My Advice For Students Heading Off To College

Morehouse graduate, Leland Shelton. Photo source: NBC News

College students from across the nation have finally earned their degrees, and after years of hard work they can finally move onto the next chapter of their lives.  Some students will return home to their parents, while others will relocate, seek employment, or perhaps enroll in graduate school.  Yet, while one group of students is leaving, another group is arriving on campus.   According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the fall of 2016 approximately 20.5 million American students headed off to college or universities.  If history is any indicator, more students will move into dorms in 2017, especially since some states now offer free tuition.

I have spent most of my adult life taking courses, sitting in someone’s classroom or trying a secure another degree.  When it comes to making it through college I have learned some tricks of the trade.  Well, I shouldn’t call them tricks because a lot of folks make it through school.  But, I will say that I know how to gain entrance to college I know how to avoid of a lot of potential pitfalls.

Below I offer my advice to students who are about to enter their first year at college.  I focus on freshmen because research clearly indicates that many students academically struggle and have a hard time adjusting during this critical year.

Go To Class – Your parents, guardians or loved ones won’t be there to get you out of bed and shuffle you off to school, so you will have to get yourself together and make it out the door.  This may be really hard for some folks who want to sleep in and blow off an 8:00 am class.  It’s not enough to think “I will go to class tomorrow” because your professor needs to see your face even if you have bags under your eyes and are semi-conscious.  This is particularly true when there are only a few students in class and/or the professor takes attendance.  No, you don’t have to go to class; however, some professors will question your commitment if you never show up.

Find Yourself Some Positive Peers – One of the major benefits of college is that you will meet people from all over the nation and in some cases from all over the world.  Nevertheless, you can’t be buddy buddy with everyone.  You will need to find some positive peers; a group of students who are goal oriented, want to go class and more importantly want to graduate.  Further, positive peers can have invaluable information on things that aren’t found on your school’s web site.  For example, they may have information about scholarships, know which professors to take and which ones to avoid like the bubonic plague, and be able to school you on which students (i.e. “playas”) you should stay away from at all costs.  Positive peers can encourage you when are down or tell you when you need to get it in gear when you are slacking.

Study Together – Research has shown that students who study together do better on tests and receive higher marks.  I found this to be true during my undergraduate studies at East Stroudsburg University.  I wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed back then and I struggled to understand some of the basic concepts and ideas.  But I was surrounded by students who in many cases were hands down smarter than I was.  I relied on them to help me make sense of the material.  They also helped me with the math which wasn’t my strong suit.  It is important to point out that there is a difference between study groups and social groups.  On more than one occasion I found myself essentially hanging with folks who wanted to have fun and talk about things taking place on campus.  You need to be wary of students who want to get together, but don’t really want study the material at hand.

Don’t Be Afraid To Be Alone – On the surface this point might seem at odds with the statements I made above so let me explain.  As a student you will have to learn how to work both collectively and individually.  There will be times when you will need to rely on others, but there will also be times when you will need to remain in your room or in the library even when your friends want to go out for a night of drinking or carousing.  For example, back in my day when I was a student there was a house just across the street from campus where the kids would go and drink until their hearts were content.  I spent a little time there because I was curious and wanted to see what all the fuss was about.  I quickly realized that I would not graduate if I hung out there.  I had to learn to spend time alone when others were partying.

Don’t Be Afraid To Ask For Help – Years ago we had to physically go to a professor’s office during his or her office hours when we didn’t understand the coursework or needed additional help.   I am not so sure students today are as willing to do this especially since it might seem easier and quicker to just shoot the person an e-mail.  However, I would recommend that speak directly to your professor when you need help.  There is something to be said about a face to face interaction.  Additionally, you will find that your professor might provide insight into upcoming assignments and tests if you just stop by.  What’s more, most colleges and universities provide tutoring and writing workshops for people who need support.  People will help you if you just reach out to them.

Find a Mentor – I might as well be frank about it.  While in college you will have some professors who are about as boring as the day is long.  You might find yourself counting ceiling tiles in their classes or daydreaming about what you are going to have for lunch as soon as you bolt out the door.  However, invariably you will come across a professor who knows the material, knows how to teach it, and is and is well respected in academia.  You may also find that your philosophy and approach jives with hers.  You might want to ask that person to be your mentor or at least your academic advisor.  Finding a mentor can be tricky because professors with the most talent often have limited time and availability.  Regardless, I recommend that you find one.  Once you graduate from college your mentor may be the one who writes a letter of recommendation for you, or can vouch for your intellectual abilities or character.

I was particularly close to one of my college professors when I was an undergraduate student.  He was more than just a professor he taught me how to breakdown a problem, supported me when the academic waters got muddy, and encouraged me when I got down.  I remained in contact with him until he died about 20 years after I graduated.  He was a good mentor and I still think about him sometimes.

Keep Your GPA Up – Oh how I wished I had received this advice earlier!  There are a lot of reasons why I didn’t receive high marks in college, and most of them were related to stuff that was going on outside the classroom.  My meager academic performance came back to haunt me when I applied to graduate school.  One admissions officer clearly wondered if I could handle the rigors of graduate school because my “undergraduate grades were so low.”  I had to convince her to give me a shot and let me in there!  Another admissions officer reviewed my previous grades and decided to let me take classes under probationary status.  Although he did not say it directly, the overriding theme of our conversation was that he wanted me to prove myself.  My point is that your GPA matters, especially if you plan to continue your education.  Your GPA will determine if and where you will gain entrance to grad, law or medical school should you go that route.  It may also have an impact on if you get a job as some employers may compare your GPA to other students who excelled in the classroom.

So there you have it, my advice for students who plan to enter the hallowed halls of academia.  Do the best you can, have fun, study hard and most importantly graduate!



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