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5 Myths That Cause College Students Unnecessary Stress

Student Success MythsStress

Here on Study Hacks we spend a lot of time trying to separate truth from fiction when it comes to building a successful student career. As you know, it’s one of my great beliefs that much of the stress experienced by students is unnecessary. Indeed, the entire Zen Valedictorian Philosophy is premised on the idea that most people have no idea what makes a student impressive.

In this article I want to cut to the chase. Listed below are five myths that pop up again and again as causes of the type of stress I fight here on this blog.

MYTH #1: Your Major Matters

This myth says that if you don’t choose the right major — or better yet, double major — you won’t find a good job. It drives students to suffer through punishing courses in subjects that don’t even interest them.

The Reality: As described in this article: outside of jobs that require specific technical skills, your major doesn’t matter. Indeed, as described here, if you choose a major for external reasons you’re at much greater risk for a burn out.

What You Should Do: Choose a single major that you enjoy. Double majors are never necessary. (You think that you need one, but you really don’t.) Engage your course work. Do well. Become a standout in your department. This is more important than the specific subject.

MYTH #2: The Difficulty of Your Courses Matters

This myth says that the most talented students are those who have the most punishing course loads. It leads students to take the maximum number of credit hours and to torture themselves with schedules loaded full with notoriously tough subjects.

The Reality: This myth is derived from the fact that college admissions officers care about the difficulty of your schedule. Students extend this thinking to college and beyond, imagining that something similar must hold true for graduate school admissions or job hunting. Here’s the thing: it doesn’t. As explained in this article, no one cares or will even check what courses you took in college. Taking a killer schedule is completely unnecessary masochism.

What You Should Do: Build manageable schedules that spread out the toughest courses required by your major. Balance hard courses with easier electives, don’t try to take the maximum number of credit hours, and if you have extra credits lying around (e.g., from high A.P. scores) occasionally take an unusually light semester. The distinction you gain from being able to do really well in a normal course load far outstrips the advantages of killing yourself with too much.

MYTH #3: Your Extracurricular Activities Matter

This myth says that getting into graduate/professional school or landing a cool job is like getting accepted to college: the difficulty and impressiveness of your extracurriculars play a large role. This leads students to killer schedules stuffed with an insane number of activities.

The Reality: As argued in this article, no one cares about your college extracurriculars. For graduate school and law school: they mean nothing. For medical school: you need to demonstrate exposure to the world of medicine; beyond that, your activities mean nothing. For jobs: doing one or two activities you like helps flesh out your personality and shows you’re not anti-social; doing more than one or two adds no advantage.

What You Should Do: Find a small number of activities that you really enjoy. If you ever feel overwhelmed by extracurricular responsibilities: cut back! They’re not helping your cause.

MYTH #4: Impressiveness is a Function of Hardness

This myth says that the harder you’re working the more impressive you’ll become. For example: If you want to be 2 times more impressive than your roommate, your schedule — in terms of classes and activities — should be two times harder. This leads ambitious students to equate stress with realizing their potential and equate relaxation with guilt.

The Reality: As explained here and here, impressiveness is more subtle. It depends more on the innovativeness of the activity than its difficulty.

What You Should Do: If you’re interested in becoming a standout — something that for most students is not necessary to achieve their ideal lifestyle — take a page out of the Zen Valedictorian playbook and focus for a long time on a very small number of things and try to push them into a territory that defies easy explanation.

MYTH #5: You Can Plan Your Future Career

This myth says that it’s possible for an undergraduate to plan his future career. It leads to much anxiety as students struggle to check off the credentials they think are necessary to realize their plan.

The Reality: Fast-forward to ten years after college graduation. The chances that you’re doing the same things you predicted as a student are slim. As argued here, most students have an incredibly limited understanding of the different options in the job world and how careers unfold. Indeed, many simply take a general topic they think they’re interested in — e.g., promoting equal education opportunities — then transform it into a made-up job — e.g., “I want to work at companies that promote equal education opportunities.” Trying to plan a long-term career at the age of 20 is an exercise in futility.

What You Should Do: Become an interesting, respected, academically-engaged student on your campus. Professional success will follow from here. Don’t sweat specific careers choices until it’s actually time to job-hunt. At this point, don’t try to identify “passions” (as argued here: worthless), instead adopt a lifestyle-centric approach: start with a desired lifestyle then work backwards to select the available job opportunity that moves you closest. Expect your employment situation to change frequently over time.

