17 Secrets for College Success (Whether It's Your First Year or Your Last)
This ran with my byline in Southwest Airlines' Spirit magazine last fall. If you've read it anywhere without my byline, it's been copied without my permish. Enjoy!
Short summer, wasn't it? If you're a first-year in the class of 2011, welcome to the big show. If you’re a college senior or grad student knocking out those last credit hours, well, it’s never too late to learn lessons about making new friends, impressing professors, earning better grades or cranking out that research paper in record time.
Just remember: You’re not alone. Every student faces that first day of the term worrying about what to major in, how to balance studying and socializing and, most important of all, where to park.
What are the real secrets of success in college? First, never let that cell phone go off in class. Beyond that, check out these 17 gems, inside stuff from current matriculators, wise alumni and some longtime professors eager to start frightened frosh out on the right foot from day one.
1. You're in college now—reinvent yourself! Nobody knows that in high school your gorky first cousin was your fallback prom date or that you served proudly as treasurer of the Hilary Duff fan club. They don’t have a clue that you are clueless with calculus or that your parents have called you “Little Stinky” since that unfortunate incident when you were 2. Really! And even if they find out, they won’t care. In your new environment, you are a blank slate. Become the cool cat you’ve always known you are. Right now. Today. Shed the old baggage. Erase the old tapes. Drop that nickname you’ve always detested. The past was merely prologue to this exciting new chapter in your life. Take that big hop, grasshopper, toward becoming your authentic self.
2. Be interested and interesting. The intensely cliquish culture of high school hallways is largely irrelevant on a university campus populated by students and faculty from diverse backgrounds and with wildly eclectic interests. Don’t self-segregate into the same small pod of likeminded types you hung with back home. Branch out. Be friendly. Be interested in your courses, fellow students, instructors, your campus, your new neighborhood. Being interested leads to being interesting. Talk to everyone. Remember names. Start with your dormies. Those early days after move-in are a great time to knock on doors, introduce yourself and say a quick howdy. (Once the semester is under way, everyone will be on the run and have less time for chit-chat.)
At orientation sessions, be bold and circulate. Chat people up in the dining hall while you’re surveying the mystery meat. Smile and be talkative, even if you feel jittery among so many strangers. Practice lines that will make you memorable. When people ask where you’re from, don’t just say, “A little town in Alabama.” Say, “I’m from a town in Alabama so small the phone book only had one page.” They’ll laugh and the next time they see you, you’ll get the big hello.
3. To make A’s, get Z’s. Make sleep a priority. Do not try to start school on a two-hour nap and with the worst (or first) hangover of your life. First impressions count. Don’t assume you can party like a maniac now and catch up on schoolwork later. Sure, sometimes it’s hard to adjust sleep habits to the noise of crowded dormitories. Or maybe your roommate likes to doze off with the light on and then snores like a hibernating grizzly. Invest in earplugs and a sleep-mask. Stay in at least three to four nights a week. Whatever it takes, don’t short yourself those REM periods. Sleeping enough at night will keep you healthy. And you need to be awake and alert in daylight for what college is really about: classes.
4. You must be present to win. Woody Allen said it: “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” Even better? Showing up early. Organize your schedule so you won’t risk running late racing from one end of campus to the other for back-to-back classes. At spread-out schools such as UCLA, Ohio State or the University of Texas at Austin, you might have to hop a shuttle bus to get around. Professors frown on latecomers. One tough geology prof at San Antonio’s Trinity University locked classroom doors to bar tardy arrivals. Do yourself and the profs a favor by being punctual. And as any top student will tell you, it’s imperative that you attend every class every day. School is so much easier when you show up for it.
