A College Professor’s Five Suggestions for Success in College

I’ve been teaching college classes for some 16 years now and I’ve learned a few things over the years, both from my own experiences but also listening to other college professors talk (and reading their blogs, of course).  And I have a few suggestions for college students who want to be successful from the start and maintain success throughout their college career.  Some are REALLY easy.  Some are a little more difficult.  But, all of them will make you MUCH more likely to be successful in your college years.  So, here goes – my suggestions for success in college, from a professor’s perspective:

success in college

 1.  Do NOT fly under the radar in classes.  I have heard many students refer to their approach to classes to “fly under the radar” or go unnoticed.  I will admit that my being a professor in Communication Studies makes this less likely (our majors like to communicate theoretically), I still have students in my GE classes who come to class, do the work, but never really approach me as an instructor or seem engaged in the class to any degree.  It is true that this will “keep you out of trouble,” but it will also make your understanding of the material much more shallow, will make it close to impossible to ask these professors for letters of recommendation later (I am always struck when students come in and ask me for a letter when I didn’t have a personal conversation with them for an entire semester) and will not provide you with a networking opportunity for future contact.  My suggestion for making your presence known, even if you are an introvert:

  • Go to the professor’s office hours! We HAVE to sit in our office during office hours.  It is boring when there is no one to talk to.  Sure, we will sometimes try to use this time for grading, class prep, etc. but I’m never annoyed when a student comes by to chat with me.  I became a professor because I like students and this gives me a chance to have one-on-one conversations with students.  Something that is difficult in a class setting.  You don’t have to go every week or even every month, but I would try to go once early in the semester to introduce yourself and ask a question or inquire about an assignment.   Then go again mid-semester, maybe right before those mid-terms.  Again, ask a question about the material for the exam or discuss something that you’re looking into for the class.  These meetings do not have to last long.  Finally, go at the end of the term.  This is a good time to ask if the professor is willing to write letters of rec in the future and to say something you enjoyed about the class (we so often only hear the complaints).
  • Engage in class sessions.  This is harder in some classes where you are in large lecture listening to a professor talk and talk and talk.  But, even then you can engage by taking notes, sending an email to the professor about something that was said during class that intrigued you to ask for more information, giving the professor non-verbal feedback or just simply saying hi before the lecture begins or good-bye as you leave the room.  For those smaller sections, be someone who asks questions, answers questions and participates (productively) in discussions.  Stay on topic in small groups (I am always amazed at how many “what did you guys do last night?” conversations are loudly held when the groups are supposed to be talking about ethics).  Finally, do your work when it is due (or before) and then read and USE any professor feedback you get on papers, exams or during discussions.  I love these students in my classes!

2. Use a planner system that will work for you.  I am someone who loves a good paper planner, but will forget to look at it for days in a row.  So, I get that the lovely University branded planners they give you at orientation may not work for you to remember the assignments in my class or when we had an office hour meeting scheduled.  But, you also probably have a smart phone (I know that is a generalization, but a majority of my students do).  Set up reminders.  It is sometimes laborious to input all the information when a meeting is scheduled, but those notifications popping up on my phone have really saved my rear end at times.  So, paper calendar in a notebook, University branded planner, moleskin notebook, smart phone calendar, computer calendar (I love my Google calendar and it syncs with my smartphone)…one of them will work for you.  Figure out which it is and then use it.  Religiously.

3.  Do not try to do everything in one semester or even one year.  College is a typically AT LEAST a four year commitment (some can do it in a shorter time, many take a longer time).  Do not try to do every activity, every club you are interested in, every sporting event, etc. in your first semester or even your first year.  And this is coming from someone who is in charge of one of those activities.  But, I want students who are setting aside TIME to actually participate fully in the activity, not spreading themselves so thin they are unable to do anything well or engage fully in any activity.  I think this is a problem for many Frosh who have been over-involved their entire high school career and think they will be able to handle the same level of activity when they get to college.  But, they forget many things are different:  (1) Mom or Dad isn’t here to cook for them, wash their clothes, do the grocery shopping, etc.  It may not seem like much, but it makes a huge difference to have to do all of that yourself.  (2) For some, the level of academic expectation is boosted up quite a bit over what they experienced in high school.  This is not true for everyone, but sometimes it may take a semester or so to figure out how to best manage your classload.

In the opposite extreme:

4.  Choose to show up.  You do not HAVE to do anything anymore and that’s quite the freedom.  When I did the new student orientation before this semester started we finished the department advising orientation and I walked the students across campus to their next location (the WREC for a party) and dropped them off.  One of the girls said to me, “Do you know what we’re doing at the WREC?” At the time, I didn’t but it was the WREC so I said, “No, but its probably something fun.” and she said, “Will I get in trouble if I don’t go?” and I laughed and said, “No, you’re officially an adult now!  You don’t have to go if you don’t want to.”  I just thought it was hilarious that she was in that frame of mind still, but it is a huge change and a lot of students really take advantage of it.  They stop going to classes on a regular basis.  They sign up for things and then don’t show up for them, because “Hey, there is no one for them to call and tell on me.”  When you sign up for something, whether it is a class or a co-curricular activity or a club, show up!  Be present and be involved.  It makes a huge difference when you are able to see that although you won’t “get in trouble” for not being there, you will be rewarded for showing up.

5.  Find a group of people with similar goals and work and play together!  This is important for multiple reasons.  Let me list them for you:

  • This will make you more successful in your studies.  If you care about your grades, being in a group of people who also care about their grades will make you more likely to study, provide you with good people off of whom to bounce ideas and give you constant access to people to read papers over or listen to a speech/presentation or look at an assignment to make sure you’re understanding it correctly.  It is so much easier to study and do well in classes when others are heading to the library with you or pushing through that late night paper-writing process with you.  And you’ll be a help to them as well!
  • This will help your overall well-being.  Studies show that those with a core group of good friends are less likely to suffer from anxiety, depression and even physical illnesses.  Feeling a part of something is important to us as humans.  Joining a club or an on-campus sports team or even the Speech and Debate team (shameless personal plug), as long as the other members have similar goals and interests as you will provide you with a safety net for those days, weeks and sometimes even months when you struggle with knowing who you are and what you’re doing.  Simply having friends is not enough, though.  Because if the group isn’t really cohesive, it is easy for members to fall through the cracks when going through a rough time.  You have to have a set of friends who knows you, knows your goals and knows when you aren’t yourself.  So, when joining something, following #4 makes it much more likely you’ll grow close to other members.  Roommates can serve as close friends, but you want to have a handful of people who care about you and are willing to stick out the rough times with you.
  • This will help you stay safe.  I teach at what is widely considered to be a “party” school.  I also attended this same University and I partook in the bar scene and parties while here.  But, I honestly don’t remember ever worrying that I would be left alone somewhere by my friends OR that I would be allowed to leave alone by my friends with someone one of us didn’t know.  I am always amazed when I hear stories or even see people (women or men) walking down the streets in the party area of our city after 10 or 11 pm, obviously intoxicated by themselves.  I always wonder “where are their friends?”  So, my suggestion is to talk to your friends before going out and have a plan.  If someone is really that “nice” and “good looking” when you’re out at the parties, get their number and call them in the light of day.  If your friend wants to leave with them, get their number for your friend and say you’ll have your friend call them in the light of day.  So many attacks (again, male and females are both victims of attacks when out by themselves – inebriated or not) could be avoided if people would only travel in groups of three or more after a certain hour.  Crowdsource your safety in real life!

So, there you have it, my five suggestions for success (and safety) in college.  I’m sure there are many more things that can help you out, but from a professor’s vantage point, these are the ones I would say are the most important.