Back-to-College Articles with Helpful Advice

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backpack girl

Also, don’t strain your back

Whether you’re a new or returning college student, traditional or non-trad, part- or full-time, you’re probably open to some tips on how to navigate what is often a difficult experience – and the resources below offer helpful suggestions:
From MIT Admissions: 50 things for freshmen to consider as they embark upon their college journey (by Ben Jones).
“Back to school: Advice on how to adjust to college from someone who’s been there”: current students reveal their best back-to-school advice for college freshmen. (By Shawn Christ, The Patriot-News,
“Lessons Learned: Seven Tips for Returning to College”: this one is written from the point of view of a nontraditional student (by Suzanne T. Jackson,
This piece gives simple but useful advice to non-trads balancing work and college (“How about a Little Free Homework Help” at The 30 Something Student).
“Ten Tips You Need to Survive College”: This page offers some good basic advice on studying. Check it out for useful refreshers. From Middle Tennessee State University.

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Where Are the Best Professors? (And Is That the Right Question?)

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Star sunglasses


The intriguing piece “Save Us from the Superstars” (published recently in Inside Higher Ed) contains one quote in particular that stood out to me:

Higher education has always had superstars. Big names are lured away for big salaries, only to have very limited contact with undergraduates and very little impact on the day-to-day lives of students.” (John Warner, writing in the Just Visiting blog)

This is relevant, of course, to the college decision-making process of prospective students – and to the difficult yet important question: “But how do I know where the best professors are?” I’ve addressed this before on this blog, here — and suggested an academic adviser is a good resource for that discussion.

The news is good for students overall on this issue, though — I would bet that at every college, no matter the level of prestige, cost, or degrees granted, excellent professors profess. As countless students have discovered, professorial brilliance does not necessarily correspond to teaching ability, or the ability to explain concepts clearly and to engage students. But neither does that mean that the most “highly valued” profs wouldn’t shine in the classroom. Nor does that mean that great assistance can’t be found in on-campus tutoring (I remember grad students helping me to grasp concepts I wasn’t getting from class and my own reading). And of course, many excellent profs are adjuncts (part-time employees) and may not even be listed on the university’s website.

In short, learning is a complex and highly individual process. It’s nice to think “the right professors” will inspire and thrill, making your job of learning all that much easier — and that may be the case at times; but regardless of who’s teaching, learning is work, and the healthiest way to think about your learning at college is to remember it’s your responsibility. If the professor doesn’t explain something clearly, use office hours; form a study group; go to a tutor; ask a librarian; read and re-read your material; search for study aids on the web . . . all these things are within your power, whether or not your learning style seems to “click” with a given prof.

Related on this site: “‘Here We Are Now, Entertain Us’: Edutainment’s Effectiveness”

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Reading Resolution for New Year’s?

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Lucky you can read

Lucky you can read

If a student trying to prepare for college were to ask me for just one word of academic advice, I’d say “Read!” Read more often; read books; read challenging material. The payoff will come in enjoyment, in learning, and in improving reading comprehension and writing skills.

An excellent time to start reading those books is now; as it happens, “reading more books” is a popular (perhaps THE most popular?) New Year’s resolution.

So . . . as January rolls on, which books will you choose? Keep in mind some libraries and organizations have compiled good book lists for prospective college students and independent learners. Take advantage of those lists for ideas, and in the meantime, have a joyful, prosperous, healthy, and readerly New Year!

“The College Board’s ‘101 Great Books Recommended for College-Bound Readers’” (
“The Big Read” books (National Endowment for the Arts’ “Big Read” program).
“Outstanding Books for the College Bound” (Young Adult Library Services Association).
“College Bound Reading Lists” (Arrowhead Library System, Wisconsin).

(Disclosure: I wrote about these sites in prior posts, but they bear repeating . . .)

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Road to College Success Paved with More than Academics

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Follow rules & rule your own learning

It’s not just academic readiness that prepares a student for college.

As a recent study argues, college students also must possess certain “non-academic skills, behaviors and attitudes” to meet with success.

