The College Happiness Guide

Distilled from The Harvard Guide to Happiness, by Kate Zernike © 2001 The New York Times Company (8 April 2001)

Most adults admit: It doesn't matter so much where you go to college, but what you make of the experience. So how to make the most of it? Over 10 years, researchers at Harvard University interviewed 1,600 students from many colleges and universities, and correlated students' academic and personal choices with their grades and how happy and intellectually engaged they said they were. Here are the best ways to make the most out of college:

1. Meet the faculty. Every semester, get to know one faculty member reasonably well and get that faculty member to know you reasonably well. On the most opportunistic level, this means that at the end of four years, you have eight professors to write recommendations for jobs or for graduate school. But more important, the relationships will make you feel more connected to the institution. The most satisfied students seek detailed feedback and asked specific questions of professors and advisors - not "Why didn't I get a better grade?", but "Point out the paragraphs in this essay where my argument faltered." And don't try to hide academic problems. Out of a sample of 40 students who stumbled academically in their first year, the 20 who asked for help improved their grades, and the 20 who did not, did not.

2. Take a mix of courses. Many students use the following strategy for choosing classes: First year, take required courses. Second year, choose a major. Third year, take advanced classes required for your major. Save fun electives, like dessert, for last. The trouble is, introductory courses range across so much material they often fail to offer students anything to sink their teeth into. So when it comes time to choose a major, students don't know what really interests them. Those who treat the early years like a shopping excursion, taking not only required classes but also ones that pique their interest, feel more engaged and happier with their major.

3. Study in groups. Doing homework is important, but what really matters is doing it in a way that helps you understand the material. Students who studied on their own and then discussed the work in groups of four to six, even just once a week, understood material better and felt more engaged with their classes. This was especially true with science, which requires so much solitary work and has complicated concepts.

4. Write, write, write. Choose courses with many short papers instead of one or two long ones. This often means additional work, but it also improves grades. In a class that requires only one 20-page paper at the end of the term, there is no chance of recovering from a poor showing. Courses with four five-page papers offer chances for a midcourse correction. And the more writing, the better. No other factor was more important to engagement and good grades than the amount of writing a student did. Students in the study recommended taking courses with a lot of writing in the last two years, when you have adjusted to the challenges of being in college and are preparing to write a long senior thesis.

5. Speak another language. Foreign language courses are the best-kept secret on campus. Many students arrive with enough skills to test out of a college's language requirement. But language was the most commonly mentioned among "favorite classes." Why? Classes are small, instructors insist on participation, students work in groups, and assignments include lots of written work and frequent quizzes, allowing for repeated midcourse corrections. In short, foreign language courses combine all the elements that lead to more learning and more engagement.

6. Consider time. In the study, those students who mentioned the word "time" did much better than those who never used the word. Students reported that they did not succeed when they studied the way they had in high school, squeezing in 25 minutes in a study hall, 35 minutes after sports practice, and 45 minutes after dinner. Grades and understanding improved when they set aside an uninterrupted stretch of a few hours.

7. Hold the drum. Students often flounder in college because they do not have the same social or family support network they had at home. Those who get involved in outside activities, even ones not aimed at padding a resume or a graduate school application, are happiest. One young woman, when advised to do something beyond her studies, claimed she had no talent; she could not play on a team or sing in the choir. "How about band?" her advisor prodded. She replied that she did not play an instrument. "That's okay," he said. "Ask them if you can hold the drum." Years later, when asked to describe why her college experience had been so positive, she repeatedly referred to the band, which got her involved at pep rallies and football games and introduced her to a diverse range of students. Students who volunteered actually had higher grades and reported being happier. The only students whose outside activities hurt their grades were intercollegiate athletes.


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