I am often approached by first year students who are excited to be in college, but who worry about making the transition from high school to college. There is no magic bullet that will guarantee a particular course grade, but there are certain habits that can increase the likelihood that a student will do well and make.
1.) Attend class. This may sound obvious, but almost every semester, I have at least one “phantom” student. The phantom is not the student who has to miss a class or two. They are the ones who succumb to temptation to skip class because it’s a beautiful day, they’re too tired, they have to do work for another course, etc. Often without realizing, the student has talked themselves into skipping a couple weeks’ worth of meetings. This makes it very difficult to earn a good, or even passing grade. It’s not that the professor necessarily grades on attendance, but that by not being in class, the absent student misses course material and instructions that are needed to complete the work satisfactorily. Sometimes missing class is unavoidable, but you should be honest with yourself about how many classes you’ve really missed.
2.) Take responsibility for your education. If you miss class, get the notes from a classmate, then follow up with your professor if you have specific questions, but don’t expect them to re-teach the class you missed. If you’re confused about material or assignments, take the initiative to seek out help well in advance of assignments and tests. If you wait until just before a deadline or exam (or worse yet, after), it is too late.
3.) Become an expert on the syllabus. Read it carefully. Make sure that you know what the professor expects of you and what’s due when. If you have a smartphone, you may find it helpful to plug in assignment deadlines so that you can manage your workload more efficiently.
4.) Do the assignments on time and follow instructions carefully. I have seen countless students sabotage their grades by not doing an assignment as assigned, or turning in the assignment late.
5.) Mind your technology use in class. Several studies have demonstrated that students who text or web surf during class earn lower grades. I discourage the use of laptops, etc, in class not because I’m a luddite or big ‘ole meanie, but because I want students to give themselves the best chance to do well. Keep in mind that if you’re absorbed in your technology, you are more likely to miss important instructions and material. It is also quite rude. It sends your professors and classmates that you don’t value their contributions to class and view the course as a waste of your time.
6.) Be honest with yourself about how long it takes you to complete particular tasks. Focus on how long it takes you, and forget about your classmates. One roommate may be able to whip off an outstanding paper in 2 hours. The other might take much longer than that, but excel at math. Comparing yourself to others is pointless and counterproductive. If you need help learning better study habits or time management skills, ask your advisor what resources are available to assist you.
7.) Learn to accept constructive criticism. Putting yourself out there is tough, but learning how to use feedback is important. Your professors give you that feedback because they want you to improve. If they didn’t care, they’d just slap an A on that paper and move on.
8.) Treat college as practice for your professional life. Be respectful and considerate of your classmates, college staff, and your professors. When you email your professors, use a greeting (Professor and their last name is the default), write in complete sentences, and identify who you are and which of their courses you’re in. If you’re feeling anxious or upset, hold off on sending that email until you’ve calmed down, or let some else check it to make sure that you haven’t gotten swept up in emotions and written something rude. You should also allow at least a full 24 business hours for the professor to respond. (And be mindful that some faculty don’t check email on weekends.)
9.) We are all human, but if you mess up, take responsibility for your mistakes. Handling a mistake with maturity and honesty will go a long way toward making a good impression on your professors. Mistakes happen. How you handle it matters.
10.) Make use of the office hours. If you can’t attend the scheduled office hours, approach the professor and explain the situation. Ask if there’s another time that you might be able to talk. (But if you make a special appointment outside of office hours, it’s imperative that you show up, or you may find the professor unwilling to give you another shot. Remember: They may have moved their schedule around or driven to campus specifically to meet with you.)
11.) Remember that college is not high school. The workload and the academic expectations will be higher. Your grades may not be what they were in high school, but that’s okay. Grades are a reflection of your mastery of the material, not of you as a person.
12.) Arrive to class on time and stay through the entire class. If you are late, sneak in quietly and don’t interrupt the class to ask what you missed.
13.) Protect yourself from failures of technology. Back up all your work on a cloud server, like iCloud or Dropbox, or other safe place. You can even email it to yourself. You don’t want to lose all your hard work, and most professors won’t accept “the computer ate my homework” as an excuse for late work. The advantage of a USB drive or cloud server is that if your computer suffers a meltdown or you have printing problems, you can access your paper in your college’s lab and print it there. By the same token, you should always make sure that you have an adequate stock of paper and a spare printer cartridge so that you don’t finish that paper at 2 am, only to find you’re out and the stores are all closed.
