Self-Improvement for College Students How to Complement Your Education & Pursue Personal Development

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Lindy Schneider Read bio

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Self-improvement for college students can not only help set them apart upon graduation, but may also help them lead more complete and fulfilled lives. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 17 million students enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs in the fall of 2017. Considering that the national average graduation rate for first-timers at a four-year institution is currently 60 percent, there will be more than 10 million college graduates in and after 2021. Many of these students are looking to complete their degree and join the workforce as soon as possible, but the journey through college should be about more than just getting a final grade and a diploma. College should be about self-discovery and self-improvement, and those that can add this as a priority will experience better job prospects in their field, as well as happier, more well-rounded lives, when they finish their degree.

Understanding Self-Improvement for College Students

Students must first understand what self-improvement is and its importance before they can make moves to improve. It often makes sense to think of self-improvement as basically personal development or becoming more well-rounded. Often, though, it means much more. Read on for some more information on these basic questions.

What is self-improvement?

According to expert Lindy Schneider, a professional who helps students launch careers while still in college, self-improvement relates to how we present ourselves to the world, both personally and professionally.

Self-improvement is learning and adopting ways to respond better to others and to life situations. This entails practicing professionalism so that you are better in the work place. It entails being consistently gracious, so you have better personal relationships.

Lindy Schneider

Why should I pursue personal development while in school?

College students have much to prioritize and think about during their careers. Courses are time consuming and can be stressful, and often students may be juggling jobs or family during the semester, too. So why pursue something else to add to the time crunch?

It should be noted that making it to college in the first place is a form of self-improvement and is a great accomplishment. But students shouldn’t stop there; rather, they should take advantage of other opportunities they find there.

[Students] can leave school with a degree, but if that is all they obtained while at college, they have missed all of the possibilities that exist just beyond it.

Scott Vail

What does self-improvement and personal development include?

In short, self-improvement and personal development can be almost anything, assuming it is being used to help you become the best version of yourself. Self-improvement and personal development can be anything that requires dedication and contributes to your specific goals and growth.

In his blog, Scott H. Young uses specific questions to help find each individual’s ideal starting point to a path of self-improvement:

  • How can I feel courage?

  • Where do I feel hope?

  • Where can I become more knowledgeable?

  • How can I be more active or healthy?

  • What is something I’ve always been interested in but haven’t yet pursued?

First Steps: Identifying & Planning Your Personal Development

College students who recognize the need for self-improvement just need to take a simple step to get going. But knowing where to start can help them successfully pursue self-improvement. Below are some points to consider when identifying your own path to personal development.

  • Identify your vision

    Who do you want to be? How do you want the people around you to perceive you? What are your long- and short-term goals? One common adage to propose to yourself is this—What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail? Focus on specific areas of your life like finance, education, interpersonal relationships, and health.

  • Identify obstacles that are stopping you from achieving it

    Fear of failure and time management are some common obstacles that stop people from self-development. Additionally, there are some deep-rooted reasons within us that might prevent us from trying new things. Skillyouneed.com lists these obstacles that fall into the realms of spirituality, identity, belief, competence, behavior, and environment. For instance, saying “I just don’t know how to do that” is a competence issue, and “People like me don’t do things like this” is an identity issue.

  • Try a personal SWOT analysis

    SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) is a common analysis done in business models as a strategic planning tool. Trying it at the personal level can help you look objectively at what you are good at and where you can use improvement, as well as what external factors can aid you and which can knock you down. Financial aid and scholarships are opportunities, job rejections and financial obligations are threats.

  • Form a plan

    “Focus on ONE area at a time, whether it is health, finances, personal relationships, or academia and get a mentor or ask for help from someone you admire and has success in the area that you are lacking,” Vail says. “People love to help other people succeed.

9 Self-Improvement Ideas for College Students

College students seeking self-improvement generally have a heavy work-load when taking full-time classes and potentially working. The good news is that self-improvement doesn’t have to be demanding. Check out some of the options below to see some that might apply to you.

College campuses are full of clubs and groups that are always looking for interested members. There is a group for every type of hobby, so it should be easy to link up with one for specific self-improvement endeavors.

Our recommendations:

  • Volunteerism- or service-based clubs give students a great network and great experience in helping others.

  • Any personal hobby that might relate to a career field, like science clubs or book clubs. College is all about acting professionally within your network, and these groups provide opportunities to do just that.

External feedback is really the only way we can understand how we’re being perceived by others.

Our recommendations:

  • Ask a mentor or someone you respect in your field to give you feedback. What are you like to be around? Are you someone they would want to introduce to a colleague or other professional?

  • Ask an objective party to collect anonymous feedback about you. This may be harsher in some instances since anonymity can make people free to say whatever they want, but you can sift through the responses to find constructive criticism.

There is a wealth of information to be found in the pages of books that others have written. Those who’ve walked the path before you can give insight and advice in mistakes they’ve made that you can’t learn on your own. Plus, hint, hint, reading is free!

Our recommendations:

  • The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli. This book uses research from areas like psychology, business, and neuroscience and helps us understand how to better analyze information and make clearer, better decisions.

  • Small Move, Big Change by Caroline Arnold. Arnold gives very helpful insight using easy-to-understand research to help us understand how to use ‘microresolutions” to make lasting change in our everyday habits, plus in how we set and achieve goals.

Podcasts can be listened to anywhere—on the walk to school, on the bus, between classes, etc., and again... they’re free!

Our recommendations:

  • Tiny Leaps, Big Changes. Self-development-oriented without being overtly self-help, this podcast is perfect for college students who want to make a change in their habits.

