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10 things not enough kids know before going to college

I'm a university professor, with teaching experience at University of Chicago, Columbia, and Yale. These are the 10 things I've suggested to pretty much all the students who've ever walked through my door for office hours. I don't think the advice applies just to the elite colleges. I went to a large but fairly good state school in Canada, the University of Waterloo. My hope is this applies to students of every stripe.

As it happens, I didn't follow most of this advice myself, and I could have called this list "the 10 things I wish someone had told me." This is probably the hidden subtitle to every advice column you will ever read.

I teach mostly economics, political science, and international development. Most of my students are in the social sciences and plan to go into business, law, or public service. So this list makes the most sense for people like them. I don't really know what it takes to be a physicist or an art historian. Even so, I'm willing to bet a lot of these suggestions make sense for most students.

I won't dwell on what you've probably heard already: Get a well-rounded education and enjoy yourself. That's good advice, and your first and best rules. Here are some other suggestions to help make the most of college.

1) Try careers on for size

Your career is going to be a huge part of your life, and you'll be happier if it suits your strengths and you find it fulfilling. Some people are lucky on their first try. It took me three or four tries to get close.

Don't wait until you finish law or medical school to discover you hate working in your specialty. Try early and often. Test out different careers in the summer — researcher, journalist, medical assistant, nonprofit worker, congressional aide, and so on.

I started out studying accounting and business. Fortunately, I went to a university that helped students work in firms in their specialty as early as their first year. By the time I finished my junior year, I had 12 months of experience in tax and audit, and I knew that not only did I hate it, but I was really, really bad at it.

So I switched my major to economics and tried a summer in management consulting. It was more interesting to me, and I was better at it, but it still wasn't my heart's desire. I finished my BA knowing there were two careers I didn't want to do, and I had a third in mind: international development, possibly within academia. It was a few more years before I got there. But it was faster than if I'd taken my first job at 22.

2) Develop skills that are hard to get outside the university

Your first temptation will be to fill your schedule with courses on fascinating subjects. Do this. Some of my fondest memories are of history or psychology classes that opened my mind to new places and ideas. But don't forget to also use university to build your technical skills.

By technical skills, I mean specialized knowledge that is hard to teach yourself on your own. I put things like math, statistics, ethnography, law, or accounting in this category. These are topics where you need a knowledgeable guide plus the hard commitments of a course to get you through hard material. Often, these skills are also basic building blocks for many lines of work.

For anyone interested in law, public policy, business, economics, medicine — or really any profession — I suggest at least two semesters of statistics, if not more. Data is a bigger and bigger part of the work in these fields, and statistics is the language you need to learn to understand it. I wish I'd had more, both as a management consultant and then as a researcher.

Even if you don't use it in your job, you'll use statistics in life. It's hard to fully appreciate the average New York Times (or Vox) article without knowing that language. And, frankly, when you're 30 you might care about the research on pregnancy, or the research on diseases and drugs when you're 60. It would be nice to have a basic understanding. Once you learn it, you'll be surprised how much of what is written on data is wrong.

3) Learn how to write well

Take writing seriously. You will use it no matter your career. Being able to take complex ideas and explain them in short, straightforward, plain sentences is a skill you will use, whether you're a lawyer, a salesperson, a blogger, or a doctor. You want to learn to think clearly and then write like you speak.

You'll be surprised how many proposals, pitches, reports, and letters you'll write in life. Even if you're not in that line of work, until they put microchips in our brains (which, admittedly, might not be so far off) writing emails will probably be the main way you connect with your bosses, colleagues, friends, and customers.

So how to get better? The short answer is practice. In the last eight years, blogging and paper writing has changed my voice and transformed my writing ability. You might also consider a course in creative, nonfiction, journalism, or business writing.

I didn't, but I wish I had. Instead, I read books on writing. Then, every time I wrote a paper, letter, or blog post, I thought about how I'd become better. Usually I kept just one lesson in mind each week, got better at it, then moved to the next. It helped a lot.

4) Focus on the teacher, not the topic

In my experience, you learn more from great teachers than from great syllabuses. I had too many classes taught by droning bores. I didn't show up, even when I was sitting in the chair. I didn't learn much.

When I think about the classes that shaped me the most, I think about my Marxist Canadian history class, taught by a socialist ideologue. There is not a lot of demand for Canadian history outside of Canada, whatever version you learn, so I can't imagine a situation where I'd apply any of the facts I learned. But the professor was a master at engaging us students in vigorous, often passionate debate. I learned to think, and to challenge some of the basic assumptions I had about my own society.

I tell my own students to pick eight or nine classes based on the syllabus, to go to them all, and then keep the four or five classes with the most engaging professors.

5)  When in doubt, choose the path that keeps the most doors open

If you're like most students, including me at that age, you have no idea what you want to be when you grow up. In cases like this, try not to narrow your options. Sure, take the boutique courses. But stick to mainstream majors, ones with plenty of options at the end: the sciences, history, economics, politics, and so forth.

Take the classes that are the basis of social and natural science: statistics and math.

