Education and Skills

How to make the most of your  university experience, according to experts

University graduates throwing their caps in the air

What you study and where you study it will shape your career, your friends and peers and, quite possibly, the rest of your life. Image: Vasily Koloda/Unsplash

David Comerford
Program Director, , MSc Behavioural Science, University of Stirling
Paul Cowell
Lecturer in Economics and Deputy Associate Dean of Learning and Teaching, University of Stirling
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  • An education economist and a behavioural scientist have put together evidence-based tips to help students make the most of their college or university experience.
  • Students should try out clubs and societies, be conscious of their peers and challenge themselves academically, according to their advice.
  • Heading to university with an open mind and a have-a-go attitude will help students find opportunities that create a rich and meaningful life, they say.

Choosing a college or university course is one of the most important decisions you will ever make. What you study and where you study it will shape your career, your friends and peers and, quite possibly, the rest of your life.

That sounds daunting, especially when this critical decision usually presents itself early on in life. So how are you to make the most of these opportunities? As an education economist and a behavioural scientist, we are well placed to give some good, evidence-based tips on how to make the most of your college or university experience.

1. Try out clubs and societies

The benefits of a university education are not simply in developing a command of a discipline or its transferable skills, but also in the social skills that are acquired and developed over years of study.

This was notably apparent during the pandemic. Although universities were able to transform themselves in terms of delivering courses, the social aspect of being a student was sorely missed by many.

You are shortchanging yourself if you do not explore the opportunities on offer in the clubs and societies at your university. If you have a tendency to be shy then all the more reason to join something. When you enjoy and focus on the club’s activity – whether that’s ping pong, skydiving or building sets for a play – the conversations will happen naturally.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that your time and energy are too limited to devote to anything other than study. A routine of physical activity promotes good sleep and wellbeing.

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An activity that takes your mind off work also gives you time to digest your thoughts, which often facilitates those eureka moments. This might explain why Nobel laureates are more likely than their colleagues to be world-class in some extracurricular activities.

Additionally, you will encounter people through clubs and societies who will, even without your knowing it, become role models. The edifying effects of socialising with people whom we admire is a central theme of the Theory of Moral Sentiments, a wise little book written by the founding father of economics, Adam Smith. A clever experiment tested Smith’s observation and found that merely watching a film which had a positive role model in it was sufficient to boost students’ test scores a week later.

2. Be conscious of your peers

We are social beings and, consciously or not, we assimilate with those around us. For example, you might think that your academic ambition and diligence is an immutable trait within you. Not so. The economist Bruce Sacerdote leveraged the fact that students were randomly assigned their roommates to test the effect of peers. He found that who you live with has a significant effect on grades.

More recent studies suggest that these effects persist over a lifetime. A set of recent papers showed that a large driver of social mobility is our social network. A poorer person is more likely to advance into a higher paying job if they have connections with affluent people. There will surely be some cases where this pattern is explained by affluent people directly intervening to help their friends get a foot on the career ladder, but the magnitude of the observed effects is unlikely to be explained by this mechanism alone.

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A more pervasive effect, though one that is harder to measure, is that our peers shape our perceptions of what is possible. A related lesson from economics is that poorer students can be afraid to take risks or seek support, which can inhibit academic and extracurricular fulfilment.

The flipside of the entitlement associated with privilege is that those raised in more straitened conditions can lack the confidence to seek what is available to them. Surrounding yourself with ambitious peers therefore seems likely to promote ambition and discovery.

3. Challenge yourself academically

University is an opportunity for you to invest in yourself. It is a luxury to be able to make mistakes and to receive guidance from an expert. Use that opportunity to push yourself and learn new things.

There are some students who make the mistake of quitting quantitative subjects such as science, technology, economics or statistics. It’s a mistake because people who do persist with quantitative subjects usually earn a premium. In fact, economics outperforms all other subjects (including medicine and mathematics) when measuring average lifetime earnings, for both men and women.

A face-value read on this is that training in quantitative subjects causes people to become more productive in the labour market. This seems likely – these subjects train students to rigorously test hypotheses and evaluate evidence, which is key to knowledge generation and, therefore, progress.

But part of what might be going on here is that graduating from a STEM course signals that you are not a quitter. Another part of it might be that in STEM courses you are hanging around with the sort of people who aim to be high-value employees.

Of course completing a degree in any discipline requires perseverance and the “value” of education is subjective, but the evidence shows particular gains in earnings among those who persist with subjects that teach the scientific method.

A final point of reassurance: time at university is, above all, a time for exploration. It is our experience that if you go into university with an open mind and a have-a-go attitude then you will surely stumble into opportunities that will carry you on to a rich and meaningful life..

You should not be afraid of failure. When we run with the fastest, we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves when we occasionally find ourselves towards the back of the pack. Often these are the times when we learn the most.

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