How to Thrive in College: A Guide by a French-Speaking Guy Who Studied in English
Lessons and resources to make the best out of your undergraduate degree.
I originally wrote this guide for a friend who was starting college in Chicago. This is an adapted version of what I wrote to her.
Dear Future College Student,
You are about to embark on a journey that will shape your future and career. Sadly, this journey is an expensive one (especially in the United States), and the common wisdom surrounding it is false more often than it’s true. During your college journey, you’ll hear a variety of things, most of which you should ignore.
Let’s start with some facts. Yes, college is expensive; no, it does not guarantee you a job. Is it still worth it? Absolutely. Well, it depends on what you make out of it. College is no different than your life and career: your success relies on your mindset, attitudes, and actions — and far too many people fail to realize this.
When I entered college (in Canada we call it “university”), I had one intention: to win. I grew up in a small, French-speaking town in the province of Québec. I did all of my pre-university schooling in French, but I decided I would study at an English-speaking university.
Although my parents thought the challenge was a stretch, I never let my mother tongue be an obstacle and I want all-in. And I won the bet. I graduated with a B.A. Honour’s in English literature and professional writing with a 3.6 GPA. I was nominated for department awards two years in a row, received funding to study abroad, got the university president’s approval to apply for the Rhodes scholarship, and was awarded two Fulbright fellowships.
Now, here are my 10 best pieces of advice to win at college:
1. Don’t get sucked in by the “student lifestyle” and learn to be an adult sooner rather than later.
You are about to enter a place where people spend exorbitant amounts of money yet act like children. Fair enough, most people aren’t adults when they enter college — but do yourself a favour and don’t follow their lead.
I’m not talking about having fun and partying. There’s nothing wrong with that—it’s part of the experience. I’m talking about the romanticization of chaos. College students have created a toxic culture where it’s cool to let things go out of hand. Because you’re a student, so the story goes, you have no responsibilities toward yourself.
In this culture, it’s cool to procrastinate and write your essay the night before. It’s cool to eat Kraft Dinner every lunch and not exercise. It’s cool not to drink enough water, and it’s even cooler to be severely sleep-deprived. In other words, it’s cool to be a sloppy student and an irresponsible individual.
None of these things benefit you in the long term. However trivial they may seem, these behaviours hold you back from success. I know how tempting the culture is; I’ve been there and I’ve also bragged about being sleep-deprived. But, if you’re interested in true success, do yourself a favour and stay away from this culture.
Instead of giving in to this culture, learn how to take care of yourself. Invest in your personal development. Devote yourself to understanding who you are and work hard to embody this person. If you’re going to go for something cool and sexy, go for excellence, curiosity, and organization—not the romanticization of chaos.
Never be afraid to let your excellence shine. The people who engage in the idiotic student lifestyle will see how much more successful you are, and they’ll want to do the same. It may not immediately be obvious, but you can be a force for good by not buying into this toxic culture of chaos. The coolest thing you can do in college is encouraging others to be adults.
2. You are the only person responsible for your college experience.
No one gives a damn you—or your parents—paid a ton of money in tuition fees. If you ask me, college is overpriced, but if you go about college thinking your tuition fees entitled you to something without working for it, you’re going down the wrong path.
Sadly, universities are businesses and your tuition fees only cover the right to attend. That said, it’s your job and no one else’s to make it worth the price tag (as it was your job to find the college with the right price tag.)
You need to take responsibility for everything you say or do while in college. You need to act as the only actor in the movie of your life. Do like leaders: appreciate the victories without being complacent, and take the blame for failures even if there were external factors.
Don’t expect anything from other people; just grab things and be unapologetic about it.
3. Be as curious as anyone can be.
Many of my principles hold on this one. Curiosity is the single quality that will get you far both in college and in life. Do you know what’s the difference between an A and an A+ paper? It’s actually pretty simple: the A+ paper went above and beyond the assignment expectations.
The only way you’ll get an A+ on a paper is by reading more than what’s required and knowing your topic well — as well as other topics. Don’t waste a minute of your time in college: learn about the great works, the big debates, and the big names in your field.
