10 Things You Didn’t Learn in College (but You Should Have)

I used to see school as a sort of factory — one that ingested small children and spat out highly trained adults who would be snapped up by big companies that would pay them lots and lots of money.

Of course, somewhere along the way, we all tend to come to the (very crushing) realization that it doesn't quite work that way. I think it happens right around when school stops pulling you along from one grade to the next and asks you what you'd like to do with the rest of your life. Oh, and by the way, your happiness, your financial future, and the respect of your family and friends all hang in the balance. (See also: 5 Tips for My Career-Clueless College Self)

It's kind of ironic that most of us head to college hoping to get smarter and end up feeling so stupid. This isn't because college doesn't teach you anything, but because it often tends to give the wrong impression. To that end, here are a few things you probably didn't learn in college — but maybe you should have.

1. Most of What You Learn Will Be Useless

Sorry. It's the truth. Once you graduate, all those facts you worked so hard to memorize will seem so bafflingly inane that you'll wonder why you even bothered. That's no knock on the education system, but most of the struggling you'll do at work will be completely remote from facts, figures, and even logical reasoning; it'll have to do with interpersonal relationships, self doubt, company-specific systems and practices, and plain, old boredom. Your degree will give you some background in your field and possibly some fancy words to use around the water cooler, but most of the real training happens on the ground.

2. It's Not About the Degree

There's a lot of debate about whether an English degree is useless, or a philosophy degree's a waste of time or whether you can get anywhere with sociology. I think these arguments miss the point. Getting a job is not about your degree; it's about you.

The degree you choose will give you an opportunity to hone (and discover) your key skills, but it's still up to you to figure out how you're going to capitalize on them. People tend to look at a degree in terms of what it can do for them, but what's actually more productive is looking at how you can use your degree to do something great for an employer. After all, that's what they'll be paying you for.

3. School Isn't Everything

College is this weird microcosm where a quiz suddenly seems like the most important thing in the world. It isn't. That isn't to say you should blow off your studying, but if you're pouring all your efforts into getting straight A's, you might be missing out on things that will actually do you more good in the long run, like getting some experience in your field, volunteering, joining a student organization, or even just making some new friends. These are all things that you can use on a resume, in an interview, and in life. They're things that'll make you stand out. Because let's face it, you're not the only one who can get a 4.0.

4. Your Degree Doesn't Dictate Your Future

If you get a degree in education, you have to become a teacher, right? Otherwise, you're not using your degree. Maybe not, but life's not a straight shot to the finish line. Sometimes it's meandering, and while that's pretty frustrating, it's actually a good thing. After all, do you really want to make a beeline for a life you don't want? If you've gone the wrong way, the only thing to do is turn back. Your experiences — including college — make you who you are. That's not a mistake. And you don't have to let a decision you made when you were 18 dictate the course of your entire career.

5. Passing Tests Isn't the Point

College — and school in general — often teaches us to shove information into our short-term memories, spit it out for a test, and promptly forget it all. Pulling an all nighter might just be a rite of passage, but it isn't learning. That takes time and thought, and it leaves a lasting impression.

6. Creativity Counts

In the Liberal Arts department, creativity is given a free pass, but it seems a bit unwelcome in other classes (business, I'm looking at you). As a result, for a long time, I assumed that some pursuits were creative, while others were not. The truth is that creativity isn't just painting a picture; it's building a business, coming up with a scientific theory, or writing a computer program. In other words, it's about being able to imagine something that doesn't already exist. People who do that tend to be very successful in any field.

7. So Does Your Personality

Some professors try to teach you how to play with others by assigning "group work." Most people hate it. That's because getting along with people is hard. Just wait until you get to the workforce where the stakes are higher and you could be stuck working alongside the same people for months or years, rather than a few weeks out of a semester. If any of us had any idea how important working and getting along with other people really is, we'd probably put a lot more thought into it, rather than just spending the whole time wishing that group project could be over.

8. There's Luck Involved

University — and the entire school system — is propped up by the idea that we can all do whatever we want to do as long as we apply ourselves and try hard enough. Sorry. Not true.

If you're colorblind, you can't be a pilot. You can't be a veterinarian if you're deathly allergic to animals. And there's a little bit of luck involved in succeeding at just about anything. That doesn't mean you shouldn't try. What it means is that you have to go in knowing that failure's a possibility and that if and when it happens, you'll be ready to face it. It also means you should keep an eye out for any lucky break you can get.

9. It Isn't About the Money

College often teaches us how to find high-paying jobs, but it misses the other side of the equation — how to properly manage the money we make. If you haven't already, take some time to learn about budgeting, saving, and investing. That way you'll be able to get the most of what you earn, rather than making way more and having remarkably little to show for it.

10. You Never Really Graduate

Once you graduate, it's tempting to breathe a sigh of relief — the hard part is over! Not so fast. If you really want to excel in your career — and in life — you have to keep learning. It allows you to stay current in your field, and to discover all the new things that keep life interesting. Plus, do you really want to spend your whole life doing things the wrong way, or just a little while?

I learned a lot of things in college (some of which I won't get into), but there are also a lot of things I would've liked to know a little earlier. I guess that's another lesson I had coming to me — you never know what you don't know...until you do.

What did you really learn in college?

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Guest's picture

These are pretty good tips. It's taken me > 10 years to realize that the degree is not the most important thing. It can help you get your foot in the door, but it really is all about you and how you work with others. That's something that is very hard to teach, but it easy to practice if you're focused on self-improvement.

Guest's picture

I think so many people don't realize that EXPERIENCE is important. Going to school is great, but having a job with relate-able experience is great also.

Guest's picture

I agree, but working on good solid projects supplemental to studies can do the same thing. I always recommend co-op, but there are great programs for engineers like the SAE teams and such that can give some great experience as well. I would think there are similar programs for other fields.

Guest's picture

Being someone who is about to go into college, this article really helps. There are so many people telling me "do this" and "do that". I just want to do what I want to do! I think ill be successful as long as I like what I do.

Guest's picture


Yes, more likely than not you will be successful by doing something you enjoy. Remember, there has to be a need for that "something," or you could create that need. Most importantly, attain the total experience from college, here are a few tips: make friends and connections--many of your college friends will be with you for life, try something different and new, work on your people skills--join social groups and volunteer, increase your communication skills--read, it helps, work on critical thinking and your ability to research and come to conclusions--read many topics and different viewpoints about topics. What's more, I've seen many studies revealing that it doesn't really matter what college degree a person earn ... he will be successful if he's smart enough, if he has strong work ethic, if he has determination and desire to succeed, and if he enjoys what he's doing. Also, remember this!, when people offer you advice, for the most part, they are trying to help you. At least listen--great leaders will follow others at times!

Guest's picture

I have dubbed #5 educational bulimia. Binge on the information then purge it onto the test adn flush your brain to make room for more. Sadly our system has moved more to this type of "Learning" than anything else. Ask people how many comprehensive exams they have in high school. Not many. It seems we have moved to trying to teach the cramming process than the actual information they are testing. SCARY.