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Getting the Best Out of College: Insider Advice for Success from a Professor, a Dean, and a Recent Grad (Revised and Updated)

Getting the Best Out of College: Insider Advice for Success from a Professor, a Dean, and a Recent Grad (Revised and Updated)

by Peter Feaver

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An insider’s guide that shows ambitious students how to optimize their college career, completely revised and updated for today’s academic landscape.

Your time as an undergrad has the potential to be incredibly fun, rewarding, and life changing in ways you may not yet even


An insider’s guide that shows ambitious students how to optimize their college career, completely revised and updated for today’s academic landscape.

Your time as an undergrad has the potential to be incredibly fun, rewarding, and life changing in ways you may not yet even imagine–that is, if you play your cards right and take full advantage of what your university has to offer. Sadly, very few students ever learn the secret handshake of how to make the most of their college years.  Until now.

For undergrads (and parents) hoping their tuition will pay off, GETTING THE BEST OUT OF COLLEGE is a must-read.  Distilling more than fifty years of experience from some of the leading minds at top tier institutions, GETTING THE BEST OUT OF COLLEGE reveals insider advice that makes the hefty price tag worth it: how to impress professors, live with a roommate, pick the best courses (and do well in them), design a meaningful transcript, earn remarkable internships, prepare for a successful career after graduation, and much more.
This new edition also includes feedback from students who put GETTING THE BEST OUT OF COLLEGE to the test, as well as new chapters on what to do when college “just isn’t working” and unique opportunities with international students and study abroad.  With a new forward by Duke University’s Coach K, GETTING THE BEST OUT OF COLLEGE gives invaluable advice that enables students (and their parents!) to make the most of their college years.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

 “This book is written by people who know how to get students to do their best. For decades, the authors have been helping students succeed in the most challenging environments and now their insights are available to you.” 

“This comprehensive guide will help students and parents navigate the full college experience, so they can take advantage of all that it has to offer from day one. I highly recommend it.” 

“Amid the glut of guidebooks about selecting and getting into college, very few have talked about what to do once you get there. This witty, wise, and down-to-earth guide admirably fills that gap. It is a wonderful resource for students and their parents.” 

“A refreshing, smart, and useful guide to college that should be basic required reading for incoming freshmen everywhere.” 

VOYA - Kevin Beach
The market seems to be flooded with books on how to write a terrific college admission essay, how to get valuable scholarships, and how to “get in” in general. But what about once a student arrives on campus? Many students are totally unprepared for the new expectations and freedom dropped in their laps. Few guides exist that help to break down this exciting experience for the everyday, clueless freshman to manage successfully. Here is a very practical and readable orientation guide, full of advice from recent grads, professors, and college counselors. Chapters tackle such tricky issues as dorm life, roommates from hell, nosy parents, finances, extracurricular clubs, social life, drinking and drugs, making friends, getting the most from professors, campus resources, and even choosing a major. Special features include a segment for international students adapting to American life, and another on how to handle transfers, dropping out, and other unexpected detours in the college experience. Throughout the book, sidebars relate actual experiences from former students. The tone of the guide is sympathetic, acknowledging that everyone makes poor decisions in college, but there are always resources available to put the concerned student back on track. This should prove to be a valuable guide for all curious graduating high school seniors, and for their parents as well. Ages 15 to Adult.
VOYA - Robyn Guedel
This educational narrative shows how to get the best out of one's college education. Each chapter provides unique insights into freshman survival with the help of a college dean, professor, and a student. The book covers a variety of topics, including how to deal with that not-so-perfect roommate, how to handle college partying, and how to ask a professor for a letter of recommendation. Most of the book provides real-life situations and examples, although the names are changed to protect the innocent. Overall this book is a great read for high school seniors who are getting ready to embark on one of the great experiences in life. The authors explore many ideas that might not be found in other college preparation books. For example, one chapter is devoted to how to choose professors instead of how to choose classes. A weak point is that the author who portrays the "student" perspective has not been a student in quite some time. Although this book will not give graduates a laundry list of necessary dorm room items, it does provide many lessons that most parents and prospective students will find useful. Reviewer: Robyn Guedel

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Read an Excerpt


Everybody knows that college is expensive--it doesn’t take a fancy degree to understand that. And yet somehow or another most people who are able to get into college find a way to pay for it. The premise of this book is that, as hard as it is to select and pay for college, most people figure that part out. The unexpectedly hard part--the part that in our opinion most people get wrong--is getting their money’s worth. Yes, paying tuition is a challenge. But making the most of that tuition is harder still.

