Other posts in this blog are devoted to writing and editing concerns, but this one is not. A few years ago, a neighbor asked if I would have coffee with her college-bound son and give him some advice. Having made a list of thoughts to share, I decided to clean it up and share it here. I ran a draft by several of my colleges, each of whom had 30+ years of experience. This article, then, grew out of a collective desire to help new college students make the most of their post-secondary experience.

* * * * * * *

For nearly four decades, my colleagues and I watched students make the adjustment from high school to college, both at big universities and at small liberal arts colleges. Year after year, some students thrived and excelled while others crashed and burned.

What makes the difference? Some success or failure is, of course, a consequence of personality or life circumstances, but a lot of it has to do with attitudes and choices. 

We have seen the powerful transformation that education can have on a young person, so to help students get the most out of their college experience, we offer the following advice: (1) set the stage for academic success, (2) ask for help, (3) manage time well, and (3) consider life outside the classroom. The section at the end is for parents, guardians, and other adults who care about college-bound students:

Set the Stage for Academic Success

  • Read your college bulletin. Every college has different requirements for graduation (the number of hours needed, specific courses to be taken, other requirements to be met, etc.). Be sure to talk with your academic advisor specifically about all registration decisions. But unfortunately, not all advisors are as familiar as they should be with requirements, and ultimately the responsibility for fulfilling them on time is yours. You need to be very familiar with your college bulletin, too.  Most financial aid runs out after four years, so it is critically important for you to finish on time. The bulletin is likely published digitally on your institution’s website.
  • The course catalog might be part of the bulletin or a separate document.  Remember that the smaller the college, the less likely it is that every course will be offered every semester. Even at larger institutions, some courses may be offered only once or twice during your four years at the institution. If there is a course you are excited to take, talk with the department chair for that discipline and ask how often it is offered. If you are REALLY interested in a course, ask who usually teaches it and go talk to that person.  Professors love to teach courses that students are interested in, and if you can identify a small group of interested students, the professor might be able to get it on the schedule (more likely at smaller colleges than larger ones, but not exclusively).
  • In your first semester, you will likely take only (or at least mostly) general education (sometimes called “core”) courses. If you are earning a bachelor’s degree, these are the courses that set your degree apart from a technical or associate degree. The idea is that to be an educated human being, you should know a little bit about a lot of topics and not just a lot about your major.  These are important courses—especially if you’re undecided about a major. However, don’t let anyone talk you into taking certain courses to “get them out of the way” your first semester.  Instead, at a time when you are adjusting to being on your own, being away from home, and being responsible for every aspect of your life, make sure your course load is very manageable. Here are two tips for at least your first semester:
    • Consider taking the minimum number of courses you have to take to be considered full time (and eligible for the dean’s/president’s list—check the bulletin!). Note: If you brought in some AP, IB, or dual-enrollment credits, you’ll likely be fine taking the minimum. If you didn’t, check to see how many credit hours you will need to graduate, divide that number by 8, and make sure you earn at least that many hours every semester. (If you’re willing to take some in the summer, you’ll have even more cushion, but make sure financial aid will cover them!) Also, if you’re unsure about any of the courses, sign up for one extra and decide after the first class meetings which one to drop. Also, remember that if you take the minimum number of hours to be a full-time student, you won’t be able to drop one if it gives you trouble. Remaining a full-time student is critically important and tied to financial aid, residence hall access, and on-time degree completion. Again, talk to your academic advisor.
    • At least for your first semester, choose courses you like and/or are good at. Doing so will go a long way toward ensuring that you have a positive first semester. A good GPA is confidence building and provides a solid foundation. A poor GPA is hard to bring up and can even mean a semester of being on academic probation. Get off on the right foot.
  • Colleges/universities have a “drop/add” period that typically lasts at least several days and maybe up to a week. During this period, you may drop classes without having your record reflect that you dropped them. Remember that you need to keep enough credit hours to be full time, and you should ALWAYS talk to your advisor before dropping any classes to be sure you don’t create any problems for yourself with graduating on time and/or with financial aid. (I know I’ve said that twice already, but it is THAT important!) This is also a good time to check on classes you wanted to take but which were full when you registered; someone else may have dropped, and a seat may have become available.