The study, authored by Melinda Mechur Karp and Rachel Hare Bork, published at the Community College Research Center’s website, and noted (and linked to) in Inside Higher Ed, is directed at community college faculty and administrators. But as a new or returning college student, you may be interested to read it, and you can become cognizant of these “unspoken rules” – they include

-using your resources (such as the library or tutoring services)

-knowing how to manage your time and workflow

-knowing how to take good notes

-knowing when to ask for help

-making college a priority

I’ve long noticed that a number of my own community college students would have met with greater success had they entered my classroom with stronger study skills. I looked out, for instance, and saw them neglecting to take notes or even failing to have a notebook with them; I noticed some would skip class and fail to turn in the “little” assignments that were so critical in skill-building up to the large lessons. Unsurprisingly to me but not, perhaps, to them, these particular students generally washed out of class (that is, they ended up withdrawing or failing, or simply disappeared).

I strongly believe a “College 101” success course would benefit many of them, and I highly recommend such a course to all (student success courses are mentioned in the study, as well). As a DIY college prepster, though, you can read up on topics such as college-level note-taking and studying; a few articles on this site can get you started:

What Really Makes a Successful Student?
Libraries & Librarians: Academic Lifelines
Your Academic Well-Being May Hinge on This
Are You Taking Notes on This?

*The study discussed here is linked from “Clear Expectations on Readiness,” Inside Higher Ed, 9/18/12.

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A Bit More Advice for the Big Move (High School to College)

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All best wishes to YOU

Last week, I wrote about what not to do in college. Since then, I’ve seen a couple of noteworthy web items that deal with the chasm (yes, it can be a chasm) of difference between high school and college. Read on for a few pennies for thought regarding intro or core courses, time management, and general course policies . . .

First, I ran across a pretty good article on’s More Than a Test Score blog (8/28/12, via Teen Life) titled “7 Ways College Classes Differ from High School Classes.” It contains solid advice, though I have comments on a couple of the points.

First, they refer to “intro courses” thus:

“Once the intro courses are out of the way, you start to focus on the classes you really want to take . . .”

. . . my advice? Never say you are trying to get a certain course “out of the way” to a professor – and consider changing your philosophy a bit if you truly do view any course as something to “get out of the way.” I’ve taught a core course, English Composition, for years and while students may not all enjoy it, to call it something “to get out of the way” implies the class is undesirable and perhaps even a silly or irrelevant hoop through which you must jump. On the contrary, the core or “intro” courses are designed to give you a solid foundation for the courses that come afterwards.  So soak up the knowledge and skills they offer!

Also, they recommend “Try to dedicate around 2 hours every night to studying.”

That’s okay if you’re enrolled in just one three-credit-hour class – one that meets 2 ½ hours a week.

When planning college study time, consider this very good formula that’s been handed down through wisdom of the ages: commit about 3 hours outside of class for each hour inside of class – so, for that three-credit-hour class, you’d spend 7 ½ hours a week in study (10 hours a week total on subject Q).

If you’re enrolled in 15 credit hours, therefore, plan to study as if it were your full-time job (which actually, if you’re a college student, it is). 15 credit hours means (applying the above formula) 37.5 hours of studying per week outside of class. That’s on average – some weeks may require less, some even more time . . . but when you’re a full-time student, you need to be a full-time student (underestimating study time sinks many an academic ship).

Another article I read this week was aimed at college faculty: “This Isn’t High School: Advice for Faculty Teaching First-Year Students” (Faculty Focus, Mary Bart, 8/27/12). It mentions that first-year students may be used to very different academic policies in high school – perhaps regarding extra credit, late or re-done work, and class absences.

If you are or have recently been a high school student, please be aware: many college profs don’t offer extra credit, and in fact don’t believe in it on principle; they may or may not allow late work, but if it is allowed, it often brings a penalty of some sort; and class absences may count against you. In other words, truly, to echo that article’s title, “this isn’t high school.” The good news: you won’t have to guess about policies for a particular class. All these issues should be covered in the class syllabus, so be sure to read it carefully and keep it on hand throughout the semester!

