With millions of college students about to begin their freshman year within a few weeks, it is an appropriate time for entering students to think about how to succeed in college and, in particular how get a good start in what is a life-changing experience and opportunity.
In 2012, I first published my "Suggestions for Incoming Freshmen" in the Huffington Post. Taking account of further research, comments from readers, including other professors as well as current and former students, I have published updated versions each succeeding year.
Originally, my primary credential was that I have been a Cornell English Professor since 1968 and, along with visiting a great many colleges and universities in the US and abroad, I have also held visiting professorships at various public universities in three other states.
I have recently published How to Succeed at College and Beyond: The Art of Learning. (Wiley, 2016.
I discuss how students can balance the joy of learning with the practicality of learning; achieving that synthesis is what I call the Art of Learning. My book is about the entire college experience and how to make the most of it, but in this piece I am focusing on the freshman year.
I stress the positive aspects and the enormous potential of the American college experience. I cite research that shows the lifetime economic benefits of a college education. I also stress what college education can add to the students' quality of life in terms of self-awareness, understanding of the past and present contexts that define our individual and community experiences, and appreciation of the arts as doorway to a fuller life. To those lifetime gifts, I need to add that higher education teaches us to think rigorously, to solve problems, to read insightfully, to write lucidly and logically, to speak articulately, and to be creative.
College can also make us more tolerant citizens by teaching us to be receptive to diverse ideas. This is a goal that fulfills both the joy and practicality of learning, for if students learn to communicate ideas in nuanced discourse which is logically and lucidly presented in such a way that there is space for substantive discussion, we will have the pleasure of living in a less polarized and more civil society where democracy functions and diverse perspectives are respected. At best, college teaches democracy by teaching students not only to work cooperatively in classes and extra-curricular activities, but also to speak their minds, often with the hope of influencing the minds of others.
The following suggestions apply to all entering freshmen, although a few may be more apropos to those living on campus. Needless to say, this is far from an exhaustive list, but one that students, parents, and colleagues might think of as a point of departure.
1) Keep your career and life goals in mind, and remember why you enrolled at the college and in the program you chose.
2) College is an opportunity, but you need to be a savvy consumer, and that means much more than not wasting your own money or that of your parents and not running up loans beyond you and your parents' ability to repay.
Being a savvy consumer means taking advantage of what is offered in terms of personal and intellectual growth as well as developing the necessary skills for the next stage of one's life. Savvy college consumers take advantage of opportunities and learn what resources are available, not only on campus in terms of courses, professors, extra-curricular activities, museums, theater, work, and volunteerism, but also within the community in which the campus is located.
3) After a reasonable amount of time, if you and your academic program are not a good match, think about changing direction within the college or, if you are at a university, transferring to another college within that university. A "reasonable amount of time" is admittedly vague; when to change direction will vary from person to person. Student input has made me think that in most cases at least an entire academic year is more appropriate than one semester.
Yoshi Toyoda, Cornell'14, counsels that students should be patient before changing fields:
For many science/math/engineering majors, a lot of freshman and sophomore classes are going to be laying foundations that may not be obviously related to your field. For example, all of my engineering friends had to first get through all of the differential equations and physics courses which they may not have enjoyed in order to fulfill the prerequisite to take upper-level, interesting, applied engineering courses.
One should take one's time about transferring to another college or university unless it was always your first choice and you had been given "guaranteed transfer" if you met certain stipulations. Be sure you are not transferring just because you are being asked to meet higher standards than in high school or that you are not the center of attention that you were in high school.
Subin Chung, Cornell '15 and a transfer, advises:
[A] student should probably take at least a year (rather than a semester) to judge whether they should transfer - one semester isn't enough. First semester is often just adjusting to change; second is when you really realize whether that particular school is the right fit for you. I find that many of my transfer friends (and myself included) tend to think so.
4) If any one thing determines success in school and in life for people of comparable potential and ability, it is time management, that is, using time effectively and efficiently. Keep a daily record of how you are using your time; each evening, schedule the next day, even while knowing you won't be following that schedule exactly.
You need a regular routine for doing your academic work. When you are awake, think about how the day will be going in terms of time, including how much time you will be spending on extra-curricula activities (varsity or club or intramural sports, university publications such as the school newspaper or literary magazine, band or orchestra), paid employment, community volunteering, and social activities.
