College: How I Got the Most Out of My Parents' Investment

If college was the best time of your life, you haven't done so well after getting out.
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My brother Scott starts college Friday. This is about the time of year when graybeards everywhere feel free to spout a lot of nonsense about the college experience to their children and everyone else's kids as well.

I always thought I took their advice with a container or two of salt, but eventually they got to me. I became really excited about going to college. I wish I hadn't.

The last time I saw my younger brother, he described his school to me and what he hoped to do there. He had the same look of thrilled anticipation on his face that I must've worn before I got myself a higher education.

If he were anyone else, I probably would have said whatever was necessary to get him at least mildly upset about going to college. But he's my brother, so I gave him some advice from the perspective of a recent graduate, which amounted to almost the same thing.

Then I taught him how to smoke cigarettes in order to relieve his concerns about being unable to smoke and embarrassing himself if anyone ever offered him a cigarette at school (relax, he's 19). I liked my advice so much that I'm sharing it with you, but feel free to consider it as valuable as my brother's smoking lesson.

First, let's deal with the expectations of how great college is going to be. The great thing about going to college is that you become autonomous. It's the first time in most of our lives when no one else is making our decisions for us. We end up doing different things. That's why, to be completely honest, I don't have a lot of conviction in the idea that anyone's advice can help you "get the most out of your college experience." You'll do what you want to.

That said, almost everyone I know has at least this in common: We really romanticized the whole idea of going to college, and that made us believe that it would be a lot more fun, and a lot more engaging, than it actually was. You shouldn't feel let down when you go to college, but you most likely will, eventually, if only because everyone's always gushing about how great it is.

Don't get me wrong, you should go to college. But you should be warned, too. A lot of what's mandatory -- like taking, if not attending, classes -- will end up being really dull. It's still school. Eating in a dining hall and living in a dormitory become incredibly tedious.

At Harvard, they had bunk beds in the dorms, and not just for freshmen. I knew people who were sleeping on bunk beds in their junior year. Some schools have nicer housing than others, but rising freshmen should be prepared to lose a lot of privacy.

Even drinking loses some of its appeal once you turn 21 (for the same reason, I've always assumed people had a lot more fun getting drunk during Prohibition). I spent most of my time at school feeling like I was just going through the motions to get a degree. That's exactly what I was doing, and the odds are good it's what you'll do, too.

I still bitterly resent being told that college would be the time of my life, when it turned out to be pretty unspectacular. Most of my friends feel the same way. Living unsupervised with a bunch of people your own age is great, but that doesn't have to stop at graduation.

The rest of "the college experience," the learning, the activities, you're doing that to get a degree and get a job. That's a worthy cause, no question, but it's a lot less than we're promised. Temper your expectations and you won't be bothered by this kind of thing.

Now, let's get to what you need to know before you arrive on campus. I wish someone had told me that college is a total racket

before

I got there and had to figure that out on my own.

The whole institution is about protecting middle-class kids from downward social and economic mobility. I don't resent that fact, but it's worth noting. No one set it up to work that way, but that's how it works.

You need a degree to get most white-collar jobs or to go to graduate school (the springboard for higher-paying white-collar jobs).

You need to pony up roughly $160,000 for a diploma from a private college if you're not receiving any form of aid, though that's unlikely, as a majority of students at private colleges receive some kind of scholarship, grant or financial aid, according to the Department of Education.

You're at college to get a degree and make connections, and if you keep that in mind, you'll have a lot more fun. The rational strategy in that situation is to accomplish that goal at the lowest possible cost, which in this case would mean effort. The more time you spend getting an education, which is not what you're there for, the less time you can spend doing what you want.

So what else should you know in order to wring the most free time out of your college experience? At some schools, you really don't need to attend classes, or at least lecture classes. As long as they don't take attendance, I found that most people I knew either went to the lectures or did the assigned reading, but rarely both.

Find out if you can get away with not attending class. Everyone says that doing well in college is all a factor of learning how to make effective use of your time, and I agree. Start by making better use of your class time.

If your class is a seminar or has a discussion section, you'll have to go most of the time. Usually led by a TA (teacher's assistant), but at Harvard we had TFs, teaching fellows, I think because the title sounds more prestigious.

These classes that actually require your presence and participation are extended opportunities for the most obnoxious dilettantes in the room to posture, name-drop pretentious French authors that no one actually reads, and generally try and fail to impress the rest of the class. Avoid them with extreme prejudice.

Then again, I was a liberal-arts guy. In a math class, or any other class in which there are genuine right and wrong answers to the questions, it's probably harder to let all your peers know you're sophisticated by beginning your sentences with the phrase, "I was just reading Derrida..."

How do you deal with these classes? Multitask! Most schools are now wired for Wi-Fi in their classrooms, so if you have a laptop, you'll be able to distract yourself from what your peers are actually saying. As long as your screen isn't in the teacher's line of sight, you can get away with almost anything by pretending to type down notes.

You probably believe that good grades will help you get good jobs after graduate. The conventional wisdom on grades is that they only matter for your first job. That's probably true, although I'm not in any position to know. Forget nepotism, because of grade inflation the median GPA in my class was a 3.68, which is slightly higher than an A-minus.

Still, it makes sense to get good grades, if only because graduate schools really do care about them. The easiest way to get good grades is to work harder and spend more time

picking classes

. In my experience, there was a lot of variability between professors in terms of how difficult they made getting good grades.

If you ask around, you can usually find out how difficult a class is, and adjust your course selection accordingly. That's the easiest, and thus the smartest, way to get good grades.

Here's some more advice for potential dean's-listers. You should learn how to write (something they don't really teach in most high schools), learn how to do research (something I didn't pick up until my junior year), and whatever else you do, don't plagiarize.

Forget the morality angle, it's just too easy for you to get caught. I knew a girl who plagiarized almost every paper she wrote for school, and she was caught only in the final semester of her senior year.

She failed the class that she plagiarized in, and then another professor went through her work, found another example of plagiarism, and failed her in his course, too. It was almost criminally stupid behavior on her part, and it cost her parents a bundle paying for an extra semester so that she could actually graduate.

If you want to save money, or save your parents some dough, I do have one idea, but I don't see many people actually doing it, so there's probably some enormous drawback that hasn't occurred to me. It seems to me that the best way to pay less for a higher education is to graduate in three years.

You'll have more work and less fun, but if you're really concerned about tuition, schools don't charge you extra if you take more classes each semester.

If you can get credit for any advanced placement courses you took in high school, you can use them to take fewer classes and still graduate early. If you were going to pay full tuition plus room and board at a private college, then you'll pay more than $40,000 less if you can graduate in three years.

Yeah, you lose some of the "college experience." So what? College isn't a vacation resort. It's not a Four Seasons on some tropical paradise in the Caribbean. If college is the best time of your life, you're doing a bad job at living in the real world after you graduate. The people who tell you how much they loved college are conflating their experience of making new friends and spending time with them, with the entire experience of school.

Even if you disagree with me and you really want to

learn

something, college isn't the place to do it. Unless you're going to a school with a great reputation for teaching undergraduates, you're not going to get a lot of face time with professors. At universities, professors don't get tenure because they're great teachers. They get tenure by publishing "great" academic articles.

It's possible that a really terrific professor could expand your mind, but most of what people learn in school comes from books they can read and comprehend without expert assistance. I don't doubt that some students do in fact learn important skills, like how to think, from their professors, but if you're heading off to college for the first time, don't hold your breath.

Maybe you'll love college, but if you don't expect it to be paradise, you won't be disappointed.