Sage Advice for College Freshmen

In an old Sunday issue of The New York Times, there was a full-page article offering advice for incoming college freshmen from nine distinguished scholars.  I’d like to share their thoughts with you.

Stanley Fish, professor of law at Florida International University:

Find the best teachers.  Ask upper class students and others to identify them and try to take their classes if they fit your broad areas of interest.

Take courses that emphasize writing.  For innumerable reasons, the ability to communicate in writing is one of the most valuable life skills one can master.

Gerald Graff, professor of English and education at the University of Illinois, Chicago:

Learn to summarize all of what you hear or read at college and turn it into coherent arguments by injecting the assumptions that led to the position.  Then form your own opinions and don’t be afraid to say them.  Don’t prematurely take a position unless you are prepared to summarize the basis of the opposing stance.  You can’t effectively advance your own views without a profound appreciation of a contrary opinion.  It is a fundamental of a truly liberal (small “L”) education.

Harold Bloom, professor of English at Yale:

“Get Lost.  In Books.”  Read and reread great books by great authors until you actually understand them.  Focus on authors who transcend the current world and modern thought, authors who present more timeless ideas.  Among them are Plato, Homer, Cervantes, and, of course, Shakespeare.  Just reading them to pass a test isn’t enough.  Read them in a way that makes them part of who you are and then you will become a more formidable, educated human being.

Carol Berkin, professor of history at Baruch College:

1.     Make sure you are actually in the right class.  Some students don’t figure it out until they’ve wasted a few weeks in the wrong place.

2.    “Do not….

  • beat out a cadence on your desk while the teacher is lecturing;
  • sigh audibly more than three or four times during a lecture;
  • check your watch more than twice during the hour;
  • ask any of the following….
  • Will this be on the test?
  • Does grammar count?
  • Do we have to read the whole chapter?
  • Can I turn in my paper late?


  • Practice a look of genuine interest;
  • Nod in agreement frequently;
  • Laugh at all the professor’s jokes.
  • Ask questions of the professor if you are confused  AND….
  • Remind yourself that next year you will not be a freshman and people will no longer sneer at you.”

Gary Willis, Professor Emeritus of history at Northwestern:

Take courses that interest you.  You will find that as you go deeper into a subject, it will open up other areas of interest.  Read, read, read and write, write, write.  The absence of the former will make the latter nearly impossible.

Hang out with smart people.  They will do more for the future of your life than the often thought-free, popular campus jocks and other beautiful people.  And don’t be afraid to be a political activist regardless of your politics.

Martha Nussbaum, professor of philosophy, law and divinity at the University of Chicago:

Take courses because they broaden your mind, not just the ones that may prepare you for a career.  It will enrich your life and give you the tools to change careers and enjoy more than just the eight hours on the job every day.

James MacGregor Burns, professor emeritus of government at Williams College:
Read a respected newspaper every day.  It will be “your path to the world”.  Get to know your professors away from the classroom and ask them about things not connected with their class.  In fact, get to know everyone on campus, people who work in the cafeteria, security staff, janitors and housekeepers.  They all have something of value to tell you and it reminds you that college also includes the real world beyond the classroom.

Nancy Hopkins, professor of biology at MIT:

Fall in love not with some hunk or ravishing beauty but with some form of intellectual challenge.  Professor Hopkins fell in love with DNA and has spent a lifetime getting to know it in a way that will impact the future of medicine and related fields.  Current knowledge creatively studied will always lead to something new and uncharted.  Find that love.  It is life-altering and it is divorce-free!

Steven Weinberg, professor of physics at the University of Texas, Austin:

Be prepared to change course.  College is rarely what you think it is.  There are worlds to discover and ideas you never knew.  Be open to it all and pay attention to those things that truly interest you and things that you seem to be good at.  Be sensitive to the signals and be prepared to take a life path that you never expected.

And from a less distinguished scholar….

You are only 18 and you still don’t know very much so absorb as many things as you can and follow your heart.  Your future is out there waiting to be discovered.  The less certain freshmen are about a career path, the more likely they are to become a truly educated college graduate as they search for their true calling.

I would like to thank The Times for the article and a good deal more.  Since the age of about ten, I have practiced Professor Burns’ advice to you. The Times has been my teacher and friend nearly every day for more than half a century.

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