Five Rules Every College Student Should Break

Ryan Kelly

Rules to break:

  1. Take the Hardest Classes You Can
  2. Choose a Major Because it has Good Job Prospects
  3. Get Straight A’s
  4. Be Well Rounded
  5. Keep Your Nose to the Grindstone

“Remember: life is short, break the rules.”

This famous quote comes from James Dean, an actor who became a symbol of teenage disillusionment and social estrangement in the 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause.

If you take this quote too literally, you might end up breaking actual laws like the film’s iconic character, Jim. I certainly wouldn’t recommend this literal interpretation to any of my students, but I would encourage them to see this quote more figuratively, where they feel unafraid to break some of the unwritten rules during their time in college.

What do I mean by “unwritten rules?” I’m referring to the popular ideas or dominant narratives about what college students should or shouldn’t do to be successful. These rules are propagated by advisors, parents, or even the students themselves, repeated so often that they become ingrained in the collective psyche over time.

Based on my 11+ years of experience helping people get into college and graduate school, I’ve sussed out 5 of these unwritten rules that students should definitely break. Following them puts you at risk of blending in with everyone else, or worse, falling into situations that you regret.

Rule (to break) #1 - Take the Hardest Classes You Can

Regardless of your intended career path, there will be required courses for your degree or prerequisites you’ll need to complete for the next step in your academic journey.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t be strategic about how you complete these courses. Take a look at the “Applicant Cards” below and decide which semester schedule looks better to you:

If you haven’t picked up on a theme here, I feel that there’s definitely a “Goldilocks Principle” with an amount of courses that’s not too much and not too little, but just right. Brooke Worm and Slacker Jack lie at the extremes, while Norma L. is hitting the sweet spot.

Unfortunately, students sometimes have the false notion that taking the hardest academic route will make them stand out to employers of graduate schools. That’s simply not true.

These evaluators only see the names of your degrees and courses, the grades or GPA, without any way to know how difficult or easy it was for you to achieve them. They are aware of things like grade inflation/deflation or heavy/light course loads, but they don’t have the time or energy to consider all of those gray areas. In other words, they don’t really care about the context.

We can use a quick basketball analogy to illustrate my point. When choosing courses, it’s best to opt for the sure-thing slam dunk, as opposed to the 16-foot two-pointer from the corner since they’re worth the same amount of points in the end.

A long two-pointer is equivalent to taking an especially challenging professor or taking multiple challenging courses at once. It’s harder for you, but no one will appreciate the context. What qualifies as a long two? All of the following are things students do to try to impress employers and graduate schools. They usually fail (since people are not easily impressed), and they could spend the time on much more productive activities:

  • Taking a harder version of a math class (i.e. “Calculus for Engineers” when you’re not an engineering major)
  • Double majoring (which takes tons of time and isn’t that impressive)
  • Taking 20 credit hours each semester

Avoid these unnecessary long two’s so that you can spend time on the parts of your game that will matter more to your long-term success as an all-star applicant for jobs and grad admissions.

As long as you’re not missing out on information you need for the future, you should take the easiest classes and lightest course loads as possible.

Rule (to break) #2 - Choose a Major Because it has Good Job Prospects

In some cases, you may not have a choice in this regard. Maybe you have potential employers in mind for the future and know that they’ll only accept certain majors. And this might be compounded by the fact that you’re at a small school with only one of those majors.

But in other cases, especially if you want to attend graduate school, the programs will only care about you completing certain prerequisites, leaving you free to major in anything you want.

The most stereotypical examples of this unwritten rule are pre-meds choosing a biology major or aspiring attorneys choosing a pre-law major.

Let’s take the biology major as a quick example. Not only do you not have to major in biology to become a physician, but there are many drawbacks to being a biology major.

Let's compare biology with an “easy” major, say history:

  • Who's more unique and likely to stand out? History majors.
  • Who's likely to have easier classes (not graded on a curve)? History majors.
  • Who's going to have a better GPA? History majors.
  • Who's going to be able to spend more time outside of the classroom doing interesting things that make them a better candidate? History majors.

There’s even data to show that humanities majors do better on the MCAT than biology majors!

If you were a medical school, would you choose Eugene or Anna? Seems pretty clear to me.
Biggest overall takeaways:

  • Major in whatever you want because graduate schools and employers often want to see a diverse range of majors.
  • The most important part of your major is that you get good grades. So pick something you’re naturally good at, allowing you to do well in classes while spending time and energy outside the classroom pursuing other interests to help your resume/application.
  • If you choose a stereotypical major, you will need to find other ways to stand out.

