Student Pitfalls and Opportunities in Higher Education

It’s heartbreaking to watch students and parents make bad decisions that have expensive and lasting impact on their student’s academic career.  I have spent the last 20 years as an educator in a professional (post graduate) school so I’m a little removed from the undergraduate student experience, but I imagine the problems and opportunities are about the same, perhaps just occurring with different frequency.

1.   Keep your “nose clean” – One of the most difficult issues I see is students not considering or heeding the consequences of cheating, stealing, or breaking laws or university rules.  When you’re 18, it may be difficult to imagine the consequences or even the possibility of getting caught, but your behavior will eventually be noticed.  Do not put your academic career at risk by taking foolish chances and jeopardizing your standing in the university.  The faculty are like your parents – we have a 6th sense for nonsense and it does not escape our attention.  Ask yourself: Am I prepared to suffer the consequences of getting caught? Answer that question with the assumption you cannot finesse your way out of the hole you dug yourself into.  If the answer is No, don’t do it.

2.  Your grades matter – Unfortunately, the job market and college admissions are very competitive.  Students who do not take their studies (either in high school or college) seriously and end up with poor grades may someday wish their grades were more competitive.  By then it’s too late.  You may have had an epiphany halfway through your program, but you’re competing against students who have worked hard the entire time.   So keep your academic doors open, even if you’re sure you’re never going back.

Also, unless you’re related to Mitt Romney and can afford to just cash in some stocks, it’s foolish to spend vast sums of money to obtain a GPA that will not open any doors for you.  Be honest with yourself.  If you’re not ready to take your classes seriously, maybe it would be better to take a year off before going back to school.  Students who are paying for at least part of their own education are much more likely to take it seriously.

3.  Your behavior matters – Students don’t realize that they have entered into a small, tight-knit community.  In addition to keeping your nose clean, your attitude in school is noticed by the faculty, who will be writing your letters of recommendation and working or socializing with your future employers.  If you have a bad attitude, you show you’re irresponsible or lack initiative, you ask for favors and exceptions constantly, you demonstrate you’re not interested in the class, it creates an impression that could impact which doors open for you, or which ones close.  It is not always possible to predict when or where that will happen.

Your behavior interacting with school officials before you’re admitted also leaves an impression.  If you cannot, for example, be bothered to read instructions, follow instructions, or look something up on the internet, you may be perceived as not ready for admission into the program (see also Item 6 below).

The opposite is also true.  You can stand out for having a positive attitude, show you’re a hard worker, responsible, team-oriented, willing to take initiative, and eager to learn. You also cannot tell when or how a positive impression will help you down the road.

4.  Make the most of it – “I’ll just figure that out when I graduate.” Again, unless you have unlimited time and resources to get degree after degree, before you graduate you should really invest in trying to figure out your path after you graduate.  This is not easy since students, by definition, are studying, not working.  However, you can improve your chances of knowing what to do academically if you open yourself to experimenting with potential interests early on, starting at least in high school.  Yes, extracurriculars and jobs are resume padders, but more importantly, they can help you ascertain where your passions, interests, and talents lie.  Note that not all of these passions, interests and talents are academic.  You might find that you love/hate working in teams, problem solving, public speaking, drawing, marketing or selling things or ideas.  That self-knowledge can help you inform your career path.  So, get involved, volunteer, get a job, take an interesting elective, get an internship, study abroad, talk to people who are in fields you might be interested in, join a club, lead a project, serve on a committee.It’s through these varied experiences you can expand the breadth of your self-knowledge.   It’s not just to pad your application.  It’s to learn who you are.


5.  Have a Plan B – Hopefully you’ve gotten to know yourself, your interests and talents, and you know how to pursue your dream job.  Keep in mind that it could take some time for you to achieve that goal.  Know what your interim and back-up plans are, as events do not always turn out as planned.  Also, don’t be afraid to ask for someone to mentor you if you’re not sure what to do.  Most people are happy to help a bright, industrious student with a good attitude and you will learn more from them than you anticipate.  Yes, have faith you can make it happen, but know that the path to your dream job may be bumpy, windy, and at times, circular and that you need to pay your bills during this time.  Pursue your dream but don’t close yourself to opportunities that may present themselves or to the reality of the economy.  You may have other talents or interests that you are not cultivating by being so myopic.

6.  Helicopter parents need to tone it down – Helicopter parenting is problematic for your child from at least two perspectives.  First, your student needs to become independent eventually, preferably by the time they leave home.  All the hovering and enabling is simply an obstacle to their development into an independent adult (see when Helping Becomes Hurtful).  In addition, once your child is 18 they are expected to manage their own affairs.  Your visible intervention with grades, admissions, hiring, job or admissions interviews, or other academic proceedings convey that your child is not independent.  Faculty or employers do not want to constantly deal with a third party for every bump in the road.   How would you like to hire a seemingly competent young person only to find you have to answer to the parent every time feedback is needed?

Do not take this as permission to teach your child independence by cutting off your participation in their lives. Your job is to be supportive, to listen, to make suggestions if asked, to provide training  and coaching as needed, but let your child take increasing responsibility for their own affairs.

7.  Don’t equate income with happiness or having a life – Despite the pressure and expense, college should be some of the best years of your life.  You will be growing intellectually, psychologically, socially, and emotionally, and you should enjoy and embrace that as much as possible.  Yes, having a good income is a nice and one of your goals.  But when you have a job, there is often just as much or more stress and much less flexibility and freedom.  So, don’t wait to enjoy yourself, relax or try something new (as long as you keep your studies your first priority), as life does not begin after your start a job/buy your house/start your family/retire.  Life occurs in this present moment, no matter the stage of life you are in.

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