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7 Things Not to Do in College


irritated cat

We do not recommend

First-time college students, as you head off to class, try to avoid these common transgressions against one’s own academic interests . . .

1. Don’t read the syllabus or directions for individual assignments. Be sure to read through your syllabus on day one, and keep it close at hand for future reference. Also, print and scrutinize your individual assignment directions.

Questions are usually welcome, but when you have a question, always read over what you’ve been given to see if you can figure out the answer yourself first.

2. Skip class (or don’t log in regularly for an online class). Sure, you have the freedom to skip class – but is that the smartest thing to do when class is designed to teach you the material? Answer: no. You’re severely shortchanging your education when you don’t attend class, and you’re likely to fall behind, get frustrated, and even drop the class if you miss much.

3. Come to class, but throughout class, text, browse on Facebook, chat with neighbors, etc. It’s great to come to class, but sitting there whilst multitasking or socializing probably isn’t going to help you. Even a once-a-week night class or lab isn’t, in truth, interminably long; so remember why you’re in school and concentrate on the moment, take notes, and soak up the learning (not to mention respect others in the room!).

4. Expect good grades as a “given.” To first-year students, college is frequently a shock in terms of its expectations and standards; if you’re dismayed at grasping this, you are in very good company. Of course, good grades in college are achievable; but keep in mind they’re reflections of performance on particular assignments for particular classes. They’re not reflections of you as a person or even, necessarily, of your academic abilities. Keep working to improve and learn, and above all don’t expect high marks for mediocre work – in other words, eschew the so-called “attitude of entitlement.”

5. Have your parents call the school to straighten out your issues. It’s a relatively recent phenomenon that puzzles professors and administrators: parents of adult children contact college faculty and staff to serve as students’ agents. This is generally seen as irritating and unnecessary: you, as a student, should take ownership of your education and all related responsibilities.

6. Complain straight to the Dean rather than going to your instructor when you get a grade you don’t like. This is not to say you should stay away from visiting professors and tutors in order to discuss and better understand class material. I’m talking about students who suddenly spring to life when they have a complaint (many times about a grade or about rigor of the class), and go straight to “the manager” instead of approaching their professors. This is counterproductive and only serves to annoy and waste time of everyone involved. That’s because the Chair or Dean is generally going to send you back to your instructor anyway. Expend your energy on learning the class material, not on complaining about how hard it is.

Now, students of course may have legitimate complaints about the course, such as when a professor habitually cancels class or does not give clear directions – but even in these cases, always, always approach the professor first if at all possible; and approach in a friendly way, establishing that you’re trying your best to learn and learning is your chief concern.

7. Cheat. Don’t plagiarize; don’t be academically dishonest. It’s wrong, plus penalties may include failing the assignment, failing the class, or being expelled from the school.

And finally, some words of encouragement: in general, although it’s probably true that some of your professors will be better than others at teaching and communicating, and some of your classes you’ll enjoy more than others, try to keep your head up and basically, act with dignity as you seek out learning. You always have options when you get stuck, such as visiting the instructor during office hours, using tutoring services, or forming study groups. Good luck!

Feel free to add other ways students act against their own interests – and solutions . . .

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Too Good to Be True-isms in Higher Ed (Advice: Just Find a Good Prof!)

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ghostly door

Behind that spooky college door

A recent piece in Inside Higher Ed, “College Express,” skewers methods some institutions of higher learning (or so-called diploma mills) have taken to speed up, or “simplify,” obtaining a degree:

 “All of our classes are accelerated. Classes that were already accelerated have been further accelerated.”

It also casts a wary eye on jettisoning “traditional” classes; offering online classes with little regard to quality; having lax curricular requirements; and accepting too eagerly alternate ways of certifying skills:

“Certificates, letters, badges — just forward them to us, and we’ll find a way to make them count.”