As a prof, a dean, and a recent grad, we have advised thousands of students on how to get into the college they want and how to get out of college what they need. We have learned that few students (and even fewer parents) appreciate a fundamental secret: it matters less where students go than what they accomplish once they get there.

There are lots of books telling students how to get into the college they want and how to pay for it once they do. This is not one of those books. This book begins where they leave off.

Bright, eager students work unbelievably hard to get into college and are willing to shoulder an enormous financial burden along the way. Then, after that huge investment of time and money, those same students settle for a mediocre college experience. Some even graduate without the skills or glowing recommendations they need to succeed at the next level. Every spring we hear the graduate groan, “I wish I had known that as a freshman.” But, not you. This book is, in a way, an antidote to the uneven advising that afflicts most colleges--even the most prestigious ones.

Designed to help you startwell and finish strong, this book is aimed at the incoming first-year student, beginning with the most common freshmen concerns about dorm life, leaving home, and deciding the fall schedule. But we guarantee that even seniors will find helpful tips as we discuss how to decide between the summer internship or paying job, how to balance the desire for an attractive GPA with a respectable course load, when and how to ask professors for that glowing recommendation (and how to actually earn one), and how to make memories as an undergrad that you’ll enjoy remembering. After decades of collective experience advising students, we have learned--and watched others learn--these lessons the hard way so that you don’t have to.

Since parents tend to believe the purpose of college is to gain an education, while students tend to see it as a rite of passage into adulthood that includes a few classes, we have built our chapters to appeal to both points of view. The chapters explore both curricular and extracurricular topics and are organized somewhat chronologically, based on how students will most likely encounter them, which enables them to be read at random or as a progression.

What qualifies us to help you get the best out of college is a distinctive blend of perspectives and a shared passion for making higher education worth the price tag. Peter Feaver has won two teaching awards as a professor of political science at Duke University. He is prominent in research and public policy—making circles in the area of American foreign policy, but he has written this book because some of his most rewarding experiences have been interacting with students inside and outside the classroom. Sue Wasiolek, assistant vice president for student affairs and dean of students at Duke University, is known as “Dean Sue”--a seasoned administrator who has been mentoring students and troubleshooting student life for twenty-eight years. She has regularly taught classes during that time but is best known on campus for her deep engagement with students in the extracurricular parts of their college experience. Anne Crossman, a recent Duke alumna, founded a student group as a freshman to mentor first-year students as they slalom through the college scene. She is also passionate about helping students achieve their best, and taught both public high school and college students before retiring to become a full-time mom and author.

Most importantly, we are people who have spent a long time helping students get more out of their college experience than they would have otherwise. We are honored to be joining you in your journey.

Chapter 1
"You Expect Me to Live with a Stranger?"

Managing Life in the Dorm

It’s been played countless times across the theater of your imagination. Perhaps desperately--inspired by those days when your little sister plucked your last nerve. Perhaps wistfully--when she wrote you that sentimental birthday card and you got misty-eyed thinking that you wouldn’t get to watch her grow up. Heck, maybe you tried a dry run when you were six, filling your Snoopy suitcase with Pop-Tarts and getting as far as the mailbox. And now you are leaving home for real. Your parents’ car is packed to the hilt, your welcome packet is at the ready, and any minute now you will be pulling up to what will be home for the next four years.

You are not alone. Tens of thousands of peers are heading in the same metaphorical direction. And one (or more) is heading quite literally to the exact same place you are.

Life with a roommate will be full of surprises--from a sce-nario so awful it’s worthy of a novel to best friends who found a multibillion-dollar company and whose children later intermarry to form a dynasty, and everything in between. What to expect is anyone’s guess.

Here is our confident prediction: your roommate will be another flawed human being with complementary strengths as well as aggravating weaknesses. Shocker, we know. Learning to manage this is probably the first hurdle a freshman faces (which is why we begin the book here). It is a big part of the rite of passage that college has become. But you should not let it determine the success or failure of your college career.

Sharing personal details, inadequate space, and possessions can be tense at times--and that’s assuming both parties get along. Yet, after a brief period of adjustment, most students describe their residence experiences on campus as being a highlight of their college careers, enabling them to find timely support that often led to friendship.