  • If there is a class you REALLY want to take but it’s full, go talk to the professor. Professors love to have students in their classes who want to be there.  Sometimes they will allow you to add the class even when it’s full. If you aren’t in another class at the same time (one you would have to drop should a seat in the preferred class become available), then show up for the class and speak with the professor either right before or right after to express your interest in adding it.
  • GO TO CLASS. A lot of students blow off classes for almost any reason. But it’s a lot harder to find out what you missed than simply to go to class yourself.  Plus, if you are asking others what you missed, you’re trusting that they understood what was important.  Big mistake.
  • Pay attention in class. You’re there, so why not take advantage of the time to listen and to try to figure out what you will need to know on tests and what is going to be expected on projects.  You are (or someone is) paying a lot of money for this education; get everything you can out of it. Plus, professors know when you have checked out–when you’re looking at a cell phone in your lap, have your head down on the desk, or are doing homework for another class. Such behaviors are not only disrespectful but foolish; your professors will be be faced with deciding whether to round up your exam grade (or even your final grade) to the next highest letter grade if your score is close. They are the people who will write your letters of recommendation for grad school, jobs, and internships.  Make a good impression. Make it easy for them to give you the benefit of the doubt and to recognize that you are responsible, intellectually curious, and mature. One way to reveal those traits is to . . .
  • Be engaged in class.
    • Sit near the front (less easily distracted).
    • Ask questions and answer questions your professor asks. Class is much more fun when you’re engaged; plus, you’re showing the professor that you care.  Win-win.
    • Occasionally seats are assigned. If you end up with an assigned seat that’s not where you can function well, talk to the professor privately after class about moving.
    • Sometimes you’ll have friends taking the same classes. Naturally, you’ll want to sit near them, but be careful not to let that friendship be a distraction. Make the tough decision to sit elsewhere or to study on your own if it becomes clear that your friendship is interfering with your success.
    • Take notes. If you struggle to take helpful notes, ask your professor for permission to record the classes so you can listen to them again later and take better notes (or fill in gaps). Even if you never read your notes later, just the fact that you TOOK notes will put you ahead.  Plus, taking notes helps keep you focused. (Recent research indicates that writing notes by hand makes them more memorable than using a keyboard.)
  • Most colleges/universities will allow students to take one or two courses “pass-fail.” That means that you don’t earn a grade in the course, and as long as you pass it, it won’t affect your GPA. A lot of students worry so much about their GPA that they never dare to take courses that might challenge them. They will overlook a course that sounds interesting because they are worried it might “blow their GPA.” Ask the registrar’s office about the availability of pass-fail courses. After you graduate, it will be a lot harder to find the time and money to take interesting courses like the myriad ones available to you in college.
  • You don’t have to know your major right away or even for the first year (or possibly two). The most common question people ask soon-to-be college students is their major. Instead, we should be asking young people “How do you hope college will change you?” You are going to college to learn about yourself, to question your beliefs and values and to make them your own. You may discover in a general education course that you love a particular discipline and decide to pursue it as a major.  But you don’t have to know right away.  “Undeclared” is perfectly fine for a while.
  • Pick up a minor or two or a second major. No matter what your major ends up being, you will benefit personally and on the job market if you can also do one of these things: (1) write well, (2) create computer code, (3) understand digital analytics, (4) design a website, (5) speak a foreign language, or (6) speak well. These are skills that nearly every workplace needs, and if you can do the work of that profession (your major) AND have one or more of these additional skills, your resume will stand out. Even if you are headed for a professional graduate school, you want to be well-rounded. In fact, the top medical schools are now looking for humanities majors, understanding that a physician needs to understand human nature.
  • Even if you are planning to go to law school or med school and are worried about a good GPA, don’t neglect to join clubs, engage in activities, and/or pick up a second major unrelated to your first major. Be able to show those professional schools that you are well rounded academically and socially.
  • Have academic integrity. Most colleges have an honor code that you will be asked to uphold. Make the decision to be an advocate for honesty in your work. Don’t cheat on tests or download papers from the Internet. Don’t plagiarize. When you walk across the stage and receive your diploma in four years, you want to know that you earned it honestly. It is easy to get caught up in a culture that thinks nothing of cheating, but make a pledge to yourself to be better than that. If you do cheat in any of these ways, even if you don’t get caught, you will have to live the rest of your life with the knowledge that you didn’t earn your degree honestly.  If you make a mistake (and we all make mistakes), learn from it and vow to do better.

