11/12/2012 05:24 pm ET | Updated Jan 12, 2013

The Virtue of the Noisy College Student

I am not referring here to the noisy, obnoxious, maybe beer filled college student. Not much virtue there. But there is a problem in the silence of so many college students -- especially those for whom college is a whole new world for themselves and their families. Entering the ivied halls, the gothic buildings, the classrooms with frighteningly smart professors, surrounded by classmates who seem to be so much more worldly and knowing, students from more moderate means are easily intimidated into silence. Here silence is not golden.

What these students do not know is that making noise, finding your voice is an essential life strategy. Students today claim to be communicating more than any generation before using technology. But the technology of texting, Facebook, and Twitter is silent. It is often not grammatical. In connecting to peers it does not take students to a place where they can actually engage those who can be useful to them both short and long term.

Professors have begun to take cell phones away at the beginning of class in the hope that students' attention and communication might be centered back in the classroom. The classroom is a place where students must be taught that it is more than OK to ask questions, engage in discussion, respond to questions asked of them. Indeed it is essential. It is essential, in part, because grades can be dependent on class participation.

But it is essential also because in the workplace the people who ask the most interesting questions are the people who get ahead. They are noticed especially if they are asking good questions that move the discussion at hand forward. They are viewed favorably by the-powers-that-be if they can answer a key question because they have been paying attention and maybe done some "homework" on the matter at hand. Sometimes the really dangerous ones preface their remarks with a "This may be a stupid question but... ") and then ask the key question that leads to a solution or that everyone else is thinking and afraid to broach.

In college, the students who ask questions, ask for help, or bother their faculty and advisers and deans (within appropriate levels) are the ones who are building reputations for engagement, interest, intelligence, curiosity and self-sufficiency. Indeed, self-sufficiency is a corollary to inquiry. The smartest people are those who know what they don't know and how to find and ask someone who does.

So how does this play out in college? For example, if you don't understand what is going on in the economics lecture, ask the professor for clarification either in or out of class. If you do it in class the entire class benefits as many of them are having the same issue in all likelihood. But if you are really shy or intimidated use the professor's office hours. If you are really smart you will do both. Get the question out in class and then follow-up during office hours when you can go deeper or discuss your progress in the course or the topic you are considering for your final paper or just how to do better in the class. What you have now done is gotten the professor on your side, knowing how much you want to succeed and the lengths you will go to do well. Now when the professor is grading your paper you may benefit from having created that relationship. This may then be the professor who writes that stellar recommendation for graduate school.

In fact, you may benefit from that relationship and others that you create by "bothering" people by being on their radar screen when they are looking for someone to meet with an important donor, or to get an award or to speak to a group of alumni. Those who are silent rarely have those opportunities. The noisy people build networks in college. These are the networks and relationships that lead to jobs. It is the student who goes to an alumni panel discussion, asks a great question, goes up to the speakers after and asks for their cards and follows up via email asking for a chance to talk further who will end up with the summer internship (and maybe a job later) or a reference that will open other doors.

What you do not want is to be on either end of the spectrum -- the "invisible man" or the "noisy clown." What you do want is to not be silent. You want to be the thoughtful, interested, curious, and responsive student who takes full advantage of all the opportunities for engagement that college can offer. In the end you will find yourself on a pathway you would never have imagined and never would have had if you had remained silent.

Visit College Countdown to learn more about Marcia Cantarella and her new book 'I Can Finish College.'