In college, your life is an empty canvas on which you can paint anything you want. Even if you plan your weekly schedule out properly and are on track to graduate comfortably within four years, you’ll find that you still have more free time than ever before. This is where people trip up.
In high school, you were in school more or less from 8am to 3pm, 5 days a week. That’s 35 hours a week. If you’re taking a normal course load in college, you’re in class 15-18 hrs a week. That’s an extra 20 hours every single week. That’s hundreds of hours of free time every year that you didn’t have in high school. If you don’t hit the ground running when you begin college, it becomes really easy to get accustomed to all this free time. Next thing you know, you’re graduating from college and the only thing you have to show for it is a bachelor’s degree. When it’s time to apply for graduate school or professional school or a job, you’ll find that your peers who were productive in college are far ahead of you in the game.
No matter what your career goals are after college, this guide will help you identify things outside of class you should be getting involved in during your undergraduate career. For everything below, keep in mind the businessman’s mindset. You want the maximum return back for the minimum effort put in. If you find that an extracurricular activity is permeating your life and taking over everything, evaluate whether you’re really gaining something from that activity or if it’s time to cut it out permanently.
Volunteering is a great activity to do in college. There is a very low bar for entry. If you want to volunteer, you can almost certainly find a place to volunteer within a week or two. Places need volunteers and are unlikely to turn away an eager student.
Don’t blindly pick places to volunteer though. Think about your long term goals and try to tailor your volunteering there. Want to be a doctor? Volunteer at a hospital or free health clinic. Want to be a lawyer? Volunteer at a public law center. Want to be a computer programmer? Teach computer science to middle school kids. Ask upperclassmen about the places they’ve volunteered to see if any resonate with you. Even if a certain volunteering opportunity has nothing to with your career goals, if you’re really interested in it, go ahead and volunteer there. I have a close friend who volunteered at a therapeutic riding center in college and got bombarded with questions about that during interviews at law firms. One of the best volunteer activities I did in college was Big Brothers Big Sisters. While it had nothing to do with medicine, I’ve been asked about it far more than any medical volunteering I’ve done.
I’d recommend choosing one or maybe two long term volunteering options and then multiple small one-shot activities as you have time (and energy). For example, maybe pick mentoring for Big Brothers Big Sisters once a week as your long term volunteering option. Then, do a day of volunteering for your MSA’s Ramadan activity and then help out at a blood drive for your pre-med club a few months later. Your long term volunteering option is the one that is relatively time intensive (2-3 hrs, one day a week, for four years) and that you feel a personal attachment to. Your short term volunteering things are ones which add lines to your resume but don’t require a huge time commitment (three or four of these a year is more than enough).
When most people hear research, they think of white coats and pipettes in a laboratory. That’s certainly one type of research and the type you should be getting involved in if you want to go to medical school or graduate school in the basic sciences. However, research is not confined to just this. The social sciences and humanities also have their own type of research. No matter what field of study you’re in, there’s some type of scholarly activity that occurs at the PhD level. This is what you should get involved in. Your goal is to get at least a poster or two presented by the time you graduate. If you can get an actual publication in a journal, that would be icing on the cake (but less realistic than a poster, so don’t make it your goal). Look to see if your school has an Office of Undergraduate Research. If so, contact them to help you get started. Some schools have paid fellowships which will give you a stipend to conduct research. Apply to these! If you’re doing research anyway, might as well get paid for it. My part-time job for 3 out of 4 years in college was getting paid to do research. Even if you’re not getting paid though, get involved in research. Many unpaid positions morph into a paid position once you’ve been at it for a year or two. Even if it remains unpaid for the duration of college, the very process of conducting and presenting research is a critical skill to learn in your undergraduate years.
If your school does not have an Office of Undergraduate Research, contact professors directly. Decide which field you want to do research in and find the department website. Read through the professors’ biographies. The biography should have a line or two about what the professor’s research interest is. Find three or four professors whose research seems interesting and send them an email introducing yourself. Mention that you’re a freshman (or sophomore or junior or senior) who wants to get involved in research and was very interested by their research area. Don’t mention anything about getting paid (probably not going to happen off the bat anyway), just that you’re interested in research and their area specifically and wanted to know if you could help them on any project they’re working on. You might have to send a few to get a response. Keep going till you get something.
One of the biggest mistakes students make in college is to stay in the high school mindset of “Summer=free time”. Leave that mindset to those who aim for mediocrity in college. Instead, look at summer as three distinct blocks of 10-12 weeks where you make yourself a more attractive candidate for your post-college aspirations. In many ways, how you spend your summers in college is equally important to how you spend the rest of the academic year. Use at least two of your three summers for something productive. Namely, an internship.
Depending on your major and post-college goals, “internship” can have different meanings. For those planning on going into the corporate world right after college, it means exactly what it sounds like. It’s an entry-level, part-time job for the summer. Go to any and all career fairs your school offers until you land one. Virtually all employers want to hire someone with work experience and the only way you’ll get serious work experience before graduation is by doing internships.