Jenni Higgs, Cornell '01, suggests:
[I]t might be helpful to encourage students to explore resources on campus that can help them adjust to new academic demands (e.g., study groups, counseling/study centers, etc.) It might be comforting to freshmen to know that it's common to feel overwhelmed initially and that there are plenty of organizations on campus to help them through rough patches.
An important Basic Rule: no time period is too short to accomplish something, and sometimes--especially when writing about something that you have been thinking about for a while--the time constraints of 15 or 20 minutes can actually produce better results than longer time periods. It may be that in some cases if people have less time for a task, they are more efficient.
If you have time between classes, learn to use that time. If you have a fifty-minute class at 9:05 that ends at 9:55 and another that begins at 11:15, use those 80 minutes productively.
Know that the week has 168 hours. Be aware of how much time you spend with your smart phone, email, and social media such as facebook, twitter, etc. Be aware, too, of how much time you spend on social activities.
In July 1718, Cotton Mather advised his son Samuel, as he was going off to college:
My Dear Child, look on Idleness as no better than wickedness. Begin betimes to set a value upon time, very loathe to throw it away on impertinencies. You have but a little time to live; but by the truest wisdom from you may live much in a little time; every night think how have I spent my time today, and be grieved if you can't say, you have gotten or done some good in the day.
Mark Eisner, Cornell Ph.D. '70 who has been both a teacher and administrator at Cornell, and has also spent time in private industry, admonishes:
In managing time, it is important to be aware, not just of a schedule, but of how productive you are able to be at each point in the schedule. All hours spent on tasks are not equivalent - if you are overtired it can take extra time to complete tasks, and if you miss a class or fall asleep during [the class], it can cost more time to catch up than it would have taken to be in class and attentive to the material. That extra time then gets stolen from other tasks, with the risk of falling further and further behind.
Zivah Perel, Cornell '99, who teaches at Queensborough Community College, CUNY (The City University of New York), reminds us of the differences between students at elite schools and urban students balancing college with other demands: "My students have a hard time balancing the demands of their jobs, the demands of their families, and school. It's hard to know what to tell them, since I understand when they sometimes (or even often) have to prioritize something other than my class." Adding an eloquent personal note, she writes: "It's interesting coming from a place like Cornell, which was a totally different type of institution than where I am now (obviously). I so valued my time at Cornell and had always hoped to teach some place like it, but I find my work now so rewarding and important. These are students who need good teaching and someone who values them academically. So often that hasn't been the case for them."
5) Come to every class on time, alert, prepared, and ready to take notes.
In response to the above sentence, Peter Fortunato, Cornell '72, a former student of mine who taught as a lecturer at Ithaca College for years and in the Cornell Summer College, wrote: "Learn how to take notes (most students, I've found, really don't know how to do this, or nowadays expect teachers to supply power-point notes!) and how to connect writing and thinking whatever the subject matter."
Work on your courses every day but not all day; do something that is fun and relaxing every day, whether it be formal activity like participation in an intramural sports or a singing group or a walk in the woods, a visit to a museum on or off campus, or a pick-up basketball game.
Fortunato observes: "Learn how to relax and focus, either by taking a stress-busting workshop or meditation class or guided relaxation class. Students do much better in college when they are intentional about these matters or have teachers who add such activities to class time."
Participating in Campus Life
6) Experience complements what you learn in classes. Try to find summer jobs, campus jobs, and campus or community activities that parallel your goals. If you need or want a part-time job, try to get one compatible with your goals as a way to test whether you are on the right path. But also use jobs and activities to expand your horizons and interests.
Yet if financially possible, during term keep most of your time for academic work with some left over for extra-curricular activities and community volunteering.
In general if you are at an elite college or university, ten or twelve hours on a paid job is enough. To be sure, at less demanding colleges and universities, many students--particularly older students, some of whom have families to support or help support-- carry a full course load and work much more at jobs.