5. Go to class with class. Don't overdo the wardrobe—on some campuses, the conspicuous displays of Manolos and Louis Vuittons can get ridiculous--but professors and classmates do appreciate simple cleanliness. Clean clothes, clean hair, clean nails, clean feet. Sure, it's still flip-flop season now, but nobody likes looking at dirty hooves. Never wear anything in public that could be confused with sleepwear. Remove caps, hats, visors and sunglasses in the classroom. Cover your tramp-stamp tattoos and keep cleavage to a minimum. Hike up your low-riders. Professors aren’t sidewalk inspectors. Don't show them cracks.
6. Take the professor, not the course. That’s decades-old advice to students at the University of Virginia. Don't be afraid of professors you've heard are really tough or who have high-profile reputations. The harder they are, the better they are (usually) and the more passion they have for their subject. Seek them out. If you like them, take every course they teach. You won't be sorry.
7. Be more than a number. Some introductory lecture and survey courses may enroll hundreds of students per section. To avoid getting lost in the crowd, sit up front and ask good questions so the professors will know you by name and face. (Don't laugh at the nerds in the first row. In four years, you'll hear their names followed by the phrase "...got an offer for how much?") Try to get acquainted with at least two classmates in every course. You never know when you’ll need their help. Trade contact info with a couple of students who look reliable. You can find yourself a study-partner or note-sharer that way. And when the day comes that you really do have the flu and can't get out of bed, you'll have a buddy who'll feed you the info you missed—a much better move than moseying up to the prof and asking, “Did I miss anything important?”
8. Don't buy the books till you check out the class. Textbooks always take a big bite of your education budget, with some costing hundreds of dollars per copy. Unless there’s reading required for the first day (and some upper-level and grad courses expect that), hold off on book-buying. Profs may tell you they've changed the reading list or aren't using the editions on the bookstore shelves anymore. Or maybe you can tell by the course syllabus that you'll need to read only a chapter or two in that $75 text. Save a few bucks by checking it out of the library. You could also co-op books with another student in class. Just make sure it's someone who's a fast reader. Used books are a great option, too. If you buy one from a good student who’s just finished the same course, you can tell from highlighted sections exactly what you’ll need to study.
9. Read every word of every syllabus. Syllabi are class outlines handed out by instructors. They can be many pages long, spelling out every requirement of the course. Typically they include an assignment and test schedule, reading list, absence and grading policies, and specifics about how professors prefer papers to be handed in (some will let you submit by email, others forbid it). If the syllabus says “No eating, drinking or knuckle-cracking in class,” take it seriously. Profs can be very finicky about classroom behavior. And they do remember who breaks their rules.
10. Choose excuses carefully. While it is possible that you could be in a three-car pile-up, get locked out of your room, suffer seasonal amnesia or have all of your beloved grandmothers pass away in the same semester, too many made-up stories about why you’ve been AWOL will lead professors to doubt you at the most crucial time: When your excuse is honest. Profs are so wary of bogus alibis that they may require proof (police reports for car accidents, newspaper obits for family deaths) before allowing the absence without penalty to grades. Also, never tell your teacher that you have to leave early for fall break because your family has non-refundable first-class airline tickets to Hawaii, or that you’ve scheduled your debutante ball the week of finals. Profs don't care. And those are not excused absences. They're just annoying requests for special privileges.
11. Face-to-face trumps email and voicemail. Have a question you didn’t get answered in class? Confused about an assignment? Upset over a grade? Visit the professor or teaching assistant during posted office hours (when instructors are required to be available to students) instead of whipping off an angry email or leaving a plaintive voice message. Issues are better handled in person. Make a point of visiting with your instructors one-on-one at least twice a term, if only for a friendly chat. Building relationships with those profs might yield glowing letters of recommendation later on and perhaps some lifelong friendships, too.
12. Play the waiting game. Patience is nearly impossible when you’re young and in a hurry. But take it from those who know: Stop, think, wait. Wait to make up your mind about a major--and wait to change your major--until you've done some exploring. (Your happiness in life does not hinge on your choice of college major, no matter what your parents say.) Wait to join a fraternity or sorority, or to become active in extracurriculars until you know how much extra time you’ll need to devote to them. Wait until you get most of your work done before going out on weekends. (No one can write an A-plus paper starting at 11 p.m. Sunday.) Wait until you've read the book or seen the film before you write commentary about it. Wait until you know his or her whole story before you commit to a college romance. Wait until you have cash instead of christening that new credit card.
