How to College: 14 Tips for Students Entering College
As August approaches, some will set foot on college campuses as a student for the first time. The transition from high school can be tough for students as they learn to navigate overtly complex systems in a new environment, all while trying to make friends and adjust to a more independent lifestyle. Campuses typically have lengthy orientations that help to ease this transition and inform students of the myriad of opportunitites that they might pursue. Time and again, I have seen many (especially first generation college students) struggle to put this all together. This makes the first several weeks of college more challenging than they need be, when students should be enjoying new freedoms without feeling like they're drowning in new information.
This post is meant to help provide tips to first-year students about what they can expect to be different. Some of these tips you can find on college websites (this one, in particular, is among my favorites: College vs. High School: CSU Chico), so instead I have tried to summarize key tips rooted in what I have observed in my years teaching. These tips and thoughts are categorized by type for easier navigation. Categories include:
- Time Management and Scheduling
- Role of Students in Academic Process
- Role of Teachers in Academic Process
- Differences in Coursework
- TLDR: Bullet List of Tips
First and foremost, your lifestyle changes because what you do is on you. If you miss an assignment or an exam, there is likely no makeup. You choose what activities you spend your time doing with only minimal influence. This freedom can be a hurdle, particularly for those who have not spent much time planning their own schedule or distributing their time. Further complicating things, you might not have class every day, and instead have classes two or three days per week. When looking at a calendar, this might make it seem like you have a lot of free time. Tip 1: Budget time by explicitly blocking out 2 hours for study, review, and catchup for each credit hour you take. Put this in your schedule now before you commit to anything outside of class.
Next, you'll need to think about clubs and extracurriculars that you spend time with. They're all important, but as economics teaches us: resources are scarce. Here, your time and energy is important. All too often students adopt a feeling that they can do it all without tradeoffs. That is simply not the case. Spend some time realizing your limits and know that participating in one thing necessarily means less time for others. Tip 2: At the beginning of each semester, actually think about how you want to spend your time. What's important to you and what will you prioritize? This will help you continue in activities that make you happy and allow you to think about what to give up so you have time for them.
Relatedly, when student time gets pressed from overextending, the answer often seems to be to forgo sleep rather than activities. I cannot stress enough how important sleep is: Harvard Thoughts on Importance of Sleep for Students. College assesses your ability to critically think, and that's really only possible if your brain is awake. Aside from performing better, sleeping gives you a shot at performing at all! Each semester I have at least one student who misses a morning exam because they slept through it. The culprit in every single instance: trying to pull all nighters to prepare for the exam they just missed. Tip 3: Sleeping can seem like a "waste" of time when you need to study. Don't succumb to this thought and get sleep every night, no matter what.
One more rough transition comes in the freedom of scheduling your time. If you grew up in a house where your parents dictated most of your day, this transition will likely be more difficult. Even if you played a role in choosing how to spend your time in high school, your only going to be in class 12 to 16 hours per week. This makes for more hours per week to figure out what you want to do. To put numbers on it. Pretend you take 5 classes in a semester. Most classes are 3 credit hours (4 or 5 credit-hours if they have labs), which means you're likely in class no more than 20 hours per week (5 classes x 3 credit-hours per class + 5 extra credit-hours for labs and other credit-hours). In high school, you were in class ~25 hours per week, minimum if you assume a 9:00-2:00 schedule. If this doesn't match your high school schedule, then you were likely in class even longer. But that's 5 extra hours at least per week that you can do other things. That's very exciting! What you want to be careful about is that keeping some of this time structured is important. Tip 4: Your schedule will look lighter than it actually is. Extending Tip 1, think about a calendar system of some kind that can help you manage your schedule and time to account for your newfound freedom.
The next note seems to stem from a unique element of Oxford College. Oxford students tend to overbook, leaving every moment from 9 am to 5 pm booked with a combination of classes and extracurriculars. Don't do this. In recent memory, I've had innumerable students say that they want to attend office hours for help, but cannot unless it's after 5 pm, when they are free. Faculty, especially after the number of course adaptations made in the wake of the pandemic, are almost never going to stay around past 5 o'clock. This should not surprise incoming students, but faculty do have lives outside of work and the pandemic highlighted the need for better work-life balance and timing boundaries in a job that demands a lot of time. To account for this, don't plan on leaving time exclusively in the evenings to work on your coursework and, potentially, ask your faculty for help. Tip 5: As part of your schedule save 2 hours per week that you can use to attend office hours and make sure these hours fall at different times between the hours of 9 am and 5 pm.
Unlike in high school, you are the driver of your learning in college--take an active role in it! The more you engage, critically think about what the content means, and how it might be applied, the better. To help you, spend some time thinking through good notetaking techniques in your classes. Everyone's brains are different, so it might take time to find it, but really consider what it might look like for you in your first couple of weeks in college. When I teach, for example, I tend to write a lot on the board. This is primarily for pacing of content, but is meant to help signal some important content relative to the myriad of things we talk about or discuss. Students often seem to try and write every single word I write and say down, which is overwhelming if you try to do that for even a few minutes, let alone a whole class period. Tip 6: Target what notes you write down and spend more time listening and participating then writing, as a rule of thumb. To think about efficient note-taking for you, consider posts like this: Note-Taking Methods, that could provide insight into styles. No matter what, you should take notes in every class.
