How does a fledgling student structure her time within a university to gain a better education?

Andrew Roberts, an assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University, addresses this very question in his "The Thinking Student’s Guide to College, 75 Tips for Getting a Better Education." He begins by explaining how a university works, how to best approach professors, and how to work within the university to derive the best education.

Read it if you are about to launch your undergraduate career. The tips surrounding how to choose a major alone are worth the price: sample a lot of departments, choose a major you love, preferably one of the smaller majors, make sure the major is well structured, write a senior thesis, and attend a departmental lecture weekly. Solid advice abounds. Here are a few choice portions warranting review.

The first question students need answered is "How does a University Work?” I suppose a mission statement is vaguely helpful, but to discover the true mission of anything is to follow the money. At many universities, that money is being spent on research. The reason is research, through awards (such as the Nobel Prize), publications, citations, and peer reviews (p.11 Roberts) is easy to track and prestigious. As Professor Roberts makes eminently clear, universities have an insatiable thirst for prestige. Teaching is not discounted, but it’s very difficult to measure its efficacy, or assign it prestige.

Teaching undergraduates is something most tenured professors perform, and some make considerable efforts to do it well, yet, most professors aren’t trained in teaching. Professor Roberts cites a survey indicating “only 8% of professors have taken advantage of research on teaching methods.”

Regardless of how attentive a university might be to undergraduate education, Professor Roberts tips you off on how to gain the most from the class offerings. During the class shopping period (at Yale that is usually the first two weeks of the semester) visit multiple classes and trust your gut on your impressions of the syllabus and professor. Search among the classes by taking a variety of subjects and venturing into areas that initially might not appear of interest. Steer clear of the big lecture classes and take smaller, seminar like classes with hefty writing requirements. Also, fill your schedule with as many upper division, or graduate level classes as you can handle. That is where most of the high quality teaching and learning takes place. One other piece of information offered by Professor Roberts is to ask some of your professors what classes they recommend: they know where the gems are hidden.

It’s important to get to know at least one or two faculty well during your college career. You’ll invariably need a recommendation whether you go on to graduate school or join the workforce. The best way to get to know a professor is to show an interest in the professor’s field of research and study. Visiting each of your professors during office hours is one good way to build credibility among a department. Surprisingly, few undergraduates do this, and even fewer are prepared to chat about the subject material knowledgeably when they do show up. Doing this will show you have initiative and intellectual curiosity, two attributes always in short supply.

Understanding a university, and how it works, and in particular how to develop a working relationship with some of its professors is probably more valuable than most of the courses you’ll attend. In any field of work, knowing the institution and the people is never an easy matter. Learn to do this as an undergraduate, under the tutelage of Andrew Roberts, and you’re likely to gain a better education in university and life.

Ralph Becker, a resident of Long Beach, has been counseling students for the last 8 years. A former Yale Alumni interviewer, he holds a certificate in college counseling from UCLA Extension, and has published SAT* Vocab 800, Books A, B, C, & D.

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