Lisa Chau just broke the 50-article mark at U.S. News & World Report. In the process of writing for the international media outlet, as well as Huffington Post and Forbes, she reflects on lessons she has learned since her junior year at Hunter High School. It’s worth a read if you or your teenager is heading to college. Chau offers 10 pieces of wisdom she wishes a mentor had shared with her.
- Size matters. I rarely attended a class with more than 50 students, even in the most popular economics classes. Small classes meant that I could more easily participate in discussions and get attention from my professors. Also, I was automatically a better student because I always had to be prepared to be called on. If anyone doesn’t do the work, it’s very noticeable. Apply to colleges with low student-to-faculty ratios. Instructors should be professors, not teaching assistants.
- Prestige matters – Sometimes. Don’t pick schools solely based on their rankings (like I did). A brand name is attractive, but a committed student can get a good education anywhere. Instead of obsessing about prestige, identify colleges with strong departments in your area of interest. A lower-ranked state school might offer you a better program than a well-known private institution. And it will probably cost less. Avoid graduating with crippling debt.
- Network with alumni. As much as a cutting-edge library, a network of active, loyal graduates can be a school’s greatest asset. Always, always, always partner up with a mentor who has done what you’re doing and a mentor that is doing what you want to do in the future. Devoted alumni make it much easier to start that conversation because you already have a shared background. For additional tips, I created the TedEd lesson, Networking for the Networking Averse .
- Meritocracy is a myth. School may coddle you into believing this is not true. You may be lulled into believing that doing superior work leads to fair rewards. Unfortunately, life off campus is much more nuanced. Who you know makes a difference – a big one, especially in tight job markets. It took me many, many years to discover that There Is No Ceiling Until There Is One: An Inconvenient Conversation. Network, network, network!
- Go away. Not taking a semester abroad may be my biggest regret as a student. Travel as much as possible. Visit countries where the local language is not your native tongue, if only because the world is becoming more global and it will give you a competitive advantage in the hiring process. Your schedule will never be as flexible and you will likely never be as untethered to work responsibilities. Chase adventures not labels. Buy airplane tickets instead of overpriced luxury goods.
- Take business classes. Especially ones in entrepreneurship. Understanding how businesses form, operate, and succeed will always be worthwhile. More recently, computer science skills have become increasingly prized. The ability to analyze a spreadsheet is great; the ability to build one even better – or the ability to do both: phenomenal. Most companies look at job candidates with very specialized skills in a narrow career narrative. However, versatility is key after you’re hired.
- Fail fearlessly. Don’t make stupid decisions, but take calculated risks. You won’t excel by taking the safe route, and failure can be a very rewarding learning moment. Not failing means you haven’t taken enough risks or tried being innovative. Just look at How the 25 Richest Americans Failed Miserably. “I tried something new and failed. I modified my approach and tried again. I gathered considerable data in the process,” is better than, “I didn’t try anything new. I did the same boring thing for the same boring result. I knew what outcome to expect.” Which leads me to:
- Be resilient. You won’t excel at everything you do. No one does. You’ll be stopped by closed doors and rejections. You must learn to accept common disappointments. People hate you when you fail. People really hate you when you succeed. Keep succeeding. Unless you build a toughness to deflect others’ cruel criticisms and insensitivity, particularly dreadful in the age of online anonymity, you will be miserable. Even if you execute a project flawlessly, you may be attacked for something unrelated.
- Be flexible. I was the “5-year plan” student. The universe laughed in my face. Then it laughed again. Harder. My current life bears no semblance to plans I had as an undergraduate. My priorities changed. I’m not making a banker salary, but I love what I’m doing now. Endlessly fascinated by innovation, I wake up excited to attend technology conferences and interview entrepreneurs. People ask for my advice, value my network, and read my work. I am stimulated and I feel valued. That is priceless. I think I’m on the right track. I hope so. Finally(?)
- Convey ideas clearly. As I explained in Forbes, effective communication is essential for effective leadership. If you cannot clearly articulate your plans and strategy to your team, you will not be able to lead them. Work on building strong writing and speaking skills. Join the debate team and the Toastmasters club. Read any chance you get. Read voraciously, it’s the easiest way to passively improve your communication style. Read the newspaper. Read Wikipedia. Read great literature.
Good luck. Keep learning.
Lisa Chau was honored as this year’s March W3A Wellesley Asian Alumnae Alliance Spotlight Alumna (pages 3-6). She is the founder of Alpha Vert, a private digital strategy consultancy specializing in content marketing and social media. Previously, she spent five years working for her alma mater Dartmouth College, as assistant director of alumni affairs and assistant director of public relations for the Tuck School of Business. She has guest lectured MBA and undergraduate courses in e-business strategy at Baruch College and The New School. She currently serves on the Executive Board of the Dartmouth Club of New York.