Succeeding in College

Over the years, I have observed many successful students.  Some were excellent from the beginning; others struggled to improve.  Unfortunately, there also have been many whose performance was lacking, and they failed to change.  Based on their experiences, I have developed a series of recommendations for success in college.

1. When entering any college, be ready to challenge accepted ideas and to meet professors and students of different cultures and backgrounds.  Remember that even at local colleges, faculty members are overwhelmingly transplants from many states and countries as well as from many types of educational institutions.  Similarly, some students may be from other parts of America and from abroad.  As a result, you will encounter opinions and approaches that differ from yours.

2. Read and understand the college catalog for your entry year.  It is your contract with the university until you finish your degree.

3. Read and follow the entire syllabus for every course.  It is your contract with the professor for the class.

4. Take copious notes in all classes (see my blog on taking notes).  College professors typically do not teach from the book, that is, their lectures do not parallel the basic text.  Because it is impossible to remember everything a professor says, notes are essential.  Recording lectures seems wise, but it is practically impossible to study from them because for the final exam, the student will have to review approximately 33 hours of lectures on tape for just one class.  Strive to write down almost everything the professor says during class time along with what appears in PowerPoint presentations or on the black board.  With practice, this is possible.  After all, secretaries do it during meetings.  To help the process of taking notes accurately and quickly, develop a shorthand system (without becomes w/o; second half of the nineteenth century becomes 2/2 19c; and therefore becomes the mathematical symbol ∴).  Never neglect to include the verbs, which is a common error.  Rewriting the notes is an excellent way of reinforcing what was said in class.  Furthermore, it sometimes becomes hard to read one's own handwriting after writing feverishly, so rewriting the notes shortly after the lecture, before the information becomes stale, can add clarity to the notes.

Studying Effectively

Stephen Chew, who teaches psychology at Stamford University in Birmingham, AL, who researches and publishes about learning, has posted several videos on Youtube that address the issue of study habits.  Some of his advice may diverge from what these pages recommend, but one must remember that effective studying also is a uniquely personal experience.

“Beliefs That Make You Fail . . . or Succeed” -- 

“What Students Should Understand about How People Learn” -- 

“Cognitive Principles for Optimizing Learning” -- 

“Putting the Principles for Optimizing Learning into Practice” -- 

“I Blew the Exam, Now What?” -- 

5. Keep up with all the assignments and the readings.  Take notes on the readings in order to condense and digest the material (see my blog on taking notes).  A student should be able to read a good set of notes to study for an exam and use the book only to check items that are confusing.  When reading something other than a text, be sure to identify the thesis of a book, follow the development of the argument, summarize all crucial arguments, and note any flaws or shortcomings in the thesis.

6. Take any writing assignment seriously, and constantly improve your writing skills.  Every college has a language lab to help students whose writing suffers, but they should take writing courses if they have difficulties in order to avoid resorting to having a language lab edit their work.  After all, those who work in the language lab are not skilled in every field and do not always give the best advice.  The more one writes, the better one’s writing will be.  The better one’s grammar, style, and formatting are, the more likely it is that one will advance in any career.  Finish any project early, put it aside for at least a day, and revise it to catch errors and to improve style.

7. Complete all assignments and do so not to the letter but to the spirit of the instructions.  If you finish an assignment and think that you would need to do X and Y to make it stellar, then attempt to do X and Y.  That is what will separate your project from the others.

8. Attend class and do not skip.  Most college professors will not bother with attendance because they assume their students are adults and are not interested in wasting time to call roll.  Some do not care whether students leave early or come late, but others are strict about attendance.  Either way, be sure to be in class because the professor always presents new information.

9. If you will miss a class, arrange with someone ahead of time to tape the class or immediately get the notes from someone who attended that day.  It is better to get notes from at least two people to compare the information they wrote.

10. Ask questions.  In class it is likely that if you have a question, others have the same question.  Similarly, do not hesitate to talk to the professors after class or during their office hours.  Many times, professors have no visitors during office hours, and they are willing to help.

11. Never cheat or plagiarize.  Professors and colleges prosecute intellectual theft of all types, and a black mark on your record at any level will travel with you throughout your academic and professional career.  Plagiarism and cheating are reasons individuals have difficulty being admitted to the bar, getting medical licences, becoming law enforcement officers, and entering other careers.

12. Do not take many on-line classes because more learning takes place in the classroom.  On-line classes can be useful, especially in the summer, but they are no substitutes for lectures and in-class interaction.  Administrators like on-line classes because they are inexpensive means of delivering course content than having students in a classroom.  Professors, however, recognize the limitations of on-line courses, even though they know how convenient they can be, especially in the summers.

