How (Not) to Succeed at College

Transitioning from high school to college can often be a jarring experience.  Students worry, have lots of questions: What will be the same?  What will be different?  Should I live on or off campus?  How will I make friends?  What will my professors expect me to know?  Do I belong here?  Am I smart enough?  There are many questions that need answering, and many decisions that need to be made.  If this weren’t enough, fewer and fewer of those decisions will be made by parents, teachers, or counselors, and students must become responsible for choosing everything from their schedules to their majors.  True, some schools go so far as to take surveys in an attempt to pair incoming students with compatible roommates (for those who choose to live on campus), but students find an ever-increasing degree of responsibility landing on their shoulders; and for the more esoteric questions or concerns such as, “What does it take to be a successful college student?”, this essay should serve as the definitive guide to finding success.

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Step one: plan carefully.  Before you design your schedule or choose a single class, be sure to check  The ratemyprofessor website is a leading review site that publishes only the most truthful, honest, reliable responses from verified course users.  Potential students can find out: if their professor has an attendance policy: if the professor uses group projects: how much work the course involves and how difficult that work will be: and, perhaps most importantly, whether the professor is “chill” or not.  A recent study that I invented for this article suggests that chillness is a leading factor as to whether students would retake a course with a professor.  For instance, students who may need a few extra minutes of well-deserved rest after a long night of pounding the “books” in the “library”, may wish to avoid professors with strict attendance policies.  Or, if students have had bad experiences in high school with group projects and notice that this professor uses them, they may wish to opt out of that particular course section: after all, what are the odds that you will ever be required to work with diverse personalities and overcome real-life obstacles in the professional world?  For students who are “visual” or “audio” learners, those who find PowerPoints or summaries helpful, a course with lots of independent reading simply will not do.  Potential students must be aware of their learning styles and match college-level courses appropriately. Success has two ingredients: preparation and knowing one’s limitations.  The ratemyprofessor website helps prospective students put both into practice.

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Once a student has put together the easiest course schedule possible, the next step should be to read the syllabus.  Some professors hand this out as a hard copy on the first day of class, but a growing number of them make it available to students in digital spaces such as Canvas, Blackboard, or even personal websites designed for the course before classes meet.  Most students won’t read the finer details, if they read it at all.  However, I can’t caution against that strongly enough.  Be informed.  I recommend reading it in its entirety, policies and all.  Here is where students can compare the accuracy of ratemyprofessor to what’s presented in the course materials as well as become acquainted with the professor’s grading and expectations.  For instance, does a professor offer credit just for showing up, for attendance?  That’s a good sign if say, your social obligations require that you frequently neglect readings or other homework.  Does the professor have a participation requirement?  “Shy” students may wish to avoid this course; although, I have some advice below on how to be successful in this situation as well.  I haven’t read any studies on this, but I’m certain that participating in discussion and socializing with peers is highly overrated and may even be detrimental.  If the professor does have a participation requirement and you are “the quite type”, be sure to immediately look for extra-credit opportunities to boost your grade.  If a professor offers a few extra points for showing up to a talk on campus, it may be possible to earn back the points lost on participation without actually having to do anything: “a wise man once told me that half of life is showing up”.  If a professor is not offering at least that much for attendance, it may be wise to reconsider.  Being informed and knowing the guidelines enables students to navigate what can be a very confusing system.

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After figuring out what classes you are going to take, try to establish a relationship with professors before classes meet.  Email the professor before the semester starts, introduce yourself.  This way the professor knows your interest in the subject matter and their course is genuine.  This is a particularly good strategy if courses are full, but you really need to get into a section to fulfill your Gen. Ed. or core requirements.  Start with something like:

Hey What Up Professor Xavier,

My name is Scott and I’m hoping you will allow me to sign into your course on genetic mutations even though the course is full.  It’s like my favorite subject ever, and I heard from my boy Logan that your course is fire.  It totally fits my schedule and I really need one more course to complete my core.  Please respond ASAP so I can know.

That will be sure to win the professor over, and they will certainly sign you in over the cap.  Works every time.  Also, if you’re using a personal email account, and not your school account, be sure the professor knows that the email they are receiving from is a serious one by tagging the subject line with something like “URGENT” or, “QUESTION ABOUT CLASS”.  Here are some other occasions on which to email professors:

  1. To alert professors to an absence
    1. Be sure to ask professors what work will be missed and if they can just email the lecture or lesson plan for the day.  PowerPoints are super helpful.  Falling behind would totally suck.  Additionally, be sure to get a note from the doctor, or have mom or dad send an email.  Or better yet, find the professor’s extension and have parents call and leave a voice mail.  That will avoid having the grade lowered.
  2. To request an additional copy of the syllabus that was inadvertently misplaced.   Students have a lot going on, after all, and it shouldn’t be on them to keep track of every little detail.
  3. Where to find the necessary books for the course, especially for students who don’t have time to get to the bookstore or check online.  If a professor has a high “chill” rating, they may even email the entire list.  Additionally, it is sometimes helpful to ask whether the books are required or recommended.  Why purchase a book if the whole course is going to be presented in class on PowerPoint slides?
  4. When a grandma or grandpa dies.
  5. To ask what will be covered Monday due to an absence Friday.
  6. To email a paper that wasn’t turned in on time.
  7. To ask for an extension.
  8. When a cat dies.
  9. When a goldfish dies.
  10. When your car breaks down.
  11. To alert professors to the fact that an alarm clock did not go off.
  12. When you break a nail.
  13. When your bestie is having a crisis and you need to be there for them.

Communication is important, and keeping in touch with the course instructor not only helps students mature, but also facilitates a professional relationship between student and instructor.  After all, these are the people who will be writing letters of recommendation for scholarships, academic awards or even graduate school.  Excellent communication skills benefit students in the long run.    

The final piece of advice I have for potential students relates to professors who count participation toward a final grade: Always.  Participate.  In class.  This shows the professor that you have done the work that’s expected of you.  Appear alert: eyes on the board or the professor as she speaks: have a notebook and pen or pencil out and on the desk, even if you never write anything down.  If the professor sees you staring at your lap or into space and calls on you to answer a question she just asked about the reading, simply respond, “I didn’t really understand the reading”.  If she persists, demands elaboration on what was confusing, the appropriate response is something along the lines of, “I kind of didn’t understand the whole thing”, or maybe something like, “the author’s style is really confusing, I had a hard time following the plot”.  Using technical jargon such as plot, theme, or motif—the stuff one learns in high school—should be enough to get the professor off your back.  Professors love to hear themselves talk and appearing helpless is a great way to get the professor to summarize and explain the text to and for you.  A sure-fire method to avoid this type of pressure, though, is to ask a question straightaway about the text.  This will avoid having to provide any kind of thoughtful analysis; additionally, this nets the student the participation grade for the day and they can’t be held to account for anything the rest of the class.  Be sure to take detailed notes at this point, because you will know exactly what the professor is looking for.  By this method, students never actually have to do the heavy lifting and can regurgitate the professor’s lecture back at her when it’s time to write a paper.  Professors love that.   

Master these basics and success will hunt you down.

Did I leave anything out? What are your suggestions for being successful?

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