College 101: Tips for Success

  • By:  Dottie DeHart

Visit just about any college campus and you’ll observe students who are, to put it simply, doing college right. No, they’re not perfect (who is?), but they are diligent and perform well academically, while still enjoying a healthy social life and maybe even holding down a part-time job or raising a family. They’re on good terms with their professors, and they take a full—but not overwhelming—course load each semester. They’re likely to seek out internships and participate in on-campus student organizations, and no one wonders whether or not they have what it takes to make it to graduation.

So, what is it that makes this group of college students successful, while others are, well, less so? The Secrets of College Success, which is newly revised and contains over 800 tips, provides answers to these questions and offers beginning (and continuing) students the tools they’ll need to become successful themselves.

“Sometimes success is a question of intelligence or insight, and sometimes it’s sheer good luck,” says Jeremy S. Hyman, coauthor with Lynn F. Jacobs of The Secrets of College Success. “But a lot of the time, success happens because of good habits: things you do on a regular basis that set you apart from the hordes of other, more scattered students.”

Jeremy and Lynn, who have taught at eight different colleges and universities, know what they’re talking about. Their book shares decades’ worth of their observations and advice on everything from choosing a major to avoiding bad professors to developing study and time management skills and more. (In fact, it should be required reading for every student who wants to succeed at college!)

To help you hit the ground running in the coming semester, Jeremy and Lynn share fifteen habits for success.

1. Have a goal. Successful students have a definite reason for being in college—and know what it is. “Could be a future career, graduate or professional school, or just wanting to further their education,” says Jeremy. “But it’s almost never because their parents told them to go to college, or because it’s the next thing to do after high school, or because they’re too unimaginative to think up anything else to do with their time.”

2. Set priorities. For every student, college is a balancing act between going to classes, doing the homework, having a social life, and, for many students, holding down a job. But the successful student knows how much time to allot to each of these activities—and how to set limits. “Maybe partying is held down on weeknights, or an employer is told that hours have to be cut back during the jam-packed midterm week, or the family Thanksgiving dinner is jettisoned in favor of extra work on the term paper,” says Lynn. “Look, there are only 168 hours in a week—and not one of them can be spent twice.”

3. Divide up the work. For the successful student, readings get broken up into manageable chunks (not 200 pages in one sitting); quizzes and tests are studied for over the course of a week (not at 3 a.m. the night before); and ideas for papers start gestating when the assignment is handed out (not two days before the paper is due, when you can barely formulate an idea, much less think through an issue). “Cramming may be a habit you’re used to from high school, but that doesn’t mean it’ll work well at college,” says Jeremy.

4. Be organized. Successful students have gotten used to the fact that, in college courses, there’s not a lot of redundancy, review, or “going over.” So they make it their business to make it to most of the lectures (and they don’t cut science labs or discussion groups, either). “We’ve noticed that successful students take really good class notes and keep them in super-neat condition,” shares Lynn. “And they always get their work turned in on time—no one-week extensions that only make it harder to complete the work in their other courses.”

5. Work efficiently. Each task is done well—and once. For these students, there’s no listening to the lecture a second time on their iPod (they paid careful attention the first time); no copying over all their notes (why would they do that if they have a good set from the lecture?); no doing the reading three times (once for a general overview, once to understand the argument or direction, and once to focus in on the finer points). “In a fifteen-week semester, with four or five courses on tap, who has time to do things twice, or, in the case of some students, thrice?” wonders Jeremy.

6. Be consistent. Successful students do the work every week—even when nothing is happening on the grade front. These students realize that in college, most professors expect the bulk of the work to be done by you, on your own. “When asked, most professors will say that they expect students to do one to two hours of work outside of class for every class period: doing the reading and homework; preparing for the quizzes, tests, and presentations; doing research and writing papers, etc.,” says Lynn. “Figure out an out-of-class study schedule that works for you and stick to it. Many students also find it helpful to stake out a regular study spot: a particular table in the library, their dorm’s lounge, a quiet coffee shop, or their own desks.”

