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Top Ten Things You Should Learn in College (Or In Your Twenties) Part 1: 10-6

Updated on April 20, 2016

These days, we seem to be having trouble (in the USA at least) with colleges being lazy, handing out A's and B's without expecting as much work as they used to. Political correctness and a fear of being elitist has the effect of failing to challenge students enough intellectually or foster the growth that can come from a more competitive approach. Both extreme "easy passers" and extremely nit-picky, demanding professors are wrong, but at least the nit-picky ones produce quality outcomes from the students who manage to succeed in their classes. Some disciplines are just more rigorous for the student than others, though, so that's not within the professor's control.

But the fact remains that if you're going into massive amounts of debt for college, you should at least be learning something of value while you're there. You shouldn't be just sleeping all day, skating by with C's, and passing with a degree, but no real skills that will give you credibility and market value. For the following things, it's not necessary that you even go to college, but these are things everyone should be trying to learn between the ages of 18 and 30. So here's my "top ten" list of things I think people should learn in college (inside or outside of class).

10. Art Appreciation

This one doesn't seem like it should be anyone's priority. I mean, why study art when there are many more important things with practical value to learn? But there are many reasons that learning to understand and appreciate fine art, literature, drama, and fine music, and taking a class or two where you work at creating your own, might be helpful.

First of all, even in business, mathematics, and science, and in everyday life, you still have to judge some factors that might be about "quality" or "value", and not easily objective or quantifiable. How will you, as a consumer, choose your furniture, your car, your clothing, etc. without attuning your aesthetic sense? Seeking and finding beauty is a personal journey, and it's also something that has to be exercised like a muscle. That's kind of why you probably think back to the styles you thought were cool when you were 13 a little differently than you do now; your sense of aesthetic judgment has refined and your tastes have evolved, hopefully, becoming a bit more sophisticated.

In business, having this eye for picking out quality will set you apart, whether it's in choosing the perfect interview suit or deciding which of two rival companies to invest in. Elegance and sophistication set apart garage startups from multi-billion dollar corporations. There's little else that sets them apart. It's why some handbags cost $600 and others cost $60. When you get an eye for detail, you'll be a better consumer.

But there's obviously also deeper, more personal reasons for taking art, drama, creative writing, and music classes even as a non-major. Obviously, practicing a skill like that helps someone build self-efficacy and confidence. I also think it's important to be able to bring play and creativity into your personal life as you get older. This could end up becoming an important strategy for coping with stress and grief. I could go on at length about the personal psychological and spiritual benefits of the arts, but the article must go on.

9. Self-Reflection

Success in anything starts with self-evaluation. For example, if I wanted to put together a personal diet plan, I would start by tracking what I'm eating each day, and how much I exercise and what kinds of exercise I typically do. Then, I could decide what to cut out of my diet, what needs to be put in, and what exercises I should add (for example, adding strength training if I typically just do yoga and cardio). For the complex problems associated with adulthood, self-awareness and self-understanding is important as the starting point for personal improvements of many kinds.

You should know about your personality, interests, likes and dislikes, etc. but this is only a start. True self-reflection means imagining what really makes you you, what essential qualities will you have even when facing challenges or conflicts. It's so easy to say "I'm a resilient, optimistic person" on a sunny day, when everything is going your way. But when the planets are not so nicely aligned and Zeus is not smiling down on you, who are you then?

For example, if you're stressed out, are you prone to temper problems? If you're given freedom are you impulsive and reckless with it? This kind of thing is not usually taught in classes other than the personality psychology stuff you might get in Intro. to Psychology. But it matters. It's essential to define not only what your personality and values are, but how you will respond to challenges and trials that test those values and make you question your personality. The best way to learn this is not in the classroom, but by practicing it in your life outside of it.

For example, if you recently made a decision you regret, you can analyze it and think about what led you to make that decision, and how you will handle such issues as they may arise in the future. Like if I have a boyfriend I regretted dating, and we broke up, it might cause me to get self-reflective, analyzing and thinking about why I landed in such a bad relationship in the first place, and how I can approach dating in the future to avoid the same mistakes. Things you're proud of or that you like about yourself can also be reasons to reflect. Like, if I went on a fishing trip one weekend, and really loved it, I might reflect on that, and try to make more plans to incorporate nature-based activity into my life on a regular basis. It's all about using past experiences to make good future plans and personal choices.

