Computer Advice for College Students

One of Tina’s cousins is starting college this fall and wrote to ask me for advice on which MacBook Pro to buy and what else to buy to go with it. Thought I’d share my answer with a (slightly) larger audience.

The same basic advice would go for buy a PC laptop, too—especially the advice to buy a book, teach yourself MS Office—but I have less good information about which brand to buy. But a fairly cheap, well-reviewed 15″ model with 4 GB of RAM would be plenty for most users. Try NewEgg, TigerDirect, and PCMall for reviews, but believe it or not, Staples and BestBuy also usually have great prices. Just don’t buy the warranties from them.

1. If you’re going to buy anything from Apple, make sure you buy through the Education Store, where prices are lower. Follow this link:

After you tell them your school, you’ll still have to click on the Education Store link every time you come back to the site, but it should remember your school.

2. Buy the following:

A. The cheapest MacBook Pro. 13″ screen. 4 GB of RAM is plenty. You can upgrade to 8 GB later if you want—if you decide you want to become a video editor, great, but otherwise, you really won’t need it. Price: $1099.

B. An AppleCare Protection Plan. For $183, they take care of you if the computer breaks down at all—usually doing so even if “wink, wink” it was your fault that something broke.

C. MS Office. Buy it from Academic Superstore, though, not the Apple store. See:

Note that it costs $90 rather than $150. You’ll have to send them proof that you’re a college student, but that’s worth $60 in savings. Unless your whole family is switching to Mac, in which case the $150 version (which is a license for 3 installations) is actually a better deal.

D. A giant book to learn how to actually use MS Office. Office 2011 for Mac for Dummies looks promising. The Missing Manual series is OK, too, though I’ve been a bit disappointed with previous versions of the series in their coverage of Office for Mac. Teaching yourself how to make serious use of Word, Excel, and Powerpoint—this is a GREAT use of your time over the next couple months.

I cannot stress strongly enough how totally helpful it will be to have very solid, working knowledge of these three programs when you go on the job market. Sadly, colleges are generally not requiring classes in these subjects, and most students just fake their way through figuring out the bare minimum for each program. So teach it to yourself, and use your classwork as practice. When you’re in a job interview and can talk about your use of styles and templates (Word), formulas and pivot tables (Excel), and presenter notes, handouts, and master slides (PowerPoint), you’ll look pretty sharp.

E. Whatever antivirus software your college gives you, for free. Because they ALL do that in the desperate hopes that most students, faculty, and staff will install it.

F. Optional: Add an external monitor, keyboard (and don’t overpay for Apple’s keyboards; MacAlly makes good ones), and mouse (a simple $15 ergonomic 3-button mouse is fine; no need for a Mac-specific keyboard). Put a couple big books next to your monitor as your laptop “stand” so it’s roughly the same height as your monitor.

If you work at your desk with any frequency, this is totally worth it. It’s easy to set up for dual-screen display, which means you can have your laptop monitor for browser/spreadsheet/PDF viewing and your external display for your word processor/spreadsheet/presentation work. It’s also way better ergonomically than hunching over your laptop.

Learn enough about your computer that you’re a “power user” by the time you graduate. If you do, it’ll be worth every minute and every dollar you spend now.