While students are usually laser-focused on the social aspects of college for the first few weeks, the academic work gears up quickly. That is, after all, why they are there – to earn a degree – to walk away with a transcript bearing the names of courses they have completed. It’s not unusual for a percentage of freshmen to be so distracted by the need to make friends and stave off the inevitable loneliness that comes from acclimating to a new environment that the academic work doesn’t get the needed attention until grades are irreparably damaged. In fact, when deans look over transcripts at the end of the year (through a usually tedious and grueling process) to decide who has earned dean’s list distinction, who should go on probation, and who ought to be suspended for failure to meet academic standards, they almost always give first years special consideration since everyone knows the high cost of adjusting to college life.
Here are six pieces of advice you can offer your children to help them focus on the academic work from the get-go. They aren’t riveting, but they are tried and true.
1) Don’t listen to other students’ assessments of instructors. Give yourself the chance to make up your own mind. As you sign up for and start attending classes, try not to listen to the opinions of other students. Everyone likes different teaching styles and appreciates different personalities. Also, ignore the ratings sites; they are filled with comments from those who loved and those who hated an instructor. Trust your own judgment first and foremost and give each prof a chance.
2) Choose only one extra-curricular for the first semester. Though the course schedule may only show 14-20 hours of class a week, and you may be wondering what you will do with the other 152-148 hours in a week, resist the urge to sign up for lots of clubs and activities. Acclimating to college is like an extra course. And you will want to find some time for yourself and your new friends as well as for studying, reading, do problem sets, and writing papers. The coursework outside of class will take at least two to three hours per week for each credit. Schedule that into your weeks.
3) Plan to study abroad. Peruse the global offerings and start talking right away to your adviser and faculty about where to fit in a semester in another country, especially if it requires knowledge of a foreign language. Having academic experience abroad will not only give you a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn and grow as a human, but will give you a leg up when you look for internships and jobs in the future.
4) Get to know faculty. They have weekly office hours and the truth is that many of them sit alone during that time slot every week. Students are missing out on a fantastic opportunity for mentorship, guidance, and getting to know another human. Look up the faculty member, know a little about their research and background, and think of a couple of questions you would like to ask them – about the course, about where they went to college and graduate school, about the field in which they specialize. Address them with a proper title, take your cap off, sit up, and shut your phone off. Research has proven that students who develop substantive connections with faculty have an exponentially enhanced academic experience. Plus they can really help you make good decisions in your life and career.
5) As you think about getting a job after college, read the NACE list. The National Association of Colleges and Employers has done research you need to know about on career readiness. As you choose your courses, faculty, advisers, extra-curriculars, internships, and volunteer work, think about which competencies you are developing that will make you most ready to join the world of work.
6) Go to class, do your homework, take your tests, and ask for help when you need it. This may seem ridiculous, but there is a prevailing culture at many colleges that you don’t have to go to class, can let your homework slide, should take as few tests as possible, and should never ever ever ask for help. These are all wrong. Keep in mind that asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of maturity. As they say, “No human is an island.” We all need help at some point. Colleges have dozens if not hundreds of employees who stand ready to make your college years as enjoyable and rich as possible.
For many years, as a dean at three Ivy League colleges and now as an AVP at a university with an extraordinary mission, I have had a front row seat to the obstacles to success that college students and their parents confront every year. Even at so-called elite, highly selective colleges such as Princeton, Harvard, and Columbia, where I spent some of my career, students struggle on a daily basis to remain healthy, happy, grounded, and to stay in school. I am dedicated to helping them.