Plenty of courses in the humanities are also building blocks. With the right professor and syllabus, a history or political theory class will teach you to argue, think, and write. These take more searching, but they are there at every university.

Other basic building blocks might be computer science and, as I mentioned above, writing.

6) Do the minimum foreign language classes

This is one of my most controversial pieces of advice. A lot of people disagree.

Languages are hugely important. And you should learn another (or many others) besides English. But I think they're better learned in immersion, during your summers or before and after college. Maybe take an introductory course or two at university to get you started, or an advanced course or two to solidify what you already know, but only that.

Statistics are not more important than languages. But the opportunity cost of skipping a statistics course is high because it's hard to find ways to learn statistics outside the university. Remember you only get 30 or 40 courses at university. There are a dozen other times and places you can learn a language. Arguably they're better places to learn it too.

I feel the same way about most business and management skills. They are critical to a lot of professions (even academia), but classrooms are poor places to learn them given the alternatives. Exceptions might be more technical skills like finance and accounting.

Note that I say all this as someone who doesn't really speak another language well. I can travel in French and Spanish (barely), and I regret not being any better. But I don't think taking more classes in college would have helped this. I should have made other life choices, like living abroad. This brings me to my next point...

7) Go to places that are unfamiliar to you

Use a summer or a school year to live abroad, ideally a place completely different from home, where you'll come to know local people (and not just the expatriate community).

When I was a student, I didn't leave Canada or the US until I was about 21. One day I realized I couldn't find Portugal on a map, and this shamed me into reading some history and taking a trip to Europe.

I wish I'd spent more than 12 weeks abroad, and I wish I'd stayed longer in one place. Coasting through youth hostels at the pace of one country a week does not really teach you about another life. It wasn't until I started working on research projects in India, Kenya, and Uganda that I started to learn a great deal about the world (and myself).

I'd also encourage people to get outside their comfort zones. When I got to Europe as a 21-year-old, I was so anxious and inexperienced that I found Eastern Europe and even Spain too intimidating and scary. I stuck to more familiar territory.

Ten years later, I unexpectedly found myself working in a war-torn corner of Africa. And that's my career today. I don't recommend it to everyone. It's not necessary to be worldly, by any measure. But I encourage American students to get away from English-speaking countries and Western Europe. Here's where it also makes sense to learn the language.

8)  Take some small classes with professors who can write recommendations

If you're not interested in graduate school, skip to the next piece of advice. But if a master's or a PhD is an option, you will want at least two or three high-quality recommendations from faculty.

To do this, you'll need good relationships with professors. This means one or two small classes with the same faculty member, and several visits to office hours. Maybe a research or teaching assistant position. Or ask the professor to be your thesis or independent study adviser.

If these topics interest you, see my more detailed advice one recommendation letter requests, on how to write to your professors. My blog also has lots of advice on choosing PhD programs and being successful.

9)  Unless you're required to write a thesis, think twice before committing to one

An independent research project can be the perfect capstone to your college years. Sadly, I often see theses that weren't worth the students' investment of time and energy. Some people's time would be better spent acquiring technical skills.

I used to advise students against a senior thesis if they had the choice. After getting lots of disagreement on my blog, I revised my view. A senior thesis can be a great investment if you are dedicated to a question of interest, or if you want to learn how to research, strengthen a relationship with a professor, practice for graduate school, or try out research and writing as a career option.

10)  Blow your mind

At the end of each year of college, you should look back at your thoughts and opinions 12 months before and find them quaint. If not, you probably didn't read or explore or work hard enough.

I know I've succeeded when I read a blog post or paper I wrote a year ago and see three points I should have made and one I shouldn't have. I know I've succeeded when I change my opinions because the facts I know changed. Better yet, I really know I've succeeded when I can see how a handful of new ideas have reshaped the way I understand the world.

Come to think of it, this is not a bad rule for life after college, too. It gets harder to surprise yourself and change your worldview, but there are an awful lot of new facts to learn. The simplest way I do this is reading, especially outside my discipline. I pick up books on unusual people or places.

I also try to read newspapers and magazines that survey a wide range of areas. And I switch up the periodicals I read every so often rather than stick with the same one for years. For the past year I've been reading the New York Review of Books, which discusses books on a hundred subjects. In the past it's been a selection of foreign policy or current affairs journals, or ones about the arts. Or just a diverse Twitter feed of news items.

The other way is finding ways to spend meaningful time and relationships in new places. I'm fortunate that my work brings me to another developing country every so often, and each new place changes the way I think about development. Likewise, back when I was a management consultant, working in new industries and firms made me challenge old beliefs or come up with new ones. Volunteering in organizations did it too. Wherever you go, being a "tourist" doesn't cut it. You need local embedding, even if only for a few weeks or months.

Christopher Blattman is the Ramalee E. Pearson Professor of Global Conflict Studies at the University of Chicago's Haris School of Public Policy. He also blogs about higher education, addressing topics such as choosing between master's programs, how to get a PhD and save the world, and if you're ever too old for a PhD.

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