The Most Important Thing You’ll Learn in College

They say that a college education is the golden ticket to a high paying and lucrative career. It’s here, in college, where you will get to grow your mind and expand your horizons. Once you graduate, your skills will be so coveted that the best corporations in the world will be more than willing to pay top dollar to secure your services. And if you want to climb to the top of the corporate ladder? Well, then you better make sure you have that four year degree, because these days, no one succeeds without one. Right?

But, what makes college so great? What can you possibly learn here that you can’t anywhere else? What is this supreme knowledge that will give you that tremendous leg up on the rest of the competition and have you on the fast track to success? What is the most important thing you will learn in college?

It’s Gotta Be…

A logical first guess would be, “how to network.” By surrounding yourself with the smartest, most talented, and most affluent, you’ll most definitely be in better company. When it comes to career prospects, as they so often say, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” I’m sure many business majors would agree with this answer, since so many of them rely on these very networks to get them their first cushy office job after graduation. No.

Ok, then it must be the “lesson plans and curriculum.” Obviously, the academics taught at these schools are far superior to what’s taught anywhere else. After all, world-class professors and scholars teach here! They surely know how to enlighten, inspire, and educate these exceptionally bright students. Through their mentoring, these college graduates will reach their full potential and be ready to succeed in the workplace. That’s the secret! No.

If it isn’t the networking, or the academics, then it has to be the “cutting-edge research.” By studying at a university, you’ll get to work with the latest and greatest, so you’ll gain important exposure to tomorrow’s technologies. Once you graduate, you’ll be ready to answer that interview question on how quantum computing works. BAM, and just like that, you’re hired with a starting salary just north of six figures! No.

And the list goes on, and on. Though the above knowledge will help you a great deal in your career and life, none of them rank as the most important thing you will learn in college. Not even close.

Hidden Meanings

The most important thing they teach you in college cannot be ascertained by reading a university’s mission statement. In fact, the most important thing you can learn is never even taught to you directly in the classroom. It’s simply a byproduct of your environment, ever present, inconspicuous, and constantly working to re-wire your subconscious. And coincidentally, four years is about the right amount of time a person needs to perfect the skill.

Once you’ve mastered it, though, it will serve you well for the rest of your life. It will increase your earnings power immensely, helping you to pay off that expensive degree many times over. Further, it will help forge your mind, helping you solve complicated, abstract problems. In anything you choose do, you’ll be grateful to have this trusty sidekick by your side.

Say What?

With that said, the most important thing you can learn in college… actually, can be learned anywhere else. Colleges, though, particularly the top universities, do an exceptional job of making sure that by the time you graduate, you’ll know how to handle being abused.

That’s right. Being abused. You’ll first learn to tolerate it. Then to accept it. Until finally, you not only expect it, but excel in spite of it.

Training Regimen

How do colleges go about doing this?

Weeder Classes
Ever noticed how jam packed those lower division classes are? Most of the 101 courses have classes that register 500+ students for each session. But, by the time you make it to upper division, the class size reduces to typically less than 30. Congratulations, you made it to the upper half of the pyramid! But getting here wasn’t easy. You had to learn to compete along the way. There are too few spots for too many interested people. So, the cruel reality is, you only made it here because others failed along the way.

Number of Classes
College is a grind. And so is each quarter/semester. It usually takes a minimum of 120 units before you can say, “I did it! I graduated from college.” This does wonders in helping someone learn patience. It takes a lot of time to complete a program, so if you are looking for instant gratification/success, you won’t find it here.

The Curve
Most colleges grade on a curve. This isn’t high school anymore, so not everyone can get to be an “A” student. At some of the more cut-throat universities, they will actually average out the grades to “B-“. A 2.7 GPA. This is now considered average!! But a 2.7 GPA is not well regarded within industry. Even a guidance counselor will tell you to leave off a 2.7 GPA on your resume.

Talk about being cruel. In highly competitive majors and universities, you’ll also be forced to compete with the best of the best. Just think about that for a second. A premiere institution like MIT will only admit the most outstanding students from across the world. Everyone accepted here graduated high school with a 4.0+ GPA. When you take all of these exceptional minds and pit them against each other, you can’t help but create a competitive landscape that elevates the bar higher for everyone. With the curve in effect, someone has to take the fall and receive a “C” grade. If you aren’t lucky, you might score a 95% on the final and still barely pass the class with a “C-“, or 1.7 GPA (which would likely make you a candidate for being put on academic probation). All because everyone else scored 98% or higher. Welcome to the real world. Reality isn’t always fair.

