Making the Most of Your College Years

When college freshmen report to campus in coming days, they will have plenty to worry about, from class registration to roommates. One hopes they also will understand and appreciate that they and their parents are shelling out thousands of dollars on tuition, books, and room and board. It's way too much money to waste.

Orientation might help first-year students meet friends and find the library, but they really need strategies for maximizing the return on the investment in college that they and their parents are making.

I spent 30 years working in the corporate world, so when I came to academia in 1998, I was able to assess the relative street value of all that students are offered. And every summer, I share with incoming students and their parents the following advice designed to maximize the return on their college investment:

Treat academia like a full-time job. College is not an end but a means to an end—the means to a meaningful career of one's choice. But if students want to succeed in their college career, they need to take the opportunity seriously. They should start with their teachers, taking the time to meet with faculty during office hours and/or after class. Whether they are taking a course that has 10 students or 100 students, they need to participate during class by speaking up, paying attention, asking questions, volunteering to lead a group project, and making themselves visible.

I say to these young students that they have to show me they're prepared, doing the work, and taking the topics of the day seriously. I remember the students who sit in the front of the class, raise their hands, pay attention, and stay behind to ask questions. I'm impressed when they're curious about the lessons and what's happening in the world. These are the students for whom I will write glowing recommendations when they begin interviewing for internships, jobs, and graduate school.

Take advantage of student life. While academics are important, so are extracurricular activities, such as clubs, athletics, immersion trips, and the social scene. Joining organizations and taking part in events help students identify their interests, strengths, and weaknesses and become better leaders, negotiators, teammates, and well-rounded individuals. But they have to balance the social scene with their coursework.

Seek counseling. During the four years students attend college, many face hurdles or challenges too difficult to tackle alone. All campuses have counselors to help students with their coursework, choose a major or a career, or learn how to put together a presentation using the latest technology. While students are away from home, they might also face some emotional stress that requires a therapist or a psychologist. Perhaps they need to consult with a physician about health needs, a dietitian about their nutrition, or a minister about their spirituality concerns. Whatever the students need, campuses have counselors and experts available to help them, and they should always take advantage of it. Those who do show confidence and strength.

Go to campus events. There is a steady stream of outstanding visiting speakers who are tops in their fields, as well as workshops on such topics as how to conduct yourself at a business lunch or manage your finances. Most are free, so students should check them out and give up a social night, save a few bucks, and learn something new.

Be conscious and compassionate. We've seen how developing clever brains without good hearts is dangerous, and what that combination can do to our world. Students must take the time to understand what's happening around them. They need to respond to suffering and give back when they can. They will not only feel better about themselves, but they also will have used the problem-solving, communication, and critical-thinking skills they learned in college for good causes.

Freshmen fail only if they fail to participate. But if they dive into these activities with gusto, they will reap a bountiful return on their college investment.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.