How To Not Waste Your Time In College

Achieving higher education means more to some than others. Many take the opportunity to learn all they can, involve themselves with clubs and extracurricular activities, and to meet people who have completely different worldviews and engaging them in rich discussions full of ethical koans, expressive metaphors and philosophical solutions.

Most people, however, instead use the opportunity to drink heavily, partake in questionable sexual escapades and spend a lot of their parents’ money to get a Communications degree that they will keep in the closet throughout the next decade while they work an entry-level job at a faceless organization of some kind.

You Can Have Both

I’m not saying you shouldn’t enjoy yourself in college. On the contrary, I had a very enriching college experience, and some of that enrichment was attained through making stupid mistakes and dancing drunkenly in clubs of ill repute. It’s all about finding the right balance, and a big part of finding it is deciding what your goal for college is in the first place.

I went to Missouri State University for college, and actually ended up going there by mistake, if you can believe that. I intended to attend the Art Institute in Chicago, but the costs were incredibly high, so I decided to go to a state school for the first year, get some of the base-level classes out of the way, and then migrate over to my first choice when I’d saved enough money to make it through the first semester. At this point I was an Art major and had vague plans to 1) create my own comic book series, 2) sell paintings at galleries to rich people or 3) sketch tourists in Paris and live on Ramen noodles and tap water.

Partway through my first semester, I was introduced to design and my goals changed drastically. Suddenly I found myself wanting to dream bigger dreams: I would be employable! Wonder of wonders! I put together a rough plan of where I wanted to be when I graduated, and made sure keep moving forward through this plan with each decision I made. The plan looked something like this:

Goal: run a design studio in a big city and make lots of money

  • Step 1: take prerequisite classes for design program
  • Step 2: get in to design program
  • Step 3: establish self in design program with high-quality work and niche skills
  • Step 4: get design jobs while still in school to build up resume and learn new skill sets
  • Step 5: graduate with good grades, lots of design experience, and several job offers
  • Step 6: work for other people until design studio model is understood
  • Step 7: start own studio
  • Step 8: flourish

Simple, right? And what’s great is that each step of the way, I was able to streamline what I was working on because I knew where I wanted to end up. Step 1 led to Step 2, Step 5 led to Step 6, and on and on. It’s like a math equation, but much more fun.

I was able to follow this plan, too. I got into the design program with one of the highest scores, worked a total of 4 different design-related jobs while attending college and ended up starting my first studio and a culture magazine while there, as well. When I graduated, I had a lot more professional work in my portfolio than my peers, not to mention my on-the-job experience, and was fielding a handful of job offers in various fields from all over the world. I took a job at a studio in LA, worked there for a year, and then started my own studio. Life was, and is, dandy.

And I did this without sacrificing a social life or being able to make all of those fabulous mistakes one makes in college! I went out at least 2-3 times per week, dated several wonderful girls and gained a remarkably talented, diverse and loyal group of friends that I still stay in contact with today, from half a country away. This is not something that is unique to me, it just requires a little forethought, some hard work and enough trust in yourself to know that you can achieve each step and reach that end goal.

26 comments

  1. Damn. Wish I had found this kind of article earlier. Very inspiring to see someone choosing to do hard things while still taking college very seriously.

    I find myself struggling to get the necessary credits to stay in the year, as I’ve been skipping classes while freelancing. I now basically have to work just to pay for the credits on the courses I never attended. Sometimes I want to punch myself in the face…

  2. Damn. Wish I had found this kind of article earlier. Very inspiring to see someone choosing to do hard things while still taking college very seriously.

    I find myself struggling to get the necessary credits to stay in the year, as I’ve been skipping classes while freelancing. I now basically have to work just to pay for the credits on the courses I never attended. Sometimes I want to punch myself in the face…

  3. Hey Chris-

    When it comes to changing up how things are going, there’s no time like the present!

    Striking the balance between freelancing and taking classes can be really tough…I don’t know about you, but my design courses were very involved and took up nearly all of my time.

    If you really want to make it work, though, you will. Whether it’s by staying up later, focusing more while you are working (which allows you to get more done in a shorter amount of time), practicing certain skills more frequently so that you are that much faster at them (keyboard shortcuts are a great way to save time) or simply making better use of your time (give up watching TV…that definitely helped me!), you’ll find something that works for you and your situation if you take an hour or so to plan out what you’re going to change and what goals you want to accomplish.