"It's essential to define not only what your personality and values are, but how you will respond to challenges and trials that test those values and make you question your personality."

8. Research

You may not end up becoming a scientist, but science is, at its heart, about investigating problems, and that is something everyone has to do. Research also extends beyond scientific fields and also has to do with the important task of backing up your opinions with evidence.

For example, I like to criticize anime, obviously. My opinion of an anime series cannot simply be a personal gut reaction, even if that is a good starting point. From that gut reaction to a series, I must follow through with investigation. I need to research the characters, setting, themes, artwork, reception, time period, creators, etc. to inform my judgment. But I also need to know what quality is and is not, and for that, I must look at the theory of media criticism in general, as well as read other anime critics and journalists whose opinions I respect on the matter.

In science, just like in many areas of life, saying "I think" or "I feel" is not enough to prove you're right and someone else is wrong. In the scientific method, you should be approaching your answers with an aim of proving them false, actually, and be open to the possibility that your initial beliefs might be, in fact, false. When you test your beliefs with scientific rigor, open to the idea that they might be disproved, you will end up with a few more solid convictions, but also a more balanced, open-minded, non-dogmatic way of thinking.

7. Writing

One area wherein employers often notice recent college graduates are sometimes lacking in skill in these days is writing. Perhaps it's that standards have been lowered; perfect grammar and spelling is not considered a baseline necessity to pass a writing class, they've gotten a lot less strict about such things over the last few decades. But the real world still cares if you make spelling and grammatical errors, even if your professor didn't.

Excellence in written communication is important, especially in the era of the internet. Poor writing can make people dismiss your beliefs and ridicule you as unintelligent, even if what you have to say is valuable. The interesting thing though, is I didn't get a lot out of my actual writing classes, which I found boring. Instead, I learned writing myself by writing papers for other classes (make sure you analyze each paper you get back and see what you can be done to improve upon it, especially if you didn't get an A, because chances are you made many mistakes your professor/bored, hungover grad student is not going to bother to point out, unless you got a perfect score), and of course by practicing writing on my blog. That connected the writing to something real that I wanted to write about, vs. just writing on an assigned topic for a grade. Most colleges take a writing class, but also try to take a class like history or philosophy or literature that will involve you writing a lot of essays. The essays you compose for that class will help you improve and feel less like a chore because you will be writing about something that already engages you intellectually.

6. Argument

Writing is not just about grammar and spelling. These are necessary building blocks of writing, but the composition of words into sentences and arrangement of sentences into paragraphs and paragraphs into papers takes a lot more than that. First, you have to consider your purpose for writing and your intended audience.

A purpose should be deeper than "I have to turn in a paper by next Thursday cause my teacher said so". It should be more about what your specific paper or written work is going to, if successful, do, such as "I intend to prove that Virginia Wolf could have written Mrs. Dalloway more effectively if she had not limited herself to just focusing on the events of a single day.", or "I intend to discuss the interpretation of Hamlet from a feminist perspective.".

But once you've discovered the purpose for your writing, or speech (which, I'll discuss oral communication as another important skill in part 2), you then have to come up with something that delivers on that promise and doesn't stray from the original intention. Continuing with my last example, if I wanted to write about the women of Hamlet from a feminist critic's perspective initially, but I ended up discussing the fencing style used during the fight scene in a movie or stage version I'd seen, I would be getting off track. In college, you learn how to form a good thesis, or argument, and stay on track while defending or expounding upon that thesis in your paper.

There are immeasurable benefits to learning how to do this. Every time you do this, you are sharpening your intellectual tools. In the real world, there are often going to be things to argue about and positions you will want to take up and conflicts you will end up in. That's a pretty significant part of life. And knowing how to create cohesive, understandable arguments that back up your beliefs logically (and with the research I mentioned earlier) is a major key to success.


So, I wanted to break up this article into two parts,because readers don't seem to like articles that are too long. Anyway, have fun speculating what my items 5-1 will be! Thanks for reading.


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