Uni 101: Introduction to College. What should you learn?
Congratulations! You got accepted into university. Even though once you step into college it seems like the whole world is there (even the smallest institutions have thousands of students), you are in fact one of very few privileged people. You are about to embark on three or four years of undergraduate studies. This is an extremely intense period of learning. It will require hard work, dedication and willpower. Nobody will push you during the hours upon hours of study. At times it will seem like you are learning for the sake of passing an exam, to simply forget the information afterwords. On some occasions this will be the case. At these times you must remember that university is not just about learning volumes, it is about learning intelligently. Now, there are almost as many ways of doing this as different kinds of people. The following is my take on what you should prioritize.
First things first, make sure the fundamentals of your field are safely tucked away in your mind for future use. Knowledge is like a house, it must be built from the bottom up on strong foundations. Luckily, the foundations are also easy to keep hold of, as they come up again and again during your degree. Remember, though, that these topics are probably covered in depth in the first year or two of the programme.
The next entry on the list is also topic specific: the history of your field. Learning about how the greats of your chosen field contributed to its advancement, and how they thought and worked is both joyful and useful. It may very well serve as inspiration when things get hard, or as guidance when some creativity is needed. The greats of the past also had the courtesy of making a lot of mistakes, learning from them and passing that knowledge to the next generations.
The transversal skills cannot be forgotten of course. These are not topic specific, but instead abilities every good graduate should have to strive as a great professional. Formal writing and presentation skills are a must. At some point or another you will need to prove that you can get information across to another person. On some occasions even to an audience. If you are in a technical or scientific degree, learn to code! It will give you the independence you need for a plethora of tasks (data analysis and presentation, calculations, simulations…), as well as open up job options. And bibliography searching. Know your field, the best sources, the most reliable journals and authors, and the essential textbooks. This will help you save memory and brain power.
Last, but not least, the intangibles. These abilities are rarely measured with exams and grades, and can be useful in a lot of contexts. Practice rigour in your speech. Logic is your friend and helps avoid confusion and misunderstandings. It will also aid in having fruitful conversations with colleagues and creating a good professional network. Learn which questions make sense to ask and which don’t. Enquiry for its own sake has little value and wastes time. It should serve to acquire new knowledge or to challenge statements. Nonsensical questions will not help in that way. This ability comes from a well rounded knowledge of your field. This implies understanding the basic concepts of said topic, its strengths, weaknesses and its limitations. For example, in the current understanding of particle physics electrons are considered point-like particles, with no size. Asking what is smaller than an electron then is a question of debatable value, at least in the current status quo.
As I said at the beginning of the article, this is just my opinion based on my personal experience. Everybody has a different experience though, so perhaps the list above could be considered something to build upon? Let us know in the comments section what you think.