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Take 5: Tips for navigating college life and beyond

Navigating college life can be a tricky endeavor for students as they try to balance classwork with a social life, the job search, and much more. For this reason, Greg Goodale, an associate professor of communication studies in the College of Arts, Media and Design and the 2011 winner of Northeastern University’s Excellence-in-Teaching Award, is ready to help. Here, he offers five pieces of advice for undergraduate students from his new book, A Professor’s Advice to his Students.

Be memorable

Be memorable as a student, as an employee, and as a volunteer. Politicians know the maxim that bad press is better than no press at all, which means that being infamous may be preferable to being forgotten. After all, we still talk about Sen. Joe McCarthy. Who remembers Karl Mundt, the senator who chaired the congressional hearings that ended McCarthy’s career? Not that I’m saying, “be a jerk.” There are, after all, much better ways to be memorable.

We can be memorable by overcoming deficits as public speakers or on-our-feet thinkers. We can be memorable by showing courage in challenging willing professors and bosses to a debate (plenty of professors and bosses don’t like to debate, so be careful here). We can be memorable by mentoring struggling classmates or colleagues. We can be memorable by coming up with brilliant and innovative ideas.

Present papers as if they represent you

If you care about how you present yourself at nightclubs or in job interviews, then why not put the same effort into how you present yourself in the papers you submit for your classes? Perhaps, the failure of teachers to be more direct in the feedback we provide to students leaves many young people with the impression that after graduation, they can continue to turn in poorly written reports. Yet studies about what employers find most frustrating in new graduates consistently point to poor written communication skills. Employees who communicate well and persuasively will rise quickly through the ranks because they represent themselves as professional through all of their work. Employees who represent themselves as typos and grammatical errors will find their paths to promotion blocked.

Think for yourself

Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun sometimes tells freshmen during his annual Convocation address that many of the facts they learn during college will be obsolete not long after they graduate. He then explains that the most important thing all of us should be learning is something Northeastern is particularly good at: teaching students how to learn. Most of us have had our “hands held” or been “spoon-fed” by teachers. That these are common expressions is a reminder of how often students are “helped” in a way that doesn’t help at all, like when a teacher instructs which facts to memorize for a test. Of the few facts we actually remember from high school and college, many will soon be wrong. Humanity is acquiring so much knowledge so quickly that even in the hard sciences half of all facts will not be true within 40 years. If we learn to think for ourselves, we’ll be able to resolve problems in the future that teachers cannot even dream of today.

Get out of your way

Over the course of your life, many people will get in your way for short periods of time. But one person will get in your way throughout your life: you. If you get in your way by procrastinating, or hanging out with negative people, or lacking confidence, or being lazy, or being a coward, find a way to overcome it so that these issues don’t get in your way. You will always be your own biggest roadblock. Only when you recognize this will you have a chance to get out of your way.

Look to the horizon

Learning to live is like learning to drive. When we first drive a car on a highway, we weave back and forth across our lane because we focus on the road immediately in front of us. That immediate focus is what propels us to swerve and makes for an unpleasant ride. Life is like that too. When we are young we tend to focus on the immediate future. We see each bump in the road, for example, as if it is the worst crisis ever. As a result, our mood swerves back and forth from furious to morose to ecstatic in rapid succession. Look to the horizon. Think about the distant road rather than the immediate road ahead. You’ll find that the ride evens out. Over the long run, most people who go to college have pleasant lives.