Prepping The College Kid For College (and Life)

The kids are on the way out. Jonah goes back to college on Saturday. Ian is lingering until next Thursday. Sigh.

Getting boys ready for school isn’t very tough. My kids got new sneakers, a new backpack, new binders, and, boom, we’re done. They honestly don’t give a crap about how old their t-shirts are. I think Jonah knows that his charm is in eyes, not his clothes, so he’s cool with Old Navy’s best.

But there’s more to preparing a kid for college, than just handing over the credit card for textbooks and the dining hall pass. There’s also preparing them to be good students.

As a dual-PhD family, we assumed that Jonah would know what he was doing once he got to campus. I guess we thought the knowledge about college would pass to him by osmosis or something. Sadly, that didn’t happen, and his first semester included some painful learning bumps.

But college is nothing like high school. There are strange offices — what’s a bursor’s office? — and jargon. There are dozens of majors with confusing names. In some schools, like Jonah’s, it’s possible to major in public policy in three different departments. There’s more reading than lectures and few deadlines. Tracking down elusive professors to ask questions takes patience and cunning.

After we figured out that Jonah needed direction, Steve and I swooped in to help. (Yes, my kid is ridiculously privileged.) We created a lecture about how to be a successful college student and still repeat our key points from time to time.

One lesson was about the importance of talking with your professor. Showing up at office hours and having the professor get to know the student is worth half a grade.

Tom Ferriss, in one of his self-help books, said that he would show up to every office hour in college and fight over every point on his exam, so that the professor would avoid pain the next time and give him a better grade. I don’t want Jonah to do that, but establishing a relationship with a professor does make it harder for them to give you a bad grade.

We’ve also been talking lately about the benefits of clubs. See, Jonah thought that students belonged to clubs to pursue hobbies and interests that they found genuinely fun and recreational. He thought a good club should be something like a frat, that would boost one’s popularity. Well, maybe, but mostly the purpose of a club is to put another line on your resume that signals to future employers that you’re a serious person. He had no clue. So, he’s signing up for clubs this semester.

In this week before school starts, I’ve been sending him to various workplaces of friends and relatives to sample work environments. Yesterday, he was at an engineering firm and an architecture firm. Today, he’s on Wall Street with Steve.

We made his first resume. I made his summer busboy jobs look like a NASA engineer. It was fun. Then we sent to him to these jobs in chinos and a button down Oxford shirt. We talked about how every company has a wide range of jobs. You don’t need to be an architect to work at an architecture company. So, he should shop around for the type of environment that he liked working in and for a company that revolves around a passion of his.

Last month, I met a woman who crunched numbers for the Bronx Botanical Garden. She wasn’t in love with the spreadsheets, but she loved working in such a beautiful place, so she was a happy person. I told Jonah her story and few others.

Jonah’s leaving us on Saturday about ten pounds heavily than he was back in May, when he staggered home after finals pale and skinny. He’s a lot smarter about many things. I’m sure he’s ready to have a couple of days to hang out with his friends before school starts on Tuesday. I’m putting off the sadness of losing him again with mini life-lessons. I think that’s what I do.

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21 thoughts on “Prepping The College Kid For College (and Life)

    1. Child has moved into her dorm room, and there are Medium posts on her laundry machines. We figured out how to change the height of her bed on you tube. I think laundry is easy, if you are wise and resourceful and flexible (it isn’t, at least for me, as emotionally loaded as talking to profs and figuring out your major).

      Do have a funny story about a long ago freshman who thought he had to separate all his colors and used 6 laundry machines on two floors and made enemies of his dormmates (i.e. red/orange, yellow, blue, black, white, and ??).

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      1. bj said,

        “I think laundry is easy, if you are wise and resourceful and flexible (it isn’t, at least for me, as emotionally loaded as talking to profs and figuring out your major).”

        But it’s one less thing to figure out in a new environment…

        There’s no reason not to give the 5 minute tutorial before the kid goes off to college or give the kid a couple of practice runs before they leave.

        “Do have a funny story about a long ago freshman who thought he had to separate all his colors and used 6 laundry machines on two floors and made enemies of his dormmates (i.e. red/orange, yellow, blue, black, white, and ??).”

        That is good!

        My main laundry story (that I’ve shared here before) is about the prevalence of college laundry services. There are kids walking around who have never even ventured into their dorm laundry room.

        https://www.universitylaundry.com/faqs

        I also once encountered a mom who was trying to do her son’s laundry in the dorm laundry mid-term, but was not aware that she needed funds on an electronic card to use the machines. The conclusion I draw from that story was that her son had never done it himself.

