Get the Most Out of College: It's Not Where You Go, It's How You Do It

By Zach First

Where You're Going

If you’re about to cram for an exam, here’s the tl;dr: The truth about finding a job you’ll love can be pretty ugly. But there are four ways you can help yourself end up sitting pretty.

  1. Take a class with a great teacher—whatever they teach! Look for someone who cares about you as a person, gets you excited about learning or encourages you to pursue your dreams. (If you find a professor who does all three, take as many classes with them as you can.)

  2. Work in your field before you graduate. Whether you take an internship, summer job or work-study, getting to apply what you learn is a priceless opportunity—you’ll understand much more deeply what you studied, and you’ll be a heck of a lot more interesting to talk with when you go out on interviews.

  3. Get involved in extracurricular activities and organizations. You don’t have to become the club president, but you do have to show up and participate. It doesn’t matter what the group does. Just find one that’s fun and dig in.

  4. Work on a project that takes a semester or more to complete. Write a thesis if your school offers that option. Or become a research assistant in a lab and work on a paper for publication. Tackling a big project will help you learn something most classes don’t teach—how to do serious work when the outcome is uncertain.

How do I know this is good advice? Because last year Gallup surveyed more than 30,000 employed U.S. college graduates and found that these were the difference-makers.

According to Gallup, just 39% of college grads report being engaged at work. Never mind how much money you’ll make in your first year of employment; if you don’t care about that job, if you don’t give it your best—if you aren’t engaged—you almost certainly won’t last long enough, or perform well enough, to hold the job for very long.

But the good news about what you can do to improve your odds of enjoying your work is this: If you find a way to do one of those four difference-makers while you’re still in college, you aren’t going to have much competition.

Only 14% of graduates strongly agree they had teachers who gave them all three aspects of #1. And just 6% of graduates strongly agree they had 2, 3 and 4. Those who strongly agree to having all four of these experiences during their college time are rare—only 3%!

Surprisingly, where graduates went to college—public or private, small or large, very selective or not selective—hardly matters at all to how they rate their current well-being or their work lives.

So stop worrying about finding “the best” internship or major and get busy doing just a few things: Take a class with a great teacher—whatever they teach! Find an internship that lets you apply what you’ve learned in class to a challenge outside the classroom. Get involved in a club. And if you have the chance to work on a thesis or other major project, do it.

You’ll double your odds of being engaged at work if you study with a great teacher. You’ll also double your odds if you do all three of the other difference-makers (internship, club and major project).

Doing these things need not add a penny to the bills you’re already paying to be in college. But the return on your investment of effort will be practically infinite.


Zach First, is the Senior Managing Director of the Drucker Institute. Since the Drucker Institute launched in 2007 as an entrepreneurial startup with two employees, Zach has shared responsibility with the executive director for the organization’s strategy, finances and operations. He invented, and now leads, the Institute’s Un/Workshops practice. He is the author of “The Benefits of Unplugging as a Team,” published by Harvard Business Review, and the co-author, with Richard P. Chait, of “Bullish on Private Colleges,” published by Harvard Magazine. He is a member of the Board of Advisors at PayScale, creator of the world’s largest database of individual compensation profiles; a fellow of the National Forum on the Future of Liberal Education; and a trustee and vice president of the board of the Children’s Center at Caltech, one of America’s leading nonprofit providers of innovative early childhood and preschool education. Prior to joining the Drucker Institute, Zach served as the inaugural assistant dean at Olin College, which was founded in 2000 with a $430 million gift from the F. W. Olin Foundation in order to reinvent engineering education. Zach earned his B.A. in philosophy from Haverford College, and his masters and doctorate degrees in higher education from Harvard University. His doctoral dissertation research focused on the connection between presidential tactics and college and university performance. Follow him on Twitter @DrZFirst.


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