  • Stuff You Should Know. This podcast arms its listeners with random information about myriad topics. College students who are interested in well-rounded education and knowledge of the world should definitely check this one out.

Ted Talks are short video lectures given by professionals of all kinds. There is one for nearly every subject you can think of that is enlightening, informative, and inspiring.

Our recommendations:

  • Angela Lee Duckworth: The Key to Success? Grit. College students likely underestimate how much can be attained by working harder than everyone else. Duckworth explains “the power of passion and perseverance” in her six-minute presentation.

  • Dan Gilbert: The Surprising Science of Happiness. Part mindfulness and part neuro-science, Gilbert explains to us that being happy doesn’t have to be hard since our brain will find happiness in most any situation. We just have to let it.

  • There are a ton of outstanding Ted Talks, too many to list here. Check out this article for College Rank for more options, or head to Ted Talks online.

While students must take the required courses for their degree programs, there are other classes that they should consider taking if they align with their interests and goals.

Our recommendations:

  • Personal Finance. Most of us don’t learn how to balance a checkbook, analyze an account statement, or amortize a loan unless we take a finance course. No one teaches us about investments, retirement, or paying extra toward principle on a loan. This is valuable information that students can use to set themselves up for success in life.

  • Public Speaking. Communication is key in every relationship and most every career. The way we carry ourselves and speak in front of people is often the first impression that people have of us. Students should take the opportunity to learn how to make a good impression.

  • Want to learn more about free online courses that can help with personal development? Check out our guide to Massive Open Online Courses here.

Once students have an inkling of the career direction in which they may move, they should seek out the corresponding professional organization. There are many in each field, and they often offer membership discounts for students, along with networking opportunities and even scholarship funding.

Our recommendations:

  • American Management Association: The AMA is one of the premier organizations for business students. It’s annual student membership fee is $95, and it provides access to featured web content and invitations to select continuing education opportunities.

  • American Society for Nutrition: The ASN is the primary research society for the science of nutrition. Student memberships are available for $30 a year and include free access to numerous research publications.

We often learn by the experience of others, and the more information they can pass down to us, the better off we are. College students seeking self-improvement should find a professional in their field, on campus or not, who can help them goal-set and understand their place in the world.

Our recommendations:

  • College staff and faculty: “The best resources on campus are the people: professors, administrators, Resident Hall Advisors, Career Advisors, and Graduate Assistants, to name a few,” Schneider says. “All of these people can give a student wise direction. A student should request an appointment to talk with a professor and ask him or her about opportunities in his or her field of interest.”

  • A professional in your field: Many colleges can connect students with local professionals. For example, the faculty at the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno connects its students with local public relations, print journalists, and other journalism professionals in the area.

A healthy body contributes to a healthy mind. Confidence comes from feeling good and flows into all aspects of our professional and personal lives.

Our recommendations:

  • Join the student gym. “Many campuses offer exercise and sport equipment that the student can utilize to strengthen the body as well,” Schneider says. Students usually get access to on-campus health centers and gyms at low prices. These gyms also offer a range of classes, from yoga and kickboxing to Pilates and aerobics.

  • Get outside. Go for a hike, a walk, or a run. Being outside can give us much needed air and Vitamin D, plus it’s a great way to explore different parts of the city you’re living in, and spend time with people, too.

Common Personal Development Barriers & How to Overcome Them

Self-improvement isn’t always easy, and there are common pitfalls that students fall into that delay their progress. Read on for more information about these common pitfalls and how to avoid them.

  • Doing too much too soon.

    It’s easy to start strong when we’re excited about our goals in self-improvement. But it’s important to look at one piece at a time. If we’re focusing on everything, we’re not improving at any one thing. College students should slow down and be very mindful and methodical about the path they plan for self-improvement.

  • Being impatient.

    “Focus on the small wins, because incremental improvement over time is sustainable,” Vail says. “Look at the person who wants to lose 50 pounds and then after two months has only lost 12—they get frustrated and quit!

    “Start out trying to lose ten and work your way up as you build confidence in your success and ability.”

    This weight-loss analogy transfers to any kind of effort to make progress, whether its forming relationships, becoming comfortable in social settings, or improving your interview skills. Progress is progress, no matter how small.

  • Comparing ourselves to others.

    Lindy Schneider notes that it’s tough to focus on self-improvement when we’re worried about other people. “The biggest pitfall in pursuing self-improvement is that the student often starts by focusing on his or her own shortcomings,” she says. “The students can become very negative about themselves and can become steeped in comparison trying to be like someone else that they think has it all together.

    “This creates a slippery slope toward self-loathing and defeat.”

    Instead of making comparisons to other people, college students should focus on their own progress, and remember that even if it’s small, it’s still progress and will add up over time.

  • Setting unrealistic or unattainable goals.

    Wanting to make change is an admirable quality, and as we’ve seen is the first step in self-improvement. However, sometimes we sacrifice so much of who we are innately that the change isn’t productive.

    “Every person has a unique perspective and worldview that was built through their life experiences and knowledge, and they should not throw that away just for the sake of change,” Schneider says. “Not all change is for the better. I advise students in my training program to start by creating a list of the things they like about themselves. These characteristics need to be nurtured.

    “Then I have them list what they would like to change about themselves. Finally, I have them determine why they want that change”

  • Having a fixed mindset.

    Maybe an effort at self-improvement doesn’t seem worth it because it doesn’t fit in with the construct of what life has been like thus far. Believing that something is unattainable because of your current lifestyle, skills or traits can hinder your personal growth. Instead of looking at a goal or idea and seeing it as something that doesn’t necessarily fit right now, shift your mindset to explore actual ways to make it a part of your daily routine and personal expectations.