Making the Most of Your Senior Year in College

01/22/2015 09:02 am ET Updated Mar 24, 2015

In my Huffington Post blog posts on higher education, I have been stressing the joy and practicality of learning. My credentials are teaching at Cornell for 47 years, occasionally interrupted by visiting professorships elsewhere.

It has been pointed out by readers that while I discussed how to plan for the future, in my "Suggestions for Seniors Graduating From College: Planning for the Future," I did not discuss how to make the most of your senior year, a time when you must balance academic work with seeking employment or applying for graduate school, and when the clock is running out on your precious undergraduate years.

Your senior year rounds out a four-year -- sometimes longer, especially for part-time students -- investment of time and life experience, and you want to bring it to as fulfilling a conclusion as possible. You may have entered college as an 18-year-old adolescent, but your goal should be to leave as an adult ready to confront the challenging world of graduate school or employment.

You need to balance the joy and practicality of learning. Key concepts are preparation, innovation, experimentation, and motivation. I shall divide my suggestions between preparation for the future and making the most of your campus experience.

The Campus Experience

What Anne Kenney, the head of Cornell's library system, counsels is especially true for your senior year: "I think having proper balance, being open to wonder and curiosity as well as academic work, is so key."

1) If you have a chance to write an honors thesis and/or do individual supervised research or independent study, take advantage of those opportunities.

Working closely with a top professor who takes an interest in your work can be an exciting learning experience. Emily Choi, Cornell '14, emphasizes this point:

One of the most valuable skills I take away from my senior year is the ability to revise. It's so important to be able to look at your work ... candidly, and to evaluate it and find creative solutions for the parts that could change for the better.

In the first term of her seniors thesis work in psychology, Sylvia Rusnak, Cornell '15, writes:

My honors thesis thus far has proved to be an important learning experience. Of course, it's stressful and immensely time-consuming and frustrating at (many) times, but to have the responsibility to run my own research study in a lab is an opportunity I feel so grateful to have.

The process of doing independent research or writing an honors thesis may help you decide whether you have the skills and passion to pursue a Ph.D. and a research career. To do so, you need to enjoy thinking about your project every day. In my experience, those who succeed as research scholars are virtually fixated on their projects over a long period of time and, when one project is over already have the next foregrounded in their minds.

2) Presumably by now you have fulfilled your requirements.

Senior year is a good time to take elective courses in new areas, perhaps even try a different foreign language (which also might help make you attractive to employers with an international business component). It is also a good time to take courses that develop your understanding of music, art, architecture and literature -- that is, to invest in lifetime activities. If you are majoring in a liberal arts field such as history or philosophy, you might consider a course in government (political science at some schools) or economics. If you are concerned about grades, you can take these classes at most colleges on pass/fail or satisfactory/unsatisfactory basis.

Try something new in terms of extracurricular activities, whether it is a new sport, acting in plays, photography, painting, etc.

3) While one cannot compartmentalize emotional problems, senior year is a good time to solve personal issues within the somewhat protective world of college, and that includes substance abuse issues like binge or excessive drinking.

4) Go beyond the comfort zone that you have established in your earlier years.

Make a conscious effort to make new friends and spend time with people who are not your closest associates. If you are in a fraternity or sorority, reach beyond those enclaves. Benefit from the ethnic and class diversity at your college. Learn, too, the value of alone time, when you depend on your own resources and respond independently and thoughtfully to the world around you and your experiences.

5) Think of your senior year as another stage in personal growth and becoming the person you want to be.

Develop your potential as a leader as well as your ability to work on projects as a team. Leading sometimes means helping to create a cooperative environment or community where everyone participates, has input, and feels part of projects. Obviously leadership emerges before your senior year, and leadership qualities begin developing in high school and even junior high school, but most campus organizations have senior leadership opportunities.

Scott Gwara, a professor of English and comparative literature at the University of South Carolina, advises:

In your campus focus group (friends, partners, colleagues with common interests) discover what your leadership passion is. ... In discovering your leadership, harnessing your network, and finding campus/personal/spiritual resources, you should articulate a vision of yourself and your interactions with the environment you want to change. ... Connect to the facts, but make your vision big enough to inspire. Set an agenda. Decide to make a difference and persist. You will learn about your limitations, your ethics, and your leadership capacities. By the time you graduate, you will have accomplished something meaningful, even if your primary accomplishment is learning not to take "no" for an answer. By all means, learn the art of pushing back.

Certainly learning how to negotiate with those resistant to your ideas is an important skill, blending preparation (knowing the facts), enthusiasm, poise, and courtesy with the ability to organize and articulate an argument. Indeed, many of these qualities can be developed within small classes, especially seminars. But all the aforementioned qualities are part of becoming an effective adult ready to play a part in the larger world of work and civic responsibility.

One of my pleasures as a teacher is observing the process by which bright adolescents on the threshold of adulthood become confident adults ready to play an important role in their chosen profession and society, although of course the process continues in their 20s and should continue throughout their lives.

