At college campuses across the land, incoming freshman are hard at work at both their new classes, and also at understanding how to navigate the new world of the university. And given the high cost of college and the huge gaps in achievement between those who make the most of their time as undergrads and those who flounder, the stakes for getting it right are pretty high.

Which makes great advice on how to navigate your university education (and how to wring as much real-world value out of every precious tuition dollar as possible) incredibly valuable. Too bad there's so little of it to go around.

For those students who are the first in their families to attend, quality advice is thin on the ground, but even if your parents are grads, much has changed in the worlds of work and education since they sat in a lecture hall. That's what makes a thoughtful Vox article by University of Chicago professor (and blogger) Chris Blattman so incredibly useful.

As a successful blogger/ professor who seems up on both what it takes to navigate the fast-changing modern career landscape and an obvious university insider, Blattman is well positioned to offer freshman solid counsel. The complete post is well worth reading in full if you're feeling a little at sea at your new school (or if you're hoping to offer some guidance to the college student in your life), but here are a few of his tips in brief in get you started.

1. Try careers on for size.

Career experts recommend this approach for those looking to change direction later in life too, but Blattman insists 'pilot projects' work well for college students too.

"Your career is going to be a huge part of your life, and you'll be happier if it suits your strengths and you find it fulfilling. Some people are lucky on their first try. It took me three or four tries to get close," he recommends. "Don't wait until you finish law or medical school to discover you hate working in your specialty. Try early and often. Test out different careers in the summer."

(And yes, I had to actually earn money when I was a student too, so I realize that's easier for some students than others, but there's always a way to slip some kind of internship, work experience, or related extracurricular into your schedule between tying on that wait staff apron.)

2. Develop skills you can't get elsewhere.

Despite the value of languages, Blattman says you should not spend too much time studying them at university. (He acknowledges not everyone agrees with this advice.) Why? Because you can learn a language later. There are some things you can only master during these four (or so) years. Focus on those things. 

"Use university to build your technical skills. By technical skills, I mean specialized knowledge that is hard to teach yourself on your own. I put things like math, statistics, ethnography, law, or accounting in this category. These are topics where you need a knowledgeable guide plus the hard commitments of a course to get you through hard material. Often, these skills are also basic building blocks for many lines of work," he notes, before doubling down on his assertion that statistics can come in very, very handy in many lines of work.

3. Learn how to write well.

Seriously, just do it. I promise it will serve you well -- and set you apart -- in pretty much any profession you choose. Don't believe Blattman and me, then there are plenty of other experts saying the same thing who might convince you.

4. Focus on the teacher, not the topic.

"In my experience, you learn more from great teachers than from great syllabuses. I had too many classes taught by droning bores. I didn't show up, even when I was sitting in the chair. I didn't learn much," claims Blattman.

Yes, of course you need to get through your requirements, but after that an idiosyncratic pick with an inspiring or thought-provoking teacher ("When I think about the classes that shaped me the most, I think about my Marxist Canadian history class, taught by a socialist ideologue," says Blattman) beats on on-topic one taught by a snooze-inducing robot.

5. Blow your mind.

I love this closing tip from Blattman: "At the end of each year of college, you should look back at your thoughts and opinions 12 months before and find them quaint. If not, you probably didn't read or explore or work hard enough... I know I've succeeded when I change my opinions because the facts I know changed."

In short, if you come out of your college experience thinking the same way you did when you went in, you didn't get the most out of your time there. So go ahead and endeavor to blow your own mind.

What other advice would you give to incoming freshman about how to make the most of their time at college?

Published on: Sep 22, 2016