Pretty Good Advice

Right now, parents who are preparing to send a child off to college are perusing and Barnes & Noble. They’re looking for anything that can give them an edge—an edge on how to wisely invest in their kid’s education. 

One book they may come across is Getting the Best Out of College co-written by Peter Feaver, Sue Wasiolek, and Anne Crossman. Respectively, the authors are a professor, a dean, and a recent graduate of Duke University. The book, issued in an updated edition, even includes a foreword by Duke University’s famous college basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski.

Getting the Best Out of College offers comprehensive advice on dealing with the ins and outs of a college experience. The publisher claims that there are “lots of books telling students how to get into the college they want and how to pay for it once they do. This is not one of those books. This book begins where they end.”

Indeed, the book covers topics ranging from dormitory life to picking out the perfect class schedule and preparing for life after college. Whether you are a parent or a student, if you have an issue or concern about college life, chances are you will find it covered, at least in general terms, in this book. There are also brief testimonies of students sprinkled throughout the book to back up the advice the authors give in each chapter.

Getting The Best Out of College starts off at a very logical point: moving into a dorm and staying connected to your family at home. As a former resident adviser (RA), I can tell you that the book does a very good job of covering both the bright sides and dark sides of dormitory life.

For example, it addresses common complaints about living with a roommate who has “different definitions of ‘clean’” and it offers useful tips on packing for school such as “[a]ssemble what you feel like you can’t live without, then pack only 60% of that.” If you are used to having your own room or do not have any siblings, that is a chapter you should play close attention to.

A common theme is planning out all aspects of your college experience, including your social life. With your college transcript, the writers say, “you are creating a narrative of your educational journey,” so you need to consider your class schedule. They advise you to pick your courses mainly on the reputation of the professor and the course itself; classes should be challenging and intellectually stimulating.

In my last year at North Carolina State I did exactly that. My friends were singing the praises of a professor who had received a teacher of the year award in the past; I looked him up and the class he taught, which was social psychology, and when I saw it fit both my schedule and degree, I took it. I was very happy with that decision.

The longest and probably the most helpful chapter in the book is the one on professors. The authors point out, “[g]etting the best out of college means, in part, getting your money’s worth out of your relationships with the professors who are paid (largely by you) to provide a product you are buying: an education.”

Accordingly, the book covers every nook and cranny of the student-professor relationship, such as how to tactfully and professionally engage professors when you believe they are wrong about a topic, and how to get a professor to write a good recommendation for you.

Even though this is an advice book about the college experience, the authors also discuss reasons why you should consider either delaying college or even dropping out if college is not right for you. The authors advise that students consider a “gap year,” which is taking a year off after high school before going to college, in order to take stock of whether or not you are ready for college financially, emotionally, and intellectually.

The book also discusses options like transferring, dropping out, studying abroad, and even enlisting in the military.

Since many young Americans today get little benefit from college (but at high expense), it’s important that parents think seriously about college and its alternatives.

Overall, the book is quite useful in broad terms, but it has some flaws.

Planning ahead, in general, is a very good thing; however, only those with very distinct personalities have both the time and the inclination to map out every aspect of their college experience. As I was reading the book, I had a mental image of myself with pencil and paper writing out a battle plan for college that would rival Eisenhower’s Operation Overlord. It’s simply not very practical or realistic.

The authors presume a lot of flexibility in selecting your schedule and that a treasure trove of intel on professors and their courses is available. Sure, there are websites like Rate My Professor that can give you some idea about a professor, or you might be lucky enough to track down an upperclassman who has had the class before.

Most of the time, however, especially if you are a hard science major or are a double major, you won’t have the scheduling flexibility or the pre-existing knowledge about a professor to make fully informed decisions on the classes you are considering.

Some universities are now utilizing social networking sites like Facebook to give students the opportunity to share their experiences and ask questions of other students about classes and professors to bridge that knowledge gap. That will help to reduce the information problems students face, but I don’t think it will entirely solve them.

Additionally, as a former resident adviser, I was disappointed to see that the role of an RA is not covered in greater detail. Getting The Best Out of College alludes to the role of RAs throughout the book, but what exactly an RA is and what his or her role is in the dormitory are not exactly clear.

RAs, if they are doing their jobs properly, can have a big impact on students’ lives, especially in their freshman and sophomore years when students are most likely to live on campus. Becoming an RA could be a good way to pay for college since most colleges provide their RAs with on campus housing and a stipend. This isn’t for the faint of heart because it consumes a huge chunk of your time and social life, but it is a great way to learn time management skills and leadership qualities—and it looks good on a resume.

Unfortunately, those who would benefit the most from this book are probably the least likely to read it. If you are a parent who has taken the initiative to seek out a book like Getting The Best Out of College, I have a feeling that your son or daughter would to do just fine anyway.