Once you've attended class, it is up to you to extend that knowledge. Learning doesn't stop after lecture ends and most classes expect that you continue reading and thinking about how that material might be applied in the real world. Assigned readings may not be directly discussed in class but you are expected to understand and apply them on larger assignments like tests and projects. Keeping up with assigned readings and, when possible, reading a bit ahead allows you to focus your efforts in class to solidifying what you've learned in preparation for larger assignments. Tip 7: Don't expect class-time to cover everything you're expected to know. You'll need to use independent time to shore up your knowledge base for each class.
Speaking of larger assignments, it is the student's job to prepare for them in college. Whereas in high school you can expect study guides, practice tests, and ample help from teachers, this is not the purpose of college. College is meant to challenge your ability to prepare for important deadlines and apply material learned. Part of this process is that you, the student, will have to work towards preparing yourself for exams. Tip 8: Get in the habit of making study guides before tests and utilizing office hours from faculty to supplement preparation. While this may seem like you're faculty are being unhelpful at first, trust me when I say it is a valuable skillset to develop for career preparation. This setup is really meant to get you ready to successfully prepare presentations, large projects, and/or meet deadlines in a work setting, despite how harsh it may seem.
Finally, you will inevitably miss class at some point. Maybe you get sick, need to travel to see family, or just need a personal day. Definitely take those days when needed, but don't expect faculty to move important deadlines. Unless you are sick and get documentation, there are generally no makeups for big assignments like exams and papers. Plan around these days once you know the exam schedules of your classes. Part of making sure you can complete these assignments will be keeping yourself healthy (see Tip 3 regarding sleep). In the event you cannot make a normal class day, it is the student's responsibility to ask others what happened in class, get notes, and catch up. Tip 9: NEVER email a professor indicating that you missed class and ask "did I miss anything important?" This implies that sometimes we don't do important things in class, which means it's a waste of everyone's time and comes across as insulting to your faculty member. Relatedly, Tip 9a: Form a small group in every class each semester that is willing to share notes should anyone get sick. This agreement up front makes it easy when inevitably everyone needs to miss a day.
Learning is a two-way process and teachers also play a role--what can a new student expect from them? Many students think that college teachers are there to make students learn. They're not. Instead, they are there to guide, provide opportunities for questions, and help students learn on their own. As a first generation college student myself, this was a tough thought to shake, but makes sense once you understand the college system. Very few college professors are trained in teaching methods, we are instead trained in the specifics of a discipline. We work hard to be good at teaching, but faculty's spent time and effort is often spent making sure they understand the evolution of their discipline so that the content we teach is the most up-to-date and correct. All this is to say, there is often a derth of time that can be spent on pedagogical development. Many faculty do spend considerable time learning how best to teach, but my point here highlights that students should make sure they take on the onus of their learning rather than expecting learning to come exclusively from faculty. When what you're doing isn't working, use faculty when needed; indeed, we are happy to help when something you are learning is unclear. The best way to ask for help is in office hours. They're not scary and you'll hopefully find that they're not intimidating. Tip 10: Your faculty are required to have some office hours so get in the habit of using them. I fell prey to this fear myself and it is usually daunting for first generation students such as myself. Hopefully by this point you've seen what I did not in undergrad: your faculty are people too! Moreover, the vast majority of them care about your advancement and well-being.
Turning back to communication with faculty members, you should expect your teachers to be responsive to your questions and emails (within reason). "Within reason" is important here. More often than not, the single best way to get help in a class is thorugh office hours (see above). If office hours don't work for you, email usually works too! However, don't expect a quick response if you send an email after 5 pm on weekdays or on weekends. I check email often, but generally don't respond to anything outside of working hours. I have seen students send an email at 10 pm and a followup email at 1 am asking if I got the first one--don't be that student! Tip 11: Expect your faculty to respond to emails, but expect responses only during working hours.
Finally, the high school system incentivizes that teachers get everyone to pass. In college, we set benchmarks and expect you to meet them. If there is a gap between a student's current knowledge and the benchmark, faculty will help to the extent they can, but students will have to work hard to meet expectations. There's no tip here as it just summarizes everything to this point; make sure you take charge of your own learning.
Tests are generally significant portions of grading many classes. Given the above description of college evaluating a student's ability to reach benchmarks, treat tests as mini-benchmarks to evaluate your progress. In this way, results matter more in college than in high school (much like life). The first test in every class is always the toughest as students face uncertainty about expectations, difficulty, structure, etc. You can expect that you'll have some sense of the number of questions, timing, and overarching content covered (general topics) on an exam. As said above, you won't always get practice versions or study guides. What can you do? Tip 12: When studying for tests, pretend you are the teacher writing it. Tests are written to check if you understand the biggest and most important concepts in a course. Think about what those were (hint: the amount of class time spent on each topic is a good indicator) and focus your study there. This will help you efficiently spend your time and feel more confident meeting benchmarks.