(Photo by gotplaid?)

24 thoughts on “5 Myths That Cause College Students Unnecessary Stress”

  1. Hi Mr. Newport! I just read your book “How to Win at College”, and I am extremely glad that I did. I am leaving for a state university in (gasp!) three days, which means I am nervous as hell but also extremely excited. Your book definitely helped assuage my fears a bit – it’s great to have a guideline like that. (:

    On another note, I was wondering if you had any information (links, personal experience, etc.) about transferring colleges. While I promised myself to give my current school a chance, I am still adamant about attending my first-choice school (a private university that is closer to home). Any tips or suggestions?

  2. On another note, I was wondering if you had any information (links, personal experience, etc.) about transferring colleges.

    Unfortunately, I don’t know much about the topic…

    This article came out a few days ago with data regarding college majors.

    Excellent article. I actually used it as the jumping off point for an essay I’m publishing tomorrow (Friday), stay tuned…

    LOL@the picture.

    It’s how I visualize someone suffering because of a college success myth…

  3. Hi There,

    This article is great- being a recent grad, it reminds me of all the things I worried about needlessly!

    I liked it so much that I linked to it from a new page I launched for Sun Microsystems: ! Check it out when you get a chance, and feel free to gimme some feedback! 🙂


  4. Finishing up grad school now after a hiatus after undergrad, I heartily agree with your Myth-Busters! I was a double-major with a minor AS WELL, and I thought I had my future all planned out. HA! All your comments are right on target.

    My biggest regret about undergrad is that I focused too narrowly on my (overloaded) studies and ended up with my nose in a book for four years. I wish I could go back and take that really cool-sounding glassblowing class our art dept. offered — how often do you get a chance like that? Sure, don’t skimp on the required courses, or let your grades slip, but have some FUN! There are opportunities there you won’t find out in “the real world.”

  5. Sure, don’t skimp on the required courses, or let your grades slip, but have some FUN!

    I think that’s key. Take the courses required for your major — of course — and do well. But with the rest of your courses have fun. No one later will say: “well, I’ve been reviewing his courses, and I think he could of jammed in more hard courses here…Reject!”

  6. This only applies to liberal arts majors, which are worthless, why even go to college for art history or american studies? No one will give you a job anyway.

  7. If you actually want to get into a professional graduate program, I wouldn’t take this advice to heart.
    ADCOMs (admission committee to medical schools) DO look at your course load in addition to your grades as well as your extra curriculars and your ability to cope with stress. They are looking at you as a whole person. If you’re the type of student who only takes 100 or 200 level courses, has no involvement with any campus organizations, has no significant hobbies, or you don’t even know where the library is, and have zero real world experience, they are going to see that and realize that you are not a serious student. There is a reason Med schools demand a copy of your transcript.
    This guide is a recipe for being a slacker and is unlikely to be helpful if you are going to pursue a real degree that actually requires technical skills. If you are only going to college to graduate with your BA and get a job, that’s fine. This is probably the ideal guide. If you are planning on becoming a professional, you need to start early. As for taking hard classes, the more material you understand during undergrad, the less you need to learn in graduate school. And when you are reading three textbooks a month, every little bit helps.
    Also, don’t be a dork either. You need balance in your life. Get out around people, have fun, but also take the hard classes and nail them down. You’ll be a rockstar.

  8. Bob Niggar: I highly agree. #3 and #5 are not accurate at all in my experience (business major). Every interview I’ve been in, I have been asked about my extracurricular activities and been commended for them. It isn’t about how much you do, but what it contributes to your skills. For #5, if you know what you want to do, volunteer in that area and begin exploring *before* you graduate. Of course plans will change, but it is better to have any plan rather than no plan! This helps keep you motivated!

  9. I think most of your points are right on target…however, in my field (atmospheric science) a double major (in applied math) as an undergrad was extremely useful at grad school. Without it, I’d be stuck taking some of those courses anyway before getting to take the required ones.

  10. I’m glad this generating real debate. I’ve always felt that the comments section is where the real advice is wrung out.

