Making the Most of College

How do you make the most of your college experience? In 1986 the president of Harvard, Derek Bok asked Dr. Richard J. Light, a professor at the Graduate School of Education to evaluate how well the university was educating its students. Dr. Light spent over 10 years with other researchers interviewing 1,600 Harvard students, asking students many questions, from what they did in their spare time to their experiences with teaching and advising. After 15 years, Harvard initiated many changes and Dr. Light published his book, “Making the Most of College” (Harvard University Press, 2001).

The suggestions are often simple but Dr. Light said it was “amazing how little thought people give to these decisions.” Seven of the main suggestions were summarized in an article written by Kate Zernike, an education reporter for The New York Times.

1. Meet the faculty. Professor Light now tells students he advises that at the beginning of each term, their job is to get to know one faculty member and to get that faculty member to know them. That way, by graduation, the student has eight professors to write recommendations for jobs or for graduate school.

2.  Take a mix of courses. Those students who took a variety of courses in their early years, taking not only required courses but also ones that interested them, felt more engaged and happier.

3. Study in groups. Students who studied on their own and then discussed the work in groups, even just once a week, understood material better and were more engaged in classes.

4. Write, write, write. The more writing the better. Professor Light found in his research that no factor was more important to getting good grades and being engaged than the amount of writing a student did.

5. Speak another language. Language was the most commonly mentioned among “favorite classes.” Sixty percent of students put them in the category of “hard work but pure pleasure.” Why? Small classes where instructors insist on participation, group work, and lots of written work and frequent quizzes which allows for midcourse corrections.

6. Consider time. Those who did well in their classes mentioned the word “time;” those who did not do well never mentioned the word. Grades and understanding improved when students regularly set aside an uninterrupted few hours to study.

7. Hold the drum. Those students who got involved in outside activities were happiest. Professor Light tells the story of one unhappy student sitting with her advisor who encouraged her to do something beyond her studies. She said she had no talent; didn’t play sports, or sing, or play an instrument. The advisor said, “That’s OK, ask them if you can hold the drum.” Years later, when asked to describe why her college experience had been so positive, she referred to the band, which got her involved at pep rallies, football games, and introduced her to a diverse range of students.

Submitted by Susan Katz, PhD, Associate Professor, Educational Leadership



1 thought on “Making the Most of College

  1. Hi All! I love this research. I think the tips would be helpful for every incoming student during their beginnings in a university. Now as I complete my Masters, I wonder if I was able to achieve these things. I certainly have some great relationships with faculty and took a mix of courses. However I find myself wishing that I made better connections with the students by studying in groups. Maybe being a full time mom and working full time that was not possible but it would have been nice! I also wish that I had found more time to write, publish articles, etc, to use a resource. As a Training and Development Graduate Student, I will have the opportunity to put together a portfolio with some of my more formal work, but would have loved a chance to publish an article or two. Who knows maybe that’s in my future.

    Best of luck to those students just starting out! Take advantage of it while you can. You will miss it later.

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