College is a time to meet new people, develop new or existing interests and gain experience that will help get a job after graduation. If there was one thing you could do to accomplish all these things, wouldn’t you do it? Join a student organization related to your career goals, and join another one for fun. Check your college’s website for a list of clubs and attend the student organization fair. Tons of perks come with getting involved on your campus, but here are few important ones:
- Make friends. Joining a club is the easiest way to find people who have a shared interest or passion. People who share interests are generally the easiest people to build friendships with. These people will, in turn, introduce you to more students who will expand and diversify your social circle.
- Relieve stress. Academics are important and should be a top priority, but you will need to take a break. Joining a group with other chemistry majors will be helpful when you want to complain about homework or need help studying, but it’s also important to join a group to have fun. It’s a bonus if your club involves exercise (dance club, outdoor club, etc.), which provides extra stress relief.
- Increase focus. Studies show that staying busy and engaged on campus will improve your grades and focus. If you go back to your dorm room right after class, you probably won’t have a focused five-hour study session. (Let’s be real, you’ll probably watch Netflix and accidentally take a nap.) However, if you need to finish an assignment within a two-hour period before you go to student org activities, you’ll be more productive and focused.
- Build self-confidence. Most student organizations offer leadership opportunities that can build confidence and improve decision-making abilities. Being around older, more experienced students can help you develop these skills in a low-pressure environment.
- Network. The old saying, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” has truth to it. Making connections with students going into the same field will help you down the road. An older member of your student organization might even help you land your first job out of college. On top of the personal connections, student organizations give you the opportunity to build marketable skills like teamwork, communication and leadership. They also show that you can manage time and responsibilities.
- Learn about yourself. Joining a student organization can show you your own strengths and weaknesses. You find out what you’re good at and what you enjoy. Maybe you find that you love multitasking and creative brainstorming. Equally important, you can find out what you don’t like. Maybe you realize you hate being the organization’s secretary and you’re better off in roles that focus on big picture, strategic planning.
Textbook costs can make your jaw drop. They can be one of the pricier extra expenses that go along with attending college. But these tips can save you hundreds of dollars every semester:
- Don’t buy new textbooks. If you can, always go for used. Glossy new pages might be pretty, but you won’t be able to resell a book for its full price. You can purchase used textbooks from Amazon and other internet sites, through your college bookstore and from classmates. See if there’s a social media page where fellow students sell books.
- Use an older edition. If your instructor assigns a brand new text book, ask if it’s OK to use an older edition. Editions typically don’t change much year to year, so you can probably get away with an older, cheaper one.
- Look beyond the bookstore. College bookstores might not have the best prices. Some offer used books and rentals, but it’s still important to check prices elsewhere.
- Rent your textbooks. Many campus bookstores, along with websites like Chegg, offer rentals. This is often a good option because you can pay less and you don’t have to worry about trying to sell the book after the semester. However, you should still look at all your options on a case-by-case basis.
- Ask previous students. Ask someone who’s taken the same course if you really need the book or if they’d sell you their old book.
- Use e-books. Some textbooks are available for a lower price in an online edition. If you don’t have an e-reader, you can usually read e-books on your laptop, iPad or smartphone.
- Share with a classmate. If your schedules allow or you don’t expect to need the textbook frequently, split the cost of a textbook with a classmate. You can meet up for study sessions, or one person can take photos or make copies. You can’t make copies of an entire book without violating copyright laws, but a few pages here and there is fine. If your instructor wants you to buy an entire textbook but assigns only a few pages of reading from it the whole semester, you’re probably not violating copyright laws by making a single copy of those pages for your homework.
- Check the library. Your school probably has limited copies of frequently used class textbooks. See if you can reserve them ahead of time and save some money.
- Wait until the first class to buy. Sometimes professors will work with students who can’t afford to pay hundreds for a single textbook. Some will tell you right away that you’ll only use a few sections of the textbook, or they’ll offer supplementary options that are free or cheap. The first day is usually spent going over the syllabus, but be prepared to buy the textbook quickly if you need to.