Though humorous, this article is a good barometer of some of the anxieties in higher education today. I’m reminded of other specters that keep us awake at night, such as grade inflation (both at the K-12 and post-secondary level) resulting in a slow march to educational mediocrity . . . we have no shortage of frights.

How, then, is a student to know where to go and what to take in order to get a good college education? Alas, it’s not an easy question. College rankings and statistics may give a general picture, and yes, policies shape school practices; but getting a good education has a whole lot to do with your individual educators. The best professors are good communicators devoted to rigor and student learning  – and these reside in community colleges and state colleges as well as more highly-priced universities. Of course, some students don’t recognize who their best profs were until years later: immediately after class, they may leave stinging remarks about too much work or “too-low” grades on “Rate My Professors,” which is why I submit it’s difficult to get an accurate picture of true educational quality from student peers. But word of mouth is still valuable, and were I a student today, I’d ask my academic adviser who has a great reputation for pushing his or her students – who’s demanding? That’s whose class I’d take.

Though this blog is all about DIY college prep, and certainly, much learning can be done by a solitary curious mind, talented and dedicated instructors keep inspiring and impacting individuals semester after semester . . . and I don’t think these teachers can ever be replaced.

How do you think students should search for quality in education?

Article quoted above is “College Express” by Carolyn Foster Segal, published 8/2/12 at Inside Higher Ed.

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What College Students Can Learn from Olympians

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Lessons for every striver

During the last Olympic Games, I was struck by the televised human interest stories portraying the athletes – the stories included past victories and defeats, personal issues such as difficult family circumstances, injuries, and other various setbacks in life. These remind us the athletes are normal people with extraordinary talents and goals – and we might look to them for inspiration, no matter who we are. I’ve always found multiple parallels between sports and academics, and I think Olympians can teach college students a few lessons.

Wholehearted belief and sacrifice are important to success. Olympic champions don’t go about their conditioning, practices and competitions with half their energy. They must commit to their goals completely, body and mind. In The Power of Positive Thinking, Norman Vincent Peale quotes a trapeze artist instructing his frightened student how to perform on the high bar: “Throw your heart over the bar, and your body will follow.” While this of course concerned physical performance, it’s true of academic endeavors as well: the first step is to want success and believe you can attain it. (Then, of course, you’ll commit long hours of work toward the goals you’ve set.)

Sometimes, unexpected circumstances derail you. Athletes regularly sustain injuries or even life circumstances that take them out of competition. These life events are disappointing and heartbreaking, and of course not limited to athletes. As a determined student, when difficulties arise, how well do you cope? In other words, what’s your character? Do you throw in the towel, or do you become even more determined to reach your goals? Do you have grit? It’s a good thing to have.

Sometimes, life isn’t fair – perhaps the best team or the best athlete makes a mistake or just doesn’t perform up to potential on a given night. The best team doesn’t always win; this is true in every area of striving and achievement.

Not everyone can win the gold. The bizarre practice of awarding every kid (or no kid) a trophy intentionally obscures the reality that in every competition, there are winners and losers. Abolishing the honor roll doesn’t change the fact that some kids are more academically talented (or work harder) than others. But to a young person brought up with these odd practices, it may be a shock to discover, perhaps in college, that gold medals are not in fact ubiquitous. Success is hard-won, and work ethic and ability, not pretend accolades, will get you there.

Even those with raw talent need support and coaching. Two points here. First, our success is rarely if ever come upon in a vacuum; we all have inspirational teachers, coaches, mentors, family members and friends who support us. It’s good to remain humble and grateful toward these folks. Second, everyone needs a coach – in other words, needs to be open to coaching and further improvement. Some confident college students resist constructive feedback from professors, saying they were “A students in high school.” Ah, but college is a different playing field altogether, even for the best high-school performers, and even the most talented need guidance. Also, in some cases, grade inflation has unfortunately warped students’ perceptions of their true performance levels.