13. Spread out hard classes over several semesters and balance them with moderately difficult or easier classes so as not to overload your schedule.  If math is not your strongest subject, take one math course, another one or two classes that are moderately difficult, and a class that you suspect is easier than the others.  Remember that a course is easy either because you already know much of the information or it is a good match with your talents.  No subjects are inherently simpler than others.

14. Do not take more than 15 credits, that is, five courses, in a semester in order to graduate early.  Your grades will suffer.  In fact, especially if you are working to get through school, have complicated family situations, or suffer from learning disabilities, take 12 credits (four classes), which is still full time.  You may have to attend school longer, if you did not enter college with some credits and do not take summer courses, but your grades will be higher.  Along these lines, be careful about registering for too many summer courses.  Abbreviated courses in the summer that last for six weeks are still three credits, which means the work load is the same, even though the time period is shorter.  As a result, taking three courses or nine credits in a six-week summer term is like taking 18 credits during a regular semester.

15. If you enter college with college credits from an IB or AP program, consider taking fewer credits each semester to keep your grades high or think about adding another major in a related or unrelated field.  Graduating college at 18 or 19 can be a disadvantage because an 18-year-old may lack the maturity for professional or graduate study as well as success in the work force.

16. If you are failing or have to quit taking classes for any reason, withdraw from your class or classes.  Only professors at certain community colleges can withdraw a student from a class; most university professors can not do so.

17. Continue taking language classes to improve your communication skills in the language you studied in high school or to acquire another language.  Some professional and graduate programs along with certain jobs require one or even two foreign languages.  See my blog about studying foreign languages.

18. Begin thinking about admission to professional programs (medical school, law school, or a MBA program) as well as graduate school when you finish your sophomore year or early in your junior year.  Most applications for these programs are due in the fall of the senior year and take several weeks or months to prepare.

19. Professional and graduate schools require standardized exams for admissions.  Future law students must take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT); those heading for medical school must take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT).  Students in other fields heading for graduate school need the Miller Analogies Test (MAT) or Graduate Record Exam (GRE) along with subject-specific exams and perhaps language exams.  Students usually take these exams at the end of their junior year and in the senior year.  At least with the GRE, students can take them as many times as they wish to improve their grades.

20. Many professional and graduate schools need writing samples, so be prepared to give them a paper of 15-20 pages that not only demonstrates your creativity in writing but also your ability to research.  The arts and disciplines other than the social sciences and humanities may have other requirements.

21. Never make fun of anyone’s major or career goals.  All majors tax the brain equally but in different ways.  I used to work with an English major who roomed with an engineering student.  The engineer constantly belittled studying English, so the English major challenged the engineer to switch classes for an entire week–homework, exams, and in-class presentations.  During the week, the English major knew he was destroying his room mate’s grades in math and sciences, but he did the best he could.  Meanwhile, the engineer made a fool of himself, especially in acting class.  After the week was over, the engineer admitted his error and promised never to criticize another person’s field of study.  Although in a less dramatic way, I learned to appreciate the challenges of physical education and sport, even though to this day neither discipline is attractive to me.

22. If you think that you might transfer or not finish your BA or BS, make sure you get an AA or AS degree, even if you are at a four-year institution.  No matter where you go to complete your undergraduate degree or when you resume your studies, you will not repeat your first two years if you have an associate’s degree.  Without one, you will have to repeat some, most, or all of your first two years if you transfer or stop taking courses for a period longer than the school’s statute of limitations, which in some cases is five years.

23. Always remember that you are responsible for your own education.  Professors present knowledge and help foster learning, but students must work on their own in order to learn.  Students become their own teachers.  This is why those who are self-starters in college do well.  After graduation, employers look at college grades in part to determine the likelihood of someone being able to work creatively and with as little supervision as possible.

The change between one’s senior year in high school and freshman year in college is drastic–the biggest educational change an individual likely will experience if they do not attend graduate or professional school.  The better students are prepared to confront the change, the more successful they will be at making the transition, getting good grades, and completing the bachelor’s degree.  Furthermore, the success with which students complete their college degrees will be directly related to their ease in entering the work force or gaining entry to a high-quality professional school or graduate school.

Suggested References

A. Printed Source on Studying in College

Santrock, John W. and Jane S. Halonen.  Your Guide to College Success: Strategies for Achieving Your Goals.  5th ed.  Boston: Thompson Wadsworth, Thompson Higher Education, 2008.

B. Internet Sources

Glendale Community College, Researching Careers and Majors,
NOTE: See other pages from the GCC Career Center, including its FAQ.

National Survey of Student Engagement,
NOTE: The NSSE produces a variety of reports about the experience of college students.  Its 2011 report discusses the number of hours students from various majors spend preparing for class.  The 2011 NSSE report is at and an article on this web site about the report is at
United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Career Information for Kids,
NOTE: Also visit other portions of the site, starting with the home page.

U.S. News and World Report, Best College Rankings, accessible from