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The UnCollege Blog

The Alternative College Checklist

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If you’ve read one college packing list, you’ve read them all—dorm decorations, shower shoes, backpack, check. Similarly, the accounts of “making the most of your college experience” seem to follow the same standard guideposts of studying something you like and meeting new people. If those are the givens, what about the students who are looking to milk a little more than the average out of their college experience? The ones who are looking to maneuver their educations to fit their own lives, interests, and goals, instead of the other way around? How do they prepare for their first day of school?

Things have changed in more ways than one since they days when simply going to college guaranteed you a better future. Today’s students have increased access to a variety of learning opportunities, from certificates and other credentials to online courses for credit or MOOCs, and they know how to use them. The rise of the Internet age means that college, and higher learning of all kinds, is changing.

While students are certainly shaping their own learning beyond the classroom with e-learning, gap years, and internships, is it really possible for them to carve their own learning path within the collegiate system as well? What happens if you’re in college, but want—and need—to do more for your future than just show up to class and maintain grades?

You’re in luck: There are countless ways to utilize your resources, ideas, and skills whether you’re working within the college context or outside it.

Putting office hours to good use.

If you’re in school: Of course, your professor’s office hours are a great time to get help with tricky homework. But even better? This is your opportunity to pick the brain of someone who is an expert in their field. Narrow down the areas you’re interested in, and come to office hours armed with a list of questions you may have about the intricacies of the field, what you can do now to create your career later, and what advice your teachers may have to improve your skills and performance. It gives you invaluable insight and builds a personal relationship, the importance of which is twofold: It shows you care, and gives you a chance to learn more than what’s being covered in class.

If you’re out of school: Unsurprisingly, professors love to share knowledge—that is, after all, why they chose their profession. Perhaps a little more surprising is the fact that professors are often willing to share their knowledge even if you aren’t their student. Know an expert you need to get in touch with, but not their student? Do a quick scroll through the university’s faculty directory, and send a concise email explaining why you admire their work and asking for several minutes of their time. If using this approach, it is necessary to be prepared, and perhaps even mention the areas you would like to ask about. Thanking someone for their time and extending a hand for the sake of learning can rarely go wrong, and could result in meeting your next mentor.

The weekly coffee meeting.

If you’re in school: The general idea is simple, whether you’re a student or otherwise: Once a week, try to meet someone new for coffee. It could range from a professor or TA to a fellow student, with the goal of A) making a connection, B) learning about someone who may be different from you, and C) making an effort to intellectually engage in personal conversation, rather than studying a textbook or scrolling through texts.

If you’re out of school: Meeting new people as a young adult can be challenging if you’re not a college student, but check around town and see if there are any groups, organizations, or volunteer days that seem to attract a good crowd. Sometimes, loose ties and new connections pop up in unlikely places, like volunteering to walk dogs for the animal shelter or getting a part time job. Spending a half hour grabbing coffee with someone new will, at least, expose you to a different perspective, and at best, grow into a friend, connection, or mentor.

Pursuing your own ideas (not just homework).

If you’re in school: Typically, you’re busy going to classes, studying, and churning out work for aforementioned classes, which often doesn’t leave ample time for tinkering with your own projects. However, it is incredibly important to make time for your own ideas amidst academia: Doing something for the sake of doing it, learning from it, and bettering yourself is every bit as important (if not more so) than flying through your assignments. Even better, carving out time—even if it is just a few hours a week—to pursue your own project that’s unrelated to class develops scheduling skills, fortitude, creativity, and self-discipline. Just as your morning coffee or evening run is part of your routine, find some time during the week or on the weekends to do something that matters to you, whether it is building something, writing, or finally reading a book for pleasure.

If you’re out of school: On the flip side of this, schedule management outside of college isn’t so simple, either. You’re completely reliant on yourself (and whatever job or internship you get) to craft your own schedule: In many ways, this offers you fantastic freedom, but only if you put it to good use. Make a commitment to your personal project just like you would your internship, even if the number of hours isn’t the same. It will help bookend your schedule and give you something concrete to work on if you’re in the midst of building your own education. Consistency is key.

Outside learning sources (go beyond the classroom).

If you’re in school: Maybe you don’t have time to enroll in, say, an immersive coding course, but summer and winter breaks are the perfect opportunities to take advantage of e-learning. Whether you’re exploring a new area (maybe a class your school doesn’t offer) through the tremendous MOOC resources online, or using virtual programs to learn a new language, challenge yourself to go beyond the classroom to learn. Think outside the box: How are you learning in every way you can?

If you’re out of school: If you’re not a full-time student, perhaps you’re already taking advantage of the massive opportunities available online. If not? Here’s your chance to truly craft your own learning. Design your own curriculum based on what you need to know. There’s never been a better time to try a new pathway.

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