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Life Lessons 012: 12 Ways to Get More Out of College by Doing Less
by Harry R. Lewis

Dear Student,

You have gained admission [to Harvard] by participating and excelling in a variety of academic and nonacademic activities in your secondary school. We hope that you will continue to cultivate many of the qualities that distinguished you in your pre-college years--your pursuit of excellence, your strength of character, and your ability to balance your academic drive with participation and success in extracurricular activities.

And yet, college is different from high school in important ways, and some habits acquired in anticipation of applying to college may not serve you as well here. Many high schools have counseled students that a longer list of activities, with as many leadership roles as possible, would impress college admissions committees more than a shorter list with fewer titles. Yet in later life most of what we do outside our jobs we do because we want to do it, not because we are in any tangible way rewarded for doing it. College is a transition period; we will certainly give you grades and transcripts attesting to some of the things you have done here, but many of the most important and rewarding and formative things you do will be recorded on no piece of paper you take with you, but only as imprints on your mind and soul.

You may succeed more fully at the things that will be most important to you if you enter college with an open mind about the possibilities available to you, but gradually spend more of your time on fewer things you discover you truly love. You may balance your life better if you participate in some activities purely for fun, rather than to achieve a leadership role that you hope might be a distinctive credential for postgraduate employment. The human relationships you form in unstructured time with your roommates and friends may have a stronger influence on your later life than the content of some of the courses you are taking.

The most important thing you need to master is the capacity to make choices that are appropriate to you, recognizing that flexibility in your schedule, unstructured time in your day, and evenings spent with your friends rather than your books are all, in a larger sense, essential for your education. In advising you to think about slowing down and limiting your structured activities, I do not mean to discourage you from high achievement, indeed from the pursuit of extraordinary excellence, in your chosen path. But you are more likely to sustain the intense effort needed to accomplish first-rate work in one area if you allow yourself some leisure time, some recreation, some time for solitude.

Here, then, are some ideas to consider.

  • Don't try to get every detail of your academic program nailed down ahead of time. You don't need to know as a freshman which four courses you will take during the spring of your junior year. Interests shift, courses change, and you will change as well.

  • Don't think you're doing something strange or wrong if you take a term or a year off from college before you graduate. If your motivation is flagging, or your grades are not what you think they should be, or you're just not interested in what you're studying, take some time off to refresh yourself and get your focus back. Look to a term or a year of foreign study as an option that may benefit you intellectually and broaden your horizons in nonacademic ways. Study or work abroad can provide a new perspective that brings into sharper focus what you are studying.

  • Don't choose a major for reasons of professional preparation. It's a mistake to think that there is an optimal course of study leading to a particular postgraduate career. Many students have majored in Economics, thinking it would prepare them for life in the business world, or in Biology, thinking it is the route to medical school. These perceptions are inaccurate and can keep you from getting the full benefit of a liberal arts education. You gain more from being intellectually engaged with a subject you love than you could acquire in professional training.

  • Don't be afraid to change majors. Students are sometimes inhibited from switching fields because they have "only" a few courses to go in the field they now dislike, or because with a late start they can't achieve everything that other students will have achieved in the new field. Balanced against the disadvantages of flagging motivation to study the old field and the opportunity for intellectual joy in the new field, such inhibitions against the change may be unwise.

  • Make choices that leave you more choice and more flexibility. This may be the most important advice of all. Think of your freedom of choice--of what courses to take, of how to spend your Sunday afternoons, whatever--as a commodity that is precious in and of itself. Don't construct a schedule for yourself that wastes that freedom. Learn to do constructive things with your time not because you have to but because you want to. For most of the rest of your life you will be reading a book or playing an instrument or going to a lecture in the evening simply because it is interesting and fun. Get yourself in that frame of mind sooner, and you will be a happier and more interesting person later.

  • Leave something for after you graduate. If you decide late in your years here that you want to go to medical school, don't feel you have to cram the pre-med courses into your senior year when you should be getting the most out of your thesis. Slow down--plan to take those courses when you can give them due attention. Likewise, if you've been a Music concentrator and you fall in love with archaeology, don't feel you have to switch concentrations--take another course or two, and consider taking more after you graduate, at night, in summer school, or as a graduate student.

  • Look inside yourself for the question you are really asking. A student who asks, "How can I do a joint concentration in Music and English?" probably wants to know something more profound, such as, "How can I keep my interests in literature and in music alive simultaneously?"

  • Don't try to do two major extracurricular activities simultaneously. If you're starting on the varsity lacrosse team, you probably shouldn't accept the lead in the musical the same term.

  • Join a student group and work to change it, rather than starting a new one. The skills involved in working with others towards common (even if not identical) goals can be as important in later life as a talent for entrepreneurial innovation.

  • Don't ignore your health, physical and emotional. Your mind and body will break down if you don't relax, exercise, eat well, and most of all, sleep. Give yourself a break--take a few hours just to go to an athletic event, a movie, a theatrical production, a rock concert. Sit outside and read a novel, go to a place of worship, find a pleasant place off-campus where you can be alone with your thoughts. Hang out with your friends, play frisbee, keep up the dining hall conversation till everyone else has left. It won't hurt, and will probably only help your academic performance. And get away from school over vacations. Your academic work will be better and more productive if you are not burned out from having done it continuously for too many months.

  • Don't expect yourself to be perfect. Find subjects you are happy studying, and things you are happy doing, even if you are not going to be the best in the world at them. Do the things that matter most to you as well as you can possibly do them, but don't be hard on yourself if your best at many things is not as good as someone else's.

  • Finally, don't treat my advice--or anyone else's--as rules you must follow! What matters is that you come to understand what you want; the challenge is to give yourself enough breathing room to discover your own loves and how to pursue them, your own ambitions and how to achieve them.

It's your life, even at Harvard. Enjoy it.

--Harry R. Lewis, Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science at Harvard, former dean of Harvard College, and author of Excellence Within a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education (Public Affairs, 2006)


Union for Reform Judaism.