Advice for College Success:

30 Free Lessons I Had to Learn the Hard Way

  1. Not everyone should go to college.
    Some people just aren’t cut out for academic life.  This isn’t an insult — Some folks are just more “Doers” than “Studiers” and want to get down to business right away.
  2. You don’t have to go to college right after high school.
    Some people aren’t mature enough to do well in college at 18 years old.  You can always go back to school after you have worked in dead-end jobs for years and are better motivated to study.  Besides, older students often have better time management skills and have gotten past those first few “wild years” of freedom.
  3. Bigger isn’t necessarily better.
    My first attempt at college was at a large university very far away from home.  My Physics class had 500 students registered to it, though only about 300 would show up on any given day.  It was held in a huge auditorium and I never sat next to the same person twice.  Class was frequently taught by a graduate student and was a mile from my dorm.  I ended up dropping out.
    After several years of work, I went back to school — at a small college in my home town.  This time, my Physics class had about 20 students, was taught by a PhD, and was just across the quad from my dorm.  Small classes allowed me to ask questions and get to know my classmates.  I made much better grades and learned a lot more.
  4. Have the right attitude.
    If you go to college you need to consider yourself a professional college student.  This is your job and the grades you earn are your performance evaluations.  Work at school like you’re trying to get the biggest raise of your life (because you are).
  5. Balance your course load.
    Paper-writing courses, lots-of-reading courses, math-y courses, lab courses, fact courses, concept courses — beware of having too many of the same type.   Your brain can only handle so much of one type before you get burnt out.
  6. Schedule lunch.
    Make time for meals when you’re choosing courses.  You will need the down-time to eat and socialize so you don’t run out of energy.
  7. Go to class.
    Don’t skip class!   It’s tempting but don’t do it — even if the professor doesn’t take attendance.  You may be surprised how much more you remember when learning by listening than by reading the book.
  8. Be awake for class.
    Get enough sleep each night.  Before your first class, spend about an hour hanging out at the dining hall — eating, talking, and waking up.  This makes your time in class more productive:  better notes, better memory of the material, better class participation grade.  Seriously, if you’ve got to be there, you might as well be there 100% to cut down on time needed for studying.
  9. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
    Try to anticipate your professor’s next move (solving a math problem, for example), this way you are studying in class and can ask why he/she did something different from what you expected (very helpful in problem-solving strategy).  Chances are someone else in the class has the same question.
  10. Take good notes.
    I always used those black and white, string-bound composition books, one for each class.  Write your name and the class on the edges of the notebook.  Fold the syllabus in half and staple its top edge in the front cover for easy reference.  Staple the top edge of folded handouts on the back side of a page in the same section as the notes for that material.
  11. Don’t be afraid to use lots of paper.
    Take notes only on the right side of the notebook (front of pages), leaving the left side (back of pages) blank.  Use this space for adding notes if the professor refers back to something and for summarizing the material when studying for a test.  Skip lines between ideas and draw large diagrams so there’s plenty of room to insert extra details, if needed.   Anything the professor writes on the board is probably important — highlight or underline or star this info.
  12. Never let your notes out of your sight.
    If someone wants to copy your notes, go to a copier with them and make them pay for the copies.
  13. Own your textbooks.
    Write your name on the edges of your textbooks so you can identify yours from across the room.   I kept most of my books, especially from courses for my major.  Being able to refer back to a previous course’s book really saved the day a few times.
    Highlight, underline, star, and write in your books as you read them.  Be sure to transfer key points to your notebook frequently.  Write this info on the back side of the page in the appropriate section and make note of the page number.  Redrawing diagrams will help you remember the info but, if this is not practical, make a photocopy and staple it in.
  14. Save your back.
    Don’t carry your textbooks to class every day unless the professors actually use them.  Just carry your notebooks, a folder for each class (for homework, completed assignments, and blank paper), and a bunch of colored pens.  I don’t care for backpacks — Messenger bags and tote bags are easier to put on, carry, and get stuff out of.
  15. Find Study Buddies.
    Record classmates’ names on the first page of your notebook when the roll is called on the first day of class (you can look up their numbers in the campus directory).  I don’t care how introverted you may be, you have to do this!  Don’t worry if your study buddies aren’t much better than you in that subject because:  “If you really want to learn something, teach it to someone else.”  When you explain a topic, your mind has to reorganize it and summarize it — two key parts of studying.