Reading and learning more helps you make further connections. Outstudy your peers. Outread everybody. Outthink the world. It’s not that hard—just think longer and ask more questions. Impress your professors with your knowledge and your interrogations. Curiosity is simply about asking questions; the more questions you’re asking, the better you’re doing.
4. Learn how to learn
This is one of the things we don’t learn at school, and it’s outright a shame. There are ways and processes by which to learn, and they depend from a person to another. Get to know yourself and what makes you the most successful. Avoid copying your friends’ learning styles—they may not be a good fit for you.
Spend time learning about ways of learning: there’s a great Udemy course on learning how to learn. In the recommendation section, I’ll give you resources to do so, but you want to figure out your learning style and maximize it for the best results possible. Be a deliberate learner; don’t leave things to chance.
5. Learn how to write
I cannot stress this one enough. Learning how to write is also what will make an A paper turn into an A+ paper. Write beautifully and compellingly. Read avidly—especially great essays. Study grammar, logic, and rhetoric.
Writing is one of the most underestimated topics in the university, but it is so, so important. No one writes well anymore these days. If you master writing, I can promise you will thrive not only in college but also throughout your whole life. Study how people write in your discipline; this way, you can mimic their style and seem very professional to your professors.
By the way, if you want to write well you need to write a lot! Better yet, help other people with their writing. Get hired at the writing center—it will change your life. (You need to be a decent writer in the first place, but they will train you and give you the opportunity to tutor other students with their writing.)
6. Cultivate a good intellectual hygiene
This is not just a fancy way to say, “be a critical thinker.” Don’t just think for yourself all the time, but be deliberate about what you pay attention to. There are a lot of distractions in college, so don’t be afraid of making choices about what matters to you and what to spend your time on.
Choose what you populate your mind with; if it’s not helpful or doesn’t serve a purpose, don’t pay attention to it. There’s only so much you can do. And beware of dangerous philosophies, ideologies, and mindsets. Be unapologetically discriminatory with your thoughts.
6. Master the art of networking
Every human interaction is an opportunity. With curiosity and genuine interest for people, you will be able to create meaningful connections — not based out of self-interest but out of interest for the other — and something organic may eventually come out of this interaction.
Always ask for business cards or for email addresses. Say you would like to follow up on a topic. Follow up with the people you find important. Give people an update about what’s going them, send them something they might find interesting, or ask them a quick question.
The people you look up to are also humans: they love helping other people and they would gladly do it if you ask. That’s how I got the president of my university to sit down with me to give me career advice and I’m still in touch with him even though he moved to another university.
7. Listen to people that have what you want (AKA get mentors)
In the same line, take advice from people you admire and who have what you want — not from your friend Kevin who eats bread and Cheese Wiz for dinner. Make the people you admire your mentors. They don’t have to be formal mentors; just develop a relationship with them by following up with them on things that interest both of you. Show them your willingness to be successful and ask them about their experience. They will likely help you.
8. Make yourself an online presence
LinkedIn is the future. It will help you get jobs, internships, and connect with people you can benefit from. Also, look into academic social media like ResearchGate and academia.edu. You can learn a lot from these.
9. Never say “no” to anything immediately (unless it comes from Kevin who eats bread and Cheese Wiz for dinner).
If an opportunity shows up, say “yes”. You can decide later if you keep it, but never say “no” right away. There are two reasons for this: first, if you say “no”, you become a “no” person and people will stop offering you opportunities. Second, you can’t know what you like and what you are good at before you’ve tried it.
You can always quit things later, even though it’s not ideal. College is the time when you need to do as much as you can and get to know yourself. Work, volunteer, and get involved like a nutcase; accumulate experiences so that you not only build an outstanding resume but you also enlarge your horizons to new fields and disciplines.
Use every minute of your time to become a more well-rounded, better-educated person. You are in a period of development; make the absolute best out of it. It shouldn’t be too much work to do this; find the things that you love so that it doesn’t even feel like work.
10. Pick your professors wisely and build great relationships with them
Classes simply consist of contents; professors are everything as they bring the contents to life—or they don’t. A great class can be ruined by a sucky professor, and a boring class can be salvaged by a great one.