6) Spend some time each day learning about the world beyond your campus.

Reading The New York Times online or in print is one good way to fulfill my recommendation that you give a half-hour a day to learning outside your courses about fields you know little about. For liberal arts students, the Tuesday Science section of The New York Times is a good learning opportunity. I also recommend The New York Review of Books; much more than a book review, it is, along with The Economist, an essential publication for understanding the world.

7) Seniors interviewing for employment positions need to begin to be aware that the employment world does not operate on the academic calendar or clock.

Liberal arts students accustomed to awaking at 10 and going to bed in the wee hours of the morning need to learn that much of the world awakens at 7 or before, and also that Thursday -- the day many liberal arts students end their class week -- does not end the work week in the employment world. Nor is there time in the work world to compensate with an afternoon nap for sleeping only three hours. Some months after my older son's graduation -- his college hours took him into the 3 a.m. range -- I remember calling him at 11:05; then employed in the New York City financial world, he growled, "Don't you know we go to bed at night here?"

Looking Beyond Your Undergraduate Experience

1) You need to be sure you know the qualifications for the career and graduate programs you have chosen.

While pre-law and pre-med programs often make this clear, it may take some research to know how to prepare for careers in teaching, journalism, pharmacy, nursing, actuarial science, etc.

2) You need to continue to develop skills of time management.

Keeping a log on how you are spending your time will be helpful. In your senior year, unless you are taking a gap year, you will be not only balancing your course work with extracurricular activities and work (if you have a job) but making time for job interviews and applications for graduate school. If you are looking for employment or interviewing for medical schools or nonprofits such as Teach for America, you may find yourself taking several trips away from campus.

Studying for LSATs, MCATs and GREs is time-consuming. In fact, the summer between your junior and senior years may be the best time to study for LSATs, MCATs, and GREs. You usually take these exams in the calendar year prior to the year you will be applying for entrance. Thus, if you seek entrance in 2016, you would take the exam in 2015, but early enough so that you have the LSAT scores when you decide what schools to apply to. If you don't do as well as you wish, you may take these tests again.

The MCAT exam is often taken in the second half of the junior year, and it is given in January, March, April, and May, but some students prefer to take it in the summer. On the whole I recommend taking LSATs in June after your junior year, but if you wish for more time to study, the early-fall test might work better. Most medical and law schools have rolling admission, which means they begin to accept students and fill classes as the applications arrive. (While what medical schools look for varies from school to school, this (perhaps dated) article from U.S. News & World Report may be helpful.

3) You need to learn about your campus career services and placement offices and resources.

Not only will these offices have organized schedules of who is visiting campuses to interview candidates -- often taking the form of job fairs -- but they will have tips for interviewing and preparing résumés as well as writing both appropriate cover letters and personal statements. You need to set up a file at these career-services and placement offices. These offices can also be helpful with applying to graduate school, although some schools also have special offices and committees for law school and medical school applications.

Professors who have shown an interest in you can also be important resources. They can not only advise you how on the best course for entering certain fields but put you in touch with influential people they may know, including former students, who maybe hiring.

4) Learn how to interview; this means learning not only how to speak but how to dress appropriately, something that varies depending on the organization and even the person with whom you are interviewing.

Teach for America has different expectations for presentable dress than investment banking has. My younger son has made very clear to me that dress within the mutual fund industry is different from dress for those working in the academic world.

5) Think about whether a gap year is right for you.

If you are undecided about your future career, want more time to prepare for GREs, MCATs, and LSATs, or feel you need a rest from the demands of study, taking a year between undergraduate and graduate school can be a good idea. It may be a good idea in STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering, and math -- to not take more than a year, because you might forget some of what you learned, but taking time between college and graduate school is sometimes a necessary space for different kinds of learning and experiences.

Some students work on a political campaign; others take a few years to teach in other countries or join the Peace Corps. But there is a huge number of worthwhile possibilities. Schools offering an MBA want their applicants to have a handful of years of work experience.

Conclusion

Your senior year in college is an excellent opportunity to bring your undergraduate years to fruition and open doors to the next phases of your growth and development.

Author of the well-received 2012 book Endtimes? Crises and Turmoil at the New York Times (Excelsior Editions of SUNY Press), which appeared in an updated 2014 new paperback edition, Daniel R. Schwarz is Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow at Cornell University, where he has won Cornell's major teaching prizes. He also writes on higher education, including his book In Defense of Reading: Teaching Literature in the Twenty-First Century. He blogs on higher education and the media on The Huffington Post and has a book-in-progress on the undergraduate experience, tentatively titled The Joy and Practicality of Learning: Suggestions for Succeeding in College and Beyond. He can be reached at drs6@cornell.edu and followed on social media at twitter.com/danRSchwarz and facebook.com/SchwarzEndtimes.