14.) Be careful whom you trust with access to your computer or papers. Your professors have seen more than a few cases of plagiarism where a roommate or classmate “borrowed” a paper without the author’s consent. If it can’t be proven who the paper’s true author is, both parties will face penalties for cheating. It stinks to have to be wary of friends, but it’s not a good situation to be in.
15.) College expects a higher quality of work, and more of it than high school. Be willing to recognize that the study skills that got you through high school might not serve you as well in college and be prepared to tweak your study habits. Most colleges have academic resource centers or tutoring centers that would be happy to help you out.
16.) If you’re feeling overwhelmed, reach out. You are not alone. Talk to your advisor to see what resources are available on campus to help you manage your stress. Call a friend. Call the campus counseling center. If you, or someone else is feeling distraught over a grade or failed relationship, seek out help. Any comments or feelings of suicide should be taken seriously. If you’re in the U.S., you can call the National Suicide Prevention Line at 1-800-273-8255. Call campus security and ask to be taken to the nearest ER. I promise. You’re worth it. If a friend or roommate expresses suicidal thoughts, tell someone. Don’t try to handle it yourself, and don’t worry that they’ll be mad. A mad friend is better than the alternative.
And now, some don’ts:
1.) If you’re missing a class, never ask your professor if you missed anything important. You should always assume that you missed material that could be on a test or instructions. Ask a classmate for the notes, then follow up with specific questions, but don’t expect them to re-teach the class.
2.) Don’t text or web surf in class. (Note, if you’re smiling at your crotch, we can tell your texting under your desk.) It’s rude, and among other things, it can effect the willingness of your professors to go out of their way for you or to serve as a reference.
3.) Don’t grade grub. Professors have to assign grades based on the quality of your work and nothing else. It’s important not to give the impression that you think that grades are/should be negotiable. If you have specific concerns, look over your feedback carefully, and make some notes about how you think you met, then ask to meet to discuss them so that you know how to do better next time. Don’t expect your grade to change.
4.) Don’t address your professor by their first name unless you’ve been invited to do so. By the same token, don’t use “Hey.” It’s too informal. Don’t use Ms./Mrs./Mr. Most of your professors have doctorates and should be addressed as Dr. or Professor (Professor is the default if you’re unsure). Attention to detail, like getting someone’s title right matters in the professional world, so it’s good to practice that now.
5.) Don’t cheat or plagiarize. Most of your professors spent almost a decade studying their field. They can tell if a paper is plagiarized or not, and the consequences can include failure of the course and expulsion from college. It’s better to turn in an assignment that is maybe not your best work than take the (not insignificant) chance of getting caught.
6.) Don’t plan to depart early for college breaks. It’s unlikely that you will be allowed to take an exam early to accommodate a flight. Writing make-up exams is a lot of extra work, and is really going above the call of duty. Generally, it is only done when there is a situation that the student genuinely had no control over, such as too many exams scheduled in one day.
7.) Don’t tell your professor that your tuition pays their salary. It’s incredibly disrespectful and will give them the impression that you have a large sense of entitlement. There might be some slight truth to it, but what you are paying for is the opportunity to learn, not for grades or particular outcomes. Your professor should show up to class prepared, be ready to answer questions, and to provide feedback on your work. They do not owe you a particular grade, an exception to policy, or a reference by virtue of tuition. Moreover, the professor has a responsibility to all students and to potential employers to make sure that the degree reflects mastery of the skills that earning the degree implies. Think of paying tuition as paying for a gym membership. If you don’t do the work, would you be rude to the personal trainer because you’re in no better shape? Of course not.
8.) Don’t expect special exceptions to course policies.
9.) Don’t start packing up before your professor dismisses you. It’s rude and the distraction and noise might mean missing important information.
10.) If you feel overwhelmed, don’t disappear. It will only compound your stress and make the outcome of the course inevitable. Seek out your professor and/or advisor for help if you’re struggling, as soon as you realize you need help.
11.) Don’t recycle work from other classes without your professor’s permission. It’s cheating.
12.) Don’t hesitate to ask your professor for help if you don’t understand the material.