How To Succeed in College

Tips from a prof for the college-bound

Posted Aug 16, 2011

It's that time of year, many are headed off to college for the first time, or they are heading back for classes soon.  I thought it would be a good opportunity for me to share some of my thoughts about how to be successful in college, based on my experiences as a student and professor.

First off, get into classes that are outside of your comfort zone.  If you are a science major, make sure to take classes in the humanities and social sciences.  If you are majoring in the humanities, take some science courses.  And if you are tracking yourself into a professional program (law or business), experiment a bit with courses outside the profession.  You never know what you will discover about yourself and your interests by broadening your range of courses.  While it might be difficult to quantify an exact return by picking up skills and methodologies outside your major --- you'll typically draw upon these skills and methodologies in some way in your career or life. 

Second, get to know your professors.  Approach them after class with questions, go see them in office hours to talk about your assignments or ideas you have from class.  Invite them to have a coffee and ask them questions about their research interests.  Making a personal connection with a professor will likely lead you to be more interested in the course, and should make it more likely that the professor remembers you.  Professors enjoy talking with smart and interesting students about their ideas, and they of course love to talk about their own work! 

Third, if you are quite interested in the course materials or the professor's research, find a way to get yourself involved in the professor's work.  You can start by seeing if there is a way you can help the professor out with their work.  If you have to write a paper or do a project for the course, find a topic that is associated with the professor's research and work with them to tailor the project in a way that the professor finds helpful for their work.  Volunteer to help with data collection, or to work in their lab.  And most importantly, if you are in a college or university that offers programs to get students involved in research (either during the academic year or the summer), take advantage of those programs!

Fourth, get to know your fellow students.  There's much that you can learn from your peers, and in my own experience successful students learn much from their fellow students --- and in particular they learn how to work with others.  There are many professional and personal skills that you'll pick up from getting to know your fellow students, and you'll learn from their diverse perspectives. 

These are just a few of the tips that I have for the college-bound.  Going to college or university is challenging, personally and intellectually.  Making the most of it, especially in today's economy, requires that you make the most of your investment.