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  1. “Showing up at office hours and having the professor get to know the student is worth half a grade.” Sheesh, I hope not. This idea that profs respond well to sucking up is mostly erroneous, though of course not always. Actual interest is great and a source of joy to me, and I’ll talk to you forever, but it’s not going to earn you a higher grade. I mean, obviously it helps to get advice on papers, make sure you’ve turned in everything, ask for help on the review sheet, or whatever.

    I don’t have a hard time giving students I know a bad grade if their work is bad, at all. I do spend more time on my feedback to the arguers or those I sense will be arguers. (Maybe as a long-term tenured prof I do things differently than some of Jonah’s profs, though. It takes a while to hone your ability to grade equitably, and it helps if you don’t have to worry about official complaints or student evals.)

    I would also advise him to sign up for at least one club that’s genuinely fun, and then take a leadership position or take on an interesting project or activity he actually cares about. That’s a great thing to talk about in an interview.

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  2. This was interesting:

    https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.3102/0034654310362998

    “A meta-analysis of the relationship between class attendance in college and college grades reveals that attendance has strong relationships with both class grades (k = 69, N = 21,195, ρ = .44) and GPA (k = 33, N = 9,243, ρ = .41). These relationships make class attendance a better predictor of college grades than any other known predictor of academic performance, including scores on standardized admissions tests such as the SAT, high school GPA, study habits, and study skills. Results also show that class attendance explains large amounts of unique variance in college grades because of its relative independence from SAT scores and high school GPA and weak relationship with student characteristics such as conscientiousness and motivation.”

    Mathy people, is this a big deal?

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  3. I have been in a number of hiring situations for entry-level positions and take no leadership position in a college club seriously, but if the club is interesting it can help to animate the interview a bit. Also, I seem to spend more energy preparing my older kids to be good future partners than I do preparing them to be good college students. My son in particular is most likely tired of my lecture on “what your future wife or husband probably hopes you will contribute to a relationship.”

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    1. I do hiring as well. I really don’t care about clubs. I think he has the right idea. Join the things you’re interested in and make friends.

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      1. I agree. I pay attention to quality of school, GPA, and quality of major, in that order. Clubs and the like don’t matter, except as a conversational topic. That said, I should note that many of my colleagues would give positive weight to collegiate sports participation.

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  4. Christiana said, “Also, I seem to spend more energy preparing my older kids to be good future partners than I do preparing them to be good college students.”

    That’s a good point.

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  5. I suspect that clubs aren’t that important to future employers, but it is true that the rock climbing team is going to have a different range of leisure activities than a frat, so being in clubs that do stuff will cut into partying time a bit.

    Do you all have Habitat for Humanity in NJ? That could be a good fit in terms of acquiring useful life skills, healthy exercise, service to his fellow man, and signaling to potential employers that he is well-rounded and community-minded.

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  6. wow, I thought a part time job, even as a waiter, would be more useful than a club. As a person who occasionally helps hire I think clubs are lame. Let him get a job! (that said from what you’ve said he already has a good work ethic…he should keep it up).

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  7. Well, maybe, but mostly the purpose of a club is to put another line on your resume that signals to future employers that you’re a serious person. He had no clue. So, he’s signing up for clubs this semester.

    The conclusion I draw from this is that is that if this is good advice then there is an entire universe of employers who are orthogonal to my lived experience.

    For the hiring that we do, most clubs are not indications that you are a serious person but rather just meaningless fluff that wastes my time as I scan the resume for experience that is actually relevant. Of course, we are trying to hire at the top end of the food chain. (The woman you wrote about who scraped a 3.2 gpa with minimal work in her major while going to all the parties wouldn’t get a second look from us and probably not a first look.)

    What we care about, among other things: meaningful summer work experience (not coffee fetching intern gigs, but jobs where you actually do something or, even better, summer academic research), meaningful independent study or research (ideally that results in publication), clubs and outside activities that are relevant to the major or to the work we are hiring for and demonstrate an interest in the subject that goes over and above showing up for classes.

    As far as summer work goes, if it is a choice between restaurant work for kids who need the cash to actually go to school or meaningless phone answering fluff work in an office where you got the gig through a friend of a friend of the parents, I’m just as happy to go with the restaurant work. Neither is as good for us as a paying REU, though.

