Taking advantage of college (before it’s too late…)

by Katie Abramowitz

On the brink of my senior year of college—possibly in person, possibly online—I know I should be looking to the future and thinking about jobs or graduate school or whatever comes next. Instead, I have found myself preoccupied with a question I wish I had asked myself in earnest four years ago: 

What do I want to get out of my college experience? 

The question is central to Project Zero’s large-scale study of higher education—an eight-year investigation involving 2,000 participants across eight different stakeholder groups at 10 disparate colleges and universities in the United States—and it’s a question I’ve pondered for the past two summers while working as an intern on the study.

I am confident that I gained experience and skills as an intern that will be helpful for my future studies and career (whatever that may be). However, my experience also gave me insight into a dismaying revelation: halfway through my undergraduate experience, I had never asked myself this question before—nor do I recall being asked by anyone. I applied to a wide range of colleges, from small liberal arts schools to large urban research universities, but I was so fixated on where I might get accepted that I never stopped to ask myself: Why? Why am I going to college? What are my goals for the next four years? What do I want to accomplish? 

My primary responsibility as a research intern on the project has been to help complete qualitative coding of participant interviews. Specifically, as a “coder,” I examined more than 50 interview transcripts (in my case, primarily from young alumni) with respect to two assignments: 1) to categorize responses to straightforward interview questions (e.g., a book to recommend to a graduating student, courses that are “time well spent” or “wastes of time”) and 2) to synthesize responses to several questions according to holistic concepts, including participants’ “mental model” of the college experience.

As I read through the interviews, I found myself relating to much of what these young alumni highlighted in their reflections. Some wished they had explored more classes outside of their majors; others lamented their own stress about grades and overall GPAs. This sentiment hit home for me, as I realized that I had several of my own regrets regarding my first two college years. I thought about opportunities that I too, had taken for granted or let pass me by.

However, learning about “mental models”—how participants view the purpose of college and structure the experience—spurred the most personal reflection. As part of the holistic analysis, I coded each participant according to four distinct approaches: inertial (e.g. “I go to college because that is the next step after high school”), transactional (e.g. “I go to college to get a job or go to graduate school”), exploratory (e.g. “I go to college to try new academic areas, different activities, and meet new people”), or transformational (e.g. “I go to college to grow and develop as a person and learner”). In considering these mental models, I couldn’t help but imagine how I might categorize my own friends and acquaintances. I had “transactional” peers who went to college with a predetermined vision of what courses they would take and what job they would land after graduation. Interestingly, these were people I often envied; they seemed to have had it “all figured out.” On the other hand, I had “exploratory” friends operating on five hours of sleep as they were involved with as many campus activities as they could squeeze in (in addition to their coursework), hoping to try out and try on as many diverse experiences as possible.

What about my own mental models? It has been a journey.

Looking back to the summer before my first year, perhaps I had been more “inertial” at the time than I may want to admit. I was fortunate enough to be in a position in which deciding to apply to college in the first place required little to no analytic thought; both of my parents had attended college and most of my peers in high school aspired to attend four-year undergraduate programs. In other words, I applied to college simply because it was the assumed next step in life after high school, but I didn’t think critically about what I wanted to get out of the (quite costly) experience. Once in college, I approached the experience with a “transactional” stance—rather than embracing the broad range of courses that was offered to me, I was eager to pick a major (or two) and knock out course requirements as soon as possible. Early on, when my leafy campus felt overwhelming and unfamiliar, quickly constructing a “game plan” for the next four years felt more pertinent than growing into the interdisciplinary learner and responsible citizen that I had vowed to become (at least on my common application). I believe that I ultimately and perhaps unwittingly expected the experience to be transformational, but I didn’t put much thought into how I would make it so.

During that first summer at Project Zero after my sophomore year, my own mental model for college began to shift. After reading several dozen interviews and filtering them through the prism of my own experience, I realized how much I was missing out by approaching the college experience with a “transactional” approach. I realized that college should be an opportunity to learn about the world at large, but I was only exposing myself to a tiny sliver of that world. Through my own careful planning of how I could efficiently march through my college years, I realized that I was missing the real point of college.

I began to think that being more exploratory and stepping outside of my comfort zone might help broaden my perspective and my capacity for learning (a more “transformational” goal). I brought this insight into my junior year, in which I looked beyond course offerings in the majors I’d chosen and took art history, along with my first foreign language class of college. Still, with one year left of my college experience, I find myself wondering, shouldn’t I have learned something about the ancient Greek philosophers somewhere along the lines or be able to hold a semi-intelligent conversation about the global economy? Yes, it might help me in a job interview, but it would also help me become a well-informed, well-read, knowledgeable and engaged citizen of the wider world. To borrow some lingo from the project, I could acquireHigher Education Capital which could serve me well both at work and in my broader life experiences for the near future.

Ultimately, I’ve come to realize how important it is to identify and, as far as possible to set into motion a conscious intention for the college years. I found that expecting “growth” to emerge simply as a result of my existence on a college campus or living on my own for the first time is not realistic. In other words, if I wanted exploration or transformation, I needed to put in the work to make it happen. Indeed, it wasn’t until I outlined my own specific goals and gave thought to how I might be able to achieve them that I was able to ultimately see some personal change.

As part of that reflection, I’ve thought back to my high school experience and how it could have prepared me more for college—or, how I might have prepared myself better. While 18-year-olds may not yet know exactly what types of courses to take in college or the types of activities to pursue, they can consider what they want to get out of college, and in what ways they hope to grow. Students who think of themselves as “exploratory” or “transformational” in any way—or who would like to be—might think more deeply about what types of classes or campus activities will help them achieve change and growth. Don’t just take a class because someone said “that professor’s easy” or because it is a subject with which you are already familiar and comfortable. What is really going to stretch your mind, challenge you, or lead you in new directions?

Additionally, those who guide students during the college selection process—high school counselors, family members, academic advisors—might focus on other types of prompts besides the typical, “big or small school?” or “urban or suburban?” or “Greek life or none?” It would be helpful to spark reflection or introspection on broader issues by also challenging students to consider how they hope to grow over the next four years. What kind of person do they want to be when they walk across the stage (if they’re lucky, in person) in the spring of their senior year, and what specific steps will lead in that direction?

While my advice may seem focused on incoming students, it’s never too late to think about the college experience. Senior year may seem like a time to hone in on existing interests, but I plan to prioritize being as “exploratory” as can be. I’ve started with course registration—I signed up for “Introduction to Philosophy.” It’s about time I get acquainted with Plato. 

© Katie Abramowitz 2020

I would like to thank Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner for their guidance on this post, as well as for providing me with such an enriching, “transformational” work experience.

Katie Abramowitz is a rising senior at Bates College. She is pursuing a double major in Psychology and Theater.

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2 Comments on “Taking advantage of college (before it’s too late…)”

  1. jbw July 29, 2020 at 10:25 pm #

    Such a profoundly thoughtful essay — and what a great double major! Much love and all good wishes to you, especially as you embark on your future and that philosophy course (hint: read slowly.)

  2. Anu Bhatia September 12, 2020 at 3:55 pm #

    Very well written. The consequence of believing that our personality is dynamic and we are meant to grow (and change when necessary) is going to not only affect our life as an individual but of the world. Leveraging on our ability to reflect and introspect- 2 very high level intellectual behaviors that push individuals to be truthful in reaching understandings of oneself before deciding on the course of action.

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