    To answer a few of the concerns from above, let me offer some clarifications:

    Myth #2: I stand by the fact that adding, in addition to your major courses, the hardest possible elective courses does not help. A med school admissions committee will look at your G.P.A., and how you did in the required pre-med courses. Whether or not your stacked in extra hard courses outside of your major is not going to make a big difference.

    Myth #3: I’m not saying do “no” extracurriculars. But following a high school model of doing as many as possible doesn’t offer any worthwhile benefit. Find something that interests you, take it somewhere innovative. Don’t stack up 10 club memberships.

  11. As previously stated, some of these “myths” are actually true for technical majors. Your major does actually matter in majors like engineering and architecture, etc. My major (Architectural Engineering) requires an average of 17 credit hours per semester (if you didn’t arrive with credits already) in order to graduate. Even so, I started out with 19 credit hours from AP tests and community college transfer credits and I’m still taking 16-17 credit hours per semester. It all just depends on your major. I would agree that grades don’t matter as much as one might think, but you still have to actually learn the stuff if you want to pass the FE, become a PE, or just keep a job in the real world in general. My advice is to join professional societies like ASCE, ASME, IEEE, etc. or become involved in a student organization that will teach you some kind of leadership or interpersonal skill, as this will be the important part in an interview. Don’t have your life planned out, but have a general idea of what you want to be doing after graduation, as this will help you focus your ambitions throughout college.

  12. This whole page is so fully wrong for so many grad. programs its almost inappropriate to have it on the internet.

    Course load matters a lot when applying to grad school. If you think these tips sound like a short-cut, its because they are, and they are totally wrong. I’ve assisted in my admissions office and they take into account course-load and x. curriculars a lot. Please ignore this if you are serious about applying to grad school.

  13. Edit to ^, her links just link to other articles on the same website, not to any actual studies; which doesn’t surprise me.

    If you want to support suposedly ‘academic’ ideas, please link to real studies or papers! Don’t just link in a circular way to yourself and claim you are finding the truth!! This is false all the way around, and its painful to see.


  14. Course load matters a lot when applying to grad school. If you think these tips sound like a short-cut, its because they are, and they are totally wrong. I’ve assisted in my admissions office and they take into account course-load and x. curriculars a lot.

    Serious, PhD granting graduate programs do not have admissions offices. Nor do they care much about your extracurriculars or try to figure out whether you took an unusual number of courses. The admissions decisions are made by professors in the department. You need to have done very well in your major and proven that you have the capability of handling research.

  15. Boy, I can’t believe how that Grad Student just embarassed himself. Not knowing proper protocol for a blog such as this. Such a fool for trying to discredit your provided evidence when you yourself (and anyone who knows anything about blogs) already knew it wasn’t legitimate evidence at all. I am currently an undergraduate heading toward medical school but after reading this article (blog?? whatever) I really just would rather do it your way. Worry about the here and now when I have the here and now right? Grad/Med schools don’t care so why should I? I assume you followed this logic and look at you, I mean you have your own blog. I wouldn’t mind lowering my sights a little from medical school and just relax and get myself a blog. Excellent advice

    PS I believe you that this advice would work for english majors but seriously??

  16. I asume you followed this logic and look at you, I mean you have your own blog.

    I did follow this logic, and in addition to “having my own blog,” I also got into the CS PhD program at MIT. While there I watched many graduate school admissions cycles, and talked with professors on the admissions committees about who they accepted and why.

    Put another way, I do know a little something about what I write about here.

  17. Hi Study Hacks,
    I like this article a lot. As a current student studying at a prestigious university filled with over-achievers, I am constantly faced with discussions of these myths.

    Most people follow them so as to be “better safe than sorry,” which is a pity. I’m glad someone as credentialed as you can come out and speak to their falsity.

  18. First time I have ever took the time to comment on any website ever. Just have to say that your first point is abjectly terrible advice.

    It is true that major/course load does not matter for some grad programs (law, as you did mention is a good example of this). However, for many grad programs major/course load is is a prereq for consideration (see: med school).

    FAR more importantly though, the majority of college grads do not go to grad school. STEM majors, as well as select business programs (accounting for example) are infinitely more useful then the average history/poli sci/art major. Dumb shit follow your dreams advice like this is exactly why we have comparative lit majors drowning in non-dischargeable student loan debt serving coffee at Starbucks. For you to hold yourself out as some kind of authority and then dispense such dangerous advice is does a serious disservice to our generation.


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