What Your College Professors Wish You Already Knew

Special Section “Back-to-school” featured article, Fayette Woman, August 2009

Many first-year college students have excellent high school grades, come from homes with parents who place a great deal of emphasis on the importance of education, and reasonably expect to continue to do well in college.

By the end of the first semester, some of these historically excellent students have failed their college classes for reasons that have nothing to do with academic ability. Some will eventually flunk out, giving up on their dreams.

Why is it that so many good students, even straight-A students, have a tough time in college? Oftentimes, the reasons are not to be found in the student’s ability to learn or her intelligence. It’s the transition between high school and college that causes her the most problems, taking too long to “catch on” and make the necessary adjustments to college life. Some students never do catch on and their grades, self-esteem and academic records suffer as a result.

I taught literature and composition to college students for ten years, and about 95% of my students were freshmen or sophomores. With—literally—thousands of students having passed through the doors of my classes, I’ve seen the same mistakes being made time and again. Many times I wished I could tell struggling students, “Listen, if you want to do well in college, here’s what you need to know.”

So I’m telling you now. What follows is my personal advice, based on four years of as an undergrad, six years as a graduate student, and ten years as a college professor, on the top ten secrets of successful college students.

1. Know your goals and make sure you have adequate motivation to reach them. First, the motivation part: in my opinion, there’s no shame in not wanting to go to college. You know what’s really a shame? Wasting tens of thousands of hard-earned dollars (usually your parents’) on a neglected and ultimately unfinished college education. College students who don’t want to be in college are VERY UNLIKELY to come to class, making them VERY UNLIKELY to pass the course. You’d think this one’s a no-brainer, but for every class I taught, there was always at least one student—usually three or four—who was on the roster but never came to the (mandatory attendance) classes. Or they’d show up occasionally, but didn’t pay attention and rarely did the homework assignments. My unasked question to them was: why are you wasting your time and your parents’ money?

Second, knowing your goals means that you understand what you came for—the degree you’re attaining through a college education—and that you are focused, talented, capable and hardworking enough to reach it.

2. Engage with the subject. Even if you’ve “passed the test” for the first question—knowing your goals and being motivated—that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to love every class. It’s the nature of having to take required classes; sometimes you have to take a subject you couldn’t care less about, or you deeply dislike the professor, or the time and date for class meetings is less than ideal.

Guess what the most successful college students do? They find something to like. They make an effort to be engaged, realizing that it might not be what they expected or wanted, but that there is still something to be learned.

Also remember that part of your professor’s job is to raise the bar and challenge you. Be brave. Step up to the challenge and do your best.

3. Be respectful toward and considerate of your professors. I’m not talking about brownie points here or sacrificing your dignity. What I am talking about is the tacit understanding between professor and student that the college classroom is a professional space and should be treated as such. This encompasses both your demeanor and attitude in class. Are you sitting up or hunched over (or, heaven forbid, sleeping)? Are you taking notes or texting? Are you listening attentively or having a conversation with the person sitting next to you? Professors generally have very little patience for high school antics, and most will simply ask you to leave if your presence is disruptive or openly disrespectful.

4. Take responsibility. Generally speaking, after freshman orientation is over, no one will be chasing after you to make sure you have all of your ducks in a row. It’s your responsibility—you need to find out for yourself where to be and when to be there. You need to know what preparation is required for each class meeting and get it done. You need to find out what classes are required for your major, your minor, or program, etc., and sign up for them on schedule. No one will be holding your hand—it’s all on you.

There’s also an important side note in this category: never ask your professor a question that is already answered for you in the course syllabus. That’s one of the biggest sources of aggravation among college professors, and it automatically sends the signal that you don’t care enough about the class, or you’re too lazy, to bother reading the syllabus. Treat your syllabus like your guide to the course; know it well, keep it in a safe place, and turn to it first when you have a question about course policies or assignment due dates.

The best college students know precisely what is expected of them. They figure out what they need to do—from studying harder for a difficult test, to seeking out extra help when necessary, to planning their courses for each upcoming semester well in advance—and then they do it.

