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1: THE THREE RULES FOR COLLEGE SUCCESS
College is hard, but the rules for college success are simple. The trick is, even though the rules are simple in theory, they are often very difficult in practice. But, here’s my official college professor’s guarantee: If you consistently and conscientiously follow these rules throughout your college years, you will ace your courses, impress your friends and family, and have prospective employers or graduate schools begging you to walk through their doors.
FIRST RULE: GO TO CLASS
Ever since your first day of kindergarten, when your mom tearfully sent you off to school with a kiss and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, everyone has been telling you that you have to go to school. For thirteen long years you did just that, even when you felt tired, bored, vaguely ill, or whatever excuse you could come up with that day. But guess what? Now that you’re in college, no one will make you go to class. You can lie in bed every day until dinner and—although you will probably convince your roommate you have the motivation of a houseplant—no one will really care. The college president will not call your parents nor will most professors bother to track you down.
But your professors will notice. Even in large lecture courses, your absence will become evident by your poor test scores if not by your empty seat. In smaller courses and seminars, skipping classes is like wearing a flashing red sign on your head that says: Please give me a bad grade.
Nothing in college is more important than showing up for your classes. And I don’t mean just at the beginning of the semester when you’re still excited about learning a new subject. I mean at the end of four months when your brain is dead and your body cries out for precious sleep.
I could state the obvious, that if you are not present in class you will miss important material that will help you on tests and maybe even improve your life in some unpredictable way, but you already know that. I could also say that an average hour of class time in college costs you more than tickets to a Broadway play or major league baseball game. Instead, I will simply warn that repeatedly missing classes is one of the surest ways possible to alienate your professors. Most college teachers do indeed fit the image of a kind-hearted figure in tweed who will go out of their way to give a student a helping hand. But blow off their classes and they will have their revenge. No one wants to be ignored. Professors like to think that the students in our classes are actually anxious to hear our words of wisdom. We like to imagine you would cheerfully drag yourself through a raging blizzard just to write down our brilliant thoughts on the Punic Wars or microeconomic theory. So go to class every day, even when you don’t want to.
SECOND RULE: READ THE BOOKS
Have you checked out the price of college textbooks? The required books for a single course often cost over a hundred dollars, usually more in classes such as chemistry or literature. Yet, many students let their books collect dust until the night before the big exam, then frantically skim five hundred pages of material. They’d be better off putting their books under their pillows and hoping some of the information would magically seep into their brains. At least then they would get a good night’s sleep.
Later, I’ll let you in on some proven study techniques that will help you manage the enormous amount of material your professors will assign you. The point now is just that you can’t do well in college without reading the books. And I don’t mean just perusing a book like you would a magazine article, but really working through material in an organized and productive way. Whether you’re doing calculus or Chinese poetry, you have to put your heart into it.
Professors will actually expect you to have read the assigned material for a course. It could be that you’ll work through two hundred pages of deadly dull material and none of it will be on the exam. Or that last-minute, single-page handout that you stuffed in your backpack may be the focus of the whole test. You never really know. Sometimes professors will delight in adding something to an exam from an obscure passage just to make sure you did the readings. Once, when I was teaching a class on English vocabulary, I included the word ponophobia on the final test for students to define. It had not been mentioned in class nor was it prominent in the book. But it showed me who had done the readings carefully. It means, by the way, “fear of hard work.”
THIRD RULE: TALK TO YOUR PROFESSORS
During my first semester of college, I was terrified of my professors. There I was, a freshman just out of high school taking classes from people with a PhD after their names. I thought my job was to quietly take notes and do as well as I could on tests. I would never have dreamed of opening my mouth in class or visiting my professors in their offices to ask a question. Then, one day I was having serious trouble understanding a key concept in my philosophy class, so I worked up the courage to actually approach my professor to ask for help. It turns out he wasn’t nearly as scary as I had thought.
If you are going to succeed in college, you must talk to your professors. This might be to ask a question about a lecture point, to get some help on a paper, or just to confess you are hopelessly lost in the course. Professors are there to help you, but the only way we can do that is if we know you have a problem. Not every problem can be easily fixed, but I guarantee it won’t get fixed at all unless you sit down and work it out with your professor.
But, learning to talk with your professors is about much more than just sorting out difficulties. Getting to know your teachers in college can benefit you in many ways, though it isn’t always easy.
Most professors are shy people. We never sat at the “cool” table in the junior high cafeteria and were not elected homecoming queen or king. We missed all the good parties in college because we had term papers we wanted to finish first. We spent countless hours of graduate school buried in the bowels of some gigantic research library checking footnotes and writing dissertations no one would ever read. And then, all of a sudden, we found ourselves lecturing in front of two hundred energetic college students. It’s a frightening situation for anyone.
Almost all professors genuinely like working with and getting to know students—it’s just that sometimes we don’t know how. Therefore, it will be your job as a student to break down the barriers and get to know your professors. Why should you bother to do this? Two reasons: (1) professors are often fascinating people who will greatly enhance your college experience if you get to know them outside the classroom, and (2) it will improve your grades and future prospects.
Most college professors may be shy, but they’ve also read more, done more, and been more places than just about any other group you’ll ever meet. They’ve collected fungi samples in Peru, hiked the Great Wall of China, and know all the best coffee houses near the British Museum. They’ve read Dante and Emily Dickinson and wouldn’t dream of missing the weekly New York Times Book Review. Even if they haven’t done all that, they have a lot to offer if you get to know them.
