Going out with a bang

How to make the most out of college

Some gifts are universally bad. The do-I-even-know-your-name present of scented candles, for example, or anything obviously purchased on the first floor of Urban Outfitters.

Even worse than these minor money-wasters, however, is a neatly gift-wrapped reminder of having disappointed your parents. My mom presented me with such a gift in the summer of 2001. It was a book. A book called Making the Most of College and she did not actually gift wrap it.

It’s not that the book is bad. It’s just that my mother gave it to me after my first year of college, after I had clearly, in her eyes, failed to make the most of anything. Unless you count the fact that I made the most of the number of 9 a.m. French A classes I could sleep through without the teacher forgetting my name.

Needless to say, I was less than enticed to read it. But now, in the bizarre introspection that spring semester of one’s senior year engenders, I picked the book up for the first time.

The author is a genial man named Richard J. Light, the Walter H. Gale Professor of Education at the Graduate School of Education. He is a cheerleader masquerading as a statistician, and the tone of his book began to convince me that maybe all was not lost. I could still Make the Most of something. But of what? And what does that even mean? According to Light it’s somewhere between getting your money’s worth out of the academic experience and being personally happy. In his surveys he asks people to rate both academic and personal happiness on a scale of 1 to 10. Making the Most, it would seem, means to score a 20.

The book itself scored pretty highly for Light and Harvard University Press (HUP). It has sold more than 90,000 copies since it was published in March of 2001—strong figures for an academic press, according to Kathy Duffy, a sales representative at Harvard University Press. I mentioned the book to at least a dozen people and everyone who graduated from high school after it was published had heard of it. Many had received it as a graduation gift from their mother/father/high school forensics coach. Several had picked it up on their own per the recommendation of Harvard orientation materials. It was unclear how many people had actually read it.

Which is where this little venture comes in.

Richard Light is perhaps the best possible person you could meet your first week in college. Constantly smiling, deferential without actually ceding the floor, he has more concern about the happiness of the chronically unhappy college student than perhaps anyone who is not running for a leadership position in a student council. He is complimentary about the most basic things—as if tying one’s shoelaces were something to be quite proud of. One of his first tips to students was that it’s very important to make an appointment before going to see a professor. I had made an appointment to see him. And my shoes were tied. I was on the right track here.

I explained my idea to him—I would take the recommendations in his book and try to apply them in a very short period of time. He did not take offense or say it was ridiculous. Instead, he helped me solidify my plans, which basically entailed him agreeing with the fact that everything he had written in his book was good advice.

The book weaves extensive testimony from surveys of Harvard students (all anonymous) with overall statistical analysis. Light’s intention is to situate his policy suggestions within candid accounts of student experience. He explores three major themes: academic success, how extra-curricular involvement affects happiness and the often-confusing way diversity works in both academic and extra-curricular contexts. College is not paint-by-numbers, of course, and Light’s book doesn’t pretend to prescribe a singular path to success. It does, however, include enough specific examples from student interviews that I could cobble together a roster of activities from the book for my two-week blitz. I would try and do everything specifically mentioned in the book and then improvise when only broad categories (i.e. athletics=happiness) were listed.

That was my plan. I was ready to optimize.

The (not quite) 10,000 happiest men (and women) of Harvard?

One of the most vivid examples of extra-curricular success in the book is used to illustrate the suggestion that “advisors should encourage students from their very first days on campus to find a group to join.” Light tells the story of a student who felt overwhelmed by the adjustment to college. Her adviser told his young charge that even though she couldn’t play an instrument, she should try out for the Harvard Band. “Just tell them you want to hold the drum,” he said.

So, true to heartwarming form of most of the anecdotes included in the text, the girl did sign up to hold the drum. She reported that joining the Harvard Band was the “single event critical for keeping her here.”

After reading the particular pro-Harvard Band passage in Light’s book, I decided I wanted to hold the drum too. I e-mailed Matthew H. Katcher ’05, the manager of the band. Unfortunately, he told me, Bertha—the 6-foot tall drum I’d been hoping for—would not be making an appearance until commencement. Instead, Katcher graciously invited me to play percussion with the band in an upcoming performance. He said I could play a bass drum, but Mindy E. Snitow ’06, the percussion section leader, suggested the cymbals. I think she called them “safer.”

In the band room, the world’s largest playable tuba stands guard in a corner behind the foosball table, taking up the entire height of the room. Katcher explains that there’s a larger tuba somewhere in Eastern Europe, but it’s in a museum, so this tuba gets the “largest playable” title. They play it every five years or so at band reunions. The band room, like many other student organizations, is decorated with aging, inside-joke ephemera and pilfered street signs. There’s a television and a soda machine (“the cheapest coke machine on campus,” Katcher notes—a soda costs $.50).