What College Can’t Teach
If you’re anything like me, your life roadmap was long ago coated in bacon grease and tinged with day old coffee grounds. The general picture is discernible. You can see an amalgamation of streets, loosely constructing a little world, contained within the much larger fold out piece of paper. But the street names are hazy. The map is full of those annoying roundabouts and double diamonds, and you can’t tell where they deposit you. Point A and point B lack a conjoining intersection. In fact, point B might have long ago been ripped from the map in your frustrated rage at trying to see through the stains (or you bought the wrong map entirely, in which case this is the wrong article for you, but maybe I’ll write another when I too discover having bought the wrong map).
You went to college on a hunch. It was the best possible decision at the time, an educated guess based on the general direction of the streets still visible to you. Parents, teachers, administrators, coaches, and the condescending old lady that ordered from your McDonalds every Sunday all told you that college was the ticket to a better life. Stay in school. Hit the books. Succeed. And yet, here you stand years later wondering if you took a wrong left turn. You don’t feel prepared for anything outside the Ivory Tower.
With that I’ll cease my well-intended, poorly strung together attempt at a metaphor. In all seriousness, the necessity and even, dare I say it, base value of attending college has been consistently called into question as employers and recent graduates alike reimagine the changing landscape of the market and value of an outdated model of higher learning. I don’t aim to agree or disagree with the critics. What I will do is give my blunt, honest, personal assessment of the areas where college failed my closest peers and me. Too often, these types of critiques are written by people years removed from the college experience, and firmly entrenched in their profession. I hope my relatively fresh worldview—as a current student nearing graduation and still frantically trying to connect the dots in career—will provide an interesting point of view. So with that said, here’s a sage bit of advice from a novice.
- How To Fail
College is creating a risk averse generation. Millennials as a whole report lower proportions of business owners under the age of 30 than any generation before them. This is the byproduct of an education system that prides standardized test scores, high GPAs, a laundry list of extracurriculars, and basically anything and everything that can stand-in to create a strong line on an application. Kids are taught that they must attend the best school, that they must move on to graduate school, that they must be in a constant state of high scholastic achievement. The notion of trial and error, that education is about failing and learning from it, has been expelled. College teaches students to follow a prescribed path and outdo their peers while doing it. Is it any wonder that employers find these people maladjusted and unsuited to hit the curveballs that come their way? They don’t throw curveballs on a linear path.
- How to Find Productive Uses of Your Time
Oh the horror of the term paper deadline. College is all about budgeting time, embellishing and fabricating, tinkering with the font and the margins. It’s all about learning to complete things on time and to the best of our abilities. It’s the art of time management, learning to cope with being overwhelmed. That is a fine skill to have. And yet, not all work cultures are of the “task delegation” variety. In fact, I would argue that the most rewarding careers are ones that stress autonomy and independence. The problem here is that a college student has very likely spent four years being given tasks and completing them. Rinse and repeat. Schedule classes, fulfill requirements, prosper. Unfortunately, it is a more useful skill to be able to diagnose an area where your services could help the company, and then to set out and do it without being ordered. College seldom fosters this independent spirit.
- Personality Trumps Proficiencies/ There’s Always Someone More Skilled
Walk in on any resume building workshop and you’ll be inundated with advice on how to advertise yourself by your skills and proficiencies. How many resumes have gone to die in the recycling bin that were stuffed with things like Java, C++, HTML, Stata, SPSS, Excel, PowerPoint, etc.? I don’t mean to devalue these things. One needs these skills to be successful in anything they do. But skills and proficiencies—the “what” that you learn—are only the bedrock upon which your career success lies. These things get you in the door, for an interview, or perhaps a job if you’re lucky. But take head of the simple fact that there will most likely always be someone who is better than you, just as good, or cheaper at a particular skill. To really advance in career, to lead a fulfilling life, to make it so that you are valuable and always employable, personality trumps any specialty. A person with a creative, innovative, and hard-working disposition will succeed. A person who knows how to network, is forward thinking and ahead on trends, will be valuable and respected. You must incline yourself to life learning and know where to focus your time and energy. Again, college fails in this regard by reducing an education to simple asset accumulation. It teaches that a degree, a certification, a line on a resume creates value. In reality, value is constantly worked towards and maintained. That is 100% determined by disposition.
- How to Deal with Eternity
Finally, college is the final period of your life with a definite beginning and end. It has a linear progression and a crowning “achievement” signifying completion. Work life can be as cut and dry or as chaotic as possible, it depends on your particular set of choices and random chance (luck). But this much is clear: there is no definite “end” to work towards. And there’s no guarantees either. Sure, you could work to climb the corporate ladder, taking each promotion as your “end” or “achievement.” But there is no guarantee of promotion, or even a timeline of when one many happen. It is quite dissimilar from the “expected graduation date” you’ve become accustomed to. The milestones, like graduating and landing the first job, become fewer and fewer. Is retirement the end to which you now work towards? In short, college does not prepare you for existential crisis. It’s up to you to create meaning, to create value, to create goals in your work life. You decide what is important. You decide your timetables. You learn to cope with what is and what is to come. It is no longer provided for you.
In summation, college creates the bedrock. But it struggles to foster creativity, independence, maturity, and a complex understanding of the world and your place in it. College is too structured, providing too much too easily to too many people.
To leverage your college experience to make yourself valuable and prepare for the world outside the ivory tower, take more risks. Experiment more. Study independently. Intern. Try different jobs. Read more and don’t take the advice of the guidance counselor as gospel.