I really like these ten tips a college professor named Christopher Blattman has for college students. He describes them as things he tries to share with his students and that he wishes someone had had shared with him when he was a student. I’m definitely passing them along to my kids. This paragraph from tip #2 – Develop skills that are hard to get outside the university – really hit home with me because if there’s one subject I wish I’d taken in school, but didn’t, it’s statistics:
For anyone interested in law, public policy, business, economics, medicine — or really any profession — I suggest at least two semesters of statistics, if not more. Data is a bigger and bigger part of the work in these fields, and statistics is the language you need to learn to understand it. I wish I’d had more, both as a management consultant and then as a researcher.
The other tips include:
- Try careers on for size
- Develop skills that are hard to get outside the university
- Learn how to write well
- Focus on the teacher, not the topic
- When in doubt, choose the path that keeps the most doors open
- Do the minimum of foreign language classes
- Go to places that are unfamiliar to you
- Take some small classes with professors who can write recommendations
- Unless you’re required to write a thesis, think twice before committing to one
- Blow your mind
Blattman says point #6 is probably the most controversial, but I agree with his thought process here:
Languages are hugely important. And you should learn another (or many others) besides English. But I think they’re better learned in immersion, during your summers or before and after college. Maybe take an introductory course or two at university to get you started, or an advanced course or two to solidify what you already know, but only that.
Statistics are not more important than languages. But the opportunity cost of skipping a statistics course is high because it’s hard to find ways to learn statistics outside the university. Remember you only get 30 or 40 courses at university. There are a dozen other times and places you can learn a language. Arguably they’re better places to learn it too.
I feel the same way about most business and management skills. They are critical to a lot of professions (even academia), but classrooms are poor places to learn them given the alternatives. Exceptions might be more technical skills like finance and accounting.
A lot of these points mirror the advice that my wife and I have tried to give our three kids, all of whom are at some stage in their college careers. Most importantly the thought process that Blattman applied here is exactly how they should approach their educational careers in order to optimize this brief, but critical, phase of their lives.