A positive experience can make your college career gleam while a negative one can feel like a literal disaster; our goal is to help you avoid the latter. The former is kismet, meaning there is only so much you can do to make it happen. The latter is also partly a matter of luck--bad luck--but that doesn’t mean you need to build a shrine with magic trolls to keep evil at bay.

The wise student learns how to manage this relationship before any crises occur so it never becomes so tense that it leads to discord. There are lots of areas in this book where we will encourage you to push yourself to get the best out of college; however, in this chapter we will advocate the opposite philosophy. As influential as your roommate experience might be on your day-to-day happy meter, of all the areas of college life needing your attention we recommend this area be low on your list of priorities. Rather than maximize the upside, minimize the downside.

It’s not that the roommate relationship doesn’t consume your life; it’s that it shouldn’t. We wouldn’t dare suggest that your roommate isn’t worth your time; a meta-theme of this book is that relationships matter and they certainly hold priority. But the natural inclination of most students is to invest too much time in this piece of the college experience and not enough in the others, which is why we tilt against it and advise heaps of thoughtful communication early on so the relationship will continue smoothly and require little course correction from there. Stay tuned for more on how to go about that.

Night Owl or Early Bird?
Filling Out the Questionnaire

Shortly after mailing in your acceptance card saying “I choose YOU,” you’ll receive a rather plump packet in the mail most likely full of brochures on classes, student rights on campus, and, somewhere within the ream, a roommate questionnaire. Don’t blow this one off.

This is one of those applications that parents love to fill out and oftentimes--with the best intentions, of course--parents will answer the questions the way they wish their child were in the hopes that their roommate will fit this description and rub off on them. Or, students will fill out this form afraid of what their parents will read and so they don’t really tell the truth, particularly when it comes to smoking. This is not the time for subtlety. If there is something you feel adamant about concerning your roommate or your own personality, be as clear as possible.

Sometimes the questions are elaborately creative, like “If you were a toaster pastry, what flavor would you be?” while others are the basic “Do you study late at night or early in the morning?” Unless you know someone in the residential life office, you probably won’t know which questions are the decisive ones, so put equal effort into each of them. One of the most critical questions is whether or not the roommate smokes, and it’s typically a key decider in the matching process

This is not the time to compromise. The most basic rule of filling out this form is honesty. Don’t answer questions as if you were the person your parents think you are, the person your parents want you to be, or the person you wish you were--stick with who you are. If need be, send it in without sharing a copy with Mom and Dad. On the other hand, if you have an open, candid relationship with your parents, let them have a peek; more than anyone else, they know what it is like to live with you and they may have key points to emphasize. If you’re a glutton for punishment and really want honesty, you might even share it with a sibling.

Granted, you will change in college. We all did. But start out by telling your interests. If you like leaving your room messy, say so. If you think having a non-color-coded sock filing system is a near cardinal sin, say that too. Some forms ask about sleep schedules and others musical preferences. (Please--just tell the truth, even if it is a horrible truth like you can’t get to sleep without listening to Love Songs on the Accordion.) It leads to a much better chance of matching you with an appropriate roommate, and, should conflicts arise later, your resident advisor (RA) may refer to what you wrote on this form as a starting point in reaching a compromise. The key is not to agree to something on the form that you aren’t willing to do, because you will most likely be held to your word if a problem arises later.

One last point: be considerate. We know of an RA who was called in to referee a particularly thorny dispute. Apparently some young woman had strongly requested a nonsmoker on her roommate questionnaire and was granted one, but she didn’t bother to mention that she was a smoker herself. What was she thinking? She later told the housing staff that she requested a nonsmoker because she thought two people smoking in one room would have been too much.

Back Away from the Kitchen Sink
Packing for College

Ridiculous as it may sound, a couple of years ago a student arrived on campus with a U-haul on freshman move-in day. As he backed it up to the entrance and rolled up the door everyone was in suspense--what could he possibly be bringing that required a moving truck? Out came his dolly with a full-sized fridge. It got as far as the dorm’s front stoop and was wisely sent back by an insistent RA.

