Letter to an Incoming Student

Applying the science of student success.

Posted Aug 24, 2017

Note: This article was written with Dr. Myles Johnson.

Dear Incoming Student,

Do you have any worries about starting school again?

If you’re like most people, you probably have mixed feelings. On the one hand, you may hope school opens new doors for you. On the other, your previous experiences in school may have brought with them some distress and struggle. Maybe you wonder whether you can stay motivated. Maybe you wonder whether you can actually succeed. We can empathize. We felt these ways when we were students, too. 

In our 50+ combined years of being college professors, we have observed thousands of students’ hopes and struggles. Based on our observations – and informed by the science of student success – we want to share some ideas you can apply. No matter what your experiences have been in the past, we hope these can inspire a fresh start.

Many students believe their abilities are fixed, and cannot be changed, no matter what they do. For example, have you ever thought: “I am not (and never will be) a good reader,” “I am not (and never will be) good at math,” “I am not (and never will be) a good writer,” I am not (and never will be) a good test taker,” or “I do not have the right learning style to do well in school?”

If you do, you may be limiting yourself and your potential.  

In fact, studies show that students who believe they can do well often are correct. Students who believe their abilities can grow with hard work, effort, perseverance, and trial-and-error are more likely to overcome obstacles and succeed.

For instance, one of us remembers a student who overcame great obstacles in school. This student was a recent immigrant from Ethiopia and seemed to know very little English. She miserably failed the first two exams in our course. Rather than giving up, however, she reflected on what she could do to improve, and she persisted. Amazingly, this student earned a “B” on the third exam, an “A” on the fourth exam, and an “A” on the final. If this student – who barely spoke the dominant language – could turn around her performance, it seems to us that almost anyone could, if they adopted a growth mindset.

What could you do to adopt this kind of growth mindset in school?  

Why do you want to go to school anyway? There are many possible reasons. We’ve even had students whose primary purpose in college was to find a mate! However, some motives are more energizing and productive than others.

Source: Pexels

Many students go to school because they feel they must or should. When a high school graduate is asked what they’re doing next year, for example, there is social pressure to say they’re going to college. Honestly, many students don’t know what else to do with themselves, so they go to college because they know it’s socially acceptable.

It is a great motivational leap forward when you can identify a personally meaningful long-term goal connected with school. Keeping such goals in mind can help you to have self-discipline, perhaps the strongest predictor of school success.

Having said this, problems can arise when students get overly fixated on a future goal. For instance, students can miss out on developing new interests when they get too narrowly focused on a career too early. When students believe that school is only a means to an end, they may obsess about their “need” for points, grades, degrees, and earning potential, all the while missing out on the joy of learning available now. The fact is some of the most meaningful courses you could take have nothing to do with your career.

Even in difficult courses – or courses that seem at first glance to be completely uninteresting – there usually are ways to connect with something personally meaningful. Studies show that students who write about what they are finding relevant or useful in math and science courses perform better and find the material more enjoyable than those who don’t, for example.  

In fact, research suggests that connecting your coursework with your interests is one of the most important steps you can take to thrive in school.

For instance, one of us remembers a student named Kat who completed four of our courses. In the first two, she was an average student – in terms of performance. What was different about Kat, though, was her remarkable curiosity. After class, Kat often asked sincere, thoughtful questions about the topic of the day. She would then go home and read more about the topic, and return with more advanced questions. This really didn’t help her performance – at first – but when she enrolled in higher level courses, she knew more than any other student because of all the self-study she had done. Ultimately, she became one of our best performers.

What specifically do you want to accomplish in school? What could you do to follow your interests? What could you do to find something interesting in tough courses or those you at first think might be uninteresting?

Completing a college degree is likely to benefit you in all the ways you’ve heard about. The further you go in school, the higher your salary is likely to be, and the less likely you are to be without job options.

Yet, as other experts have suggested, it may be helpful to tuck these thoughts about the long-term consequences of school into the back of your mind. Instead, see if you can find meaning and joy in the everyday tasks of being a student. The consequences of a degree will still come if you finish, but the process will be more enjoyable.

As renowned psychologist, Carol Dweck, has said: Pretend "you are quitting your old job and starting your new job. Your old job was getting as many A's as possible. Your new job is to use all the resources... to become the person you want to be, and to contribute something important to the world." 

The biggest takeaway we want to leave you with, though, is this: your inner attitudes and the behaviors within your control will make a bigger difference in your school success than any external circumstances that may come your way. Does that make sense? Argue for your limitations and they are yours, but take control of what you can, and you’ll be in the driver’s seat of your education.

We hope you find something useful in this letter. What would you like to be sure to remember and apply?

One final thought you might keep in mind, from the famous poet W. B. Yeats: “Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire.”

Take care of yourself,

Andy & Myles

P. S. Comment below if you’d like to discuss this article with us. We’d love to hear what you have to say about our ideas and to have the opportunity respond to your questions or doubts about school.

Andy Tix, Ph.D., also blogs at his site The Quest for a Good Life. You can sign up to receive e-mail notifications of new posts at this site.