Having an Effective and Enjoyable Undergraduate Experience

I highly recommend reading Richard J. Light’s book “Making the Most of College” (you can check it out from the campus library or get a used copy at Amazon for, like, two bucks). Light led a research group that did numerous interviews of students and came up with many conclusions. Three suggestions based on that book are:

  1. Get involved outside of the classroom: Activities outside of classes don’t hurt grades and they increase the enjoyment of the college experience and often make the class work more meaningful.
  2. Learn time management: Probably the leading cause of academic trouble is the inability to appropriately allocate time.
  3. You don’t have to go it alone: Studying in groups can be more effective and more enjoyable. Also, ask for help when you need it; people like helping people. If you are worried about looking bad, you’ll look worse if you don’t ask for help.

Preparing for the Future

At the end of your undergraduate career, you are likely to be looking for a job or applying to graduate school. At that point you will want/need two things:

  1. A “Portfolio”: You’ll want something that demonstrates that you will be a successful post-undergraduate. You should have the makings of a portfolio that demonstrates your past successes. Such a portfolio is most compelling if it is populated with work done outside of class because it demonstrates that you have the initiative to do more than is required. There are many opportunities for projects (IEEE, ACM, EWB, open source projects, undergraduate research). Your portfolio should demonstrate that you are a “doer” not a “sayer” and that you have the persistence to get things done. You want to be in a position where you could say to a potential employer “you’d be a fool not to hire me”.
  2. References: A graduate school application typically requires 3 letters of recommendation. These letters are uncompelling if the professor can only comment on the grades you received in their classes. Building the relationship that will result in a compelling letter takes time; it can’t be done at the last minute. Thus, set as a goal to get to know one faculty member per year. They need not all be professors from your major. Given that office hours are often poorly attended, most professors welcome students dropping in on their office hours (whether you are in their class or not) to discuss their area of research if you are genuinely interested. References are important for students looking for jobs after their B.A.Sc./B.Sc. as well. Many people find jobs through personal networking. Most faculty get requests from companies to identify prospective employees. The more people that know what kind of job you are looking for, the more likely you are to find it.