Some students take a year between high school and college to work, volunteer, travel or save money. Many educators say that kids who take a break after high school are more mature when they arrive at college and are more engaged in their education moving forward. This is particularly relevant to students who burned out in high school from years of AP classes, test prep, volunteer projects, sports, music lessons and other extracurricular activities.
Still, gap years can be scary for parents and other adults who care about a student’s success. Many fear that one year will turn into two years and will eventually lead to their student never completing a degree.
When considering a gap year, students should take these three steps:
- Apply to college and defer enrollment. That way, there is something waiting for you at the end of your gap year. Some colleges also might let you defer their scholarships—check with the financial aid office.
- Make sure you apply for financial aid during your gap year. File your FAFSA, apply for scholarships, grants and loans, etc. Remember, you can file your FAFSA starting on October 1 and the earlier you submit it, the better.
- Form a concrete plan. Studies show that students who have a concrete plan are much more likely to start college after their gap year. Ask yourself: What will you accomplish during the gap year? Sitting on the couch playing video games doesn’t count. Will you have a job? How will you pay your bills/save money? Will you volunteer? Will you do an apprenticeship or study abroad?
You can find more information from the American Gap Association, gapyearassociation.org.
When you are selecting a college to attend, you want to know how much it’s actually going to cost, if you’ll make enough to pay off loans, what the current students are like, etc. Gathering all this information takes a ton of time, especially if you’re not sure where you want to go. Luckily, the U.S. Department of Education offers a valuable online tool to help you compare schools and make an informed decision. For any school that offers post-secondary education in the United States, the College Scorecard, collegescorecard.ed.gov, will show you:
- Costs—Not the published costs, but the average annual costs that students actually pay, broken down by family income and compared to the national average.
- Loan debt—How many students take out federal loans, graduates’ typical debt and monthly payments, and percentage of students paying down debt compared to the national average.
- Earnings after school—Average graduate’s salary compared to national average, and percentage of graduates who earn more than students with only a high school diploma.
- Student body—A demographic breakdown of the student population by race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status.
- Success rates—Retention rate after one year and graduation rate, compared to the national average.
- Test scores—Standard range of SAT and/or ACT scores for students who are admitted and enrolled.
- Academic programs—Available areas of study, as well as the most popular programs offered.
This combination of factors gives you a more complete picture of your investment and potential payoff from attending a specific school. A school with high costs, high loan debt and low graduation rates, for instance, might not offer your best chance of success. A school with high costs might be a more reasonable choice, however, if it also offers high graduation rates and high salaries for graduates.
While these might be important factors, the most important pieces of the equation will be how a school fits with your needs. The College Scorecard lets you look up specific schools or search based on criteria such as location, size and degrees offered. It also offers predetermined searches such as “Affordable Four-Year Schools with Good Outcomes” or “Find a Community College in Your State with High Salaries.”
Happy college hunting!
Studying for an exam can make anyone feel anxious—even overwhelmed. Here are tips to help you ace the exam, big or small, every time.
- Don’t procrastinate. Give your brain enough time to process and retain information. When you find out about the exam, immediately mark the date when you need to begin studying. Waiting will just stress you out.
- Organize your study space. Some people have trouble concentrating with a million things in front of them. Clear off your desk or clean your room. Do whatever helps your brain focus.
- Know yourself. Figure out what time of day you focus best. (Early morning? Lunch? Before bed?) How do you study best? (Alone with silence? Listening to music? In a public place?)
- Turn off your Internet, TV and phone. If you get distracted by these things (who doesn’t?), save them as a reward for completing your study session. If you need your computer to study, try an app like this one that blocks websites for a short time. Give your phone to someone until you’re done studying.
- Set timed goals for each study session. A schedule will help you stay focused. Example: Study three chapters of U.S. History for 30 minutes, take a 10-minute break and then make a study guide for your math test in 20 minutes.
- Make flashcards. Make free virtual flashcards and quizzes on websites like Quizlet.
- Explain the material to someone. This is a great use for a study group. Take turns explaining relevant items to each other. You will learn from your peers, but you will also remember the material better if you can internalize and explain it.
- Study in different places. Different locations force your brain to form new associations with the study material. Basically, the more unique memories you have with the material, the better you’ll remember it.
