Back to School 7/27/21

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

It’s that time again. Back to school sales are a reminder of the impending new year, a constant reminder of the slowly waning spring of time, the loss of time impossible to slow or stop.

Okay, enough of the morose introduction. Many students are heading to college, some for the first time, some returning. This will be a very strange year. For the first time since 1995, I will not be returning to college to teach. None the less, twenty-five years of experience has allowed me to see a lot of things, and having seen this, I claim the right of giving advice.

First, let’s talk a little bit about scheduling. For first year students, going from a secondary school schedule where most of the day was pre-filled with classes every day and no real need to do homework to pass to a college schedule with classes typically restricted to mornings three days a week. The schedule looks wide open and on first glance easy, but trust me, it’s not as easy as it seems.

The “Carnegie Credit Hour” defines on average between two to three hours outside of class for every hour spent in class. If you take twelve credit hours, you’ll spend twelve hours a week in class. Now, multiply that by three or four, and you’re at between thirty-six and forty-eight hours a week. That’s a full-time job.

College is as much about learning to learn on your own as it is about any particular topic. This is something that many people don’t understand about the difference between taking certificate classes and getting a college education. I can get certified in, say, Python, the programming language I want to use for my project by taking a self-paced course online. But I know how to learn on my own, so the reality is that I don’t need that course to learn to program in this language. Oh, I don’t have an easy way to prove to a potential employer that I know the language, but I do have the knowledge, and I know how to teach this to myself because I know how to learn on my own. These college courses will still provide some instruction in class, but they expect you to pick up much of the material on your own, to know how to practice by doing the homework, and to know when to ask questions. The students who fail are the ones who don’t read the textbook, and don’t do the homework or do just the bare minimum without gauging if the topic is still challenging and if they need more practice.

Set a schedule. Two to three hours is an average; sometimes it’s a little more, and sometimes it’s less. So, for every hour in class, schedule three hours outside of class even before classes begin. Assume the worst case, because as the semester goes on, and you start filling your free time with friends and other activities, it’ll be harder to find additional time if you find that you need it for a course, but if you don’t need those three hours, hey, bonus.

When you’re taking your generals, pay attention. You can get something out of any course, and the purpose of the generals is to make you better rounded as a citizen and more knowledgeable as a college graduate. It’s easy to dismiss generals as “unnecessary”, but the opportunity to have the experience of taking those courses, good, bad, or indifferent, is gone once you graduate. Besides, you never know when you’ll need to know when to use an Oxford comma. It’s these general education courses that differentiate a college degree from a technical college. Curiously, studies have shown that those with technical degrees are just as likely to be hired initially as college graduates, but college graduates tend to advance farther and faster than those with technical degrees.

When choosing a major, remember that your choice will guide the rest of your life. Make it a good one. Don’t choose a major because it should be easy, or because your friends are all in it. You’re spending a lot of money on your education, and while getting the money back should be secondary to getting a major that will help you live the life you want to live, the reality is that a poor choice will do neither. I chose chemistry against the advice of my friends, my parents, pretty much everybody, but I wouldn’t trade my life for all of the polymers in the bag. Choose a major for the career you want and remember to think long term. Would you really enjoy doing that for the next thirty to forty years? Go to a job search engine and look for that job. How many jobs are out there for that job? What does it pay? Where are they located? These days, job searches are easy. Take advantage and educate yourself.

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