    Let me know if you have any particular problems you’re working on and I’ll help where I can. Just keep in mind that it’s not impossible, which means that you can (and should!) achieve exactly what you want to achieve.

  4. Hey Chris-

    When it comes to changing up how things are going, there’s no time like the present!

    Striking the balance between freelancing and taking classes can be really tough…I don’t know about you, but my design courses were very involved and took up nearly all of my time.

    If you really want to make it work, though, you will. Whether it’s by staying up later, focusing more while you are working (which allows you to get more done in a shorter amount of time), practicing certain skills more frequently so that you are that much faster at them (keyboard shortcuts are a great way to save time) or simply making better use of your time (give up watching TV…that definitely helped me!), you’ll find something that works for you and your situation if you take an hour or so to plan out what you’re going to change and what goals you want to accomplish.

    Let me know if you have any particular problems you’re working on and I’ll help where I can. Just keep in mind that it’s not impossible, which means that you can (and should!) achieve exactly what you want to achieve.

  5. Hey Colin,

    Thanks for the fast and insightful reply.

    I guess in my case it mostly about clearly setting long-term goals and breaking them down into short-term objectives. I’ve found you can get lost pretty easily if you don’t have a map to know where you started and where you’re heading.

    I’ll definitely keep an eye on your blog, as I find it keeps my motivation levels in check knowing that someone about my age can do it, and do it very well. Too many teenagers and young adults today take their high school/college years as a vacation from life when they could take advantage of this time and turn it into a successful launchpad of their lives. I think you’ve managed to do it well and show others that the ceiling level is not as low as expected.

    Cheers!

  6. Hey Colin,

    Thanks for the fast and insightful reply.

    I guess in my case it mostly about clearly setting long-term goals and breaking them down into short-term objectives. I’ve found you can get lost pretty easily if you don’t have a map to know where you started and where you’re heading.

    I’ll definitely keep an eye on your blog, as I find it keeps my motivation levels in check knowing that someone about my age can do it, and do it very well. Too many teenagers and young adults today take their high school/college years as a vacation from life when they could take advantage of this time and turn it into a successful launchpad of their lives. I think you’ve managed to do it well and show others that the ceiling level is not as low as expected.

    Cheers!

  7. I have found that it is important to be firm with clients. Some will try and drive you hard through finals week for instance. Don’t let your grades get sacrificed.

  8. I have found that it is important to be firm with clients. Some will try and drive you hard through finals week for instance. Don’t let your grades get sacrificed.

  9. @Chris: Sounds good! Keep me in the loop, and definitely let everyone here know about your successes!

    @Josh: This is definitely true. I find having a solid contract that is understood by both parties is best. In a lot of cases you’ll be on such good, casual terms with your clients that it will seem unnecessary, but unless you are doing VERY frequent work with them, I always recommend having a signed contract on file (you can find a good boilerplate example that can be adapted for the project here: http://www.aiga.org/content.cfm/standard-agreement ).

  10. @Chris: Sounds good! Keep me in the loop, and definitely let everyone here know about your successes!

    @Josh: This is definitely true. I find having a solid contract that is understood by both parties is best. In a lot of cases you’ll be on such good, casual terms with your clients that it will seem unnecessary, but unless you are doing VERY frequent work with them, I always recommend having a signed contract on file (you can find a good boilerplate example that can be adapted for the project here: http://www.aiga.org/content.cfm/standard-agreement ).

  11. This is very interesting; you sort of created your own personal homeworks while in college. But then you figured out those steps (I assume) only when you found out an avenue that made you “employable”. What if you had remained with your original job ambitions? I’m currently studying in English Literature and struggling to find a way to make myself “employable”. Is there some secret steps to reach that point? Or is it a matter of marketing yourself? I’m still confused about the view I should be having of my “set of skills”.

  12. This is very interesting; you sort of created your own personal homeworks while in college. But then you figured out those steps (I assume) only when you found out an avenue that made you “employable”. What if you had remained with your original job ambitions? I’m currently studying in English Literature and struggling to find a way to make myself “employable”. Is there some secret steps to reach that point? Or is it a matter of marketing yourself? I’m still confused about the view I should be having of my “set of skills”.

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  15. So good to know that there is someone who has gone through this, coz my plan is the same as yours was! It’s insane how I got to your page and found all these great posts! But yeah, back to the plan- I’m a fresher in uni now and have great dreams and things planned for my future. My portfolio needs a bit of improvement at the moment but by the end of this spring I’m hoping to work for an interior design company or a freelance designer. Thanks for the inspiration!!

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