• Hilary Ferguson

Unconventional Advice for University Studies: Tips your academic advisor might not tell you

Updated: Apr 4, 2021

It doesn't take long for high school seniors to notice that other people love to share their two cents of advice on all-things-college with them. I am no exception, but some of my advice will go directly against a lot of the prevalent beliefs out there. I have a perspective on higher education, which is the result of earning a very difficult bachelor’s degree in Mathematics in my younger years, a bachelor’s degree in Music as an older non-traditional student, and as a current student earning a master’s degree in Music Technology. I have also had the unique experience of supporting my husband through 16 years of post-high school education (5 years as a BS in Chemistry, 4 years in Medical School, 4 years in medical residency, and 3 years in fellowship.) As a mature student, I have watched fellow students who succeed, and unfortunately, also those who struggle and flounder. Considering the fact that I have quite a few friends who are currently young college students, I feel the need to share some of my advice and bust some prevalent myths out there. I recognize that are many facets to college life, but my thoughts here focus primarily on academics.

Disclaimer: I will be the first to acknowledge that college is not for everyone, and that it is ok if you have other paths other than college to achieve your goals. This advice is directed to those who do choose to go to college. The following is my personal opinion. All advice—from me or anyone else—should be adapted to your unique situation.

College Myth #1: “The purpose of a college education is to train me for a good job.”

There’s a common idea out there that the purpose of higher education is to enable you to get a great job when you’re finished. While that is mostly true, the reality is there are few college majors that plop you right onto a career path when you are done. With the exception of a few select majors such as education degrees, medical related degrees, accounting, engineering degrees, and computer coding and technological degrees, the vast majority of college majors will not have a specific job path at the end. Additionally, I have found that many people think that if they major in a science field that there will be lots of money and job opportunities awaiting their graduation, that the sciences are some sort of job security. The truth is that someone who majors in chemistry may not have any more job security than someone who majors in art. In fact, most college majors will require a degree of entrepreneurship, and proactive job searching. It doesn’t mean that those majors are not worthwhile, or that they didn’t prepare you for working in a job. It is important to understand that in the end, the transition into the work force from college is usually not automatic.

Someone I met just the other day said that their Bachelor of Art in Music was the “most useless degree.” Is it more useless than a communications degree? Or a business degree? Or an anthropology degree? Perhaps we don’t understand the purpose of higher education. While we do want specific job skills, higher education is usually broader than that. Albert Einstein once said, "The value of a college education is not the learning of many facts, but the training of the mind to think." The purpose of higher education is not to teach us information, but it is to teach us how to think critically. Critical thinking is perhaps the most important skill gained in a college education, but there many other soft skills which are gained as well, such as such as creativity, communication, delayed gratification, and collaboration. All of these skills are desirable in the workplace.

The purpose of higher education is not to teach us information, but it is to teach us how to think critically.

I also believe that higher education helps us understand who we are as a person. It teaches us about ourselves and what we are capable of. We have moments of vulnerability and risk, and we feel stretched beyond what we think are our limits, which is what helps us grow. Higher education matures us, refines us, broadens our perspectives, and helps us realize we are much more capable than we ever thought we could be. These qualities are desirable in the workplace as well. Because of these soft skills which are gained in the process of earning a degree, some employers will require a college degree, but they do not care what that degree is in.

If you really do want the stability of a specific career path at the end of your university studies or if you don't like the idea of being an entrepreneur, then you definitely should consider those majors that set you up for that (education, medical fields, engineering, accounting, computer tech) or consider trade school training. Personally, I am an advocate of getting a degree in the thing that is your passion, and then topping that off with a certification or “job skill” that you can also have for stability. I know of someone who has a doctoral degree in an arts field and also a respiratory therapy certification. She can do what she is passionate about, while also having a skill that provides job stability.

College Myth #2: If I am passionate about a subject matter, then it should be easy for me.

The word "passion" is often used to mean something we really like doing. However, when I say “passion,” I mean it in the original definition of the word, which is “a willingness to suffer for something you love.” The most clear example of passion would be Jesus Christ. He loved us so much that we were worth suffering for. Stephen Palmer said, “If passion is simply what makes you happy, you’ll quit doing it when it gets tough, when it becomes too risky, and when you’re ignored and mocked. Your true passion is what you’re willing to do if it kills you. What you stick with even when it’s excruciating. When it’s risky.”

“If passion is simply what makes you happy, you’ll quit doing it when it gets tough, when it becomes too risky, and when you’re ignored and mocked. Your true passion is what you’re willing to do if it kills you. What you stick with even when it’s excruciating. When it’s risky.” --Stephen Palmer

What is your passion? What subject matter is so important to you that you would be willing to suffer for it or give up other things in your life for it? If there is something you are willing to give up your time, money, friends, leisure, or pride for, then you have found your passion. When choosing a college major, finding that passion is the key to your future success. Most people don't mind working their tails off for something they truly love. If you are passionate about what you are majoring in, it will become a part of you, it help you become the best version of yourself, and it will make your future one that is full of meaning, purpose and success.

College Myth #3: “You need to finish college in 4 years.”

The beauty of college is that now you can set your own schedule, pick your favorite professors, and tackle learning in your own timeframe. Unfortunately, most academic advisors will pressure you into taking enough classes that you will finish your degree in under 4 years. This is financially driven advice. It costs universities more money to educate students who don’t pack it in and finish quickly. (Did you realize that it costs the University money to educate you, even with the tuition you pay?) Because of this, scholarships often have minimum requirements for credit hours. As a result, students think they have to take a lot of classes all at once.

