College students have been known to make all kinds of mistakes, including stupid ones usually involving too much beer. The ones I will focus on here, however, are not those which are often noisy but those which are more the function of silence. Students, in their insecurity, remain silent believing that people will assume they have got it all made or that if they ask questions or for help they will be considered deficient or they may look uncool. The reality is that college is made for and built on inquiry and may be the last safe place to engage in open not-knowing. It is where the best attitude is "let's find out."
Here are seven scenarios where not speaking up can be a disaster. They play out far too often on campuses daily.
• Silence in class: The professor asks a question or asks for questions and the entire class sits silent. Maybe they are all shy, maybe they have not done the homework. The professor is frustrated and not happy with the students. Then one brave soul puts up a hand and asks the question that everyone has but is afraid to ask. That brave soul is now the person the professor values. That student will be seen more favorably, may have a shot at better grades, may be able to get recommendations from that professor later on. That student is no longer invisible. Speaking up in class is what should be done. It makes for more interesting classes, it does win favor from the faculty, it even enhances learning.
• Avoiding professors: A student with a 4.0 GPA once told me that he owed every A in his transcript to a conversation with a professor. He would use faculty office hours to ask for help or explanations of what he did not understand. He would discuss topics for papers or ask for a review of an outline or draft. He would continue an interesting conversation begun in class. But the bottom line was that he made an impression on the professors such that he got better grades when there was a subjective decision to be made about whether this was a B+ or an A paper. He upped the ante on class participation or engagement when that was a factor in the grading process. He also had an army of professors writing recommendations for him or suggesting him for scholarships. Making friends and allies of the faculty is a winning strategy--being a stranger is not.
• Getting Angry: There is no question that things come up that seem or are unfair, just plain wrong or just make you unhappy. It may be a disappointing grade or a rule that you ran afoul of or a decision that you did not like. It is okay to feel angry. What is not cool is to act angry. Or to suffer anger in silence and self-sabotage. Take a breath and begin to do some research. Find out who may be able to fix what needs fixing or what the rules really are and if there is a process for appealing a decision. Go to the appropriate person (not the President) and ask nicely for help. Explain your point of view or your concerns. Show that you have done some homework. Be willing to work things out reasonably. In your sane voice you may win an ally who wants to work with you to solve the problem. In your angry voice you could make an enemy of that person. That person may have influence in other arenas where you could benefit. You never know. Some of the students who came to me with problems when I was a dean have become my friends. Others who came (and stayed) angry are the subject of anecdotes and have most likely disappeared suffering their anger in silence.
• Dropping a course without telling anyone: Let's say you are taking a class that now conflicts with your work schedule or that you are failing. You know you need to drop it and so you walk away and just don't come back to that class. (Or worse you walk away from school altogether...) What you have not done is tell anyone that you have an issue and that you need to drop out. Since no one knows what is going on with you they assume you are still in the class and so you get an F for the course and are expected to pay for it. You will damage your GPA and maybe risk your financial aid or scholarships. If you had told someone there could have been solutions--taking the class pass/fail, taking a leave of absence, taking an incomplete. But there would be an official record of the drop thus avoiding the failing grade. Do not walk away silently! Always talk to someone--professor, adviser, dean or registrar.
• Taking a major that does not suit you: Students are more than ever expected to take a practical major. But not everyone is suited for the fields that many consider practical, like accounting. And society needs people with wide ranging interests and skills. Many CEOs had liberal arts majors and have done just fine with the broad skills they gained. You are better served finding the major that fits you where you can excel and then use internships and jobs throughout college to show what you can do and how your skills will serve the work environment well. You have no idea what careers have not been invented yet or the range of options out there. Don't live with the assumption that your choices are limited. You are likely through life to cycle through many jobs. Show how smart you are by building that 3.9 GPA where you have a passion. Talk to alumni about what they have done with their majors. The information can be surprising. Find where you can be successful in your courses. Smart counts.
• Avoiding Advisers: Colleges pay advisers to advise you. It is too easy to make a mistake that can be costly -- l ilke taking the wrong sequence of classes or missing requirements. The adviser can help solve problems of all sorts which can include the need to drop a class or a problem with a professor. There is nothing worse than thinking you are about to graduate and finding that you missed some rule or course and are not marching after all. Regular visits to the advising office can save lots of pain and anger along the way. Watch for (do not delete) messages from your advisers. They can be urgent. Again silence is not golden. You are also wasting the tuition dollars that go to pay the people there to help you.
• Waiting until senior year to begin the job search: Students wait until second semester of senior year to visit the career office and then complain that they can't find a job. The process starts second semester freshman year. At that time you can begin self-assessment processes available in the career office, look into internships and connect with alumni for informational interviews about their careers. You should have internships or jobs throughout college to build a resume and balance those with extracurricular activities that show different skills. The career office can vet the resume or give you practice interviews. They provide speakers and panels where you can both learn about careers and make valuable connections. The people you meet along the way, including professors and deans, can be references too. The job search process is part of the total college experience. Those who get the jobs are those who have worked the system to their benefit. Don't waste those college resources -- even after you graduate you may be able to access the career office.
The bottom line of all these mistakes is that they are errors of silence. You need to learn to speak up, advocate for yourself, tap tools and build relationships. These are lifelong skills that are as much part of what you should learn in college as anything you gain in the classroom.
Visit www.collegecountdown.com to learn more about Marcia Cantarella and her new book "I Can Finish College."