- Rewrite your notes. Copying your notes by hand is a great way recall older material and reinforce your knowledge.
- Get creative. Make up stories and songs about the material. You’ll be surprised how much better it will stick in your brain.
- Take breaks. Plan to take breaks while studying. Get a snack. Dance around. Play music. Do jumping jacks. Breaks are beneficial for your brain and concentration.
- Plan your exam day. What time will you leave? What will you eat beforehand? How will you get there? Plan to arrive early so you’re not flustered.
- Be positive! Half the battle is believing you can win! You got this!
If you’re a teacher, counselor or anyone who works with students, you’ll probably be asked to write a letter of recommendation at some point. These letters can be consequential for the student, so it’s crucial that you write as strong a message as possible.
- Ask for input. Ask your student specifically what the letter is for. What field of study are they entering? Do they have a scholarship description you should read? Ask your student which qualities and experiences they’d like you to emphasize, and they can help you create an outline.
- Explain your connection. In your letter, be clear about how you know the student. Did you have them in a class? In an extracurricular activity? How long have you known them?
- Provide new information. The student’s application will show GPA, class rank, test scores, etc., so you don’t need to repeat this information. Instead, provide details that will create a complete picture of the student.
- Stay positive. Make sure you say at the beginning and end of the letter that you think the student is a strong candidate. You might say you recommend them “without reservation.” You can also turn negatives into positives: “Although math doesn’t come easily to him, Thomas worked hard to earn an A in my pre-calculus class. He came in before school to ask questions and took advantage of extra credit opportunities.”
- Avoid ambiguity. Don’t use phrases like “as far as I know” or “to the best of my knowledge.” They send the message that you don’t know the student well or you don’t believe in them.
- Give specific examples. Back up the statements you make. Did you say someone is a team player? Mention a time they worked with other students, maybe students who didn’t share their viewpoint, to achieve a common goal. Did you say someone is a problem-solver? Discuss a particular obstacle and exactly how they got past it. Did you say someone is highly responsible? Explain how you put them in a position of trust.
- Be honest. Don’t try to sell attributes a student doesn’t have. If someone isn’t a natural leader, don’t say they are. Focus on praise you can give truthfully.
- Share your contact information. The letter’s recipient should have a way to contact you if they have further questions. Make sure to include your email address and phone number.
- Watch your deadlines.Make sure you know when the letter is due and how you’re expected to submit it.
- Decline if you need to. If you don’t feel comfortable endorsing the student, decline instead of writing a mediocre letter. Say something like “I don’t think it’s in your best interest for me to write you a letter” or “I recommend you ask someone who knows you better than I do.”
Letters of recommendation can help your school and scholarship applications stand out. They bring your application to life and illustrate who you are as a student and person. Asking someone to write a letter can be nerve-racking, but here are tips for a smooth, respectful request:
- Pick the right person. Approach someone who knows you well. A letter from the local mayor might be impressive, but if she’s your neighbor’s cousin’s workout buddy, that’s a flimsy connection. Choose a person who knows, personally, why you are a good candidate. A teacher you’ve known for years or an extracurricular advisor is a good option, but you don’t have to limit yourself to school. A religious leader or the organizer of a community project where you volunteered can also provide strong recommendations on your behalf.
- Ask early. Don’t wait until the end of the semester to request a letter. Teachers and other school professionals are often flooded with requests at that time. Request it early, and give them plenty of time to complete it.
- Ask in person. If possible, pop the question in person and explain what the letter will be used for and when you need it. Make sure the person knows why you are asking them. Say something along the lines of, “I really enjoyed taking your class this year and I feel that you know me pretty well now. Would you mind writing me a letter of recommendation for a University of Iowa history scholarship? I’ll need it by March 31.”
- Give them everything they need. Make your letter writer’s life easier and send them all the details they need. Spell it out for them. Is there a word or page limit? Do you need more than one letter? Do they need to submit the letter online? Send them the scholarship description and highlight characteristics and achievements you think they could attest to. Most people want you to have exactly what you need to be successful.
- Send a handwritten thank you note. Your letter writer is probably busy and went out of their way to help you. Let them know how much you appreciate their time and effort.