If your plan is not to go out and work right after college but rather to pursue further education, you still can’t waste your summers. Internships for pre-law and pre-med students are less like part-time jobs and more often resemble paid research positions. Unlike normal internships, these are not going to be advertised in career fairs. Instead, talk to your professors and academic advisors to find out about specific programs and where to apply for them. Many schools have their own programs you can apply to and some fields have directories for students to search for opportunities. This is highly specific to the field you’re in, so ask advice from upperclassmen and professors.
You can also use the summer for fellowships. These can be quite competitive so have a backup in place. One good one to apply for is the Critical Languages scholarship. If your school has a fellowships office, schedule a meeting with them to explore fellowship options suited for your career path.
Join clubs in things you’re interested in or are related to your career goals. This is the lowest of importance and really shouldn’t be taking up much of your time. Of note, I would not recommend Student Government. Remember our first article and having a businessman’s mindset? Student government is one of the worst returns on investment. People sink an insane amount of time and energy into student government, letting it consume every aspect of their college life….and then only have one line to add to their resume. Having seen friends involved in student government, I know how much of a commitment it is. But during interviews? It’s only a little better than being president of the History club. That’s an exaggeration but not by much. I know someone who spent four years engrossed in student government and then didn’t even have it brought up during their medical school interviews. It was just another club. The reality is that you have a finite amount of time and energy and student government is too expensive of a product to spend your time and energy on.
I actually would recommend not putting too much importance in getting a part-time job. If you need it for financial reasons (can’t pay for college without the money, need it to support parents, etc), then absolutely, it takes priority. Barring that, however, a part-time job in and of itself is not a wise use of your time. Going back to the businessman’s mindset, a part-time job is a small return for a large investment. Jobs require a relatively significant time commitment (your most valuable asset right now) and give you back nothing more than money. In order to maintain a part-time job, you have to cut back on all the other things I’ve mentioned in this article. So I would recommend not taking a part-time job.
With one exception.
If the job falls into one of the above categories.
Getting paid to research? Take it. Paid to tutor? Take it. In other words, if you would be doing the thing for free anyway to build your resume, take the job. You wouldn’t work at the local Taco Bell for free, so don’t take that job in college. There are some on-campus jobs, often offered to work-study students, which are also worth it because you don’t do anything. One of my friends had a minimum wage job sitting at the library entrance. That was literally his job. To be a warm body at the entrance. He would sit there studying and get paid for it. Another friend had a similar job in a computer lab. The same rule applies here though: he would be studying for free anyway, so he took a job which paid him to do it.
Keep an eye out opportunities
Every school has unique opportunities. Keep an eye out for them. If you have a weekly listserv at your college, read through it every week. When you pass by a billboard with flyers tacked all over it, give it a glance. You might find an interesting lecture by a visiting professor that you want to attend. You might find a research opportunity or a cool place to volunteer or an interesting organization on campus you’d never heard of. One of my friends took a wrong turn on campus and ended up in front of the Asian languages department. He found a flyer recruiting graduating students to teach English in South Korea for a semester. Fully paid and all flight expenses covered. Keep an eye out for opportunities like this which present themselves.
Mentally, I like to think of Islamic activities in a category by themselves. This ensures that other activities don’t swallow them and result in a schedule devoid of Islamic activities.
There are three big areas you should concentrate on in college. Islamic education, Islamic volunteering, and masjid attendance.
For Islamic education, the best choice is a weekly class at your masjid. Unfortunately, not all masajid have such programs and of those that do, many have very boring speakers or a disjointed, disorganized class. If that’s the case for you, the next step is an online Islamic class. There are some formal Islamic classes offered online through various institutions. These range in price from free to exorbitant. I’d double check with a scholar you know and trust before signing up for an online Islamic class though. Any person can make a nice looking website and you want to be sure that you’re learning from authentic sources. If you don’t want an actual formal class and just want to read on your own, check out this list of recommended Islamic resources.
For Islamic volunteering, there’s both MSA and masjid volunteering. Depending on your school, you know whether your MSA is truly an Islamic organization or simply a social club for people with Middle Eastern and South Asian backgrounds. If the latter, skip the volunteering. This section is for Islamic activities and if your MSA is not an Islamic organization, it doesn’t count as Islamic volunteering. Volunteer at the masjid instead.
Finally, and most importantly, attend the masjid! Make this a regular part of your schedule. Try to aim for at least 5 prayers a week in the masjid a week outside of jumu’ah. If you can, make that prayer either Fajr or ‘Isha so you can get the reward of praying half the night.
Don’t get overwhelmed
With all of that, you might have gone from, “I’ll have so much free time in college” to “I don’t have anywhere close to enough time to do all this!” While it may seem like that, trust me, you do have time for this. Use your weekly schedule to identify when you have free time. Schedule in your activities around that. You might actually find that you still have free time after doing all of the above.
Of course, don’t forget that the primary purpose of college is still to get your degree. High grades are a priority and in our next article, we’ll talk about study tips and techniques you can utilize to do well in college. If you haven’t already, subscribe to our mailing list by clicking below and like us on Facebook to stay updated!
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