What College Freshmen Should Know

August 8, 2003
Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds, by Richard J. Light, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA. 2001, 242 pp.
During summer freshman orientation, one father joked that he wanted to trade places with his son. Dad quipped, "I'd love to come back to college. Kids these days just don't know how good they've got it."
As a university administrator, I often imagine myself returning to Baylor as an 18-year-old and doing it all over again. I had a great time here and was moderately successful academically. But what if I could reverse the clock and begin again? Like me, you probably would use your life experiences to make better choices, better friends and even better grades. The truth is that I didn't know then what I know now -- and experience matters. Did I listen to the advice of Baylor faculty and staff during orientation? Probably not, but I do remember listening carefully to every word of advice I received from upperclassmen.
This summer, I found myself again and again telling parents to read a book titled Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds along with their son or daughter. I didn't realize how impressed I was with the book until I found myself reiterating its points to parents and incoming students. Written by Harvard professor Richard J. Light, the book captures the opinions of 1,600 graduating seniors collected during a 10-year period. What is refreshing about Light's book is it truly expresses the views and experiences of students exiting college -- and that kind of honest commentary is something an entering student might want to hear.
The first paragraph of chapter one asks some of the questions administrators such as myself frequently attempt to answer for students and their parents: Why do some undergraduates feel they are making the most of their years at college, while others are far less positive? What choices and attitudes distinguish these two groups? What can a student do, and what can a college do, to improve the chances that on graduation day a student will say, "I really got what I came here for?"
Light's book is an easy read, very practical and loaded with good advice. The book isn't anecdotal, either; Light is an accomplished researcher and statistician, and the advice given is the product of complex and thorough research on a range of topics such as the importance of academic advising and selection of the most effective classes, among others.
Light suggests, for example, that studying in groups or pairs often is more productive than studying alone; living in the residence hall is a vital part of the learning offered; failing to get to know at least one faculty member well during the first semester of college is a common mistake; students who work in jobs a lot, a little or not at all show similar grade patterns; and, among others, involvement in extracurricular activities is imperative to being satisfied with college.
The most important issue for students, however, is their attitude about time management. Light writes, "Sophomores who had made the most successful transitions repeatedly brought up this word [time] on their own. Sophomores who had experienced difficulty hardly ever mentioned the word, even when prompted ... . The distinction in attitudes toward managing time translates into a distinction between new students who prosper and those who struggle" (pp. 24-25). But does getting too involved in campus activities take valuable time from earning high grades? Light says that a "substantial commitment to one or two activities other than course work -- for as much as 20 hours per week -- has little or no relationship to grades. But such commitments do have a strong relationship to overall satisfaction with college life" (p. 26).
My only criticism of Light's book is that the research is conducted solely with Harvard students. He addresses this in the book's introduction, writing that "this is not just a Harvard story" and goes on to make a compelling case for why the findings can be generalized.
If I had read this book before I went to college, I can't help but think my experience at Baylor would have been even better than it was. If I was sending one of my sons to college this year, you can bet this book would be on his reading list and part of dinnertime discussions.

Dr. Shushok, BSE '91, MA '93 (Ohio State University), PhD '01 (University of Maryland), is associate dean for Campus Living and Learning.
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