Top 10 Tips for Your Last Two Years at College

Students, don't forget to focus on your junior and senior years.

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Many students, when thinking about how to do well in college, focus on the first year or two. That's when college is new to them, and there's much to adjust to and manage. But there are lots of things you can do the last two years of college, which will not only make your second half of college go more smoothly, but will put you in the very best position for what comes next: be it a career, or graduate or professional school. Here are our 10 best tips:

1. Take charge of your course selection. You might be used to having someone else (often your adviser) picking your courses from your first two years at college. But now you're a major and you should be setting your own program. Two good ideas are to cluster your courses around some area of the major (say, British history), and to take a few courses with a single professor whom you know to be really good. And if there's one professor who's world-famous in some field, or known to be an especially good teacher, be sure to take something from him or her. You wouldn't want to graduate the school without having taken the best it has to offer.

[Read 10 Steps to Being Your Own Adviser.]

2. Seek out seminars. One of the best features of work in a major is the opportunity to take seminars, which are small group classes that focus on some single topic or issue and in which students have a major role in preparing the material. Often this is where you get the highest-level—and most hands-on—study of the material and in which you learn best about the field. If your school has a junior seminar or a capstone course (a senior course that might include an independent study, performance, internship, group project, or special seminar), make sure you enroll in it. It's designed with your intellectual development in mind.

3. Polish up your skills. As you do more advanced work in your major, you might discover that you're coming up a little short or some required skill. Maybe your German isn't as good as it could be; maybe your epidemiology course would be going better if you could only remember what you learned in Statistics 1. Whatever the case, if you find some deficiency in your training, or even if some related course would just be helpful for your training, now's the time to sign up for what you need. Neglected areas tend to get worse as you work your way deeper into the major.

4. Develop a research interest (or two). In the midst of the 10 or 12 courses you're taking in your chosen major, you should be sure to develop some topic, focus, or question of your own: something that you are thinking about, and developing your own view about, on an ongoing basis. A major is a chance to develop your own "intellectual identity." And if you decide to go to grad school in that field, the first thing they'll ask you, right on the application, is a personal statement of your research interests. Which you won't know, if you don't have any.

[See the Best Graduate Schools Rankings.]

5. Write a thesis. In addition to your coursework, sign up for a senior thesis, if it's available at your school. This is a wonderful opportunity to work one on one with a professor, on a topic of your own choosing, often with weekly (or at least bi-weekly) office meetings. Just be sure to bring some written work, or at least some questions or issues for discussion, to each of the meetings. After all, you're in charge of this thesis.

6. Partner with a professor. Another possibility, for really good students in the major, is to do some collaborative research with a professor. Here you might help gather some data in some experiment, field study, or survey—and even have a share in formulating the hypothesis that is the basis of the article that comes out the other end. If you're really lucky, you can co-present the results at some scholarly conference or co-author some journal article.

7. Study abroad (if it makes sense). One of the most touted aspects of college is the semester or year of study abroad (sometimes paid for by the college itself). This can be wonderful opportunity to get better training in your major than you otherwise might, provided your destination-school makes sense from an academic perspective. Check out the course offerings in the school you want to visit, making sure that they offer courses that really are useful for what you want to study (be sure to check the list of courses that are actually going to be offered when you're there, not just the master list of every course.

8. Start networking. The junior year is not too early to start making contacts in the field who'll help you either get a job or move on to graduate or professional school. If you've taken a number of courses with one professor, he or she might be able to point you to folks outside the university with whom you can discuss your career aspirations. Also consider doing a summer (or term-time) internship: Here you'll make contacts while actually doing the work of the field.

[Read Get a Foot in the Door Before Graduation.]

9. Develop a dossier. For many of the things that come after college, you'll need a sampling and an evaluation of your work. This could be some standardized tests (GRE, LSAT), letters of recommendation from faculty who've had you, or papers or other work you've done. Start thinking about putting together these materials nine months to a year before you're going to look for jobs or apply to grad school.

10. Learn about what's coming next. Though many students don't think of it, one very important thing to do in your junior and senior years is talk to a real person who's already done what you're embarking on doing. If you're thinking of grad or professional school, there's likely to be a grad student you can talk to, either at your own school or some other school in the area. If you're thinking about business or industry, try to visit a company to see what it does. A call to the managing partner (or his or her administrative assistant) often does the trick.

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