There is a surefire way to fail in college. Believe it or not, it’s even worse than failing out of college. Failing in college is attending every class prescribed by the course curriculum, putting one extracurricular on your plate—say, student government—and party hopping on Fraternity Row every weekend. In short, the surest way to find yourself lost at 22 is to go to college and follow all of the rules.
So, how do you avoid ending up adrift with a diploma? Flipping the classroom is a now-well-developed concept of taking the power from the teacher and putting the educational experience in the hands of students; it’s the Socratic Method for the New Millennium. But as an undergraduate, you need to think bigger. You need to flip the university.
To approach this, first appoint yourself as CEO of a company whose aim is to disrupt one industry: the college campus. The name of the company? You, Inc.Like any company, you have competitors (other students) at all sides, so you need to make sure you differentiate your product (you). That means you don’t just pick a major and blindly follow the course catalog from class to the library to class again. That strategy may earn you As, but it won’t open up post-graduation career avenues. If you want to graduate to a wide-range of opportunities, your best bet is to wrest power from university curriculum designers and pursue the disruptive elements below.
1. Use professors—don’t let them use you.
Professors work for students, not vice versa. So, don’t be too timid to approach your professors with questions beyond those specific to their classes. Harness your professors’ areas of expertise and experience to help you discover your talents and find paths that you are uniquely suited for. Taking notes, completing problem sets and passing tests—those are simply table stakes. The real money is won when you present your professors with your own research and business ideas andask them for feedback, input and connections to people who can help. In short, start using your classes as jumping-off points to help you further your ideas and grow your network of contacts and resources.
2. Start something.
Sit down for an interview with me, and here’s the first question you’ll have to answer: What have you started? What you’ve done and what you know are important, but they alone aren’t going to score you the best jobs or earn you funding for your business. Luckily for you, college is a veritable petri dish of entrepreneurship, with professors and peers to tap as business partners and potential funders, entrepreneurship courses, majors and organizations to get involved with and entrepreneurship competitions to enter. And I know from experience at the University of Michigan that college is the perfect place to start something—a business, a movement or an organization. In college, if your idea fails, no one will crucify you for your failure. Rather, they will be impressed by the attempt and will likely encourage you to try something else.
3. Make every year an Ideas Year.
Never again will you have so many ideas available to you in your own backyard. Between classes that you can audit, the academic leaders on your doorstep, speakers that are brought in and your fellow studentsyou eat lunch with, you have no excuse not to be soaking in ideas at every opportunity. But you should actually take it one step further. Don’t just act as a sponge for the ideas surrounding you; follow up on them. If there is a speaker whose thesis intrigued you, approach him, introduce yourself and ask how you can get involved in his line of work. And if you have an idea worth sharing, do so. Everyone—from students on up to professors and university guests—is at the university to learn from the surrounding intellectuals and innovators, and you should be contributing to that conversation.
4. Leverage your school’s alumni network.
Don’t just grow a set of faculty connections; know who’s in your university’s alumni network, too. A growing body of research stresses the importance of social capital in business formation and growth. Make sure you can recite who’s on your school’s list of alumni and reach out to the people who you think can mentor you, invest in your ideas or potentially partner with you.
5. Create a fifth year.
This is a little misleading: You should graduate in four years. It’s a powerful signal on the job (and even, believe it or not, the marriage) market, and people with only some college experience are twice as likely to be unemployed as those with diplomas. But unless you are going to start something immediately after college (if not earlier), then resist the urge to get a job. Instead, find an apprenticeship. And if you’re wondering where to apply, the answer may surprise you: nowhere. You need to create your own opportunity by finding someone you respect and convincing them to let you be an apprentice. Consider this a fifth year of exploratory learning, one that takes the kinds of technical, subject-based knowledge you learn from textbooks in school classes and adds to it a practical knowledge of how industry professionals get things done on a day-to-day basis. If you do this year right, you’ll come out with fantastic tools and relationships that will help you succeed in your own venture.
Now that I’ve given you all of this advice, I’ll let you in on one more secret: There may be one or two of you who can ignore all of this and just drop out. For a tiny minority—the one percent of academia, business and technologywho have timely, world-changing ideas keeping them up at night—quitting school is probably the best thing to do. But for the rest of us, the intellectual incubator that is the American college experienceshould form our own unique launching pads. Don’t just coast through school as another name on the student roster.Instead, start working the connections, ideas, opportunities and money available to you in school. If you don’t, you’ll leave with a degree—but little else.
This article was originally published on Forbes on February 18, 2014.