7. Be persistent. Successful students know that sometimes the going gets tough. Maybe there’s a problem set that requires serious hard thinking, or a paper that has to go through a number of painful drafts, or a presentation that has to be rehearsed ’til one really has it down. But whatever the case, the successful student doesn’t flinch at the extra effort needed or the uncertainty of the result while he or she is still working on it. “This student’s mantra: I’ll get this thing right if it kills me—which, of course, it usually doesn’t,” comments Jeremy.

8. Challenge yourself. Successful students are intellectually energetic. So, when they read, they think actively and critically about what they’re reading (not just slog their way through, to get the plot). When they go to class, they actively think about and question what the professor is saying (not just taking it all in like a giant sponge). And when they write papers, they probe more deeply into nuances of the issue (not just looking for the most basic “yes/no” answer). “Above all, they get the wheels and springs of their minds moving—and keep them moving throughout every intellectual task,” says Lynn. “That, let me tell you, is a professor’s dream!”

9. Hang out with smart friends. Successful students know that peer support is as important as getting good grades from professors. Finding friends who are intellectually engaged and eager—in some cases, taking the same classes as you—can stimulate and reinforce your own intellectual drive. “On the other hand, spending lots of time with dormmates who don’t know what courses they’re taking—or even why they’re in college at all—can create an atmosphere so toxic that any attempts to do well immediately wither and die,” warns Jeremy.

10. Be open to feedback. The best students realize that returned papers and exams are a golden opportunity: These are the times in the semester when the professor is giving one-on-one, customized feedback on your own level of achievement. So instead of tossing away the graded papers and exams, or conveniently forgetting to pick them up, it’s good to pore over the comments and redo the missed problems in the hopes of really learning where you went wrong—all with a non-defensive and genuinely open frame of mind. “This is tough for everyone, but somehow these students manage to do it—often while deepening their relationships with their professors,” says Lynn.

11. Engage the professor. Successful students realize that the prof isn’t just some content-dispensing machine, pouring out what he or she knows during lectures, but is a working scholar who’s happy to work with them on the content and materials of the course. With this is mind, these students go to office hours, talk to the professor after class, and e-mail questions about things they didn’t understand. “In the best case, students forge a two-way relationship with the professor and, in doing so, learn more than the average college student and defeat the anonymity of the (for some students) alienating mega-university,” Jeremy points out.

12. Don’t kid yourself. When they study, successful students are really studying—not flitting between the e-article, their Facebook page, and the football scores. When they get a bad grade, they don’t just tell themselves everyone messed up or the professor gave an unfair test. “And when things aren’t going quite according to plan, they diagnose the problem and, if need be, adjust the plan,” adds Lynn.

13. Manage your emotions. It’s difficult to excel at college if you’re feeling inadequate, bummed out, or doomed to fail. So, successful students know how to focus on their own positive achievements—rather than on their failure to get a check-plus on the quiz that counts for only 2 percent of the grade. And they’re not hypercompetitive or concerned to find out how everyone else did on that just-returned piece of work. “They know that, for every assignment, there’ll probably be someone doing better than they did—and many doing a whole heck of a lot worse,” Jeremy says. “And even if not, there’s nothing they can do about it, so why add negative emotions to a less-than-stellar situation?”

14. Visualize success. For any multistep activity—especially one that’s spread out over four or five years and forty-odd courses—it’s helpful to visualize the end product and to imagine the good feelings that will come with it. That’s why the most successful college students repeatedly picture what will come at the end of the road for them: their dream job, their acceptance to a prestigious graduate or professional school, or simply the next stage in their lives. “This provides motivation and energy, especially when you’re in a rut, and makes it all seem worthwhile,” explains Lynn.

15. Strive for excellence. No matter what the task, successful students aim to do it well. “Could be the term paper, the midterm, or even the (seemingly dumb to others) weekly quizzes, problem sets, or daily homework,” says Jeremy. “No matter. If I’m going to put my name on it, top students think, I might as well do it well. Which they usually do.” 

Dr. Lynn F. Jacobs and Jeremy S. Hyman are coauthors of The Secrets of College Success: Over 800 Tips, Techniques, and Strategies Revealed, 2nd Edition. Lynn is a professor of art history at the University of Arkansas and has previously taught at Vanderbilt University, California State University Northridge, and NYU. Jeremy is the founder and chief architect of Professors’ Guide™ content products. He is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Arkansas and previously taught at UCLA, MIT, and Princeton University.

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