Students are taught early on that if they study hard and do their assignments they'll excel on their exams and get good grades. Good marks mean promotion to the next grade level and, eventually, that coveted degree. But what is the real lesson here?
"System dependence," declares career strategist Adele M. Scheele, and that doesn't prepare anyone for the work world. The proof, she says, is the number of college graduates who come to her Los Angeles office for counseling because they can't find a job.
Scheele, who is on the Advisory Board of UCLA's Deans Council for the College of Arts and Letters, says a typical counseling session might begin like this:
"What professor did you do most of your work with?"
"Well, no one in particular."
"Did you do any extracurricular activities or work?"
"Did you have any kind of internship?"
"Did you get to know any professors who might help you, anyone that might have connections with the business world?"
"What did you do?"
"Well, I got all A's."
"That passive stance," says the 47-year-old Scheele, "is the killer in life." All too many students, she says, find themselves unprepared to make the transition from college life to the work world.
Seizing opportunities in college can lead to fulfillment and achievement before and after graduation, says Scheele, and the way do it is to use college as a laboratory, to see it as "a microcosm of, and introduction to, the 'real' world."
Scheele's basic message -- that college "is a time for developing skills that will serve you far beyond your college years" -- is outlined in her book, Making College Pay Off (Ballantine, $2.95). Those skills, contends Scheele, will give you a good start in whatever career you choose.
Among her pointers:
*Avoid the "Good Student" trap. Most students fulfill the letter of the law, doing precisely what the teacher asks, turning in their work, taking tests and waiting for a response, which they get in the form of a grade.
Scheele calls these passive, "trapped" students "sustainers." They do what is asked of them and no more. "They're not failing at what they do, but they're not making anything happen for themselves either."
Those who avoid the trap are the "achievers," the students who do well at what is required and more. "Achievers," says Scheele, "know the value of positive self-presentation in order to get the recognition they deserve."
*Find mentors. Connecting with one or more respected professors offers double benefits: They can help you add to what you've learned and show you how to apply that knowledge in new directions, and they can help you get a fellowship or gain admittance to an advanced study program.
Others worth cultivating, says Scheele, include your faculty adviser, your department head and staff, and administrative assistants responsible for student records, grants programs and financial aid.
*Establish a double agenda. "Since tests are mandatory and since papers are assigned and you have to produce something anyway," says Scheele, "you might as well work toward your own best advantage."
Write papers on subjects in which you're interested. If you're not sure where your interests lie, "doing a paper on a subject is a sure way to find out."
You also should consider trying to get your papers published, thus "helping make a name for yourself and creating a place for yourself within the system." Work on your papers with the idea of submitting them to professional publications -- journals or magazines -- and newspapers, as well as for your professors.
Hard study and preparation are required for objective tests but more is required on subjective exams. The trick there, says Scheele, "is not to answer like a robot, spewing out meaningless lists of data, but to offer instead a conceptual framework that shows that you are thoughtful, curious and knowledgeable."
*Make thorough use of the "invisible curriculum." Clubs and other activities offer the opportunity to develop skills apart from those used in the classroom. Extracurricular activities allow students the opportunity to experiment in "safe" surroundings. "It is not," explains Scheele, "sink-or-swim, as it will be later when you have to support yourself or a family."
Scheele, who also wrote Skills for Success: A Guide to the Top (Ballantine, softcover, $2.95), a primer for people entering the business arena, says successful people she interviewed credit extracurricular college activities with helping them develop three specific skills: "building personal courage; developing organization savvy or a sense of how to play 'office politics,' and establishing a sense of real professionalism."
Other lessons to be learned within the safe confines of the invisible curriculum: how to convince a group (or club) to adopt a different way of thinking; how costly it can be to show others you are right at the expense of their being wrong; how to compromise and negotiate, and how to develop group spirit and cooperation.
Extracurricular clubs and organizations also allow students to explore career possibilities.
For example, says Scheele, "Lots of students say they are interested in what broadly is called 'communications.' What they really mean is writing or radio and TV." Working on the college newspaper or radio and TV stations offers a perfect opportunity "to learn whether it excites you or not, whether you can tolerate it or not, whether there really is the stuff that makes you want to be in that role."
Similar opportunities also can be found within the many clubs sponsored and supported by professional organizations: engineering, dentistry, nursing, teaching and others. Knowing professionals in the field, adds Scheele, can be invaluable later on.
School politics offer yet another set of development opportunities unavailable in the classroom, and, Scheele notes, "It is no accident that many top executives, professionals and community leaders were political leaders as college and graduate students."
Student government gives participants the chance to learn what it means to put their ideas and egos to the test, it gives them the opportunity to develop and lead a group of like-minded individuals, and it teaches them "to be there when the votes are counted."
*Use the outside world. Working, either in full- or part-time jobs or internships, offers the student hands-on experience and the opportunity to see how a particular organization or career field works. Suck work experience can be invaluable in helping a student settle on a career and can serve as a bridge between college and the real world.
There are drawbacks, warns Scheele. "Work is time-consuming and potentially energy-draining, and can take hours away from study and social time. But that is the worst of it. The best has no limits."
Making the transition from college to career is, indeed, anxiety-provoking. Scheele says a number of facilities within the college system can greatly reduce the anxiety and stress associated with going into the outside world. Tops among them are career counselors and counseling centers, and placement offices.
You should acquaint yourself with these people and facilities as soon as possible after entering college. "Your freshman year," counsels Scheele, "is not too early to start."
Going regularly to the career counseling office achieves several things: "You get a lot of information; you learn some things; you get to know the career-placement people, and they get to know you." That way, if there's a perfect job for you, they can call you about it. "If they don't know you, there's no way they can help."
What it all boils down to, says Scheele, is learning how to connect yourself to ideas and people, learning to take advantage of opportunities and risk experimenting. The more chances one takes in life, the less the fear of failure, of rejection, comes up.
"That," Scheele declares, "is the difference between achievers and sustainers, the difference between people who will keep experimenting, and the other people who believe that life is a test, like school.
"If you believe that, all you can do is pass or fail, and that's grim. The achievers never actually say they failed. They say, 'It didn't work out,' and then go on."