5. Get organized. Responsibilities, assignments, projects, tests, quizzes, commitments, plans…. After the first week of school, your “to do” list can spiral out of control very quickly if you’re not on top of it. And once you get behind, it’s really hard to get back on top. And then discouragement and fatalism sets in, and you might just want to give up. The point is, being well-organized is more than being tidy; it’s a survival tactic that will see you through your darkest hour (a.k.a. “final exams”). Organize your time, down to the last half-hour of your day if necessary.

Also falling under this topic: when you go to class, have everything you need with you. Make sure you’re bringing the right book(s), the assignments, your supplies—everything.

In terms of assignments, be over-prepared whenever possible. You will stand out to your professors as a motivated student.

6. Surround yourself with the right people. Get to know some of the focused and dedicated students in your classes. On a practical level, it’s good to have the phone numbers and e-mail addresses of a couple of students in each class in case you’re confused about an assignment, or you’re absent from a class and need to get the assignment. (Side note about this: most professors do not welcome inquiries about “what the homework was,” even if you were absent for a legitimate reason. Some profs even put it into the syllabus that it’s your responsibility to find out from a classmate.) Also, it’s also good to have friends outside your regular group, and if you need a study group, you’ve got one ready-made.

Let the dedication and work ethic of your focused friends inspire you to strengthen yours. Learn from them—their study habits, the quiet places they’ve discovered to get work done without disruptions, the ways they manage to carve more time out of their schedule.

7. Make only commitments you can follow through on. Follow through on your commitments. Don’t overextend yourself with commitments and promises; be honest with yourself about whether you need to turn down offers—whether doing a favor for a friend, joining another organization, being chairwoman of your sorority’s Greek Week. Overextending yourself will lead to trouble with your school work, your professors, your friends, and your mental well-being. College is stressful enough without taking on more than you can handle. This leads us to #8…..

8. Know what your priorities are. Maintain your focus. When I used to teach classes that met on Friday mornings, I usually couldn’t help but notice evidence of the previous night’s excesses: hunched-over guys with ashen faces, stubble and red eyes. Girls wearing last night’s eyeliner, slouched low in their seats. And if that happened to be the morning of a quiz or test? I almost felt sorry for them. Almost.

Living on campus as a freshman in college is like being put in the middle of the perfect storm of temptation. It used to be that you were subject to your parents’ rules, but now virtually no one is telling you what you can and can’t do. You are surrounded by others who are just like you—suddenly free to make their own choices, both good ones and bad ones—and there will be pressure from them to make bad choices on occasion. You are also facing high amounts of stress in your daily life (classes, assignments, tests, etc.). It’s hardly surprising that so many students who never drank or did drugs in high school suddenly decide to start experimenting in college, but this doesn’t make it any less of a problem.

I won’t preach any further, but just remember this: along with your new freedom comes new responsibility. You are solely responsible for your choices, and you will own your failures as much as you will own your successes. Think carefully about what the outcome of your decisions will be, and strive for moderation and balance as much as possible.

9. Take care of yourself. This includes mentally, emotionally, and physically. It’s important that you don’t underestimate how much poor care and nutrition would be detrimental to your health and well-being. (For tips on avoiding the “Freshman Ten,” see our article on page [  ].) It’s only to your advantage to eat well, get enough sleep, and exercise. And yes, you need to have fun and relax. Find ways to blow off steam—sports, clubs and activities abound. Reward yourself with a treat when you meet a tough goal.

If you find yourself struggling, get help. There are counseling services and other programs in place that are designed to help you when you need it. This is not embarrassing or shameful—actually, it’s normal to need to talk to someone who understands the pressures you’re facing and is professionally trained to help. Smart students get help when they need it.

Finally, a note for young women in particular—remember that safety comes first. Don’t get caught in dangerous situations. Consider taking a martial arts class (which also helps with the aforementioned “blowing off steam” suggestion).

10. See the big picture. Remember your goals and dreams. When it gets hard to study for just one more hour or pass up on a party because you’ve got a tough exam coming up, think of the rewards you’re working for—climbing the stairs of the platform on graduation day, putting yourself in prime position for the job you want, getting into the graduate school of your dreams.

Just know that you are in college for yourself and your future. Not for mom, dad or your best friend. It’s your time to step up and show what you’re made of. Good luck.