As a college professor for 21 years, there are a few things I know for sure. One is that first semester typically sucks, and for all different reasons. The second is that first-year students often struggle during their first semester and sometimes in ways that can be hard to recover from. And third, there’s hope and students can indeed find success after a lousy first semester. Here are some tips for students and their parents to ensure success for the coming term:
1) Before heading back for the new semester, consider where and how you floundered. What was hard and why? Were the struggles academic? Social? Roommate related? A bit of all of these? Assess the patterns. Think about your role in these struggles. For example, when I teach I do not rely on PowerPoint lectures and I do not understand when some students complain “But you didn’t give us notes.” Students need to take notes for themselves, to decide for themselves what is most important and how to make sure they remember it and render it meaningful for themselves. So, rather than think, “Well, I didn’t do well because the professor didn’t post the notes,” it would serve students better to ask themselves: Did I seek out help from the professor and/or teaching assistant in office hours to learn how to better take notes? Did I seek support from a tutor at the student success center? Did I find a study buddy or study group? Did I do all this as soon as I saw things going awry or did I wait too long when it was too late? Did I neglect to submit any assignments? Did I make excuses? Should I consider seeking help at the counseling center for dealing with anxiety and depression or other issues that have caused distress? Be honest about where you had trouble so you can reshape your habits for the new semester.
2) Consider time. How much were you manifesting and making your own life? You have new freedom in your schedule and get to make your own. How can you make that best work for you? Did night turn into day and day into night? Did that work? Sometimes it does but often it doesn’t. It’s not unusual or inherently bad to stay up until 2 or 3 a.m. and to wake up at 11 or 12, but it might be better to not make a habit of it every day, and mainly because so much decreased daytime, especially in the winter months, can be depressing.
3) Be sure to invest in a planner or find an app that will help you make your schedule and remind you of upcoming important dates. You can then log in due dates into your calendar and include stages of project management so you can get your work done at a good pace. Over the years as a professor, I too have gotten into the very helpful habit of printing out all my syllabi and sitting down with them and my planner and entering in all important dates for all the classes I teach, including things like exams, paper due dates, dates I should set aside for grading, dates by which I should post review sheets for exams, etc. In addition, I keep a master list of all the work and writing projects I need to complete and include these items as well. This helps me pace myself for the next fifteen weeks and I know in advance which weeks might be busier and which ones have more flexibility. As a result, it also helps me think about weekend and travel plans. Doing these things actually creates the structure and scaffolding to make time for more spontaneity.
4) When you think about time, consider your relationship with technology and your online habits. Did an hour just pass when you were just scrolling? When you think about what you did when you were supposedly out with friends, do you recall the conversation or just the fact that everyone was on their phones? Consider turning your phone off and putting it in a drawer while you are studying to minimize distractions; the best thing is this will actually shorten the amount of time the work will take.
5) Think about the habits you have cultivated since you have been at college. Which ones are serving you well and which ones are no longer serving you? How might you let go of what is not serving you? For example, have you gotten caught up in going out for Thirsty Thursdays and missing your morning classes on Fridays? In recent years when teaching my introductory course on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays with mainly first-year students, I see a marked drop in attendance on Fridays. It has made me more likely to assign in-class writings that cannot be made up, to present important concepts and terms, etc. On the face of it, it sounds mean. But, really, if you sign up for a class that meets three days a week, Friday does not become optional. Another habit that first-year students seem to get into at college is pot smoking so much so that it starts to become a daily habit. Others may start drinking or drinking much more, and others may indulge in foods that have no nutritional value. The habits that are created in college can be hard to break. Often, the thirty-year-old alcoholic started this behavior in late adolescence.
6) If you have not been meeting with your advisor, you should. Schedule an appointment and come prepared with questions written out in advance. Your advisor may know of exciting opportunities for research collaborations, internships, and jobs. It’s worth your while to get to know this person. Be honest with him/her about what you struggled with first semester and ask him/her for more resources and support.
7) Perhaps the advisor you have been assigned is not a professor. In this case, seek out a faculty mentor. Maybe this is a person with whom you took a favorite class or who compelled you to rethink your major. At the end of last semester, a student who had planned to enter our nursing program emailed me and asked me to become her mentor and indicated that my class had prompted her to leave nursing and change her major. I can’t tell you how fun and exciting it was for me to receive a formal email like this; it showed me that she had thought about what and who most motivated her, that she wanted to follow her passions, and that she had given thought to mentoring and what such a rapport could do for her, academically, professionally and personally.
8) Evaluate your life outside of your classes. What have you done to take care of your soul, your interests, and your heart? This is the semester to think about how to make college your home. Maybe you can join clubs and organizations on campus that resonate with your interests and that have the potential to help you develop your leadership abilities. And, maybe you can think of the community just beyond the campus. What goes on in the surrounding area that feels exciting and worth being a part of? I am still in shock that it took a return trip to Austin, Texas in 2013 for me to venture to The Broken Spoke for country music and to see a concert at Austin City Limits, after having attended graduate school there back in 1992-1994. It seems perfectly ridiculous to me now that I didn’t participate in all that then. Of course, I did plenty of other fun and amazing things when I lived there but it was easy to get into my own little routine and to not expand beyond that.
9) On my office door, I have this wonderful quotation from Rainier Maria Rilke and often point students to it, to remind them of why we’re here – both here at college and here, in the universe. "Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. Don't search for answers now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything.”
10) Try to think of the second semester as a new day, an opportunity for a fresh start, a chance to reinvent yourself and rediscover your dreams. Take a morning, an afternoon, or an evening to sit down by yourself with a paper and pen or pencil, sit in silence and meditate for even just a few minutes and anchor into the place within you that intuits your own hopes, dreams and visions. What word or phrase comes to mind that best captures your intention for the new semester? What are you wanting to cultivate in your life? What do you need less of going forward? How might you shed that stuff and clear space? What do you need more of going forward? How might you hold space for that good stuff? Try writing about this. Make a list of how you might get there. Then, close your eyes again and meditate on all this. Reconnect with the word or phrase that motivates you. When you open your eyes, take out a new sheet of paper and write this down anew, perhaps draw an accompanying image that brings this mantra to life. Go forth and take this with you, and good luck!