13. Resolve right now: You will not grub for grades. Instructors abhor the sniveling grade-grubbers who try to argue for extra points or tenths of points on assignments or exams. One B-minus will not ruin your life. When mistakes do happen, however, the proof is your responsibility. Keep every graded assignment until you receive your final grade. Keep a copy of everything you write and turn in. Papers get misplaced. Computer foul-ups occur. But it is much easier to provide a duplicate of the assignment in question than to argue with the professor about who lost it.
14. Don’t fear failure. “In order to succeed you must fail, so that you know what not to do the next time,” wrote Anthony J. D'Angelo in his best-selling guide, The College Blue Book: A Few Thoughts, Reflections & Reminders on How to Get the Most Out of College & Life. Flunking an exam is not the end of the world. Never let fear of low grades spoil the educational experience. Every semester, take at least one course you don’t think you’ll be good at (you can always hedge your bet by taking it pass/fail). Study music history, foreign languages, ancient cultures, studio art. Take Guitar 101. Try ballroom dance (which might fulfill a phys-ed requirement). Many graduates say these out-of-the-box classes are the ones they remember best in retrospect.
15. Get what you’re paying for—and pay for some of it yourself. Investing your own money in your education makes it mean so much more. If it’s your hard-earned dough paying for that meal plan, you’ll be more likely to hop out of bed early for hot breakfast. (Your mother was right. It IS the most important meal of the day. Until lunch.) And remember that those high tuition costs and fees help underwrite the free entertainment options on campus. Attend those student plays and concerts. Instead of watching TV alone, get a group together to catch that free lecture on the erotic mosaics of Pompeii. Stop idly clicking on Facebook and MySpace and check out distant galaxies from the campus planetarium. Never again will you have such easy access to museums, free workout facilities, career counseling and tutoring centers, and well-stocked libraries (which you should use for research instead of those often inaccurate Internet sources).
16. Stay up with down time. All work and no play is no way to do school. If you’re the workaholic type, carve out time for exercise, long conversations with pals (in person, not on the phone or via IMs), prayer and meditation, and a few hours a week of good old goofing off. Freshman year is too early to feel burned out. If you find yourself stressed from a too-packed schedule of school and work, drop a class, reprioritize assignments (put the most time into the courses you earn the most credit hours for), cut back on shifts at your part-time job, or plan a weekend trip home to get some home cooking and hugs to recharge your batteries for the next round of deadlines.
17. Do your own heavy lifting. You’re a grown-up now. Don’t buzz Mom, Dad or Big Sis on the cell phone every 10 minutes seeking advice on every little thing. Learn how to do your own laundry and balance your own checkbook. Don’t force your folks to become dreaded “helicopter parents,” hovering around too closely. Be wary of involving a parent in any dispute you have with a teacher. Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), schools cannot share with parents any information about grades or other matters if a student is 18 or older (unless the student has signed a waiver form). Better that you represent yourself. Better, too, that you do your own classwork. Never—repeat, NEVER—resort to plagiarism or fabrication under deadline pressure. Profs and TA’s are experts at spotting fake, recycled or bought-off-the-’net research papers and essays (and online services such as Turnitin.com can confirm the fraud in milliseconds). Universities now have strict policies regarding ethical missteps. Punishment can include a failing grade, notation on a transcript (seen by grad schools and prospective employers later) or even outright expulsion. When it comes to college work, honesty is the best and only policy.
OK, you’ve already done the hard part—getting into college. Now you just have to keep up and stay at it for the next few years. Always remember who you are and where you’re from. Be yourself. And be in class tomorrow. Next thing you know—Christmas break!