Everybody Is Stupid Except You

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How to Get the Most Out of College

The hidden value of asking for help

When I left home for college, I had a reputation for being "smart in school, dumb in real life." That was probably charitable. I really earned that reputation--the dumb part at least--when I got there.

I wear contacts. When I packed my bag for college, I only took one pair with me. A few weeks into the spring semester, one of them tore. So for the next few months, I did the only logical thing. I walked around with a contact in my right eye and nothing in my left eye.

Was it incredibly irritating to be able to see out of one eye and not the other? Yes. Was it annoying to have an asymmetrical need to blink? More than you'd imagine. I know this story sound made up, but, unfortunately, it is true. The obvious question, of course, is why? That's simple. I didn't ask anyone for help.

Maybe this experience was good for me. Instead of getting help, I solved the problem (sort of) for myself. If I'd had someone step in and solve my problem for me, I wouldn't have learned a valuable life lesson. The lesson I learned is this: Ask someone for help. 

This advice--that help is helpful--may not sound like rocket science. On the other hand, if I was me at age 18, I would ignore it. So much help is available to college students and so much of it goes unused. I know because office hours are so chronically underutilized everywhere. But it's more than that. Many colleges and universities offer all sorts of support for students who are struggling, whether it's academically or personally. This type of help is underused too.

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It's hard to admit that you need help. When I was in high school there was a sense that getting good grades was OK, but if you were really cool you got good grades without trying. It sounds silly, but it seems to pervade college as well. Going to the writing center will get you a better grade and make you a better writer. It's a win-win. But struggling students don't do it. Part of the problem is if you wish you didn't need help, you pretend you don't.

Let's just imagine, for a moment, that Matt and John both need math help. Matt admits it and asks for tutoring help. John doesn't. By the time graduation rolls around, John will be able to maintain the pretense that he never needed help. Matt, on the other hand, actually won't need help anymore. And he'll get better grades, too. So be selfish. Go to the writing center. Get help from math tutors. Visit the dean's office and the career center.

There's an even bigger stigma against getting help with personal problems. This stigma is far more tragic. But the same basic message is there: Most of us don't want to need help, but pretending we don't need it doesn't mean we don't actually need it.

Students need to realize three things. There's a lot of help out there. People like deans and counsellors are pros, and they can probably help you far more than you realize. And there's nothing wrong with getting help.

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Nate Kornell, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Williams College.

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