13 Things I Wish I’d Learned In University…

…that I Later (Mostly) Figured Out On My Own.

North Korea is Dark at Night.

I once had a professor who carried around his pet turtle in a box wherever he went. Sometimes he talked to the turtle. He lived with his mother and frequently wore sweat pants to class. He said something that has forever stayed with me:

“At universities, people who make As become professors. Bs go into government work. Cs go into business. Everyone else learns a trade and earns a comfortable living…except liberal arts majors.”

Given the source, I’m not sure how much stock I’d put into this information, but I think it’s reasonable.

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I went to university because thought it was the thing to do. Four years later, I left with a degree in English. By the time I graduated, I was completely disillusioned with the university system. Eight years later, I still shake my head. Why?

When I left, diploma in hand, my economic and career prospects were dimmer than North Korea at night.

Too late did I learn the big-ass lesson the universities don’t bother to tell you: getting a liberal arts degree isn’t enough…especially when you attend a 3rd tier state school in a Appalachia.

I spent a couple years figuring that out. When I started university, I was a naïve, unprepared student without clear goals save graduating. I thought that simple work hard and a sexy piece of paper would be enough.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m grateful for the opportunity for affordable education, and I’m probably much better off for my troubles. I have no regrets about attending. The experience in itself was worthwhile. Plus,

Experts agree that college is still worth it

On average, college graduates have a median income $21,900 higher than workers with only a high school education (really!) Plus, you get to meet all kinds of interesting and/or freaky people.

I worked hard and learned as much as I could, but I’ll be the first to admit it’s my own fault I didn’t make more of my college experience. Maybe I was too busy paying my expenses by delivering hundreds of pizzas every week.

Revamping the English Degree

I think it’s time for universities to revampliberal arts degrees in general and English degrees in particular. The core curriculum is still great for cultivating well-read individuals able to think critically about challenging issues.

However, I can’t help but wonder how hard would it be to include a couple practical courses like ‘How to Sell Nonfiction Writing’ or ‘Marketing for Wanna-be Writers.”

Even ‘Ebay for the Chronically Underemployed’ would be a useful addition.

While we’re at it, let’s augment ‘English Junior Seminar’ with ‘How to Survive in South Korea: A Guide for U.S. & Canadian Humanities Majors Who Want a (Kick-Ass) Job After Graduating.’

At least in Korea a Yankee English major can get affordable health insurance.

Unfortunately, I’m more likely to be abducted by Nork spies and bartered off for diplomatic concessions than seeing English departments offer something practical. Banish the thought they be soiled by the taint of commerce.

So, since universities aren’t going to change, all I can do is share what little I know. Enjoy this list and feel free to add your own in the comments.

  1. The world doesn’t care about most degrees…unless they’re complemented with other rocking benefits, like rare skills, experience, or  connections. This combination is a perfect example of the military strategist’s  maxim  “a force multiplied is a force squared.”
  2. How to write well. University writing classes offer opportunity for improvement (especially critique-based workshops), but many fall short. A couple years ago I looked back on an essay I wrote for an upper level class. I nearly choked on my own vomit. While I finished uni with decent writing chops, I improved more from a focused and rigorous course of independent study.
  3. How to make a living. Yep. I said it. Universities excel at burying students in debt, but aside from a few of the better schools, too many fail at teaching their students how to support themselves outside of food service.
  4. How to sell. I learned more about selling by spending two weeks with a bug-spraying hustler named Rebel than I did during four years of university. Selling doesn’t have to be skeezy, and everyone who does anything has to sell something: products, ideas, plans, your soul, etc.
  5. How to quickly learn & remember new information. Universities are billed as pillars of learning, but ironically most don’t bother teaching people how to learn. In my limited experience, these institutions give people scaly fish without teaching them how to use fishing poles or scalers. A course in accelerated learning techniques would be wickedly valuable for every student.
  6. How to build and maintain a network. Networking sounds like something shallow people in suits do at lame events tinged with desperation, but it’s nothing more than making contact with interesting people…and making the effort to keep up with them. Maybe they teach this in the business programs, but I left school with nothing more than a couple email addresses and a pile of phone numbers written on scraps of paper (my own fault, I know).
  7. How to ask for help and guidance. I used to be terrible at this. Now I’m rotten but improving. People who know thing are usually happy to offer their help to the inquisitive. Asking for help is not being needy or deficient; it’s simply a matter of reaching out to those with more expertise or resources.
  8. How to Start a Mini-Company. Imagine the skills you’d learn in a class project where students worked together to identify a problem, develop an (imagined?) product or service to satisfy that need, and then provide a solution. I’m still working towards full self-employment (without the assistance of savings), but I’m on my way.
  9. Basic marketing. Of goods and services, both to potential customers, employers, clients and other contacts. Marketing isn’t just about selling; it’s identifying what the world needs and figuring out a way to fill that need.
  10. Good grades aren’t that important. In college, grades only matter for prereq courses and graduate school.  Some classes just aren’t worth bothering with. As long as you can leave with above a GPA over 3.0, you can always get a government job.
  11. Your friends will shape you. They warn you about this in the anti-drug propaganda class, but they don’t mention the happier converse: if you’re friends with the happy and ambitious students, you’ll be more happy and ambitious yourself. Your social circle and the mores that come along with it is one of the most powerful and influential forces in your life.
  12. Your major is only part of your education. A degree without experience or skills is like a cat without fur; a marginally useless thing you show off mostly for the shock/pity value, valued only by a select few.
  13. How to manage my time. My time management is way better than it was a few years ago, but I could always improve. The ways we spend our days define the outcome of our lives. When you waste your time you waste your life.

