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Ruth C White Ph.D.
Ruth C White Ph.D.

11 Ways to Get the Most Out of the College Experience

Finding happiness while maximizing the ROI on college tuition.

Vasily Koloday/Unsplash
Focused on the goal
Source: Vasily Koloday/Unsplash

Back-to-school 2020 is more stressful than usual. From a global pandemic that has significantly changed the college experience to social unrest, political protests, and natural disasters such as fires and storms, 2020 just won't give us a break. But despite all the challenges that are unique to this fall, some things continue to hold true about success at college. This post was published several years ago but the tips still hold true, even if some adaptations may be necessary for the unique logistics of the '20/'21 academic year.

Whether you are a newly minted high school graduate or a mature student upgrading your credentials, surviving and thriving through the college experience requires some thinking about the kind of experience you want to have and some planning to make it all happen. It is also important that you feel like you are getting your money's worth because the high cost of a post-secondary education demands as high a return on investment as possible.

What follows are 11 ways to facilitate a great student experience that promotes mental well-being. As a college professor for 20 years, I have found these strategies to pay off in good grades and a good job.

  1. Connect to any student groups that focus on topics you would enjoy. Meeting people and making friends is an important part of the college experience and many college friendships last a lifetime. Universities are a place where many people find their spouses. Friendships provide the opportunity to share joys, get support for struggles, and improve your mental well-being. The college environment also allows for diverse groups of people to connect with each other in a way that is not often available in other settings.
  2. Explore and utilize the resources provided by your school. Tuition doesn't only pay for the classroom experience. It pays for the library resources (as a professor, this resource seems very underused), mental health services, social clubs, athletic facilities, writing support centers, and support for students with disabilities. Student publications, public performances in the arts, and lectures are also paid for by your tuition and to maximize the return on your investment, the more resources you use the better the bang for your buck. Furthermore, many of the ancillary resources can help you get better grades.
  3. Use office hours. Professors are required to be available to students in their classes when the class is not in session. The purpose of office hours is to help students get the best grade they can get by answering questions, solving problems, and referring students to the resources they may need to get the best grade possible. Furthermore, if you are having personal challenges that may interfere with your academic performance and you need an extension on an assignment or an incomplete on a course, having a relationship with your professor will help you through this process. From my experience as a professor and that of my colleagues, office hours are highly underused or are used by the high-achieving students who need it least. Developing a relationship with your professors also helps when you want a reference because you will be more than a name on a transcript and/or resume.
  4. Develop a schedule and stick to it. You already have a schedule of classes, so build study time around your course schedule and include free time for recreation and social interaction. The primary reason students feel stressed about assignments and exams is rooted in poor time management. Doing papers as soon as you can relieves you of the pressure that comes from having a to-do list hanging over your head. Having time built in to study, research, and write gives you the time to get your work done and have fun. A work routine is also good time-management practice for the workforce.
  5. Learn a new language. One of the most desired skills in the workplace is the ability to speak another language; it gives you more career opportunities and also allows you to negotiate for a higher salary. Another language makes you flexible and builds neural networks that facilitate creativity and flexibility with regard to ideas. Learning a new language also exposes you to a new culture and expands your mind in ways that cannot be achieved in any other course.
  6. Study abroad. Study-abroad options to make it possible for a wide range of students to study in another country. The advantages are the opportunity to learn new ways of doing things that they would otherwise not consider, learning a new language and culture, and learning cultural humility that goes far when you join the workplace.
  7. Be prepared. Learning is more likely to happen if you show up in class with the resources you need and have read the material and completed any homework that was required. It is not the professor's job to teach you but to facilitate learning. If you haven't read the material, you don't have the foundation on which to build your classroom experience. Being prepared also gives you the tools to engage in the classroom and prompts professors to remember you, which comes in handy come recommendation time.
  8. Build your resume. This may seem like an obvious tip but many students have a very "academic" resume with few activities to round out the picture that employers will see when they read your resume. The key is to find a place to be a leader. This may be in a student club or a particular activity. Volunteer or intern in some activity that connects to your field of study. This gives you contacts that may help you get jobs in the future and it provides the experience that prepares you for the first job of your career.
  9. Be assertive. There are many opportunities on campus and off that are not hidden but require some research to find them. Once you find out what you want to do, then being assertive about what you want to do is not only good practice for the workplace but also makes you a more suitable candidate for whatever opportunity you are seeking. Also, it is important to be assertive with your professors if you are having challenges getting your work done. Professors much prefer you try to find a way to get your work submitted on time or to give you an extension, rather than hearing excuses for a low grade or not submitting the assignment. The same goes for the financial office: If you think you may have trouble paying your tuition bill, it is good to go to the student aid office and try to negotiate.
  10. Live a healthy lifestyle. That freshman 15 can turn into the graduation 50 if you're not careful so make sure to eat mostly fresh fruits and vegetables and eat whole foods that are as close to their natural state as possible. Try to eat at the same time every day. Find an exercise routine that works for you. In keeping with numbers 2 and 4 above, you want to use the exercise facilities your tuition dollars maintain, e.g. pools, sports courts, the track, etc. Make time for regular exercise and schedule your meals so that you are less likely to have cravings that cause you to make poor food choices. That way, you'll also have the nutrients you need to perform at your best.
  11. Have fun. Yes, you are there to learn but learning can be fun, no matter how challenging the material. You also need to have fun to relieve some of the stress that goes with midterms, finals, and getting your reading done on time. If you are not enjoying your college experience, you may want to consider changing majors, taking a break, or using one of the 10 strategies above to find your way to happiness as a college student.

(Edited from its original version for Fall 2020)

About the Author
Ruth C White Ph.D.

Ruth C. White, Ph.D., M.P.H., M.S.W., is a stress management expert, diversity consultant, and mental health advocate, and author of The Stress Management Workbook and the forthcoming Everyday Stress Relief.

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