Making the Most of College


Visiting Beijing Foreign Studies University (my undergrad) in 2013.

Yesterday I finished “Making the Most of College” by Richard J. Light, a Harvard professor. The book is based on extensive in-person interviews with undergraduate students, not only in Harvard but across campuses, private or public, in the States.

The books summarizes general suggestions from students about living a fulfilling academic and social college life, what the most effective classes share in common, faculty who make a difference, diversity on campus, and learning from differences.

I wish I had read this book before I went to college. Having already finished undergraduate and graduate study, I had retrospective reflections on what I wish I could have done differently to capitalize on college experience. Sometimes we don’t realize being able to attend college is such a privilege. Remember Hannah Schmitz from The Reader? She taught herself to read in the prison when she’s already in her 40s. And there’re children in rural China who still couldn’t afford school. We really are the lucky ones. It’s more the reason we should make the most of this experience! Below are a few things I wish I have done in college.

  1. Practice Writing. Possessing a strong and solid writing skill can go a long way. This is true regardless of your major. At some point of your career you’ll be asked to write reports to summarize finding, or maybe just emails to communicate with clients and colleagues. Being able to communicate with precision helps you examine a matter at hand with tight logic thinking. The book maintains that a good faculty is the one who can teach the precision in use of language, which can help sharpen your analysis or even change your opinions. The precise use of language is part of good writing. It helps sharpen your point and get your message across. The author brought up a good tool that some faculty employs: a one minute paper. At the end of a class, students are required to write what they’ve learned in that class? What they wish to learn more, etc. This exercise helps increase engagement because students know they’ll be required to write their thoughts down at the end. This is a little tool professors can utilize.
  2. Participating in the Arts. The book well summarizes reasons why students found engagement with arts so special. First, for many arts simply serve the classic function of pleasure. Secondly, students maintain that art helps make connections between in class academic and out-of-class activities. A third reason is that a big portion of students report that participating in arts helps them learn about themselves. The last reason is art provides a venue to interact and connect with other fellow students. I went to college in China where few art activities groups were available (things might have changed a bit since 2010 though). We had theater, dancing and singing. I didn’t participant in any of these because I was so busy with course work and actively participated in school newspapers, fund raising events, and other activities that I deem more relevant to my school work. Looking back, I wish I could have engaged in an art that can at least serve as an escape from the stressful coursework and activities.
  3. Diversity on Campus: Learn from Differences. My undergraduate campus is a relative a homogeneous one – typical of colleges in China. Ethnic minority, people who are non-Han Chinese, made up less than 9% of the population (Wikipedia). Of about 48 people in my class, only 2 students are from Tibet. The rest of us are all Han ethnicity. I didn’t remember having a lot of interaction with those 2 Tibetan students. Looking back, I wish there’re opportunities for us to mingle and interact. I’d LOVE to know more about their religion and culture. But diversity is not only ethnicities. It also means people who are brought up differently and under different cultural influence. Even me and most of my classmates are Han ethnicity, we grew up in different parts of China, where customs, culture and language are diverse. I certainly remember tensions arose because of that. Things so simple as whether the window should remain open or close during the winter. I hope students remain open-minded when dealing with differences. There’re no right and wrong. It’s just differences.

These are the things that stand out for me for improving college experience. What about yours? I’d love to hear from perspectives!


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