The best part of Blue Stars is becoming friends with our students and catching up with them in college and beyond. I recently had lunch with Matt, now a rising junior at a large university in the Northeast who was brimming with valuable insight. Over Indian food at a local spot in San Francisco, we chatted about how he gained a sense of freedom in college, how he’s taking advantage of his college years, the importance of time-management, and what to keep in mind while still in high school. Here are highlights from our conversation:
Dr. M: You just finished your second year of college. Looking back at your younger self in high school, what would you tell that person?
Matt: Don’t lock yourself into one career goal. I was so fixated on becoming a scientist in high school, which caused me to make decisions that pigeonholed me too soon in college. Plan for a school that will set you up for the most opportunities possible. What you think you want to pursue as a highschooler isn’t necessarily what you will want to do for the rest of your life.
Dr. M: I totally hear what you’re saying and feel that teens should resist “over-defining” themselves at such a young age. On the other hand, to get into a top school, students need to have a “story” or “angle” to make that winning impression. We routinely counsel our students not to declare “undecided” but rather to grab on to one or two fields and then craft their applications around those choices.
Matt: I completely agree with you that students need to have a “story” to be successful in college admissions. It’s great for students to have a clear, defined career goal and activities to back up those goals. However, at the same time, they should allocate a fraction of their time to exploring new things.You should try to spend around 15% of your time learning new things completely unrelated to your job. It’s like that saying: “You never know what you like until you try it.”
High school students generally choose careers that they have been previously exposed to. College is a great opportunity to explore other possibilities that students previously never got the chance to see. When you get to college, if you’re a business major, try taking a science class and see how you like it. If you’re a STEM major, take a philosophy class (definitely my favorite class in college) or join a business club. It’s a matter of looking at new things from different perspectives.
Dr. M: Has college turned out to be what you hoped or expected?
Matt: College has definitely been as fun as I expected. There’s the normal shenanigans like going out on the weekends with your friends, but that gets old quickly. I found that finding a group of friends that you can just hang out with and chill on a Friday night to be much more fulfilling.
What I’ve also loved about college is the opportunity to rebrand yourself. For example, in high school I was a rather timid, shy kid who kept to myself. However, those who know me in college never believe me when I tell them I used to be very timid. College was a chance for me to “rebrand” and become an outgoing person.
Another big lesson for me – who you know is more important than what you know. I went into college thinking that studying two challenging subjects would make me stand out and get opportunities. I thought that keeping my head down by doing well in school and participating in research was enough. I quickly learned that networking is way more important for finding opportunities. Joining clubs and fraternities/sororities at school is key to doing well in college because it gives you a great social circle that bonds over a common interest as well as a greater network that will be extremely useful.
Dr. M: What do you think are the most important aspects of being a successful college student?
Matt: First, having discipline is the key to being successful in college. A book I regularly recommend to my friends is The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. Chapter 3, “Put First Things First,” is extremely applicable because where you allocate your time and energy will determine what kind of student you are. When you have a mid-term and your friends are trying to get you to go out, you have to focus on what’s more important. Just stay in to study, kill your test, and then have a blast next weekend. There’s always going to be other opportunities for social outings. It sounds stupid even having to bring this up, but these decisions aren’t always as cut and dry. All the freedom associated with college comes with distractions.
Dr. M: This is actually a very astute observation. These daily decisions about how to spend one’s time are not cut and dry. That’s why we spend so much time with our students helping them puzzle through the important decisions that come their way. It’s practice for the future!
Matt: Another important aspect of discipline is effectively managing your time. You would be surprised by how much you can accomplish in 24 hours. During my first semester sophomore year, I decided to pledge a professional business fraternity while taking a pretty nasty schedule with Organic Chemistry 2 and some computer science classes. Everyone thought I was crazy, and quite frankly they were right.
However, I was able to slog through that grueling semester because of how effectively I managed my time using a calendar. My day was completely booked with meetings, classes, and study time that I scheduled out – even how long I had to eat my meals.
Having a tight calendar where you block out your schedule is crucial for effective time-management skills. Schedule appointments to study and do projects, but also slide in some important personal time to work out or just chill. Including that personal space every day is essential for being happy and not overwhelmed by school.
Lastly, find upperclass students who will be good mentors. They’ve been through it all and were in your exact situation just a few years ago. Whether it be course selection or figuring out your career, upperclass students can make your life a lot easier.
Dr. M: Do you think our work in college planning helped you with this once you got to college? I’m hoping so, but if not, let me know how we could have helped more. Teaching teens life skills is a big focus of our practice these days. Did college planning give you a head start on your success in college so far?
Matt: College planning definitely set the foundation for these life skills, but being put in a stressful situation made me finally put these skills into action. One of my favorite aspects of college planning was the reports on the assigned readings you gave me. These were really great activities to work on critical reasoning skills, while also helping me develop my own voice and opinions. I feel that a lot of students now are good at regurgitating information, but lack the ability to think critically.
Dr. M: That makes me so happy to hear! Learning how to think and write critically sets students free! One last question: If you were to do one thing differently while a high school student, what would it be?
Matt: I’d believe in myself so much more and give myself credit for what I have to offer top schools.
Dr. M: Thank you, Matt, for your powerful feedback!