It’s doubtful that many high school students have ever needed to pull an all-nighter studying for an exam. In college, this is normal for most anyone. Just check the libraries and labs come mid-terms and finals season. For some majors, this is a normal occurrence every week of the semester/quarter. This type of abuse will help a person forge a work ethic second-to-none. If you are consistently able to churn out quality work in spite of a heavy workload, often times working 16+ hours/day, then 8 hours/day of industry work will seem like a piece of cake!

You Don’t Get Paid
And here’s the best reward for all of this tough abuse – College students don’t get paid a dime for all their hard work! That’s right, you put in four tough years of nose-to-the-grindstone labor, and all you get in return in a piece of paper? If this constitutes as fair compensation for your efforts, then minimum wage must sound really appealing! Those who want to subject themselves to even more cruelty can sign up for graduate studies.

Post-College Ramifications

How does this abuse help you later in your career and life? In many ways. Here are my own personal observations:

Tenacity and Hunger
College graduates are hungry. That’s a big reason why a lot of companies like to hire them in droves. You see, once a person graduates, the abuse from the past four years is still fresh in their system. Once they start working, they’ll be more than willing to do the grunt work that their more experienced peers shun away from. New hires also generally don’t mind working long hours, often arriving early in the morning and not leaving until after everyone, even the cleaning crews have gone home for the day.

The probability that a fresh grad makes a lasting contribution, or innovation is actually quite high. Some of the best work I ever accomplished in industry occurred during my first few years of work. In my mind, I was still engaged in a fierce competition to keep my job, so I had to keep earning “A’s”.

Higher Standards
Those who are able to endure and survive the gauntlet that is college for four years should be accustomed to producing high quality work. The commitment to excellence should now be ingrained into their being. After all, it’s hard to imagine someone being able to successfully fend off the best challengers in the world for four years, become a champion, and then revert back to their previous, lackadaisical tendencies.

For myself, even when I’m busy with work, I still feel the need to have a personal project on the side (like this blog). The training has made it difficult for me to just sit on my idle hands and watch time pass by.

Getting through college is like surviving a marathon race. You will only succeed by taking it a stride at a time. Producing one stellar mid-term grade won’t matter if you then decide to forego studying for the final. No, what matters is the entire body of work, which can only be achieved through consistency.

You don’t earn a degree unless you show up everyday and constantly produce quality work. When it comes to reaching early financial independence, the same logic applies. That is, now I have to constantly save my paychecks, invest regularly, and stay consistent throughout the journey. But to me, this is no big deal. College already taught me a thing or two about delayed gratification. I know reaching early FI won’t come quickly, or easily, but if I could survive six years of engineering and over 160 units of coursework, I know I can do this.


People attend college for many different reasons. The most obvious reasons being: to network, to acquire knowledge, and to participate in cutting-edge research. But as it turns out, those skills are not the ones that will help the most after graduation. Instead, it’s the constant abuse a person endures throughout college that will best prepare them for life. The person who not only knows how to deal with abuse, but shines in spite of it, will be the one most ready to take on the world.

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Brick By Brick Investing | Marvin

A very harsh and telling article that NEEDED TO BE WRITTEN! I will admit that I hold deep resentment for my alma mater and degree. While I think I would have been better off putting that time to good use elsewhere, I did learn a couple things in college and yes abuse was one of them!

Brick By Brick Investing | Marvin
Reply to  FI Fighter

At my university the student body was treated like children. Every decision was made for us, if you missed 3 classes or so you automatically dropped a letter grade. I know this seems minor but it use to get me so mad. If a student doesn’t feel the need to come to class then he or she will fail the test on the material the professor presented. Plain and simple. I think idiotic rules like this set students up for failure in the real world. Not too mention I literally had 3 classes that taught me anything. I was very… Read more »

John S @ Frugal Rules
7 years ago

Good post. College can be great, if that’s what is best for you. I look back at my years in school and see that I did not fully take advantage of what I could really learn while there. I like your analogy of comparing it to a marathon, that is definitely the case.

Gillian @ Money After Graduation

I definitely think the most important thing that I “learned” at university was maturity. Working two jobs while doing full-time studies was intense. I also learned to carry myself in a much more professional manner. Important skills but not the ones you expect to learn in school.


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[…] The Most Important Thing You’ll Learn In College – Do you know what it is? You’ll have to read to find out, but it’s not anything you’ll learn in a lecture hall! […]


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[…] The Most Important Thing You’ll Learn In College – Do you know what it is? You’ll have to read to find out, but it’s not anything you’ll learn in a lecture hall! […]


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