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How to Make the Most of Your Education in College

College is a huge commitment, so make sure you're making the most of your four years of higher education with this advice from student writer Jessica.

Choosing a college major and committing to a four-year pre-planned curriculum provides a logistically designed road map for your college journey—a road map paved by those who have specifically crafted pathways to help you achieve your goal of an undergraduate degree. While the traditional four-year degree program works for many, there are options that’ll enable you to expand your collegiate horizons while still obtaining a traditional bachelor’s degree. Let’s explore what you can do to maximize your education through academic programs and opportunities that will allow you to get the most out of your time in college.

Finding a major worth committing to

“So what’s your major?” Many high school seniors and college freshmen have the answer to this age-old question figured out long before they need to, yet there are others whose search for an academic course of study remains elusive and undefined. Presuming you’ve weighed the pros and cons and discussed tangible pathways to success with your family and/or mentors, you may find yourself choosing to enroll in a collegiate program as an “undeclared” major. While there are no right or wrong answers (thankfully), classic four-year degrees all have a bit of freedom built in. If you happen to be a student who may be undecided or looking for something more, the beauty of a college education is that it can be customized. Sometimes the road less traveled may be exactly what you’re looking for—so don’t think you have to rush to pick a major or stick to only studying one thing when you do choose one.

Using minors to your advantage

A much less common question students hear is, “What’s your minor?” If you’re undeclared, this won’t likely come up your freshman year, but for those committed to a major, a minor can be a complementary asset, allowing you to squeeze the most out of your undergraduate career. For most institutions, the usual requirement to graduate with a minor is 15–18 credit hours, generally breaking down into five or six three-credit-hour classes over a four-year period.

You can expand your chosen course of study with a minor, like adding a Foreign Language minor to a Business major if you’re interested in international business, or adding a Psychology minor to a Criminal Justice major. Complementary pairings help make students well rounded and highly skilled in their disciplines—and, ultimately, more competitive upon graduation. Some students seek diversification in their academic careers and take full advantage of this opportunity by minoring in something completely unrelated to their major. Perhaps you dance or play an instrument and don’t want to lose those skills; you could minor in an arts-related course of study. If you have a spiritual side, you may find solace in a Religion or Philosophy minor. There are no right or wrong choices—only ones that can enhance your education.

Related: 3 Ways to Pick Your College Minor

Getting ahead of the game in high school

Regardless of where you end up going to college or what your major is, each program often begins with general education requirements. Typically, depending on the allotted credit hours, gen eds meet two or three days a week. Arts classes are less predictable and can range from daily to once a week. Regardless of whether your degree is a Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science, Bachelor of Fine Arts, or Bachelor of Music, there will be similarities in gen ed requirements, especially early on.

The usual gen eds you’ll need to take in college include math, history, government, English, and sometimes a foreign language. These courses are very similar to the upper-level curriculum you have the opportunity to complete in high school—in fact, many high school students already have AP, IB, or dual credit classes under their belt. If you’d rather not repeat these courses again, there are options. While advanced courses may allow you to get college credit, you’ll want to check with your university counselor/advisor to be sure your school accepts them, and if so, that your scores meets their required standards for credit.

If you didn’t take advanced classes

What if you don’t have any AP, IB, or dual credit classes on your high school transcript? Don’t worry! You can still gain college curriculum hours by taking any number of College Level Examination Program (CLEP) Exams. These are offered through College Board, but be aware that like AP, IB, and dual credit programs, not all universities accept CLEP, so you’ll want to check to be sure your college does before registering to take them. They offer the standard exams in English, math, history, government, and many others. If you can pass a CLEP exam for any given subject, then many university programs will give you college credit for the class and you won’t need to take it again. This will open up some hours in your schedule to take something else that interests you or provides the perfect avenue for taking on a minor.

With regard to foreign language, there are CLEP exams for that as well. Depending on your chosen university, some may take your high school requirements, especially if you did four years of the same language, to use as credit. If you only took two or three years, you may want to try the CLEP to boost your skills, or you may find yourself having to do a brush-up class once you reach college.

Related: What's the Difference Between AP and Dual Enrollment Classes?

Working around the four-year plan

Many students complete their undergraduate degrees in four years. Others are on a five- or even six-year plan. From a financial standpoint, sure, it’s more fiscally desirable to avoid taking out additional years of funding by way of student loans. But everyone’s situation is different, and there are many reasons a five-year plan may be necessary to help you to achieve your long-term goals. Perhaps your school offers a study abroad program you’d like to take advantage of. These journeys sometimes occur over a summer term, but others may encompass an entire semester. They may be extracurricular or academically dependent of your area of study but can often be arranged in advance by your counselor/advisor.

And what if you’re planning to pursue a master’s degree upon graduation? There may be prerequisite courses you need to complete first. Taking summer classes or skipping requirements by passing several CLEP exams can keep you on a four-year track. But what if you change your mind later? Changing majors or declaring a major late in your sophomore year are the two most common scenarios that could result in a five-year undergraduate career. While this is sometimes unavoidable, pre-planning is your best tool if you want to stay on track to graduate in four years. 

Related: Unexpected Reasons to Take a Gap Year

Adjusting as you go

Even if you’re following your undergraduate four-year curriculum plan to a T, there can be speed bumps along the way. Always remember that your counselors and advisors are there to help you. They have a vested interest in your education and have dealt with a multitude of circumstances from a countless number of students. They possess the tools necessary to intervene and fix issues with the planning of your academic journey as they arise. It’s their goal to see you as a healthy, well-adjusted, and successful alum.

Things do change, your interest may dwindle, and it might seem like some obstacles will stop you dead in your tracks—but don’t despair. It will pass. Just keep moving forward and never lose sight of what inspired you to begin your collegiate career in the first place. You can make the most of your time in college with some strategic thinking and the motivation to succeed.

For more great advice to motivate you in the college search during the pandemic, check out Jessica’s other blogs on her author page!

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About Jessica Vanek

Jessica Vanek

Jessica Vanek recently graduated from Oklahoma City University as a Musical Theatre major with a minor in Mass Communications. She's also attending Oklahoma City University for graduate school, where she will pursue her Master of Arts in Nonprofit Leadership/Arts Administration.


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