few months before the application was due, and ultimately I didn’t even submit my basically-completed application because I wasn’t proud of it and I didn’t feel like I had put in enough work. More than anything though, I didn't turn it in because I was scared of losing. 

What a stupid thing that was for me to do. Just engaging in the rigorous process of building and submitting an applications like that would have made me better. It certainly would have helped me prepare for the grad school application process. There’s virtually no downside. Choosing to not submit my application is one of my biggest regrets from college, because looking back, I know I could have been a competitive applicant, and, more importantly, I would be much happier having applied and lost than I am now: never having applied, and wondering "what if?"

You should avoid that feeling. Whether it's applying for a prestigious scholarship, running for student government office, submitting your papers to undergraduate journals, applying for a competitive internship, or something completely different -- do it. Best case scenario, you win. Worst case scenario, you fail miserably, learn, and grow.

 

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Write A Lot 

I write every day now. I wish I would have created a writing habit when I started college. My advice to college students (everyone, really -- but especially college students) is to write things down constantly. Ideas, quotes, opportunities, theories, sketches, stories, memories, reflections. In a Moleskine, on the notes app of your phone, in an e-mail to yourself. When you’re on the bus, right before bed, when you're early for class, while you're waiting for a friend. Just write.

Three main reasons:

1) Writing is practical for life. It’s a useful, marketable skill, it's likely that you'll need it for a job someday, and the only way to get better is to practice. It will also help you process your thoughts and ideas, and it will make you a better thinker.

2) Writing is a big part of academic success. One thing I learned in college is that good writing skills can compensate for extreme procrastination and not doing all the reading. Trust me. A pro-tip for writing essays: take good notes in class, but not just what's on the slide or what the professor says. Write down original ideas or analysis or questions as you think of them. It will make writing essays way easier.

3) Writing is the best way to preserve memories. You’re going to want to remember these years someday -- and probably sooner than you think. The people, the experiences, the victories and defeats, the regrets and sources of pride. Write about all of it -- whether you publish it on a blog, keep it locked in a diary, or send it home to your parents in a letter. Someday you'll be grateful to have it.