Here is my advice for making the most of college, from the perspective of five years’ work plus a master’s degree. (I assume that you are interested in a broadly professional career.)
Choose your major wisely. 9 times out of 10, you are better off with a major that involves math or science. Engineering is great because it teaches problem solving. Math and physics are terrific mental gymnastics and very transferable. These quantitative majors prove to employers that you are smart. (When I was a banker, any engineer or math guy automatically made the first resume cut.) Philosophy and economics also seem to carry weight. Be careful around the hard sciences (as several MR commenters said) because they get pretty specialized – don’t suffer through organic chemistry unless you really want to be an MD or PhD. Political science, psychology, international relations, English, psychology, “communications” and so on are less robust.
Complement your major. You will enjoy a change of pace, and employers want to know that you can think more than one way, so get a minor or second major. Pick something that you really enjoy. Philosophy, economics, the classics, and art history are reliable. History can be good, but make sure you’re actually going to learn history. Don’t underestimate what you can learn later from books (see below).
Something about workload. MR commenters are mixed; maybe there is a plurality for taking it easy at first. My take: there’s no way you worked as hard as you could in high school. College is supposed to stretch you. So take a little more than you think you can handle.
Consider ROTC. Not only is it a way to serve and a source of funding, but the training and leadership experience will give you gravitas and confidence that most 22-year-olds simply lack.
Stuff everyone should take. You should absolutely take as much statistics and probability as you can handle, plus a calculus class. A lot of the MR commenters emphasize calculus, but there are virtually no careers where you won’t apply statistics concepts every day. Also, Joel Spolsky says that everyone should learn to write and take a microeconomics course. He’s right.
Take wacky stuff. As several MR commenters pointed out, the best classes are often the most offbeat. If your school offers a course on 18th century French literature, or “History of War to the Napoleonic Era,” there’s a reason: the professor loves that subject. Excellent! My best course was on Shakespeare.
Semesters vs. quarters. Go to a school that uses 10-week quarters, not 15 week semesters. With only 10 weeks, professors are forced to be much crisper and better organized. Also, you will have many more slots to take those wacky classes. This should get more weight in your decision than how nice the dorms are, how new the gym is, or how far from home you are.
Follow professors. A great professor can enliven a dull writing seminar, but even the best curriculum cannot rescue a lousy professor. Check up on professors, even audit their lectures. If the professor is awful, replace or postpone the class. A good professor will take an interest in you and open doors for you.
GPA is important. Can’t overstate this. Employers review hundreds of resumes. They’re busy. GPA is the easiest and fastest filter – and, as Mr. Spolsky says, it contains a lot of information. Your eclectic coursework will not save you from a 3.2.
Extracurriculars. Do something outside of class: music, theater, athletics. You will make great friends and protect your sanity. (Bonus sanity points if you do this off-campus.) Exercise is key – you will sleep and study much, much better.
Google is forever. In his book In But Not Of, Hugh Hewitt includes this advice: don’t get a tattoo. Likewise, if you are going to blog, post on forums, have a Flickr account, use Myspace or Facebook, or anything else Web 2.0, use a pseudonym. If you must be yourself, don’t post anything you wouldn’t show your mother and your boss at the same time. I’ve seen hiring managers Google candidates during their interviews. (For that matter, just don’t do stuff you wouldn’t do at 15 or 35.)
Don’t shop at the campus bookstore. MR commenter Justin is right. Also, consider getting a scanner with a page feeder to convert everything to pdf.
Internships and abroad. Definitely get an internship or two. (I didn’t, but still.) If your school offers co-ops, do one of those. Internships are a low risk way for you to check out a career track. If you do well, you will get a full time offer. And you will be much more employable after proving that you can function in the office and deliver work on time. Go abroad too, it’s invaluable experience, but do it over the summer.
Bonus career suggestion. After college, go spend two years as an analyst on Wall Street. This will do five things: (1) you will learn that one person can do the work of four, (2) you will get a serious crash course in accounting and finance, (3) you will learn how business leaders think and how to talk to them, (4) afterwards, you can probably get any job you like, and (5) you will make enough money to take the summer off when you are done. Analyst jobs are fairly competitive, so you need to start getting ready for this in your sophomore year. (I’m told that consulting offers similar benefits.)
There’s more to life. Do whatever you can to graduate within four years.
- Joel Spolsky’s Advice for Computer Science College Students
- Hugh Hewitt wrote a great, very short book on this topic: In But Not Of.
- Back in April, Mr. Hewitt interviewed David Allen White of the U.S. Naval Academy and John Mark Reynolds of Biola University on “the top 30 books that every one of you ought to have read.” Fill in what’s missing from your so-marketable education. See also The Well-Educated Mind by Susan Wise Bauer.
- The commenters at Marginal Revolution have a lot more practical suggestions and many disagree with me. Read the whole thing!
- UPDATE: Fabio at orgtheory.net has a whole series of posts on getting the most out of grad school. Here is the first post and here is the whole series (via Marginal Revolution).