Since it's the "off-season" for college applications, this is the time of year when families have the chance to be very reflective of what the college experience will stand for.

If you're sixteen or seventeen, it's really the first instance in your life when it's up to you to fill in the blanks about where you'll go and what you'll do next.

If you're headed to college, the nice thing is that you don't have to plan it down to the last detail. Your undergraduate years are set up to help you develop the tools you'll need to manage your adult life. And while getting a job that will enable you to support yourself after graduation is certainly important, it's not the only game in town.

The role that college plays in preparing you for the "real world" isn't exactly a matter of going from Point A to Point B, either.

For most students, college is a more complex, subtle, and often indirect means of getting ready to live a meaningful and fulfilling adult life. I've found that many students tend to find a new degree of confidence and relaxation when we discuss some of the benefits of a liberal arts education that aren't always obvious:

  1. You learn to follow your authentic interests.

    While you'll have some general education or "distribution" requirements, sometimes in subject areas you're not all that crazy about, you still get a range of different courses you can choose from to get those credits. Say you're not a math person but can take Statistics in Sports Management, or perhaps history isn't your thing but you can take Geometry from Euclid to the Modern Cityscape, learning to approach a subject from a preferred angle can make any experience more enjoyable. It's when you get to choose your electives and upper-level courses, however, that you discover what you're really all about -- and often that informs your career path in ways you never could have expected.
  2. You get much clearer about your "types" of people.

    The social aspect of college is really no less important than the academic. When you thoroughly research your college's culture and come to understand the values you share with your future classmates, that self-knowledge pays off for many years to come. (For me, encountering other Northwestern alumni in Los Angeles has become one of the greatest blessings my alma mater could have given me.) Not only do you have overlapping experiences that help you relate in conversation, but you start to understand more of the nuances of people and the kinds of relationships you're most likely to form (i.e., you know who'd make a close friend, a solid roommate, an effective collaborator in a business venture, etc.).
  3. You become more fluid among different fields of thinking.

    College is when you really dive deep into your coursework -- you learn about the distinctions among different schools of philosophy; the defining characteristics of a generation of writers; the various dialects of a parent language; or even the applications of multi-variable calculus in real-life scenarios. You acquire vocabularies and systemic understandings of the ways that people from various walks of life have made sense of the world around you. Which brings us to...
  4. You greatly improve your communication.

    With that range of exposure and new terminology, you begin to think in different ways. You practice building arguments. You are pushed to be razor sharp in the way you articulate your thoughts, both in speaking and in writing. Because you have had a better glimpse into the ways in which other people's minds work, you have an easier time finding the language you need to reach those minds. Those skills are the foundation for your ability to integrate yourself into every future organization or community you wish to become a contributing member of.
  5. You learn how to learn -- independently

    Perhaps the most important skill to acquire amid all the work, study, and exploration that you'll do during college is becoming a self-directed learner. Understanding how you can best find, process, and retain important information is only the start; more crucial than ever in the internet age is knowing where the most credible sources can be found, and how to verify and cross-reference your information. It's not just reading online articles or checking out books from the library; it's also connecting with mentors who can help guide and teach you along the way. Ultimately, what we're talking about is your ability to grow and make meaning out of your life -- for the rest of your life.