Cheating doesn’t pay. Students and others might think they’re “getting away with” cheating for awhile, but it’s only for awhile; and consequences linger and taint. In any sport, but particularly in Olympic competitions, how shameful and sad it is when a medal must be stripped from a competitor, or when corruption is found to have infiltrated a contest. If you have no integrity, what do you have? It’s a serious question; as Cassio bemoans in Othello, “Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial.”

One must respect others – even when competing against them. This is called “good sportsmanship,” and it applies to every contest in life. Sore losers and gloating winners are embarrassments to themselves and the teams they represent. So remember, inside and outside class, to carry yourself with class.

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In the Key of Humility: High School Graduation Speech Strikes Rare, Much-Needed Note

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sunset from space

Humility is beautiful

Sometimes it’s uplifting to know something’s “gone viral.”

In his commencement address, teacher David McCullough Jr. at Wellesley High School (Massachusetts) demonstrates wisdom, honesty, and caring consideration as he reminds young people they’re “not special.” Bravo for this eloquent speech (which you can view or read here), as this is something our young people dearly need to hear.

Those of us who teach or otherwise work with college students can attest that while many are confident, unfortunately, some are over-confident, with an entitled, unreasonable expectation of above-average grades for mediocre work (and a companion, self-defeating tendency to complain about high academic standards and rigor).

It’s also clear that students who truly succeed must achieve some humility and realize the necessity of hard work. The harvest awaits: a good college education encourages maturity as students study stones left unturned, and finally consider what really matters in life and what’s worth pursuing.

This is an important point of the graduation speech: it implores young learners to do for the good of doing and not for the accolades. Mr. McCullough also notes

“The fulfilling life, the distinctive life, the relevant life, is an achievement, not something that will fall into your lap because you’re a nice person or mommy ordered it from the caterer.”

Indeed, achievement as a goal can quickly get lost, as students take college courses to “get them out of the way” and seem focused heavily on getting the credential rather than cultivating what that credential should signify.

Finally, the speech encourages students to turn outward:

“Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.” 

This refreshing message certainly should apply to the general pursuit of knowledge; may it travel far and wide.

Image: Sunset on the Indian Ocean, taken by astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS). By ISS Expedition 23 crew (NASA Earth Observatory), via Wikimedia Commons.

What Really Makes a Successful Student?


pencil sharpener

Stay thirsty, my friends

What makes a successful student (in the sense of a person who passes his or her classes and potentially goes on to graduate)?

I began thinking about this after reading “The Neuroscience of Effort,” Jonah Lehrer’s recent post in the Wired Science Blog The Frontal Cortex. The piece discusses a new study of our brains’ inner workings as they struggle to stay focused on tasks and avoid distraction and procrastination. This eternal struggle surely has applied at some time or another to every student; and since college students have a heavy learning workload, this particular brain-victory seems vital to collegiate success.

While experts explore the brain’s inner workings, we know that success, too, can only begin with a striking word in this article’s title: “effort.” Maybe it’s obvious that one must expend effort to achieve, but I believe the capacity for hard work is a trait many incoming college students underestimate. In many cases, students will need to work more strenuously than was ever required before, academically. At the community college, I’ve seen many bright students who simply don’t apply their potential to their studies. Of course, some deliberately decide college doesn’t suit them, and they may find success elsewhere. For those who stick around, though, I’ve observed a few shared traits among the successful:

-solid work ethic (they’re willing to put in time and effort; also, they’re responsible individuals)
resilience (they don’t crumble in the face of an obstacle, such as a poor grade or a personal setback)
perseverance (related to resilience: they’ve made their minds up to finish what they need to finish, and they do)
self-discipline (along with work ethic, they also have self-restraint, the ability to think before an immediate and emotional reaction to a situation)

In short, if you wish to thrive in college, work hard and don’t give up, be tough, and be in control of yourself. Incidentally, these traits are also much-needed in the workplace; and they’ll go a long way in personal relationships as well.

What other traits contribute to student success? Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments section.

Related posts:
“Why Struggling in Class Can Be Good”
“College as Rude Awakening?”
“Jump in There and Make Mistakes!”

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