Another key difference referenced above is that makeups and extra credit are generally not allowed. Why no extra credit? For one, it is a hassle. Teachers need to grade it after they create it. Students need to spend time completing it when the course keeps moving on (as do the others they're taking). As a result, take your assignments seriously and prepare as best you can for them, but unless laid out in the course's syllabus from day one, expect no extra credit. The biggest piece here though is the point about benchmarking. Every moment spent completing extra credit is time taken away from the current content in the course. Generally speaking, this means that providing extra credit runs the risk that future extra credit is required as students spend less time than they should on current material. This underscores how important preparation is because there is usually no way to make up work in many classes.
This leads to our next point. College coursework is harder than high school coursework. Knowing this, if you perform poorly on an assignment (and you will at some point), trust me: it'll be ok. Many students spend months on college applications and work hard in high school to keep their GPA high in order to get into a good college. This overstates how important grades are, places too much emphasis on overall class performance, and is a tough belief to shake. I cannot stress the importance of this enough; Tip 13: Your college GPA doesn't matter. I have never been asked my GPA for any job and, as my former students would tell you, most of them haven't been asked either. So, while it's important to work hard and do well, it's ok if you don't get a "good" grade on an assignment or in a class. Especially for introductory classes, even graduate schools won't care and will only look at how you perform on later, more complicated courses, should you want to apply in the future. Focus on learning and cut yourself a break if you get a bad grade every now and again; it's not the end of the world.
Most assignments ask you to synthesize content in new ways rather than regurgitate what you've been told. Tip 14: In each class, think about how what you're learning connects to the other courses you're taking. This will help with your retention of the material long-term and the more you develop this skill, the easier it will be to synthesize content within a particular course. For example, in economics we often spend some time in microeconomics courses on graphing complicated market structures like perfect competition. The graphs have a lot going on in them, so after spending several class sessions on them, take some time to think about why this is all important? A synthesizing student might note that they demonstrate how when businesses face significant competitive pressure, they're unlikely to earn high profits--highlighting why firms try to prevent competitors from entering the market. Before a student gets to this synthesis though, perhaps they read and discuss a news article about how companies have been price gouging in the food industry for another class. The class debates the ethics of such a policy and what comes from that discussion is that part of the reason price gouging is happening is because the agricultural businesses aren't competing with many others. While this ethical discussion may not seem relevant, you link that to these complicated graphs for perfect competition and suddenly their purpose makes more sense. They highlight how little power businesses have when markets are competitive and it indicates why they avoid this as often as possible. This is just one example, but work to make these connections across your classes (especially if they seem unrelated).
Alright, so this was longer than I thought. Here are the tips:
- Tip 1: Budget time by explicitly blocking out 2 hours for study, review, and catchup for each credit hour you take. Put this in your schedule now before you commit to anything outside of class.
- Tip 2: At the beginning of each semester, actually think about how you want to spend your time. What's important to you and what will you prioritize?
- Tip 3: Sleeping can seem like a "waste" of time when you need to study. Don't succumb to this thought and get sleep every night, no matter what.
- Tip 4: Your schedule will look lighter than it actually is. Extending Tip 1, think about a calendar system of some kind that can help you manage your schedule and time to account for your newfound freedom.
- Tip 5: As part of your schedule save 2 hours per week that you can use to attend office hours and make sure these hours fall at different times between the hours of 9 am and 5 pm.
- Tip 6: Target what notes you write down and spend more time listening and participating then writing, as a rule of thumb.
- Tip 7: Don't expect class-time to cover everything you're expected to know. You'll need to use indpendent time to shore up your knowledge base for each class.
- Tip 8: Get in the habit of making study guides before tests and utilizing office hours from faculty to supplement preparation.
- Tip 9: NEVER email a professor indicating that you missed class and ask "did I miss anything important?"
- Tip 9a: Form a small group in every class each semester that is willing to share notes should anyone get sick.
- Tip 10: Your faculty are required to have some office hours so get in the habit of using them.
- Tip 11: Expect your faculty to respond to emails, but expect responses only during working hours.
- Tip 12: When studying for tests, pretend you are the teacher writing it.
- Tip 13: Your college GPA doesn't matter.
- Tip 14: In each class, think about how what you're learning connects to the other courses you're taking.
Hopefully some of these tips will be useful for you as you embark on your collegiate journey. These all come from the challenges I have either personally encountered or observed in others. Through all of the change and excitement inherent in college, never forget that you're there to learn. This doesn't just mean learning in your classroom; it also means learning how to budget your time, learn about yourself, and develop strong communication skills. To this end, as long as you're learning something--you're "college-ing" right. Don't get too wrapped up in what people define as their own success and enjoy college for what it is: an opportunity for personal growth and development.
Later on, I'll revise this post to include more tips and change the ones here. If you think I missed something, let me know! My email is: firstname.lastname@example.org.