From a Professor's Perspective: Advice for College Students

Here is my advice for today's students. Following these basic suggestions will help you get better grades, have more opportunities, get your degree more quickly, and get the most out of your college years.
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Students taking notes while their classmate is raising her hand in an amphitheater
Students taking notes while their classmate is raising her hand in an amphitheater

As university and college classrooms across the nation once again open their doors to their new freshmen classes, expectations are great. Nationwide the cost of college tuition has risen 8 percent since last year alone. The average student loan debt for all ages is just over $24,000.

Pressure is on the students to do well and to get done in four, or even ridiculously three, years in order to keep their debt down and get onto the job market and pay back those loans.

Universities too are under pressure for students to finish their education quickly with funding in states like Texas, Virginia, Colorado and Illinois being linked to graduation rates. With all of this external pressure the students themselves can be lost in the rush. As a history professor I want my students to graduate in a timely manner and with as little debt as possible. But I also want them to learn, have new experiences, and do well. College is somewhat about the potential job at the end, but it is also about learning new things that will stick with them for the rest of their lives.

Over the years I have watched my students as they navigate the college experience for themselves and I try to offer them encouragement and guidance down their chosen path. This is their chance to improve their own futures and those of their family. So here is my advice for today's students. Following these basic suggestions will help you get better grades, have more opportunities, get your degree more quickly, and get the most out of your college years.

First and foremost, go to class. It may seem obvious, but attending class really does matter. It is
easily the simplest thing you can do to succeed in college. Years after I've taught a student, I can run into them on campus and tell them where they used to sit in my class. Your professors may not always remember your name, but they know that you are there, and they care. And professors pay attention to that attendance when it comes to grade-time, particularly if you are a borderline grade. If you don't go to class, you aren't just missing content; professors often give tips for studying, helpful hints for exams, sometimes even bonus points that you will miss if you are not there. Besides the obvious fact that you are paying to be in the class and learn what the professor has to teach, these little extras can add up to a great advantage over time.

Don't sit in the back of the classroom, especially if you end up in one of those dreaded 200-plus person lecture courses. It is simply too easy to check-out or not attend. Sit in the second or third row (often the first row is just too close) and you will be able to hear and see the professor and she or he will be able to see you. It will put additional pressure on you to pay attention, even if it is not your favorite subject. At the very least, you will not miss anything and will be better prepared for exams.

To enhance your chances of graduating in four years take the core curriculum, that is the basic
science, math, history, and so on, first. As you take these courses you will have the chance to explore different fields and meet professors from all parts of campus. Perhaps you will find a new passion or a major you hadn't considered beforehand. And if you end up having to transfer to another university for some reason (or from a community college to a four-year) the courses are most likely to transfer, which means no lost time or money, if they are the basics.

Sticking with one or two majors while in school helps you graduate sooner. That said, don't complete a major you've realized you hate. Life is short. Don't be a nursing major if you hate blood and love political science. Prepare yourself to find a job in the field you are passionate about; not the field some survey says will have jobs. Most people work 40 hours per week. Extrapolate that over your lifetime. Do you really want to do something you hate just because it was the major someone else thought you should do?

Follow directions. It sounds obvious, but you would be amazed how frequently the simplest directions are ignored to the detriment of a student's grade. Faculty often spend hours toiling over detailed assignments in an attempt to guide students to do the work as they want it. Then, frustrated by those directions not being followed, they take points off of the offending student's grade. Your professor wrote the directions for a reason and likely spent significant time thinking about them. So read them and follow them. Your grades will thank you.

Be curious. Participate in something, anything, even if you are a commuter. College is partly about earning good grades, but it's also about opportunities you won't have after your four years are up. Consider taking classes where travel is involved, or completing internships. Go to events and talks. Listen, participate and learn. This is the one time in life where your primary job is to acquire knowledge. You have an incredible resource in your professors and others on campus -- people who have devoted their entire lives to their specialty -- so tap that well of information.

Speak to the professor. Every professor should have office hours when they are available to
students. Go introduce yourself. Keep it brief and to the point, and avoid sucking-up, but let the professor know who you are and that you are interested in the class. If they know who you are and that you are interested in the subject, they might think of you when special opportunities arise. You never know.

Ask questions. If you don't understand something, whether it is an assignment, a concept, or
even a word, raise your hand and ask. You are there to learn. You are not supposed to know everything when you arrive. Truly. That said, you must do your part. Come to class prepared.

Do the assigned readings before you arrive in class. Do the homework you've been given beforehand as well. It might answer your questions before you begin or it might confuse things, but at least when you ask your question you can say "I read about that in our chapter and now you are talking about it but I'm afraid I still don't get it. What about X?" The professor will know you are trying and be more willing to spend extra time with the question. And if you have done the reading, come to class, and still don't get it, chances are your classmates will be relieved you have asked the question they had as well.

Remember that grades do matter. There's an old joke: "What do you call the medical school graduate with the lowest grades in his or her class? Doctor." While funny, it suggests that doing the minimum to graduate stills lets you walk away with the same piece of paper as the students who worked their hearts out for the A. This, obviously, is true. But while you don't have to kill yourself for straight A's, good grades do matter. Those special opportunities that periodically open up -- having lunch with an important guest speaker, a last-minute scholarship, a job-opening -- are going to the students professors think of first and those are students they know and who take class seriously. Good grades suggest someone who is not only smart, but is reliable and can be counted upon to represent their university well. And while on your post graduation resume you will only put your degree and not your GPA, you can put that you were magna cum laude and name the honors societies to which you belonged to let a potential employer know you are smart and dependable. It might make a difference.

Recognize that you are not a "customer." Customers are passive beings who wait in line for
their cheeseburger and complain when it has mustard instead of ketchup. As a student you must be active. You are paying for the opportunity to be around others hungry to learn and teachers anxious to share their knowledge and help you learn how to expand your own knowledge. A professor's job is not to make you happy. A professor's job is to make you think. And that means you must actively engage in your classes even if they aren't in your primary area of interest. And you must think. We cannot and will not do it for you.

Don't sleep in class. We can see you. Enough said.

Finally, enjoy learning. While practical folks will say college is about getting the piece of paper
that will get you the job, I hope you will see it as more than that. Fun with friends is important. Find those with similar interests as well as those who are different. Expose yourself to new things. Life is interesting and college is your chance to learn an incredible amount in a short, intense period of time. Enjoy it.

These are just some of the many things that professors wish students knew. They are the common sense that sometimes gets missed but can make all the difference in the world. When you graduate from college you are giving yourself the chance to make a higher wage and more likely to have a job with benefits then if you don't attend. Your children are more likely to have those opportunities too. And, importantly, you are educating yourself in the base of knowledge that will make you a better citizen of your nation and of the world. Following these guidelines will make you a better student, open up more opportunities, and help you make the most of your years in higher education. Follow them. Share them with your friends. And call your mother. She misses you.

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