09/24/2014 05:02 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2014

Eating Smart at the Cafeteria of Knowledge

As you embark on four years of college, think of the food offered in the cafeteria as a metaphor for your studies. You pay a flat rate -- meal ticket, tuition -- for both, then you can consume whatever you have room for.

At the cafeteria, it's up to you whether you fill up on sugared breakfast cereal and syrupy pancakes, or whether you save room for the omelet and the fruit. At the academic buffet, the hidden challenge is to "eat smart," to choose the classes that give you the "nutrition" you'll need to go onto a fulfilling life and career.

Recognizing which types of classes you should emphasize is often easier when you look at it from the outside. Ask almost anyone who is mid-career, and he or she will tell you to learn how to write, to learn a foreign language, to get a good grip on how technology is a part of our lives and to understand numbers.

Students who are in the middle of the experience, though -- and often their parents as well -- can lose sight of where the best value lies in their education. Choosing classes is one of the most important challenges of college, but too often students get distracted from the big picture of pushing themselves into new skills, and they settle for something that simply fulfills a requirement. The "salad bar" is right there, but they grab a tong-full of fries instead.

Choosing your main course, or major, involves selecting electives after taking foundational or gateway courses. These "sauces" can push you in new and challenging directions if you choose boldly, or they can be less flavorful, extending more or less only what you already know.

The side dishes comprise your general education requirements -- humanities, natural or social sciences or math classes. You can go for the easy "potato chip" variety, those classes that mirror what you took in high school and require only a mid-term and a final, or you can go for the "mashed potatoes and gravy, " the more rigorous history, biology or calculus classes that will push you and give you a deeper and wider education. Put another way, you can settle for the Saltines, or you can go up and slice yourself a piece of the whole grain bread.

How can you tell which classes offer the most sustenance? Look at how much reading and writing a class requires. That's where you find the vitamins and minerals of a college education. If you want to write, you have to write a lot; if you want someday to present yourself to an employer as well-read and capable, you have to read a lot.

If a class promises to "tell" you a great deal about something, look at it skeptically. Once upon a time "knowing things" was the mark of an educated person. Today, though, we can all uncover virtually any facts we want with the click of a few keys. Knowing "things" means less now than it ever has.

Classes that promise to help you "analyze" information offer more of education you should really want. They don't just provide "saturated facts." They also give you the nutrition of deeper thought. It takes a lot more work to chew and digest assignments in such classes. Analysis -- as it takes place in extended reading, in writing and rewriting essays and lab reports, and in checking and re-checking spreadsheets or complicated formulas -- is work.

But it's work that's worth it. Getting a good education means passing up "junk food" in place of what you know will make you feel better the next morning. Use your four years of college to eat until you're full, but eat smart, too. Make the sometimes difficult choice to pass up the things in easy reach, and stretch out to get the most balanced, most nutritious classroom meal you can manage.