Ask for Help! 

  • The best professors went into the teaching profession for two reasons: (1) They love their subject matter and want you to be excited about it, too. (2) They love to teach and want to see you succeed. So if you’re struggling with ANYTHING in a class (can’t hear, don’t understand the material, don’t know how to study for a test, can’t do the homework), email the professor and ask if you can sit down one-on-one during office hours and talk. Don’t stay too long, but let the faculty member know that you want to do well and would like advice about how you can succeed. The very fact that you cared enough to reach out to a faculty member will go a long way toward building a good rapport.
  • When you go to a professor, try to be specific about what you need help doing. Show that you’ve tried to do the work, and point out where you are getting stuck. In other words, do your part first.
  • Most campuses have tutoring centers—a writing center, a math lab, etc.—where you can go for help from trained tutors, often other students who are good at that subject. Take advantage of that FREE help! Find out where they are and how to sign up for an appointment even before you need them.
  • Some students find that the skills centers are great places to do difficult homework. They are usually quiet, and there are people available to help you if you get stuck while you’re doing your homework.
  • Figure out who the academically successful people are in a class (hint: they may not always be the smartest but they have learned how to do well) and ask if you can study with them. It helps them, too, to have someone to study with, even if they are explaining content to you.
  • Your institution offers an array of support services beyond academic skills centers. If you are feeling depressed, sad, lonely, angry, frustrated, homesick, or stressed in any way, take advantage of the FREE counseling services. If you’re having trouble with a roommate that you have been unsuccessful in resolving yourself, talk to your hall’s resident advisor (typically an upper-class student). If that person isn’t helpful, talk to the staff in the residence life office.

Manage Time Well

  • Every college bookstore has a planner/agenda book with that institution’s logo on the front. Get one.  Even in this highly digital age, my students overwhelmingly preferred a printed agenda book they could carry to all their classes and meetings and into which they could write all their due dates, meeting times, etc.
    • Write in pencil (due dates will change).
    • As soon as you get your syllabi, write down all the project due dates and test dates (in pencil).
    • Besides writing down due dates, schedule time to prepare for those due dates—blocks of time to do research or write a draft for a paper or to study for tests.
  • Make sure you can see your college emails on your phone. Up to now, your main means of communication has been texting, but in college, email rules; your institution’s staff and your professors will reach out to you via email, not text. It is professionally courteous to respond to all emails quickly, and most certainly within 24 hours.
  • Don’t waste the time between classes. If you schedule classes with a break in between, you may think you don’t have time to get started on other work, but if you take that attitude, you’ll essentially fritter away many hours of your week.  Some students sign up for back-to-back classes for this reason, leaving them with big chunks of out-of-class time in which to do projects and homework and study for tests.  But some students can’t pay attention well for even two classes in a row, much less more than two.  It might be best for those students to spread out their classes, but they need to find something productive to do between classes so they don’t lose that time. That “free” hour is perfect for organizing notes from the previous class, for reading an assignment for another class, or for doing research for a paper.