Gabrielle McIntire, Cornell Ph.D. '02 and a professor of English at Queens University in Canada advises:
Prepare to work hard: this is the gateway and ticket to your whole future, and it is worth investing everything you have in this four-year period to keep those gates wide open so that you have as many choices as you possibly can upon graduation. I remember somehow figuring out in undergrad that it was well worth my time to have a minimal part-time job (5 hours/week), and to use my "extra" time on pushing myself as hard as I could scholastically since that was the REAL investment in my future. That is, instead of earning $10/hour doing more part-time work, and thus having a bit more cash at hand in the moment, I realized that it would be better to be slightly poorer during undergrad which would then allow me to have many more rewards after [undergraduate years].
7) Be sure to participate in one or more of the many campus activities, but during the first term choose a limited number until you are confident you can handle your course workload.
8) Given that this is a tech-driven world, no matter what your major, develop tech skills, perhaps by taking basic courses in computer science if you have not already done so in high school. If you have done so, consider taking another one in college. Virtually every student who didn't developed tech skills has expressed regret to me.
Ryan Larkin, Cornell '14 advises: "Learning how to code (even basic HTML and CSS) would have been an invaluable step for me to take in high school, and some of the first advice I'd give to students would be to acquire hard technical skills that can add value to almost any kind of resume."
Kyle Sullivan observes:"[T]he world is developing at such a rapid pace and having the hard technical skills is almost a must in most job situations that aren't sales related. Although I'm in a sales position right now as a Small Business Commercial Lender for M&T Bank in New Jersey, I recently taught myself the basics of HTML CSS, and Java through a website called codeacademy.com because that's something that won't change and will be quite valuable just for personal use moving forward."
Broadening Horizons and Expanding Interests
9) Take advantage of lectures outside the areas of your course work as well as special exhibits, campus theater presentations, musical and dance programs and other campus resources as well as the natural and/or urban treasures and cultural resources of the area in which your college is located.
10) The world has become a global village. For you to be part of the village, you need to spend some time each day keeping informed about international and national news. That means reading a major newspaper in print or on the Internet like the New York Times.
Reflecting on conversations he had with fellow students, notably during the financial crises but also on other occasions, Kyle Sullivan, Cornell '11, notes:
Some of my most valuable lessons in college came from the discourse I had with friends, friends from different upbringings and experiences that reflected their background and the places they came from or even visited for a brief or extended amount of time. Just having that intelligent and thoughtful discourse with them changed the way I look[ed] at a problem, or a topic and changed the way I react[ed] to [it]. . . . I remember sitting in the fraternity house huddled around either CNN or MSNBC and switching to Fox News to get a different perspective and learning so much just from listening to the conversations being had from the other guys sitting around the TV.
Choosing Classes and Studying
11) Think about your classes as communities of inquiry where you, your fellow students, and the professor are sharing intellectual curiosity, love of learning, and the desire to understand important subjects. I concur with what I have heard over the years: "If so-so [recognized at Cornell as a truly great professor] is teaching the Manhattan phone book, take it. "
Rachel (Greenguss) Schultz, Cornell, '83 emphasizes:
It is important to take interesting classes with great professors. Find out who the good teachers are and take their classes. Of course you need to be interested in the subject but sometimes a great teacher can awaken a passion.
I also think it is less about taking courses that fit your career path and more about taking classes that teach you how to think and learn. Success in adult life depends so much on being a life-long learner and any tools you glean in college to hone this skill will set you up for success later in life.
Take classes that emphasize concepts and how to apply them. Learning by rote is much less important than learning how to think for yourself and to solve problems; the latter skills are crucial for your future. Be aware in your thinking of what you know, what you need to know, and what is unknowable.
But the right class for you may not be the right class for others. Emily Choi, Cornell '14, counsels, "I think it's always good to register for as many classes as you can, and to go in your first week, even if it's just to feel them out." If possible when a class or professor is not fulfilling your expectations, drop it or change sections.
Some students, especially in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) enjoy study groups. As Zhongming Chen Cornell ' 14 recalls:
I felt that studying with friends was a key to my success. I . . .made a lot of close friends this way It was a great way for me to bridge my major activities (academics, social life, and athletics) too. I understand that I may be a little biased though. I did head teams that created videos for the Learning Strategies Center that promoted these methods. I was that passionate about it! Also, this method may not be equally applicable to all majors (the videos my teams prepared were for the biology and chemistry departments).
In small classes, participate in discussion and ask for clarification; in large ones, don't hesitate to ask questions if you have them and to visit the teaching assistant or lecturer's office when you need help.
