Seven Unconventional Ideas for Getting the Most Out of College

Yesterday I got my grades for my final classes. It makes me think about my time in university, and how lucky I’ve been to have had a great experience. During the last few years, I’ve been able to:

  • Study abroad, in the south of France for 11 months.
  • Compete internationally in academic competitions.
  • Volunteer, helping run large programs and events.
  • Live in a dorm.
  • Party a lot and make great friends from dozens of countries around the world.

Popular discussion asks whether college is worth the money and time. I can’t say for sure. I went to a mid-tier, public Canadian university, with tuition around $5000 per year and leaving with no student debt, so my experience may be atypical.

However, for me, college was an amazing experience, and I want to share my thoughts on getting the most out of it. Also, for the record, my GPA sits between an A and A+, but I don’t think grades are terribly important.

Most of College Isn’t Academics

I think the biggest mistake a lot of college students make is assuming college is mostly about studying and school. While that forms a central part (and the bulk of the work), viewing it this way means you’re definitely not getting the most value for your tuition dollars.

Instead, I think of it as a package of opportunities. Experiences I had, like living abroad, meeting people or taking leadership positions were made a lot easier by going to school.

This doesn’t mean you couldn’t meet tons of people or live in a foreign country without college, but you could also learn just by borrowing books from the library. It makes having successful experiences a bit easier in all those areas.

Keeping this rounded perspective in mind, here are seven unconventional ideas I feel helped me get the most from college:


#1 – Get More by Studying Less

One of the biggest obstacles to getting more from college is studying. I don’t feel academics are the only opportunity you can get out of college, but if you use up all your time and energy studying for classes it will harder to take advantage of everything else.

For me, academics have always been a problem of minimization. My goal has never been to get perfect grades or score the top mark in all my classes. Instead, it’s been about establishing minimums to both reach my goals and get a comfortable tradeoff between effort and rewards.

First, consider the minimums for your goals. If you want to go to a top grad school, your minimums in terms of GPA will be considerably higher than someone who wants to start their own company after graduation.

Second, consider the tradeoff between effort and reward. I think for each person, at their level of natural aptitude and study skills, there’s a balancing point for the grades you can get for a given level of effort.

For myself, I always found that level to usually be around the difference between an A and A+. For most courses, getting an A didn’t require terribly more time investment than getting a B or C, but getting an A+ requires an extra level of meticulousness and devotion that made the effort needed go up dramatically.

It’s an example of the 80/20 rule. Eighty percent of your marks come from the first twenty percent of effort. Perhaps the skew isn’t so strong, maybe only 50/30, but the idea remains the same. There’s a natural tradeoff point in most courses between effort and results. Getting perfect grades requires an order of magnitude more effort than simply getting good marks.

Obviously, just applying the 80/20 rule doesn’t solve your studying problems. You still have to do the work, and for many people, there will be a ton of it. That’s one of the reasons I advocate different learning methods to try to minimize the effort required.

My point here is simply to contrast my minimization philosophy with the more common goal of trying to maximize and get perfect grades in every class. That would make sense if academics was the only goal of school, but since I view it as a package of opportunities, I’d rather make a slight sacrifice in academics to make a large gain in other opportunities and experiences.


#2 – Take Advantage of Randomness

School is about as structured as any environment gets. That’s why it’s easy to miss all the random opportunities that spring up. In my mind, it’s these random opportunities that outweigh the structured, obvious opportunities like scoring well in classes.

Random opportunities include your friend letting you know about an obscure program to live in a different country, or hearing about a chance to work on a big extracurricular project. They aren’t the opportunities neatly laid out in the syllabus, but reside on the periphery.

One of the reasons I’m fairly ruthless about trying to minimize studying time, is that I like to have discretionary energy that I can invest in these kinds of opportunities. If you have effective studying habits, its easy to quickly double down on a random opportunity that crops up.

Beyond the diploma at the end, the real advantage of university is it gives you leverage with these random opportunities. The combination of like-minded people and resources means that you can take on opportunities that would be hard to recreate outside of school.