    A perceived negative for me: frat/sorority membership unless it is coupled with near straight As. To me it is a sign that the priorities of the student aren’t aligned with what we are interested in. Of course, other employers [who were probably former greeks] like that sort of thing, so it is all about what you want. We are going for the intellectuals, so that is the sort we look for…

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  8. This really hits home for me as I am going to give a talk about teaching to our incoming faculty. It took me a long time to realize this – that most kids coming in to college have no idea how college works. That’s going to be my key point when I talk to them today in the hopes that they won’t take as long to learn this.

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  9. There’s more to clubs that just a line on a resume. (I should have written in the blog post. We did talk about it IRL.) They are places to find out about internships and perhaps interact directly one-on-one with faculty. Having direct relationships with faculty is actually a huge issue on Jonah’s massive college campus, and belonging to a club increases the chances that students will talk with them and find out about opportunities.

    Clubs also help paint a picture of a person. Combined with other elements on the resume like work experience, they help create a 3-dimensional person and gives the interviewer something to talk about.

    Different types of employers are looking for different things. We put Jonah’s frat on his resume, because he’s done some volunteer work with them, and most people look at them positively.

    But you know what’s helping Jonah the most? His college name. There are so many graduates in this area of the country; it gives him a big advantage. Alumni do take care of each other. When we were on our camping trip last week, we visited a local restaurant. A guy at the next table commented on Steve’s Rutgers shirt and asked who was going there. Turns out he was a graduate and works at a tech company in NYC. He gave Jonah his business card and offered him an internship within ten minutes. Seriously. The CEO of the engineering company that Jonah observed this week is a graduate. Also, got an internship offer.

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    1. This is true. Because I moved to California from Ohio my college name didn’t help much. (Actually no one in California knew anything about Miami of Ohio.)

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      1. Steve is a Miami grad, too.

        Miami is becoming a more popular choice outside of the state now. A number of Jonah’s friends applied. Miami offers a good discount to out-of-staters who have the right numbers for GPA and SATs. Jonah got in (third generation legacy), but we decided that the school was too far.

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  10. “For the hiring that we do, most clubs are not indications that you are a serious person but rather just meaningless fluff that wastes my time as I scan the resume for experience that is actually relevant. Of course, we are trying to hire at the top end of the food chain. (The woman you wrote about who scraped a 3.2 gpa with minimal work in her major while going to all the parties wouldn’t get a second look from us and probably not a first look.)

    What we care about, among other things: meaningful summer work experience (not coffee fetching intern gigs, but jobs where you actually do something or, even better, summer academic research), meaningful independent study or research (ideally that results in publication), clubs and outside activities that are relevant to the major or to the work we are hiring for and demonstrate an interest in the subject that goes over and above showing up for classes.”

    All of this. If you held a job that required you to show up every day, good. Did you do research? Can you actually talk about it? There are many, many kids, with good grades who cannot explain, at all, their supposed summer research project, capstone research project etc. Why’d you pick that topic is an apparently very tricky question.

    The problem with focusing on clubs or volunteering for habitat for humanity is that everyone with parents like Laura or Amy do that. Most kids cannot show any enthusiasm for habitat for humanity in an interview. (it was really rewarding, they say. They ALL say). It’s nothing, they just checked a box, and that box was meaningless.

    Don’t make him do pointless crap just to do pointless crap.

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  11. This has been very interesting, as our oldest is on the cusp of this being relevant.

    I know people up above have been treating inability to gab about their research as evidence that kids didn’t actually do it/it wasn’t relevant/it wasn’t important…but I’d argue that some kids really are engaged in a particular subject and genuinely gifted, but they freeze up and choke up around unfamiliar adults.

    I have at least one kid who is like that. Kid does awesome stuff, but HATES talking about it.

    I know this is something we need to work on as a family (husband and I have been thinking about how poorly kid would probably interview at this point), but I would encourage a little bit of understanding on the admissions and hiring side that kids who are social geniuses go into sales, not math.

    Time to helicopter some more!

    Come to think of it, J’s restaurant work is probably excellent for helping him be comfortable talking to strangers. I also got a lot out of working retail as a college student. It’s also true that more social engagement (even that frat or phony baloney club!) provides some practice in this area.

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  12. When I was an undergraduate, I had no idea as to the range of student clubs available, or that it was possible to create new clubs and that there was college funding available to run clubs.

    Our oldest and I have been looking through the college club list together to help figure out how to answer the essay question, “What would you contribute to the college?”

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