hairless cat in a book store

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For a final word of advice, and example of luck-making in action, I’d like to include a quote from collegeconfidential.com user SmithieandProud:

“I graduated from a top 20 LAC last spring and most of my friends are unemployed or underemployed. A lot of it is the job market, it is VERY tough right now. At the think tank where I worked we were getting people with Master’s degrees applying for unpaid summer internships just to get their foot in the door, so you can imagine how much harder it is for newly minted B.A.’s to find paying work.

Some of it though, boils down to preparation. I was one of the lucky ones who got a great job, chosen field, right off the bat. But part of that was because I knew what I wanted to do almost from my first-year, and had had good internships in my field where I built up and then sustained good relationships. Coming out, I had a network in place that could catch me and help me get started. And there was a good measure of lucky timing involved too. But I am definitely in the minority on this one.”

Over to You

What have you learned that you didn’t / couldn’t learn at a university? If you went to university, what do you wish you’d learned? Please drop me a line in the comments and let me know.

Photo credit: jacob-davies,NASA


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  • Courtney Crook

    …nice work Seth, interesting stuff. I like that bit about the cat!

  • JALINEBERRY

    Excellent article.

    I’ve unfortunately learned the hard way that a four year liberal arts degree is the modern equivalent of a 1960s high school diploma. Honestly, that’s the way I felt during most of my time in college – like I was still in high school. I remember marveling at how easy college was when I first arrived.

    The only thing that was difficult was managing my time, and finances. School was never really challenging. Finding a way to deal with all of the inconveniences and disasters outside of life were always my greatest challenges. Like you, I don’t regret the experience, but I don’t know if the costs have quite justified the benefits.

    They need to stop BSing students. When I was there, they told us people who majored in History worked in nearly every conceivable field, and were very marketable degrees. The truth is, most of the people that got them are either waiting tables or delivering pizzas just to keep from starving, and are in grad school so they can continue deferring their massive student loan debt.

    I don’t have all the answers, but I have a few ideas that I think may make things better (I won’t bore anyone with them).

    At any rate, there’s a generation of kids right now living off student loans that are destined to be defaulted on. They go to college to gain an edge, but they’ve actually shouldered a burden that will limit their maneuverability and ability to enjoy life, not to mention put strains on marriages and other relationships. In a consumer-driven society, this is a recipe for continued economic strain. It’s a bad investment for the student and the government. Okay, I’m done.

  • Anonymous

    “They need to stop BSing students.” Damn straight my friend. How can they stop BSing students? By being very freaking clear that students need to a) specialize b) monetize c)networkize.

    A degree alone isn’t enough. A degree is just the start, just a ticket to watch the show from the cheap seats in the top. You can understand what’s going on, but you don’t really get to participate. That’s where a, b, and c come in.

    As some of the lovely folks on Reddit pointed out to me, when I chose my major, I made the fundamental error of thinking that university was something that would help me land a job.

    By the time I figured this out, I was having too much fun working on my major. I enjoyed studying English and learning for the sheer hell of learning.

    However, if we’re thinking about uni as something you do to earn a living, a vocational or technical training is probably a better investment for immediate income. (Not so much in the long-term, as non-degreed people are frequently passed over for promotions.)

    A personal example: one summer I spent $500 for a technical certificate in telecom installation. Within 2 months I had found an excellent summer internship that paid my tuition for the following year. My ROI was ridiculous.

    I like the philosopher-mechanic model: study one thing because it satisfies your intellectual curiosity, do the other because it provides a comfortable income and a flow-inducing work environment.

    Check out the essay Shop Class as Soulcraf at http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/shop-class-as-soulcraft