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All-Purpose College Advice
Institutions provide resources, students educate themselves
I’ve spent a bunch of time over the last several days trying to convince high school seniors (and their families) who have been accepted to Union College to come here (and give us significant sums of money). I did a simulated class on Saturday, then lunch with families, then a reception and dinner on Sunday night, then a panel on “immersive experiences” at Union, then lunch with families. At this point, if you tap me lightly on the shoulder, I’ll reflexively launch into a spiel extolling the virtues of our liberal arts education, so I might as well write something on that topic (I’ve done this before, but this is an evergreen topic…).
What I have to say, both in this post and on the panels Admissions keeps letting me do, isn’t just a pitch for Union, it’s a set of all-purpose college advice, useful for both the selection of where to go to school, and as a guide to behavior once there. Like all good advice, it boils down to something that easily fits in a tweet:
Education is not a thing that a college or university does to you, it’s a thing that they provide you the resources to do for yourself.
This applies equally well across the entire prestige hierarchy—the provision of resources is most obvious in the elite private college world I inhabit, but deep down we’re all in the same game, from the most cash-strapped open-admissions public college to the hedge-funds-in-disguise of the Ivy League, who hand out degrees for the tax break. In every case, the really essential work of education is done by the students themselves— reading and engaging with books and performances and artwork, grinding through labs and problem sets and exams, interacting with peers and mentors both in and out of the classroom, playing games and putting on shows and volunteering and bullshitting with friends and all the rest of the vast spectrum of extracurricular activities that are part of the college experience. All of those play a role in turning students from the people they were in high school to the people they will be after graduation, and in every one of them, the role of the student is paramount.
And in every one of those activities, the institution and its faculty and staff play a support role. The institution provides funds and facilities— labs and libraries, fields and stages, grants and fellowships, residence halls and support staff— that allow everything to happen. The faculty provide guidance regarding what to do and how, and incentives to actually do it. Fellow students provide challenges and camaraderie and opportunities for personal growth (some of those ideas will, admittedly, be ill-advised, but they’re still educational…).
Given that, the most critical advice for a college-bound student is just to remember that education is ultimately a thing you do for yourself with resources provided by the institution, and take an active and engaged role in that process. Real education isn’t something that’s going to happen automatically or by accident— it’s totally possible to just kind of shuffle through the halls of academe doing the absolute minimum needed to get passing grades in enough courses to graduate with some sort of major, and come out the other side basically unchanged except for your wardrobe. That’s pretty sad, though.
If you want to actually succeed, and leave college as a better, more interesting person than you were when you came in, you need to take an active role in this process. Choose classes that are interesting and challenging, and do the work. When you know what subject(s) you want to major in, try to get the broadest and deepest major you can. Make sure that at least some faculty and fellow students know who you are for positive reasons. Seek out opportunities beyond the classroom— doing research with faculty, or internships with companies connected that have some connection to the institution, or volunteering in the community. Join a club, or a team, or even a Greek organization of the appropriate type. Get out and meet people— classmates and faculty and staff— and get to know them.
This does not, I hasten to add, mean that you have to be a total gunner in every class, shooting up your hand to ask a question every time the professor pauses for breath, or that you have to be one of those coldly calculating resume mercenaries who choose all their activities based on how it will look to some presumed future employer. Nobody actually likes those people. It’s fine to blow off the occasional class that turns out to bore you silly but checks some box on a form, or to spend the odd weekend doing nothing but watching all the Star Wars movies and shows in internal chronological order, or just drinking beer and watching sports on TV.
The point is just that you need to be there, and engaged in the process. Recognize that you’re being given an opportunity, and take advantage of that opportunity in ways that suit your interests and skills. Or help you identify your interests and skills. Or even identify things you don’t want to do— a course or internship or summer research job that you turn out to hate is a bit of a bummer, but still useful information as you chart a course into the future.
That is, as I said, pretty much all-purpose advice for anyone going to college— the most important element of your education is you, so don’t expect that anyone else is just going to do things for you. But you’re going to be in an environment that is specifically designed to provide you with the opportunities and support you need to do things for yourself, so make as much use of that as you can.
With regard to selection of where to go, this same framing can serve as a useful guide: that is, you should go to the school that you feel will provide the best opportunities for you. That’s not necessarily the university with the most books in their library or the most expensively appointed labs, either— you need to be in a place that makes the things you want available to you. That means both relatively quantifiable things like “Do undergraduate students actually have access to these resources?” and “Are the programs here well respected enough to open doors after graduation?” and much fuzzier things like “Are the people here the kind of people I want to suround myself with for the next several years?”
A big part of the specific sales pitch for the elite liberal arts college world I operate in is about that access piece: there are major research universities with bigger labs and more renowned faculty than we have, but access to them is another matter. An internationally famous professor who offers just one graduate seminar a year is less useful than one who’s less well known but teaches first-year courses. A billion-dollar lab that only Ph.D. students can enter is less useful than one that only have a million dollars of gear you can actually touch. And so on— what we’re selling is a high-touch environment where undergraduates and faculty interact much more closely, and that’s its own kind of opportunity.
At the same time, though, there are people who would find that high-touch environment very off-putting, who might very well be better served by a different type of institution. There’s also the personal piece— a lot of schools have a very particular sort of character, in terms of the type of people who go there, and you should make sure that wherever you go is a place with people you’ll have positive interactions with. That may sound a little superficial, but it’s really not— wanting to be with people whose personalities you find congenial is 100% a valid desire.
The good news about this is that the stakes are somewhat lower than you may be thinking if you’re in the position of trying to choose between several different schools, precisely because the most important element is you. Virtually anywhere you choose to go in the end will provide you with the basic resources needed to get a good education, and allow you to find people who will provide support and good company along the way. You might need to work a little harder at that in some places than others, but as long as you go in knowing that it’s on you to do that work, you’ll be fine in the end.
So, that’s my inspirational college pitch, at least the latest iteration thereof. If you want more of that sort of this, here’s a button:
and if you want to tell me that I left out some absolutely crucial factor in either of these processes, the comments will be open: