Review of How College Works, Part 2

A continuation of my review of How College Works, this time in the form of advice to students:

College is a place where people matter. The college experience, and the benefits you derive from it, are a function of “who meets whom, and when” (p. 16). But given the constraints of time and space, you won’t be able to meet everyone. You will need to maximize your ability to make the right friends and find the right mentors — the people with the perspectives, interests, and drive that are the most helpful in motivating you to work toward personally-meaningful accomplishments. 

Every college and university has established pathways that simplify the process of forming the social relationships that can result in a more rewarding college experience. These pathways can help you to “spend your time with good people” (p. 162). For example, joining an athletic team or a performing arts club introduces you to a number of individuals who spend a significant amount of time together, which will enable you to get to know all of them well. These people can then introduce you to their friends, and so on.

Map of How College Works
Student social networks at Hamilton College, p. 93

However, choices have consequences, and choosing one path often closes the door on others. The time spent on the field or on the stage is time that you can’t use to interact with other groups of people. 

In many cases, students end up on a particular path because of a series of small, seemingly inconsequential or even accidental decisions. You join the swim team, a teammate introduces you to her lab partner in chemistry class, and that person tells you about an internship option that you pursue the following semester. Or you decide to  share an off-campus apartment with three buddies who like video games. Your social circle narrows once you move off campus, you hang out more with your roommates, your grades suffer because you’re studying less and playing video games more, and you lose a scholarship.

A personal example: in my sophomore year of college I took a history course on the Vietnam War that partly fulfilled a requirement for graduation. I knew next to nothing about the subject and essentially took the course on a whim. It turned out to be so fascinating that I changed my major in my junior year and got to know some very interesting professors and students. Years later I enrolled in a PhD program, went to Vietnam, learned the language and did research, and had a bunch of experiences that I never would have had otherwise. These decisions, each made in the moment, resulted in a long chain of events that led me to where I am now.

The authors of How College Works list a few simple steps that students can take to improve the odds of finding this type of personally-fulfilling path through college (p. 163):

First, start meeting people early. Each person you meet can introduce you to other people; conversely, limiting yourself to one or two people limits how fast and far one’s social network can expand. The centrally-located freshman dorm where everyone lives with two or three roommates, in the midst of dozens of other students who share the same hallway, leads to much more social interaction than “apartment-style living” on the edge of campus.

Second, choose professors, not topics. Find out who the best ones are. Who attracts the most motivated students? Who do professors say that they would want teaching them if they were students? Ask the instructor of a course for a copy of last semester’s or last year’s syllabus. A syllabus should give you an idea of how learning in the course is supposed to occur in addition to what supposedly will get learned. Given how the course is organized, are you likely to be engaged with the professor, your classmates, and the material?

Third, spend time in physical locations on campus that are convenient to other students. This might be a cafe, the library, a commons area, or a performance space. Placing yourself where you will most frequently encounter others makes it easier to initiate and maintain social connections.

Fourth, regularly collaborating with people whose mental and physical energy is focused on a shared interest pays big dividends — in motivation, learning, and ability. Swim practice five mornings per week creates self-discipline and builds time management skills. The group ethnographic research project in that anthropology course coming up next semester offers training in interpersonal communication and public speaking.

Fifth, minimize the risk of getting stuck on what might turn out to be the wrong path by keeping some options open. Stay alert for ways to make new friends, get out of your comfort zone, and challenge yourself. Look for chances to learn practical problem-solving skills, gain leadership experience in a competitive environment, and work closely with professors and classmates. 

You will see only the parts of college that you actually use (p. 161), so none of the above matters if you are unwilling to seize any of the available opportunities. If for whatever reason this is your situation, don’t go to college. Wait. Admission to college doesn’t necessarily mean you are ready to enroll.

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