Getting to know college professors can also make a difference on your final grade in a course. This is a fact few professors like to talk about, but it’s true nonetheless. It’s much harder to give a bad grade to a student you know than to just another face in the lecture hall. I’m not saying professors will unfairly raise the grades of their favorite students—I’ve given plenty of poor grades and even failing marks to students I’ve known well and liked. But when it comes time for us to calculate grades at the end of a semester, those borderline students who have met with us, talked with us, and shown a genuine interest in our subjects have a better chance of a higher grade than unknown students.
Finally, one thing few students think about when starting their college careers is that they will need letters of recommendation from their professors when they apply for jobs or graduate school. These letters are often every bit as important as your transcript, sometimes more. In order for your professors to write effective letters when you apply to law school, we have to know more about you than just your score in our grade book. The only way for this to happen is for you to take the time—over three or more years if possible—to get to know us outside the classroom.
None of this means that you should invite your professors to hang out with you and your buddies down at the local pub. There are boundaries most conscientious professors will not cross as a matter of professional conduct and personal integrity. But, there are plenty of legitimate opportunities to get to know your professors outside of class that most would welcome—office hours, departmental receptions, and campus lectures, to name just a few.
Make it a goal early in your college career to pick at least three professors and develop a professional, but sincere, relationship with them. It will definitely be worth your time.
2: HIGH SCHOOL VERSUS COLLEGE
I will never forget my first day of college. I had just turned eighteen and was ready to conquer the world. I couldn’t wait to put high school behind me and read great books, study with brilliant professors, and discuss ideas with new friends late into the night. As it turned out, college really was wonderful, but it was not what I had imagined. Like most people, my idea of education was shaped by my experiences in high school. I knew college would be harder, of course, but I didn’t know exactly how it would work. So, let’s consider how the academic side of college is different from high school.
If you’re like me, you showed up at high school about 8 a.m. every morning and worked there nonstop for seven hours or more. Recess is something they took away in sixth grade, so that by your high school years you were rushing between classrooms with barely enough time to get a drink from the water fountain.
Now comes your first day of college. Most first-year students will take four or five classes each semester, usually grouped into Monday/Wednesday/Friday (MWF) or Tuesday/Thursday (TTh) time slots, so that your first semester schedule will probably look something like this:
Isn’t that amazing? When I got my first semester schedule, I thought this college thing was going to be a breeze compared to high school. I could finish by lunch every day and have the rest of my time to do as I pleased.
But wait. What about science lab, sports practice, and your work-study job in the cafeteria? Did you remember study time? The average college class will require two hours of prep for each hour in class. If you’re taking fifteen hours of class each week, that’s thirty hours of studying. And, you do have to eat. Let’s figure all that in now:
Oh my. Where did all that free time go? And, I didn’t even include student club meetings or conferences with professors. Of course, you could try to squeeze all your studying into the weekends, but it won’t work. You can probably prepare for your Monday classes on Sunday, but your Spanish exercises for Thursday can’t be done until Tuesday since you wouldn’t have covered those verb tenses yet, and you won’t even know the topic for your short history paper (due Friday) until Wednesday morning. In any case, weekends are often filled with working to pay the tuition bill. I don’t mean to make it look impossible, since not all classes will require the same amount of work. Also, some weeks of the semester will require less work than others, but there will also be weeks when you’ll be pulling three all-nighters just to finish your research projects.
I’ll talk about the crucial issue of time management later, but the moral of this story is that college allows you more flexibility than high school did, but requires much more time.
First of all, you don’t have to raise your hand and ask permission to use the restroom. Just get up quietly and go if you need to.
But more important, college classes are much harder than high school. You will cover roughly twice as much material in the same amount of time. In addition, as we saw earlier, you only meet two or three times each week instead of every day. You can do the math and see that in order to cover so much material in so little time, you will be moving at a blistering pace. As soon as you’ve finished non-truth-functional connectives in logic class, you’ll be covering indeterminacy and quantificational equivalence before you can even catch your breath.
This brings us to an important point—never fall behind in class. In high school maybe you could miss a few days or not complete the readings and still understand most of what was going on. In college, your classmates will have moved on to the age of Pericles while you’re still trying to figure out who won the Battle of Thermopylae.
Finally, in college there’s no such thing as doing your work in class. I remember in my high school courses, our teachers would often explain a concept for the first part of the hour, then give us time to work at our desks on assignments. In college, all your time is spent listening to lectures or discussing a text. There’s no such thing as having free time before the bell rings.
High school teachers should have their salaries doubled—or at least get more breaks during the day. I have never known a group of people who work harder and put up with so many difficulties to get the job done. Not only do they teach at least twice as many hours each week as your average college professor, they usually get paid less and have to pull shifts as lunchroom monitors or prom chaperones. And, needless to say, there are plenty of times they are not given the respect they deserve by students or parents.
College professors, on the other hand, do not have to put up with many discipline problems. I can count on one hand the times I’ve had to ask a student to stop talking in class. Since they are all adults and are paying a lot amount of money to be there, students usually behave themselves and pay attention in college classrooms. After all, everyone is an adult—if you don’t want to be in a class, you simply drop it.
You have to realize that college professors will not coddle you. If you miss a reading or paper assignment because you’re absent one day, the professor will expect you to find out what it was before the next class. If you are sick, it is your job, not the professor’s, to work out a way to make up your assignments. The burden of responsibility in college is on you. As I said, you’re a grownup now.
Table of ContentsCONTENTS
the three rules for college success—1
high school versus college—9
types of professors—15
colleges and professors—29
how to find the best teachers—38
how to read a book—78
writing great papers—87
how to study for a test—112
the top ten ways to annoy your professors—129
international and nontraditional students—142