It is one of the enduring rituals of August: Millions of 18-year-olds across the country begin the journey from adolescence to adulthood by packing up the family minivan or SUV with milk crates, a fridge, laptop, and other possessions and head off to college.
The truth is that most new undergraduates are woefully unprepared for the realities of college. The college search that has consumed many of them for the past year — and in some cases, for more than a year — focused largely on where to go to college, not how they should go to college. High-school counselors prepare students to get into college, not what students should do while they are there to make the most of their undergraduate years. Even the best freshmen orientation programs often fail to provide students with an adequate road map for navigating the sometimes-treacherous path to graduation.
As a result, too many students sit back and many wait for college to happen to them. That’s why every year, nearly 70 percent of new high school graduates go straight on to college, but just a little more than 50 percent graduate within six years. For undergraduates to get off to a good start, there are four critical things they need to do to be sure they eventually make it across the stage at commencement:
1. Engage with faculty. Just 32 percent of freshmen in the annual National Survey of Student Engagement said they discussed ideas or concepts with a faculty member outside of class. Three-fifths of freshmen in the same survey said they never worked with professors on activities other than coursework. Researchers have found that getting to know at least one faculty member well in the first year of college improves the chances that students will get more from their undergraduate experience (including a degree).
One easy way for students to build a one-on-one relationship with a professor who teaches sometimes hundreds of students in a semester is during office hours. Unfortunately, undergraduates don’t seek out professors or advisers nearly as much as they should to talk about life and careers. Office hours aren’t just reserved for students facing problems in class.
2. Start early with hands-on experiences. A 2014 Gallup survey of more than 30,000 college graduates found that those who had had an internship or job that allowed them to apply what they were learning were twice as likely to be engaged in their life and work. The problem is that just one in three graduates said they had internships or similar hands-on learning experiences in college.
Internships, in particular, have shifted from a nice-to-have line on a résumé to a critical component. Today, employers hire as full-time workers approximately 50 percent of the interns who worked for them before they graduated, according to the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University; at large companies and in some industries the share of interns who get full-time offers is growing every year and is closer to 75 percent. Students can no longer wait for the summer before their senior year to line up their first internship. That now needs to happen during the summer after their freshman year.
“You can’t spend your first couple of summers in college lifeguarding or working as a camp counselor anymore if you have a specific job in mind after graduation,” said Matthew Sigelman, CEO of Burning Glass Technologies, the company that provides real-time labor market data and has studied internship postings. “Those typical summer jobs are not going to position you for work after graduation.”
3. Explore the course catalog. At the same time, the focus on securing multiple internships and graduating within four years has left students with very little time in college to explore their passions. While freshmen sometimes select a major as part of their application to college, nearly a quarter will change their mind by the end of their first year in school, according to UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute.
To make the most of their undergraduate years and prepare for the job market after college, students should take courses that challenge them to work hard (especially those with extensive reading and writing requirements), present them with opportunities to learn from the best professors, and give them a broad foundation across multiple subjects, not just the one within their major. The job market is expanding and contracting at an alarming pace, and even the supposed hot majors of today will not necessarily guarantee jobs four years from now.
4. Network with peers. Some of the most important learning that happens in college comes from peers, so students want to be surrounded by people who give them different perspectives on life and careers. Recent graduates I talked to often said their best leads for internships and jobs came from their classmates or students a year or two ahead of them. That is perhaps the greatest value of an undergraduate residential college.
Knowledge is not only what is in our brains, but also what is distributed throughout our networks. Learning happens by building and navigating those networks. The ability to negotiate the ambiguity of life in college, and especially afterwards, requires students to think contextually, to provide the “connective tissue” that occupies the space in between ideas. Students who make these connections do so by following their curiosity and exploring and learning from peers.
When parents drop off their sons and daughters in a strange new home this month, they might think the most anxiety-ridden part of the college process is over. But what happens in the coming months is perhaps more important for their successful life afterwards than the search that brought them to this point.