What many freshmen may not realize as they pack is they can’t duplicate what they have at home, and all that stuff won’t be necessary in order to feel at home either. Assemble what you feel like you can’t live without, then pack only 60 percent of that. Try to imagine how you will store your stuff in the off-season once your parents’ minivan isn’t around and you have to pay for every cubic foot you fill. Take an honest look at each memento and be sure you absolutely need it--and that you are willing to pay (over and over again) to store it for the next four years.

Besides hauling it, a key factor in deciding what to pack is whether or not your school is located near a Big Mart. If yes, then it’s probably worth erring on the side of taking too little. Other than a toothbrush, a change of clothes, and towel, it is very unlikely that you’ll need absolutely everything from day one. You can always shop for the right stuff once you figure out what that is.

Okay, maybe you need a little more than a toothbrush, but you certainly need less than you may initially want to pack. Even if there isn’t a Big Mart, most on-campus stores will have what you need. The bookstore is a mini department store of sorts, though probably more expensive and not as extensive a selection. It’s also cheaper to have Mom and Dad mail you something later on than it is to have overloaded your small room and then you have to mail multiple items back home.

To combat this “kitchen sink syndrome,” some colleges mail a brief list of what you will need to bring to campus: typically a set of sheets, a bath towel, a warm coat, toiletries, and a pillow. It’s pretty basic. You won’t immediately need Christmas decorations. Or scrapbooks. Or your library. Or a sofa. And you most certainly won’t need your antique guitar or your grandmother’s diamond earrings... belongings get damaged or lost, and it’s best to leave the valuables at home with the folks. Clay did bring his brand-new acoustic guitar and discovered his roommate etching his frustration into it one day with a cafeteria knife. If you play a musical instrument and want to bring it, please do, but make sure it’s not a family heirloom. Even the most practical of valuables can get dinged, such as Michele’s laptop, which ingested half a can of beer when an inebriated hall mate stopped by to say hello. $*^@!

One off-the-wall suggestion we can offer: don’t arrive with a full year’s wardrobe. To start, the closets are super tiny (as most things in your room will be), and yours won’t hold all you’re used to storing at home. Even more so, there tends to be an abrupt style shift that happens in the second half of the year as people return from studying abroad and from holiday shopping. Whereas high school sort of melded together one academic year at a time, spring and fall have a very split feel to them, almost as if they were separate years of study. Clothing styles make a notable adjustment come spring, regardless of the weather. If staying au courant with fashion is important to you, hedge your bets and save your money and some closet space for January; there will most likely be a new look and you’ll want to be ready for it. (These deep wardrobe insights were brought to your attention by none other than the coiffed and fashionably astute Peter Feaver--as they say, those who can’t do, teach.)

If you are the type who really must have every T crossed before you arrive (and don’t worry, we are more empathetic with that sort than we sound--if pressured, one of us could be forced to admit she even packed crates of soy milk when she moved into her freshman dorm), a lot of schools now provide the dimensions of the rooms and even CAD drawings online so you will have fewer surprises about what fits where. Be forewarned that your roommate might have her own ideas about how to arrange the furniture and may not want to sleep in a bunk bed just so you can fit the love seat in the room. One thing you’ll definitely want to know is whether or not the residence hall is air-conditioned. If not, and you are going to college in a steamy climate, a fan or two or three is a must, even starting the first night.

One final note, and we’ll leave you to return to your suitcase. It’s worth mentioning that some students may feel pressure to buy everything up front while they can still saddle Mom and Dad with the bill--a wise economic strategy from the student’s point of view. However, it creates perverse incentives to buy stuff you don’t need and may tax your folks’ budget. The compounding purchases may cause them to balk at some spending where they might have been generous otherwise. Consider making a deal with them. Ask what they have set aside for your dorm purchases and whether or not they intend for you to pay for everything else once your feet hit your dorm stoop. Depending on their expectations, you may be able to split the amount and spend 60 percent now and 40 percent later. Or perhaps they would be willing to set up a bank account where they automatically deposit some fraction of that amount each month, minimizing discussions about your spending habits. We realize that an enterprising student might say that he would like 100 percent now and then another 50 percent in January. Of course, we can’t recommend that. This book is about getting all that you can out of college, not out of your parents.

Meet the Author

Peter Feaver, PhD, is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University.

Sue Wasiolek is assistant vice president for student affairs and dean of students at Duke University.

Anne Crossman is the author of Study Smart, Study Less and an alumna of Stanford and Duke.

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