College Life

A first-impressions primer for first-year students

Posted Jul 08, 2012

This blog is about college teaching, but I am often asked for advice from the parents of college-bound students. Many will begin college life in late August and September (which despite the beach, pool, and all those picnics, is not too far away). I thought I would take this opportunity to offer some advice to the coming year’s freshmen and women. As a college professor and parent of two children—one in college and one heading there in two years—I can tell you the habits formed early on matter, just as the impression you convey to your instructors matters. I’ve written about recommended study habits and test-taking strategies before but thought this time I would focus on what we might call the need for common-sense social graces on campus.

Get to know your advisor. Students at most colleges are assigned an academic advisor, usually a member of the faculty or perhaps someone who is on an organized advising team. You should get to know this person because he or she knows all the things about the school that you don’t (yet) know but will (soon, often, always) need to know. Such important matters include how to get into a class (“add”), how to switch out of (“drop”) a class, what forms need to be submitted where and when—in short, all of the administrative issues that must be done to keep you on track towards graduation after four or so years. Your advisor is the most important person on campus where you and your college experience are concerned. So, be sure to introduce yourself to your advisor, shake hands, and get off to a good start.

Read first—ask questions later (if needed). Colleges generate lots of text, online and on paper. It can seem overwhelming sometimes—all the rules, regulations, and details—but there is important information embedded in that paper trail. Syllabi or the course outlines that indicate due dates for assignments and exams, for example, are particularly important. Most professors take them very seriously and fill them with important information you need to know about the courses you are taking. You will have questions about a given class (“When is the final exam?” “Can I email my paper instead of printing it?”) and the chances are good that the information you actually need is in the syllabus. So, read it first and then ask questions later (you may not need to).

Office hours (yes, really). You will need or want to see your professors during their office hours, that is, set times each week when students are welcome to drop by to ask questions and discuss their grades or anything else related to a class. These office hours are usually easy to find (in the syllabus, on the professor’s web site, at the department’s web site, on his or her office door) and you should take the initiative to find out when you are welcome to stop by. Less welcome are email messages like the following: “Dr. Smith, I’m a student in your intro psych class. What are your office hours this week?” or “Are you in your office now?” or “I’m free on Friday at 12:30pm but only until 12:45—are you free then?” Faculty members are available to you during office hours and those hours are easy to find. If you cannot make one of those times, approach the professor before or after class and ask if a mutually convenient time can be scheduled. Easy, peasey.

Due dates are real and you are responsible for keeping them come what may. College students need to become responsible for themselves and less dependent on parents for guidance (lots has been written about “helicopter parenting”). Papers are due when they are due. Exams need to be taken when they are scheduled. Period. Does college work sometime get overwhelming? Yes, sometimes. Is it reasonable to ask for extensions on papers or other assignments? Usually, no—and it’s not really a matter open to debate. Serious illness, accident, a death in the family—these are all legitimate reasons to ask to submit work late or to postpone an exam. Asking for extra time because “all my professors assigned papers due the same week” is not reasonable. Learning to pace yourself and space out effort to complete tasks in advance (not at the last minute) is an important out of class skill to be learned, one that will help you in your adult life.

Come to class, every class, and don’t make excuses for absences. Some professors take roll, others don’t. All of them hope you will come to class each and every day it meets. There is nothing more annoying to the ears of a professor than hearing the following: “I missed the last class—did I miss anything important?” Some professors keep a list of snappy comebacks in reserve for such comments (“Why no—how could we possibly go on without your stellar contribution?”). The short answer to the query is “yes, you did.” Unless there is a rule about missing class (and there may be one—check that syllabus carefully), you don’t need to inform the professor. Ask a peer for his or her notes, what was discussed, etc. This is your responsibility—your instructor is not responsible for covering what you missed—the material was presented on schedule but you missed it. In any case, I think the easiest way to think about the class attendance issue is recognizing that college is expensive: Why not get your money’s worth? Go to class.

Were there any surprises in this common sense set of suggestions? Perhaps not. And yet each new group of first year students must learn them. Why not discuss or share this list with someone you know who is starting college this fall?

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