How to Win at College

A Professor’s 5 Easy Secrets for Success

By Ryan Coonerty

My office hours will soon be full of about-to-graduate-college students panicking at the realization that they wasted their time at college (they mostly did) and, after more than 17 years in school, they don’t have a plan or options when they graduate in a few months (they mostly don’t).

John Belushi in National Lampoon’s Animal House

It doesn’t have to be that way. After 15 years of teaching and counseling hundreds of students, here are some secrets for making the most of college:

*A note: Many students are working several jobs, balancing family demands and/or returning to college after years of working or serving in the military. Most students are also going heavily into debt. Their situation is incredibly stressful and unfair. These suggestions were designed with them in mind to be as easy and inexpensive as possible to accomplish.*

Win Over Alumni

You are investing tuition and time, first and foremost, to get an education, but a close second are connections that will allow you to take your newfound knowledge and succeed in the world. Elite private universities do an outstanding job connecting students to alumni. Unfortunately, public and non-elite schools do virtually nothing to facilitate what will be the most important connections students (particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds) will ever have the opportunity to make.

So, Secret #1: Figure out every way possible to connect with alumni. Take jobs or volunteer at events for alums — bartending or driving speakers to events are the best. If you are in a student club, be the chair of the program committee and invite alums to speak to your group (and to coffee with you beforehand). When you go home for breaks, do informational interviews with alumni in the area. If your university has family camps or alumni weekends, do everything you can to work there. Read the alumni association’s magazine and emails to find people that you admire and reach out to them.

When you meet with alumni, do the following: (1) research who they are and what they do/have done, (2) ask a lot of questions, and (3) remember that especially when they are back on campus, they are at their most sentimental and desiring to help. When they see you, they see themselves. They want you to ask for advice, but you have to take the initiative to connect.

Win With Professors

Like alums, professors want to be asked for their knowledge and advice. Lecturing to a bunch of students who are checking their Instagram or staring into space is soul crushing. We yearn for your engagement.

Secret #2: In every class, introduce yourself to the professor after the first class. Look them in the eye, shake their hand, say your name and why you are looking forward to the class. Then go to (at least) two office hours and ask a question about the class or the professor’s work. (If you cannot think of two questions about a topic or person that you are spending a hundred hours and thousands of dollars on, drop out of college immediately (no judgement) and stop wasting your time and money). After the last class, shake the professor’s hand again and thank them for the class. This strategy alone, requiring less than 30 minutes of effort, will increase your GPA, could get you a research position, lead to a letter of recommendation and, just maybe, create a lifetime friendship.

Develop Life Skill 1: Entrepreneurship

Secret #3: Start a business. Seriously. It doesn’t have to be big. In fact, it should be very small. And it will likely fail. And that is okay.

Start an Etsy page for you or a friend who is an artist. Promote a band. If you work at a restaurant or retailer, develop a promotion or product and convince your boss to try it (and to share any profits!). Then put everything you have into making it succeed. Hustle. Try different strategies and build a team.

The future economy is going to require an entrepreneurial mentality above all else. Develop it while the risk is low. The experience will be more valuable than most of your classes.

Develop Life Skill 2: Listening

Secret #4: An easy one. Listen to podcasts. Constantly.

College, by definition, means a lot of time in transit — to and from campus, between classes, and home for breaks. Use this precious time to listen to podcasts — not Joe Rogan, but real, thoughtful podcasts.

You should do this for two reasons. First, you can learn a lot. Speaking intelligently about China-US trade policy or the merits of social media regulation will help you get a job, be a better citizen and attract a more interesting mate. Second, good podcasts will teach you how to tell a compelling story. Listen for how they chose to structure a story, why they lead with this not that, what made one interview fascinating while another was dull. Success for the rest of your life is dependent on you telling a good story about yourself, your organization, a product, service, or cause. Colleges do a terrible job teaching you how to do that. Luckily, podcasts will teach it to you entertainingly for free.

Win College Life

Secret #5 may surprise you, but it’s something I worry about a lot with my students. Have fun. Lots of fun. I get it, you are in debt and sea levels are rising. Your future is far from certain, but college is a singular moment in your life to access dozens of new activities, people and ideas in a given week.

So, what does that mean? Take a music, art or film appreciation class. Learn how to rock climb, play the bongos, or how to fix a bike instead of chasing a second major. Go to parties. Cut class to drive 8 hours with friends to see a random place and then turn around and come back the next day. Worry way less. Enjoy way more. It’s still college.

Ryan Coonerty teaches law and politics at UC Santa Cruz and is the host of “An Honorable Profession” podcast.