Advice For Freshmen From a Soon-To-Be-Graduate

For USA TODAY College

This Friday I’ll walk across the stage to graduate with high honors from the University of Georgia. Here are nine pieces of advice I wish I’d been told the day I first stepped on campus in 2008.

Send short emails

I shudder to think how many opportunities I lost from an early penchant for sending long emails. University faculty, staff and students are generally busy people, and if they do not know you, they are unlikely to respond to a long email. Even people who know you well probably will not respond. This is not because they don’t like you, it’s a time issue. To respect this, always send a short note that can then set up a lengthier time to meet and discuss in-depth questions later.

Intellect is nothing

By getting into a decent college, you have already proven your academic prowess. Intelligence alone will only distinguish you to a point. Success in college will be based on your ability to leverage other attributes: honesty, humility, curiosity, open-mindedness, discipline and generosity of spirit.

7/10 failure rate

During my freshman year, I attended a panel discussion in which candidates for Rhodes and Fulbright Scholarships gave their advice to younger students. One Rhodes candidate said that he only expected to get three out of every 10 scholarships, internships or other awards for which he applied. I have lived by this advice, and when I was rejected for seven internships in a row, I knew it was a statistically predictable set of events. Don’t be afraid to fail early and often. Knowing the “7/10 failure rate” is the best inoculation against despair and a great preparation for success: It teaches us just how hard you have to work for success.

Follow up with your interviewer

The dirty little secret of interviews is that it is completely fine to follow up with an interviewer after a failed interview to ask why you did not get the job or internship. I have only done this once, but it was amazing how obvious my mistakes were once my interviewer spelled them out for me. Simply asking why you failed is the best way to improve for your next stab at greatness.

Ruthlessly seek out mentors

As a freshman and sophomore I often longed for an upperclassman who could guide me through college. As an upperclassman, I have been delighted when younger students have called me on the phone to ask for advice. Had I known how great it feels to be a mentor to others, I would have been more eager to ask for advice when I was younger. My advice to freshmen: Don’t be intimidated to ask upperclassmen for advice. You’re not bothering them; you’re stoking their egos.

Read biographies

It is hard to find mentors and role models in person, but it is fairly easy in the pages of biographies. These can be thick books or, in many cases, the bio page for a person on a website. It might even be a LinkedIn profile for an upperclassman you admire. Read the lives of your heroes and particularly their exploits in their early 20s. Endeavor to become them, and don’t be afraid to be ambitious. I have tried to model my own goals after the 23-year-old selves of Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. (I’ve already got a lot of catching up to do.)

Reading lists

Ask for reading recommendations from people you admire. Which books transformed their lives? Lincoln said he would have been nothing were it not for the cadences and eloquence he absorbed from Shakespeare and the King James Bible.

Study abroad: “Not if, when”

When you study abroad (it’s not even an option, you must), it shouldn’t be for a month, but rather for a more long-term stay. Try to become a resident of that country, not just a visitor. And make sure you choose a country that complements your studies. I chose South Africa because I wanted to see the World Cup. But a professor advised me to go for deeper reasons, so I read Nelson Mandela’s autobiography. That book made the trip dramatically more profound. I’ve since written several term papers on South Africa and apartheid. A fun summer was transformed into a lifelong passion.

Write goal lists each semester

You can’t succeed unless you define success.

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