Peter Fortunato suggests: "Learn how you learn; that is, whether you are primarily an information-based (facts and figures), visual, auditory, 'hands-on,' or interpersonal (teamwork) based learner. Many professors and curricula assume that all students function in the same way in their respective courses."
Eisner notes: "There is more to learning something than absorbing facts and techniques. Try to find opportunities to explain the subject matter to someone else, or to write an explanation in your own words. The best learning is active learning."
12) Get to know at least one professor reasonably well each term. The professors who ask you about your plan of study, your goals, and your outside activities, and seem to care about you as a human being will be not only resources that you can go to for advice, but also potential future references. If one or more professors become your mentors, mature, stable, selfless people for whom your personal and intellectual growth and future success in whatever you choose matter, you will be most fortunate. Although students are just as likely to find valuable mentors at large colleges as small ones, they may need to make more effort to reach out, and connect with professors. Even within the same college and university, department cultures are not the same. Where teaching is valued and teachers spend time with students, you are more likely to find a mentor.
Once you arrive at your school, I suggest visiting professors during office hours, showing interest in the subject (taking the initiative to do extra reading and then asking the professor about it), participating often and thoughtfully in class, as well as attending optional learning activities. All of the aforementioned are ways to find a mentor at a college of any size.
For Becca Harrison, Cornell '14, finding a mentor was crucial:
In high school, no one would have cared if I fell through the cracks; at Cornell (and probably many institutions), the minute I reached out to my chemistry professor and graduate student Freshman Writing Seminar instructor for help, I realized that finding a mentor who truly cared about my success made it possible to learn how to learn and work effectively.
Matt Barsamian, Cornell '04, advises:
You discuss, in the tips for incoming freshmen, getting to know at least one professor well. I think that is invaluable. I was fortunate enough to get to know three or four professors/instructors fairly well. I would also emphasize the value of attending office hours and point out that they don't exist merely for those students who perceive themselves to be struggling to understand the material or in response to a bad grade on an exam or paper. I would highly recommend visiting every professor at least once during the semester during his/her office hours as an opportunity to connect. I think it also evidences a student's interest in and commitment to the course.
By knowing some of your professors, you will not only feel more a part of your college community, but you will also have necessary references for programs within college, work positions, and graduate school.
In "It Takes a Mentor," New York Times columnist Tom Friedman has written:
What are the things that happen at a college or technical school that, more than anything else, produce "engaged" employees on a fulfilling career track? According to Brandon Busteed, the executive director of Gallup's education division, two things stand out. Successful students had one or more teachers who were mentors and took a real interest in their aspirations, and they had an internship related to what they were learning in school.
13) Find a few comfortable and quiet study places on campus, places where you work effectively and are not easily distracted. If you are commuting, you will still need to find places where you can focus on your academic work.
Maintaining Physical and Mental Health
14) Participate in campus activities--teams, musical and dance groups, community activities that serve the underserved and aged--and attend seminars that call upon collaborative action. Such collective endeavors give you an opportunity to develop group responsibilities, including social ethics and leadership skills necessary for later life. (I am skeptical about the need for fraternities and sororities in 2014, a subject I will discuss later, but they do respond to the social needs of many students.)
Students who participate in campus activities get more out of their college experience and feel more satisfied with their college years both while at college and when looking back from a distance of years. Richard J. Light notes that, based on surveys, "a substantial commitment to one or two activities other than coursework--for as much as twenty hours a week---has little or no relationship to grades. But such commitments do have a strong relationship to overall satisfaction with college life. More involvement is strongly correlated with higher satisfaction" (Making The Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2001. 26).
15) Remember the three R's: Resilience (Falling down and getting up are one motion.); Resourcefulness (Use your skills and intelligence.); and
Resolve (Pursue goals with determination and persistence.). More likely than in high school, you are going to have disappointments and frustrations, but overcoming them is part of the process of preparing for the world beyond college.
In between completing her freshman year and beginning her sophomore year, Pauline Shongov, Cornell '17, observed: "[F]reshmen should never underestimate their talents but also should be humble in everything they do. If they strike a balance between these two, they will be open to everything college life has to offer and will thus win others' respect while maintaining self-respect in return."
16) Look at setbacks and problems as challenges to be met and overcome; when you do so successfully, you will be gaining confidence to meet the next challenges.