  16. Study!
    Read through your notes each day and keep up with reading from your textbook.  Play instrumental music to block out distractions and help you concentrate.  I like soundtracks (Titanic), classical music (Mozart), and music in a language I don’t understand (Enya).   Just make sure it’s upbeat and doesn’t have words to distract you.  Pick music you don’t normally listen to so you can “set the mood” for studying.  Studies have shown that the complexity of classical music improves study retention.
  17. Don’t cram the night before.
    Study ahead of time and get plenty of sleep.  During sleep is when your brain “sorts” and “files” the things you’ve learned.  Trust me:  Sleep is your #1 test-prep technique for every test.
  18. Don’t cheat.
    Duh!  What’s the point of getting a piece of paper saying you’re prepared when, in fact, you aren’t?
  19. Research campus resources.
    Ask about professor office hours, if there are tutors available, where the libraries / computer labs are, and when they’re open.  Take advantage of these resources!
  20. Utilize the computer labs.
    Expect them to be noisy and full around midterms and finals, so don’t wait until the last minute and try to go during off-peak hours.  Keep a ream of paper in your room and take some with you to the lab, just in case they run out.  After you’ve proofread your paper on screen, print it out — Errors are much easier to find on real paper plus you can have a friend look it over, too.  Be sure to return the favor when the friend has a paper for you to proof.
  21. Don’t get sucked into the web.
    While the internet is an excellent research tool and a great way to stay in touch with family and friends, it can also be a real black hole of time-wasting.  Balance is everything!
  22. Get to know each professor.
    Go to their offices and introduce yourself.  Take a few minutes to let them get to know you and to find out their goals for the course.  Tell them about your educational goals and struggles.  If you are a “real person” to the professor, he/she is more likely to grade generously and to provide helpful critiques of your work.
  23. Get help as soon as you need it.
    Don’t get too far behind before you ask for help from a professor or tutor.   It is hard to learn new material if you haven’t mastered the old.
  24. Get to know your advisor.
    Even if you don’t know what your major will be, you still need to plan out your course load so that you don’t miss graduation because of a single class (like I did).  Your advisor can also help you figure out what you should major in, which professors are best, and other helpful things.  Once you declare a major, you will probably have to change advisors: Get to know the new one, too.
  25. Get some exercise.
    Start a walking crew after dinner — just to hang out while moving.  Not only will this help your waistline, it will also help you manage stress and give your brain plenty of oxygen.
  26. Be safe.
    College campuses can be wonderful places to find young victims, male and female.  Don’t take chances:  travel in groups after dark, keep to well-lit areas, and ask for escorts from campus security.  You only have to be raped once to ruin your life!  Guys need to be safe, too:  Thugs may hate you for having the opportunity to go to college.
  27. Be patient with your roommate(s).
    This is just the first time in your life that you are going to be thrown together with a stranger and expected to make the best of it — later you may have a coworker or boss who is even more difficult to get along with.  Take this opportunity to practice your patience and respect.  Check out The Rules of Polite Discourse, which a roommate and I created to set the standards for fair fighting.
    NOTE:  If there are three roommates, any disagreement will be two-against-one — Be careful to negotiate and not just let majority rule because everyone’s opinions should be considered.
  28. Negotiate a roommate contract.
    It doesn’t have to be as comprehensive and repressive as Sheldon’s.  Outline visiting hours (male and female guests), personal areas (which can be cluttered), common areas (expected to be tidy), property rights (what can be borrowed, what’s off-limits), quiet / study times, and anything else that is important to either of you.  Doing this before a situation happens will avoid conflict and help you say friends.
  29. Avoid debt.
    Credit card companies often make it easy for college students to get credit cards, which can help you build your credit (or destroy it).  If you do choose to get one, ask for a low credit limit and pay the balance off every month.  If you ever have to carry a balance over to the next month, take the card out of your wallet until it is paid off again.  If you find that you can’t control your spending, cut up the card and cancel the account (you can continue making payments).
  30. Have fun — but not too much!
    College is a wonderful time in your life:  new-found freedom, new friends, new experiences.  Don’t ruin it by getting drunk or drugged out.  You do want to remember all this fun, don’t you?