A Book Full of Advice for High School and College Grads

America’s education establishment beams out a message to young people like a pulsar: Go to college! A high percentage of them do.

Once the students are enrolled, however, the schools pretty much leave them alone. To a large degree, students decide what courses they’ll take. What they do in and out of class is up to them. College is generally sold as an “experience in self-discovery” (including fun) and school officials hardly dare to intrude.

What is missing for students is sound advice on how to make the best use of their time in college to maximize their chances of future success. Students’ faculty advisors don’t usually want to have much contact with them; they have other priorities, and they get no rewards for good counsel nor do they suffer if they give bad counsel. (In fact, the only careers most faculty members know about is their own—academia.)

In an effort at filling this advice void, Victor Brown, a retired professor at Ursinus College and a Martin Center contributor, has penned a short book entitled Welcome to College: A Practical Guide to Academic and Professional Success.

First and foremost, Brown speaks to college students as responsible adults, a manner that many of them are not used to. Whether college will pay off for them or be a big waste of time and money is a matter that is under their control. He says,

No matter what college you attend, you will have good and poor instructors, good and poor course content, good and poor social experiences. In my opinion, your future success will depend on you—not upon your choice of college or university.

Brown is absolutely right. At almost every school, students can either choose to get a true college education, which calls for effort in finding out which professors truly want to teach them, or to merely coast through to graduation with the minimum of effort. The latter choice can lead to a great “experience,” but the former will pay long-term dividends.

Choosing a college major is an extremely important decision for students. Unfortunately, many of them make that decision based on emotion (“I’ll major in Peace Studies and then help save the world!”) or the desire to get the degree with the least of effort (“Most of the profs in the Theater Department give all A’s!”). Brown advises students to think about fields where they have some aptitude, desire, and where realistic career opportunities exist.

Once they have done that, there’s a lot more work to be done. They should read about many of the major firms and organizations that hire people with the major they’ve selected. They should survey the full range of possible careers to find the ones that fit them best, not assuming, for example, that a biology degree can only lead to a research position.

It is crucial that the student do this career research on his own, not relying on his probably elusive and uninterested faculty advisor to present the full range of options. Again, students must take responsibility for themselves.

That is not to say that students should ignore the faculty. On the contrary, they should try to find professors who are knowledgeable and want to help. That includes adjunct professors who often have jobs outside of the academic world and may have more information and better contacts than regular faculty members.

Another piece of good advice from Brown is not to avoid the college’s foreign language requirement—assuming that there still is one. He argues that having a working knowledge of a foreign language could prove to be very advantageous later on. Therefore, students should make the most of the language requirement rather than doing barely enough to get by.

Still another aspect of Brown’s counsel to students is for them to begin to develop an image as a serious future professional. They should, for instance, make a point of being punctual and paying full attention during class (never get caught with the “Facebook gaze,” he says).

Also, they should learn to write clearly. Most students enter college believing that they’re good writers, but that’s only because few high school teachers bother to correct poor writing these days. Brown tells students to avoid rambling sentences and overly long paragraphs. They should write to get their ideas across with clarity and concision because that’s what will be expected in the world after college.

Furthermore, students should read as widely as they can about whatever field they want to enter. Brown suggests that the student keep a list of books he has read, since potential employers are likely to be impressed by a student who demonstrates such drive.

Students who have already left college and are in the working world will also find good career suggestions from Brown.

Welcome to College is a compact book full of wise counsel for young Americans. It would make an ideal gift for high school students and recent graduates who are thinking ahead to college and beyond.

George Leef is the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.