Consider Life Beyond the Classroom

  • Get involved in campus life outside the classroom. As with everything in life, your college experience is what you make of it. You can watch Netflix and play video games every night for the rest of your life, but college lasts only four short years. Rather than rushing back home every weekend, stay on campus and hear guest speakers. Go to concerts, dance performances, and plays. Go on trips over spring break and in the summer. Engage in as many internships as you can. Join a club team or service organization. Some of the most profound experiences you will have will happen outside the classroom.  Many of these experiences are FREE (or, more accurately, you have paid for them with your tuition).  Take advantage of as much as possible.  One day you will regret not attending more of the events that your college made available to you.
  • Go abroad for a summer or a semester. Yes, these experiences can be very expensive, and all of them require at least some significant out-of-pocket expenses. They might seem impossible, but before you assume you can’t afford them, ask for help. Your advisor might know of travel scholarships available to students. Start planning during your first year, and ask friends and family to donate to a “study away” trip instead of giving you gifts for holidays and birthdays. Can’t afford to be away for an entire semester? Then go for a couple of weeks one summer or during a May or winter short term.  Can’t afford to go abroad? Do a study-away semester or summer in Washington, D.C., or another place closer to home (but new for you). Try as hard as you can to broaden your exposure to people who live differently from you and who see the world in ways unfamiliar to you. But if study-away is not an option for you, remember that you can broaden your experiences right there on campus by taking advantage of guest lectures, service opportunities, and so forth (see previous bullet point!).
  • If you don’t have one already, start a digital file called “resume.” Don’t worry about formatting, but jot down notes about every experience you have that might end up on a resume one day. Put down the dates of that activity, your supervisor/coach/teacher/etc., and the particular skills it required. Include email addresses and phone numbers of people who might later serve as references for you.  You think you won’t forget, but you will. No experience is out of bounds.  You will need to rewrite your resume for every single opportunity you apply for anyway, and you never know which of your experiences might serve you well down the road.
  • Take advantage of the Career Services office. If you have no idea what you want to major in or what career you might want to pursue, career counselors can help. When you are a student, you can take all kinds of personality and aptitude assessment tests that would cost you a small fortune if you weren’t a student.  TAKE THEM WHILE THEY ARE FREE! Start a file, and get to know your career counselors. If you wait until your senior year, you’ve missed a tremendous opportunity.
  • If you need to work to earn money during college (and many people do), try to get an on-campus job. Check with your financial aid officer to see if you qualify for a workstudy or workship job on campus. You won’t waste time getting to and from work, and an on-campus employer will be more likely to understand when you need to change your schedule because you have a big test or exams.
  • Call your mom and/or dad and/or other people who love you and are adjusting to your being gone. This transition is hard on them, too. Let them know you’re OK, and give them a glimpse of your campus life.  BUT resist the urge to go home for at least the first month—maybe even not until fall break or Thanksgiving.  Campus is your new home-away-from-home now, and you need to be there to meet people, to take advantage of activities, to learn about your surroundings. As with most things in life, you’ll get out of it what you put into it; if you remain more emotionally and physically tied to life “back home” than to life on campus, you will be cheating yourself.  Some parents have a harder time letting go than others; if your parents are texting you every day (or multiple times a day!), you may have to set (gently) some boundaries.
  • Take care of yourself. Sleep. Eat. Exercise. Have fun, but be safe. When you make mistakes (and you will), forgive yourself, learn from the experience, and get back in the game.

 A note to the adults who care about college-bound young adults:

  • Parents and guardians, unless your child’s life is in danger, it is almost never a good idea for you to come to campus or make a phone call to campus to solve a problem your student is having with a class, a professor, a grade, or a roommate. Your doing so suggests that you don’t think your student is capable of handling the problem. If your young adult calls you for help, suggest people/offices your student might approach about the problem.  Not getting satisfaction from a professor? Suggest that your student ask to see the department head. Having roommate trouble? Your student should approach the resident advisor and, if the situation is still unresolved, the director of resident life. These are growth opportunities for your young adult.
  • When we were in college, the only way to talk to our loved ones was to sit on the floor beneath the one-and-only pay phone on our hall and wait for it to ring.  Cell phones make it possible to be in constant communication, but if our young adult children are going to make the most of their experience, they need to be focused on life at college, not on life at home. Resist the urge to text or call them all the time. If you aren’t hearing from them as often as you wish you were, that’s probably a good sign that they are engaging in college life and having a good time. You did a great job raising responsible young adults, and now your capable young adults are doing exactly what you prepared them to do! Give them space in which to do it.

If you are also someone with experience on a college campus and have points to add, please send them along. (Contact info is in the footer of each page on this site. Thanks!)

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