5 Things I Wish I Had Learned in College

Despite over a month-long hiatus, The Contemporary Gentleman is up and running again. And with the infinite amount of free time I now have on my hands since graduation, there will be many more posts to come.

Along with 800+ other students, I just graduated the University of Louisville. As I continue what I’ve been doing for the past two months – sending out resumés and looking for jobs – I find it hard not to look back on what I learned in college. And while I did learn how to effectively manage my time, multi-task to unprecedented extremes, develop leadership skills, and somehow get a degree out of it, I still feel there’s a good amount that my curriculum didn’t include. But I know I’m not alone in this, which (coupled with an indefinitely screwed economy) is part of the reason why our generation is having such a tough time finding jobs.

1. Start planning for the future on Day 1. In August 2007, I snatched my room key from my Nazi of an RA and moved into my dorm. When I did, I failed to realize I had just started the countdown on a 4-year timer, and that I would need to prepare myself as much as possible for life outside after college. I was so caught up with meeting people and having fun, that only when junior year arrived did I begin to worry. At that point, it became more of a focus on actually graduating than trying to realize any goal with the time I had left.

At one point in my collegiate career, I held a position in which I taught a class to freshmen, which basically outlined how to succeed in school – go to class, talk to your professors, study for “x” amount of hours each week, etc. This is the bare minimum to succeed, and it was sad to see their faces drop as if they were thinking, “You mean I can’t just get blitzed and play COD all day?” No, you can’t. In addition to what students should be doing, they should also be networking and making contacts, beefing up their resumés, and building relationships with people that might help get them somewhere post graduation. Outlining a clear goal of where they would want to be in four years and working backwards from there would help more than any gen ed course.

2. Take risks and explore all opportunities. Because I was an Arts & Sciences major, I restricted myself only to A&S courses. I pursued nothing in business school, nor anything in education. By not pursuing different avenues, I limited my opportunities to find something that genuinely interested me. Don’t be afraid to explore the unknown – you may end up liking what you find. And if you don’t, at least you’ll know not to pursue it further.

3. Prioritize your activities and learn to say “no”. College – it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I met people and made many awesome friends, had plenty of great times with said friends, and grew and matured in ways I never imagined. However, it was the growing up that was the hard part, and part of that was learning to responsibly set priorities.

During my sophomore year I had more fun than the other three years combined… but that’s because the emphasis was on having fun, and not on taking care of business. Instead of saying “no” when invited to do something, I’d drop what I was doing and head out because, hey, you’re only in college once! This usually resulted in several all-nighters to make up for what I should have been doing and a great deal of stress. There will always be more parties, more tailgates, and more fun things to do. But business is business, and the important things need to be taken care of first.

4. You need a budget. I worked through college, but not just for spending money like some kids, but to pay rent, buy groceries, etc. At first, I hated it – I couldn’t go out because I was stuck at work and I was always busy – but then I realized working gave me a strong sense of independence. I didn’t have to rely on anyone to take care of me, because I could do that on my own. Unfortunately, I often spent through all that money instead of responsibly saving it. I’ve learned over the past two years that proper budgeting can alleviate so much stress, but not sticking to it can keep you awake at night. A great tool is Mint.com, and I highly recommend it to keep track of your personal finances.

5. College is not responsible for preparing you for the real world. I’ll be the first to admit that I was not prepared for college. I exerted the bare minimum in my high school AP classes, and still did better than a large majority of my peers. I assumed college would be roughly the same; I had no reason not to. Unfortunately, like so many other students I met in college, we all got collectively screwed by teachers catering their instruction to standardized testing, resulting in an overall inadequate secondary education.

Adjusting to college was the biggest learning curve I have ever faced, but I know that it pales in comparison to what’s next.  Colleges can definitely increase their efforts to prep students for entering the job market, but much of that responsibility falls back on the student. At the end of the day, a college is a business – you pay it money, and it hands you a diploma that tells the world you have the ability to learn. What you do with that, however is up to you because the truth is, there is no direction after college. There is no syllabus, no attendance policy, no lecture. You are in control of what happens now, just as you were on Day 1, so proactively preparing to enter a highly competitive job market is your responsibility.

Overall, I can’t say I regret anything about college; it was fun, I grew and developed as a person, and I somehow managed to learn a few things. But I know the learning doesn’t stop after graduation, because life is the ultimate continuing education, and class is always in session.