#3 – Go to More Parties

If you’re reading this blog, I’m going to assume you have a developed sense of your goals, ambitions and self-actualization. I don’t believe you’re one of the people who the temptation to have fun is so overwhelming that you’d never get any work done if authority figures didn’t nag you about it.

Given this, my advice is simple: go to more parties. In keeping with the minimization approach to academics, invest the energy you need to spend to do as well as you need to do in your courses. However, once you’ve done that, I recommend trying to socialize as much as possible.

The first reason is that college is an ideal time to socialize. Everyone is roughly the same age as you. People are easy to meet, since they aren’t deeply embedded in their social circle. People are generally more intelligent or conscientious than the average (consider that most people don’t go to college). Opportunities for making lifelong friends and relationships rarely get as good as this.

The second reason is that socializing in college is culturally accepted (at least in the West) and easily available. It’s easy to socialize and meet people when everyone else is trying to do the same thing.

The final reason is that people are conduits of the kind of random opportunities I alluded to earlier. Had it not been for making a lot of friends I probably never would have lived in France, competed internationally or volunteered on cool projects.

Can partying be a vice? Of course it can. You can definitely have too much of a good thing. While I like to drink and have a good time, there are always going to be people who take it too far and hurt themselves or completely forget the academic portion of school. It requires judgement.

But I think academics can also be a vice. If you spend every waking hour studying, and therefore miss out on the chance to form lifelong friendships, contacts or work on cool projects, how is that any different than the guy who misses academic opportunities from partying too much?


#4 – Take Interesting Classes, Not Just Easy Ones

A symptom of the illness of obsessive focus on grades is taking classes in order to boost your GPA, but not because the subject is either interesting or challenging.

This is stupid for the main reason that it often doesn’t work. GPA booster classes are under the same competitive pressure as all classes, so they tend to result in making it hard to get lousy marks but also difficult to get extremely good ones.

Taking tough courses would seem to violate my first advice to study less. Rather than just “study less” which would involve eschewing anything challenging, don’t study more than you need to for a given subject.

Challenging classes require more effort, but they also have more academic reward. Minimizing studying is about maximizing the reward per unit of effort. This is usually higher in challenging classes, since easy classes don’t teach you anything important and therefore are a lot of effort for practically zero benefit.

I’d rather invest 100 hours to get a big benefit than 50 hours to get zero.

You won’t always be interested in every class you take. That’s fine. What matters is that the content stretches your thinking. Even if you don’t find one class very interesting, you’ll still gain more mental models which are useful for a whole range of subjects.


#5 – Create a Positive-Sum Schedule

Much of the advice I’ve discussed for maximizing college involves tradeoffs. Don’t obsess too much about grades; take hard classes rather than easy ones. But most things in life are not zero-sum tradeoffs. Many times you can get better grades while also doing more interesting projects, or study less and get the same results.

One of the reasons I’ve invested so heavily in productivity systems and learning tactics is to make use of these positive-sum situations. If you organize your life, you can get more out of it than you had before, often a lot more.

Here’s just a few ideas for getting more:

You don’t have to do all of those things, but this blog is full of ideas if you’re unsure how to do all of the non-academic opportunities I’ve mentioned while still keeping up with your schoolwork.

Myself plus friends from 9 different countries (NYE in Berlin)

Myself plus friends from 9 different countries (NYE in Berlin)

#6 – Befriend Exchange Students

Another opportunity that is easier to leverage in college is the ability to meet people from different cultures. Even if you live in a cosmopolitan city, the majority of immigrants have lived within your culture for years, therefore a lot of the cultural differences have been boiled off in the melting pot.

I’ve made a point over my last few years to strive to make friends with as many exchange students as possible. In fact, in my last two years, the majority of my friends were from other countries.

Too many students flock to universities as a bastion of different ideas, but then stick within their homogenous groups of friends. White, suburban kids stick together, even while giving lip service to the ideas of diversity.

Making friends with exchange students allows you to view the world from a variety of different perspectives. I have dozens of friends from France and I also have dozens of friends from India. While there is a lot of overlap, I can observe differences in the way they view the world.

It would be incredibly difficult to live in every different culture and observe it firsthand. But if you befriend people from those cultures, you get a small window into a world that might otherwise be opaque.