Rule (to break) #3 - Get Straight A’s

There’s no denying that you need to meet GPA or test-score standards for certain jobs or graduate school programs.

But it’s definitely just one piece of the puzzle. Data suggests that the trend of “holistic admissions” continues to rise among colleges and graduate schools, meaning that scores are becoming less important than they were in the past.

In my own experience, I have met my fair share of statistical juggernauts–students with incredible grades and scores–who come to me as reapplicants or rejects from their previous attempts at employment or admission.

Why? Because they focused so solely on school that they missed other desired competencies, leaving them with nothing to distinguish them from other strong academic candidates.

Ace clearly has the stats, but Rita sounds like a far more interesting person.

Usually the missing components for students relate to either service or leadership, since most schools or employers want applicants who:

  • Have a track record of altruistic behavior
  • Have shown a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion
  • Have dedicated themselves to passion projects
  • Have illustrated their ability to contribute to or spearhead teams
  • Have demonstrated an ability to work with people different from themselves

The way you satisfy these criteria will depend a lot on your personality, skills, or aspirations, but at a minimum you’ll need to splash a little service and leadership into your resume to be at your most competitive when it comes time to send out applications.

Rule (to break) #4 - Be Well Rounded

There’s a prevailing myth that students need a huge range and a high volume of different experiences in order to impress employers or graduate schools.

But the truth is that depth in your activities is more important than breadth.

Sure, you need some variability so that you’re not completely one-note, but not at the expense of becoming what I call a “pancake person”–shallow, spread too thin, often dry or burned out.

I’ve seen many resumes that are forgettable because they’re filled with short-term activities with little measurable accomplishment, innovation, or individualization.

This is called the Laundry List Fallacy. People who succumb to this fallacy believe that checking off boxes on a list of extracurriculars is a good thing that will automatically lead to success. It’s not. It’s good to be involved, of course, but if the only purpose of the involvement is to check things off a list, then all of the hard work you’re doing won’t help you get a job or an acceptance.

I try to encourage students to “be pointy, not well-rounded.” This typically means that your various experiences feed into one another, creating trends in your involvements. It also typically means that you find a way to innovate and do something extraordinary.

Paula has twice as many activities as Johnny, but they’re less involved and less unique, making them pretty unhelpful in standing out from the pack.

The idea for the Johnny Depth character above is inspired by a past student of mine, who used to be a competitive swimmer and had done a lot of research into neurodegenerative diseases. He combined these two qualities into a “Dementia Friendly Swimming Program” to help people stay active and maintain cognitive function.

That’s what it means to be pointy. Everything is connected and achieves depth. That’s far more memorable and impressive than a massive grab-bag of disparate involvements, no matter how “diverse” they may seem.

Rule (to break) #5 - Keep Your Nose to the Grindstone

One commonality between many of my students is that they’re in a big rush. Or at least they’re pressured to feel that way. They don’t want to fall behind the curve. They must always be taking the next step. They need to act now and strike while the iron is hot.

This typically arises from students comparing themselves to their peers or being pushed by parents or advisors to do something they’re not completely ready for.

James Dean said that life is short, but I wouldn’t recommend treating it like a race. Or if you want to view it that way, consider it a marathon, not a sprint.

So, if you want to take a year between high school and college, maybe to work a job and decide what you actually want to do with your life, go for it!

If you want to take a gap year between college and your graduate school applications, I am in total support of that!

There are statistics to support the idea that gap years lead to greater student success, but it also just makes logical sense when you stop and think about it.

Ronnie got there first, but it’s almost certain he will be overshadowed by Peter.

Taking time off lets you reflect carefully, plan ahead, and most effectively complete every step you need to reach your next milestone, whatever that may be. I’m not encouraging laziness or inactivity, so your off time should be spent productively, even if that just means doing something interesting or experimenting with some new passion.

Breaking this rule doesn’t only relate to gap years. I used to take off one Friday per month in graduate school, where I slept in, skipped my classes, did zero homework, went on a solo mountain hike, got takeout from my favorite local restaurant, and watched a movie alone.

Having these “mental health days” that turned into long weekends was incredibly helpful for my short-term sanity and energy levels, which actually translated into more focus and commitment in the long-term when I returned to my responsibilities. Plus, some of my best writing ideas and life plans manifested during these blissful Fridays.

James Dean was a rebel without a cause. I think it’s fine for us to have some days without any kind of cause. Some people say that idle hands are the devil’s playground, but everything is fine in moderation–including lazy days where you veg out or do something just for yourself. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad for a little rest and relaxation.

Have I missed anything? What unwritten rules have you broken during college that helped you get ahead? Let me know in the comments below.

- Ryan