What College is For

Last week the Washington Post published an op-ed I wrote about the three things everyone should learn in college. These will be familiar to many in the Wesleyan family, and it they may be useful for those stressing out over their admission application essays as deadlines approach. 

The holiday season for many is an anxious time, but for high school seniors facing application deadlines there is an extra level of worry. Although as youngsters many in this generation were routinely praised for almost everything they did or tried to do, suddenly as junior year rolls around, the messages change.

Some are told that college is not for them and that they should do their best to get some short-term training for immediate job prospects. Others are encouraged to head off to a university or community college but discouraged from setting their sights too high. And some talented high school students vying for spots at selective institutions are advised to polish up their résumés with activities that admissions officers will find most exciting. Some are coached not to make any mistakes that might blemish their records; a fortunate few have tutors paid overtime to provide every advantage on what are fictitiously labeled “standardized” tests.

In the process, all too many receive a sorry message, indeed: “The goal of high school is to get into the college that rejects the most people; the goal of college is to gain access to employers or graduate programs that turn away the greatest number of qualified candidates; the goal of life is to have more of the stuff that other people are unable to acquire.” No one puts it quite this way, but that’s what our young people are hearing. It is a message that kills the soul: Value things only to the extent that other people are deprived of them.

Whatever school they attend, college students should get three things from their time as undergraduates. The first is the opportunity to discover what they love to do. Many smart high school students arrive at college thinking that they will continue to pursue those subjects in which they already performed well. It seems to make sense – “I got A’s in history, or in English, so I should continue taking classes in that area.”

Wrong. College is a time to experiment with new fields of knowledge and new methodologies of discovery. Whether it’s the science lover experimenting with music or the would-be economics major trying out classes in literature, the undergraduate years offer the possibility of finding out what one really finds fulfilling. It’s not just about the reward of good grades or a hefty paycheck. It’s about thriving – and especially about thriving through work.

Don’t be fooled by the grade inflation rampant at the fancier (read: most selective) institutions. Find professors who will be candid about how far you need still to go before the work is ready for prime time. This is as true in physics as it is in poetry. Students might discover that they love a field; professors can make them see how much better they’ll have to become in order to really participate in that field at a level that counts. You don’t go to school to be told how smart you are; you go to find out how much more you have to learn.

Students, regardless of which college they attend, will build resources for lifelong learning if they discover what they love to do and get better at it. But there’s one more thing. They should learn how to share what they’ve gotten better at with others. This means developing the skills to show other people that the work one finds rewarding also has value for them. Students who get the most out of college have enhanced their abilities to translate what they’ve learned on campus so that people beyond its borders understand how they can add value to an organization, a team or a company.