#7 – Don’t Worry Too Much About Your Major

The people who should worry about their major are those who stick only to the rigid, academic opportunities. They become essentially defined by their major, so their choice becomes magnified.

If, in contrast, you develop deep skills by taking on random opportunities and progressing within a particular theme, then your actual major is of a lot less importance. I studied business in school, but I’ll be a full-time writer upon graduation. My pursuit of random opportunities mattered more than my strictly academic achievements.

To the extent that your major does matter and does sculpt your career choices, my feeling is that you should pick the major that (a) fits within your broader interests and, (b) is the most challenging of its category that you can manage.

What I mean by this is that interests start out broad. Looking back, I would have been interested enough to do an entire degree in computer science, engineering, psychology, physics, economics or philosophy. To say I chose business because it interested me leaves out the many other interests I have.

Within your interests, I think the second criteria, choosing the major that is the most intellectually challenging for your aptitude, is more important. There are two reasons for this:

  1. Your major isn’t just a certification of knowledge, it’s a gauge of your intellectual abilities. Whether that’s fair or unfair, it’s how the world works. A computer scientist can easily become a top-level manager. A business graduate can’t generally become a computer scientist without more education.
  2. Harder majors result in more reward per unit of effort. As with choosing difficult over easy classes, picking harder majors will give you more reward for the effort than choosing a major which you find easier.

This is perhaps my only regret in university is that I weighed interest too much over challenge in selecting my major. The truth is interest doesn’t matter as much because most people have many interests (so it doesn’t eliminate many categories) and you can learn outside of school.

Getting the Most From College

I often get asked by people whether they should go to college. It’s a hard question to answer, not knowing the person’s ambitions or aptitude. My feeling is that it can be an incredibly rewarding experience if you approach it right.

When I speak to people who work full-time, I rarely find someone who experiences the same environment of possible opportunities over a 4-year period as the average college student. While there certainly are shortcomings, this in itself makes me grateful I went to school and grateful for the opportunities I was given.

As a side note, I’m running a 2-hour, online rapid-learning workshop on May 20th, 2011. The first 100 people who get a new copy of the full Learn More, Study Less video course are entitled to a free ticket, all you need to do is email me your receipt and username and I can add you to the list.

Images thanks to ginnerobot, kevindooley, crsan, CarbonNYC, greg westfall, and Okko Pyykkö respectively.

  • Nicky Spur

    Great post, I definitely feel a lot of the same things your mentioned. University for me was something of a sounding board where I was able to discover what worked and what didn’t. Graduating didn’t have so much to do with getting a degree and a relatively secure future (if I desired it), it was more about discovering what I really wanted. If you entered business but ended up a writer, I understand that.

    a lot of this I feel is relevant to a conscientious person entering their first year, someone who has the ability to do well, but also has the desire to get the most out of their college experience — beyond grades. Great reading and solid stuff.

  • Justin | Mazzastick

    I only took one semester of college and then I went directly into the workforce.

    I often would have thoughts of what it would have been like going to college. The campus feel, the girls,the parties, and of course getting an education.

  • Broderick

    “Most of College Isn’t Academics” – I wish I had saw it like this lol! Boy I wish I had known what I know now when I attended college.

    GPA-boosting classes were harder than I thought. The whole mindset that they were easy classes caused me to slack off and not take them seriously. I loved the challenging classes though.

  • Banjo Steve

    You got me recalling some of the great things about my college years (which were some time ago): getting paid to do research with the Psychology profs (I learned how to do hypnosis, use a computer, assist in psych class demonstrations …… everyone thought I was a grad student, but not so), learn to fence in PE class, play my guitar at the various poetry readings and coffee houses, DJ for the university radio folk station, discover bluegrass jamming, happily avoid frat houses, usher (and act in) the campus theater productions, etc.

    And I enjoyed most of the classes, too. The profs were extremely approachable. I particularly enjoyed a history of the modern Middle East. All sorts of good stuff available (except the dining hall food, back then) for anyone who saw college as an opportunity rather than a degree factory.

  • Shana

    This advice does not work for students in Johns Hopkins University, u can’t put little effort and get the grade you want.

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