Learning to build on failures is an important quality for success, as many of my former students attest.
Becca Harrison, Cornell '14, recalls "the value [for her] in failing, and not necessarily succeeding right out of the starting-gate that is freshman year." Recognize that all problems--personal and intellectual--are not neatly solved, and learn how to deal with complex and ambiguous questions.
Alyson Favilla, Cornell '16, adds:
The only thing I might suggest is adding something [about] adjusting personal expectations for success. Number 16 on the list [about handling setbacks and problems} was great, but requires significant perspective that isn't going to be available to students currently struggling with something that feels far out of their depth. Many students, especially those from highly competitive, privileged areas, have never before had to confront the limitations of their own abilities. Recognizing those limits, and determining to improve on them, I think, is an important lesson; knowing that you can successfully apply yourself to difficult or new material is very different than expecting to understand it right away, or feeling disheartened when you do not. Similarly, success does not always engender satisfaction. Being good at something, or achieving conventional academic success at that thing is not always a reason to pursue it. For me, that was an important thing to consider when deciding whether or not to switch programs.
17) When you enter a new situation such as the first weeks at college, you might feel somewhat desperate to make friends quickly. But it is important to retain your core values and judgment and to avoid becoming part of a herd or doing things only because others are doing them.
Cotton Mather advised his son going off to college: "[H]e that walketh with the Wise, shall be wise, but a companion of fools shall be destroyed. Shun the company of all profane and vicious persons, as you would the pestilence."
The period between entering school and Thanksgiving is sometimes known as the "Red Zone" because students are more prone to make bad choices, whether they be partaking excessively of substances that suspend their judgment or putting up with physically abusive hazing or bullying roommates. It is no disgrace to change roommates or to move to a different floor or dorm. If you feel a situation is beginning to get out of control, do not be afraid to protest to campus authorities, or, if you feel the situation is dire, to call psychiatric services or the campus police.
Seek help when you need it, no matter what the issue.
Mark Eisner, Cornell Ph.D. '70, succinctly observes: "There is no shame in seeking help, and doing so can save your education and possibly even your life."
18) Take care of yourself physically and emotionally. Be sure to get enough exercise and sleep, and be sure to eat regular nutritious meals. Sleep deprivation can lead to poor performance and poor judgment.
Eisner, Cornell Ph.D. '70, puts it well:
Sometimes you have to sacrifice what you could have learned through an all-nighter in order to get to bed at an hour that ensures a productive day the next day. Preferably you should set a regular bedtime and get to bed at that time each night. If there is not time to do everything, consider productivity in choosing which tasks to short change and when to sacrifice them. Studying course material (and thinking deeply about it) as you go along is more efficient than cramming at the end.
19) Know that substance abuse is a problem on campuses, with alcohol being the most abused, and that use of alcohol and illegal drugs can lead to compromising situations in which judgment is skewed.
Brad Berger, father of a Dartmouth student and a reader of my Huffington Post articles, feels that colleges abnegate their responsibility in not enforcing laws that forbid under age drinking:
When colleges allow drinking on the campuses, they are saying students and colleges can pick and choose what laws to break. Not only are they disregarding the drinking laws but also the behavior caused by the drinking is dangerous and destructive. Underage drinking in my opinion is the issue most important to colleges and least talked about.
20) Laugh a lot and continue to develop your sense of humor. When things are not going well, remember you can't fix the past, but you can start where you are and create the future.
Daniel R.. Schwarz is author of Imagining the Holocaust (1999).
He is Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow at Cornell University where he has won Cornell's major teaching prizes. His book on the undergraduate experience entitled How to Succeed in College and Beyond: The Art of Learning. (2016) has been published by Wiley (Hardback: ISBN 9781118974841; Paperback: ISBN 9781118974858; ebook: ISBN 9781118974810).
He is the author of Reading the European Novel to 1900 (2014) and the well-received 2012 book Endtimes? Crises and Turmoil at the New York Times (Excelsior Editions of SUNY Press), which appeared in an updated 2014 new paperback edition.
He blogs on higher education and the media for the Huffington Post. He can be reached at email@example.com and followed on twitter at www.twitter.com/danRSchwarz and https://www.facebook.com/SchwarzEndtimes.
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