The truth is that some college majors are really not 4-year degrees. Music, Science, Engineering, and several other degrees are really 5-year degrees, and it takes some people even longer than that to finish, based on what else they are juggling in their life. An additional challenge is that a lot of music classes and science lab classes require a very large time commitment for class attendance but are only 1 or 2 credit hours. As a result, a student could be taking 15 credit hours, but actually spending more like 20-25 hours in class. You don’t want to waste time, but it’s also important to be realistic about what load you can handle, and what load will allow you to really enjoy and excel at what you are learning. Find your own “sweet spot” when it comes to the load you take. And though it isn’t important that you finish in 4 years, it is important to finish! There are a lot of strategies to help you finish in a timely manner besides spending 20 hours a week in class, such as selecting a major in advance, mapping out required prerequisites and sequential courses, and doing well enough academically that you don’t have to repeat classes. Otherwise, don’t feel like there’s something wrong if you map out a five year plan instead of a four year plan.

One idea to consider is that when you accept a scholarship or financial aid, you give up some control over your options. Although no one likes the idea of shelling out a bunch of cash to pay for college, those who work their way and pay for it, have more control over how many classes they have to take at one time. I recognize that some may disagree with this, and others may find it absolutely impossible. My point is that it’s ok if your college degree is on your own timeline, and there are some options that may help you to do it on your own timeline. Ignore all those people who keep asking you when you’ll be done. This question shows the underlying paradigm in our culture that the destination is more important than the journey, and the best way is to get it done as fast as possible. Just be true to yourself and ignore the comments.

College Myth #4: “Getting good grades is really important.”

There are plenty of students who definitely need to get more serious about their classes; however, there are also many students who would benefit from switching their focus from “getting good grades” to “learning as much as possible." When you focus on learning about the subjects being studied and learning about yourself, the good grades will naturally follow.

People who focus on learning, in essence have a “growth mindset,” which will help them accept challenges, learn from mistakes, and have an intrinsic drive for success in the subject matter that is being studied. They recognize their education as a gift and an opportunity to be treasured and enjoyed, something they may never have the opportunity to do later in life. They do not see mistakes as failures, but as springboards to further learning. These people are amazed at how much they can learn and do when they are genuinely interested, and they have a lot less stress and a lot more joy. On the other hand, those who are solely focused on getting a good grade are motivated extrinsically and will ultimately gain much less out of their opportunity for education. These people are usually pretty stressed out.

Most employers don’t care if you were on the honor roll in college or if you were barely scraping by. They just want to know that you earned your degree. I do acknowledge that some people, such as those applying to grad school, actually do need to get good grades for their application for admittance. If you fall into this category, shift your focus on learning and working as hard as you can. The good grades will come automatically.

College Myth #5: "My professor will think I am stupid if I ask a question."

Possibly. But asking a question shows that you care. It shows that you know something. After all, a person who knows absolutely nothing, doesn’t know what to ask! When I was 20 and taking a differential equations class, there was an older student in the class who asked questions constantly—without any shame. I admired her for her humility, but I also thought at times she was making a fool of herself. Now I understand. She was using her resources, because she probably had more real life demands in her life and didn’t have time to figure it out on her own like I did. Additionally, asking questions is informative for your professor to determine if they are teaching effectively.

The way you ask a question is important, though. Rather than saying, “I don’t get it.” Explain what you do get and then hone-in on a specific concept that you need clarification for. Tell yourself that it is smart to ask questions. Take advantage of your professor’s office hours.

College Myth #6: "Life will be so much better when I am done with school."

Being a young single adult is one of the most selfish periods of time in your life. And I mean selfish in a good way here. I’ll explain what I mean by this. You are no longer answering as much to your parents, but you also don’t have the demands of being married and having children who depend on you yet. While starting a family is one of the most joyous experiences of your life, it requires a huge amount of self-sacrifice and unselfishness. During the ages of 18-22, you have a unique opportunity to be selfish. How could being selfish be a good thing? This is one of the only time periods in your life when you can focus on your own goals, your own growth, your character, and your personality. You can do humanitarian work, travel, or live one of your dreams. You are in a unique time of life where implementing change in your life is not only possible, but it is probably the easiest that it ever has been or ever will be. You can’t get these years back.

When I say take advantage of the opportunity of being selfish, I don’t mean that you should be self-centered, or even that you should be living it up. I mean enjoy the opportunity you have to learn, work hard, be the best person you can be, and fulfill your own dreams. I mean that the decisions you make and time you spend is yours and others do not have claim on you, so use it wisely and take advantage of it. Do not waste it. Do not wish it away and hope to get to the next stage of life as soon as possible. Life doesn’t get easier, it just gets different. You might be surprised to realize that you might actually miss this. Let me repeat that: you might actually miss this. Enjoy the here and now. Enjoy the journey, instead of hoping the destination comes quicker, or assuming that it will be better.

While I was supporting my husband through 16 years of post-high school medical training, this was an important concept I learned—that my happiness in life was a balance between two extremes: realizing there is a light at the end of the tunnel and enjoying the here and now of the journey. If you are always saying, “I’ll be happy when…” then you will never be happy. I’ll say it again, just ignore all those people who keep asking when you’ll be done!


As you can see, I feel strongly about higher education and how it shapes us as people. It is the perfect time to focus on growth and finding our purpose and passion in life. It is this passion that will enable us to endure difficult things that come our way and enable us with the character to give up some less important things now for something else that is ultimately better and more important. It is a time for taking risks, being vulnerable, asking questions, and being open to other perspectives and viewpoints. It is also a time to solidify our own viewpoints and to learn about who we are and what we are made of. Take advantage of this unique time while you have it. You might actually miss this.

©Hilary Ferguson

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