Pick your professors wisely; do research about them. Don’t leave it to random. If you use Rate My Professor, beware of lazy students that project their own failures and laziness on the professors. Take Rate My Professor with a grain of salt.
In my experience, the best professors often have the worst Rate My Professor ratings; you can read between the lines on Rate My Professor and see what’s up. You want hard professors, not unfair professors. You want professors that will teach you a lot and challenge you to become a better student.
You want professors that are approachable and who care about their student’s success. My favourite professor was called a #&*!$% on Rate My Professor, yet I owe him much of my college success. Lazy students hate his guts—but I don’t care about their opinion.
Always try to take courses from full professors (i.e. permanent professors, not assistant professors, not part-time professors.) Full professors not only tend to be older and more competent (though this isn’t always true); they are also the only ones whose reference letters actually have a weight for graduate schools or law school.
That said, there are amazing professors who do not have a permanent position, and it’s fine to take their courses, but make sure you’ve studied under full professors. That said, some full professors are boring and unhelpful—those you should avoid. If there are some superstar professors (professors well-known and respected in their field) at your university, take their classes.
You also want to build great relationships with professors. Make it clear early on you’re looking to nail the class, learn outside the classroom, and beyond the course. Show professors you are learning for the sake of it and that you are on a quest for self-realization. Professors will like you for it.
To build great relationships with professors, you need to entertain them — for that you need to know what you’re doing and to be inquisitive. You have to be someone they can contend with. Never be too sure of yourself, but challenge them in a friendly way. Be funny and amusing.
Go to office hours multiple times per semester for further discussion or a quick question. Send a few helpful emails. After the grades are up at the end of the term, send a quick email saying thank you for the semester and saying you enjoyed the course. Always do it after the grades are up so you don’t look like a lick-ass, and only do it if you actually enjoyed the course and the professor.
If you are looking for a professor to give you a reference in the future, make sure they get to know your work. For example, show up to office hours with an outline or a draft of your essay and discuss it with them. Make sure they get to know the inner workings of your mind and know your ambition, passion, competence, and intelligence.
Here are some of my best resources:
- College Info Geek — channel on how to succeed in college and in life
- Charisma on Command — channel on how to develop your social skills
- The School of Life — channel with short videos on intellectual topics)
- Jordan B. Peterson — controversial but good content on a variety of topics
- The Daily by The NY Times — to catch up with the news (though you’ll want to listen to conservative news media as well).
- Philosophize This! — to learn about philosophy in 30- to 40-minute episodes
- Podcasts about your field of study — to get ahead of your peers knowledge-wise
- Any podcasts of interest to you
Books to read:
- Everything by Cal Newport: Deep Work, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Study Hacks, Digital Minimalism
- Tim Ferris: The 4-Hour Workweek, the Four-Hour Chef
- Ramit Sethi: I Will Teach You to be Rich
- William Zinsser: On Writing Well
- Steven Pinker: The Sense of Style
- Ben Parr: Captivology
- Sir John Hargrave: Mindhacking
- A Brief History of Western Philosophy — Anthony Kenny
- Daniel Kanheman: Thinking Fast and Slow
- Jordan B. Peterson: 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos
- Classics of English Literature
- Grammarly: it’s an online grammar check. There’s a free version of it, but it sucks. It’s kind of expensive but worth all the money.
- Antidote: An another grammar check that works differently, and also a dictionary with synonyms, antonyms, etc. Highly recommend it as well. Worth the price tag.
Resources for research:
- JSTOR — to get the academic articles you need to write your papers. Other databases available on your uni’s website
- Your library’s website
- Look for workshops and online resources on the university’s website. Learn as much as you can.
- Writing Program — University of Chicago
- Free online courses on Coursera and some on Udemy. (I liked the science of well-being and introductory logic).
- PDF Drive for free pdfs.
- Get hired as a writing assistant.
- Work as a student mentor.
- Get involved in some student services or student success centre if there’s one
- Volunteer on campus activities (e.g. frosh)