Advice for new college students

I’m teaching a first year seminar this semester. This isn’t a math course. (The title of my course is “Science or Nonsense?” We will look at a wide range of topics including the paranormal, evolution, climate change, the vaccine/autism controversy, alternative medicines, etc.) We are required to focus on academic writing, library research, oral communication, etc. I will also be the academic advisor to the students in my class until they declare a major. With this last role in mind, I decided to write up some advice for these new students. Here’s my list. I gave them only statements in bold, the plain text is what I told them as we went through the list.

Advice for new college students

  1. Get to class on time.
  2. Read your email, but not during class.
  3. Spend a summer on campus. Work for a professor, be a tour guide, do research, etc.
  4. Use proper grammar and capitalization in the email messages to your professors. The email shorthand that may be appropriate between friends is not appropriate when corresponding with your professor (e.g., “hey, prof. when r u going 2 b in yr office?”).
  5. Call your teachers “Professor —” not “Mr. —” or “Mrs. —.” Almost all of your professors have the highest degree in their field (usually a PhD). (Addressing them as “Dr. —” is appropriate too, although it isn’t common at our school.)
  6. Get to know your professors and let them get to know you. They’re nice people. Ask your professors about their research, their family, their schooling, etc. Tell them about your summer research projects, your internships, etc. Down the road you may want to ask them for a letter of recommendation and they will be able to write you a much better letter if they know you. Besides, they are human beings, if you are rude to them, they will be less enthusiastic about helping you.
  7. Don’t skip class. Either you won’t be able to learn the material that you missed or the “free hour” that you gained will be lost several times over trying to catch up. If you do skip class, DON’T ask the professor what you missed—get notes from a classmate.
  8. Take classes outside of your comfort zone.
  9. Be protective of your online identity. Don’t post photos on Facebook that you wouldn’t want your parents, your professors, your future inlaws, or your future employers to see.
  10. Don’t sell your books back, especially for classes in your major.
  11. Don’t be a member of a clique. For many of you college will be the most diverse living experience of your life. Get to know as many people as possible and not just those with the same background as you.
  12. Be organized, use a calendar, and pay attention to due dates.
  13. Find a good distraction-free place to study.
  14. Learn to write well. I’ve seen far too many mathematics and science students avoid writing courses. They are under the impression that it won’t be relevant to them. Writing is an extremely important skill that is a prerequisite for almost all careers. You will be amazed at how much you will need to write.
  15. Learn from your mistakes. Look over your assignments when you get them back. The professor put those comments on there for your benefit. If you don’t understand the comments, ask.
  16. Do the assigned work. And the related…
  17. Don’t ask for extra credit. I don’t give extra credit and neither do most other college professors; if they do, they would give it to the entire class not just to you individually. Extra credit is great for the strong students—it can boost their grades from an A to an A+. Weaker students who need a grade booster should spend their time doing the assigned work (which they often haven’t done—that’s why their grade is in trouble in the first place). Doing the assigned work is the best preparation for the exams in the class—it gives the best “bang for the buck.”
  18. Start assignments early and start studying early. Related: don’t email the professor late the night before (or worse, the day of) an exam or the due date for an assignment asking for help.
  19. Admit when you are wrong. It may be difficult, painful, or embarrassing, but it is liberating. Living with a lie or a guilty conscience is worse than coming clean.
  20. If you choose to drink alcohol, do so in moderation. Not all college students drinks alcohol. According to a survey given here last year at fall break, approximately one fourth of the first year students had not consumed any alcohol in the past year.
  21. Stay healthy: eat well, exercise, and get enough sleep.
  22. Take the courses you want to take, not the ones your parents want you to take.
  23. Beware of technology such as video games, movies, social media, etc. They can be unhealthy, addictive time sinks.
  24. Don’t read or send text messages in class.
  25. Try new things (clubs, sports, volunteering, etc.), but don’t spread yourself too thin.
  26. Call home, but not too often.
  27. Get off campus and explore the area. Eat in restaurants, go for a hike, see a movie, visit a museum, etc.
  28. Study abroad.
  29. Do not beg your professor for more points on your graded work. If you have doubts about the grading, ask the professor to explain his or her reasoning. Most likely, if there was a grading error, your professor will fix it.
  30. Show up for appointments and be punctual.
  31. Don’t let your parents fight your battles. Professors cannot speak with your parents anyway (without a FERPA release).
  32. If things start going wrong, see a counselor. Each year the counseling center is used by 15–20% of the student body. The service is completely confidential; they won’t notify your parents, your professors, your friends, or your insurance company.
  33. Let go of your high school anxieties. Your classmates didn’t know you in high school. Make new friends, wear new clothes, listen to different music, and try new things.
  34. Don’t lie to your professors; they’ve heard them all (otherwise known as the “dead grandmother rule”). (A retired professor I know used to send a condolence card to the student’s parents every time a student informed him of a death in the family.)
  35. Be considerate of the neighbors. Not everyone in town is a college student. Keep this in mind when you are returning from a party at 2:00 AM.
  36. Be a good roommate.
  37. Don’t cheat. The penalties are steep if you are caught. If you are not caught you will have to contend with a guilty conscience. Cheating will produce a short-term gain and a long-term loss. Besides, it is a slippery slope—this is not the way you want to conduct the rest of your life.
  38. Become a novice. You’ll learn more and get more out of college if you don’t hold onto the attitude that you know everything already.
  39. Go on a road trip.
  40. Look at your final exam schedule before scheduling your flight home.


  1. drj11 says:

    With my most sarcastic face on… weren’t you tempted to add “sit in your room making long lists instead of actually doing stuff”?

  2. Amy Gruen says:

    This is a really good list! I have shared something similar with my graduating seniors in the spring, but not nearly this thorough. Thanks!

  3. Professor Richeson what a great list!, thanks for sharing it. I wonder if there is a web page for your course “Science or Nonsense?”, it sounds quite interesting and I would really like to check material, biblio, etc from that course….thanks in advanced.


    Elio (from Tucuman, Argentina)

    1. Unfortunately, no. The web presence for my class is all in Moodle, so it is password-protected. The main text is Schick and Vaughn’s How to Think About Weird Things. But they focus too much (in my opinion) on the paranormal, UFOs, etc. I’m assigning a lot of supplementary reading on topics that “matter”—as mentioned above.

      1. To bad that such a needed course in these days it’s not available…please if you can…it’ll great if you share the reading list at least. Thank you

      2. You can open access to your Moodle course for others to see. One way is to just make access public (but only registered users can actually post comments in forum, etc.). Another option is to provide interested observers with an access key. Of course, you may have reasons for not wanting to do this. Also, the list is awesome!

      3. How about this: I’ve made my class calendar a public Google doc. It is still a work-in-progress, but you can see a sketch of the semester. Some of the readings are TBD—I’ve got a lot of good choices, but I’m still trying to decide what I’ll have them read. If you have suggestions of readings or topics, send them to me by email or Twitter. If I can’t use them, I can pass them along to the students as possible paper topics.

      4. Michael says:

        How about a treatment of the Sokal hoax? It provides a good tour through epistemological issues and the social constructivist take on science.

      5. Great idea. Building on that idea, I could talk about the SCIgen—the automatic computer science paper generator.

      6. Michael says:

        Perfect. That would show that nonsense can be generated from from both the sciences and the social sciences (and humanities)– a rather symmetrical approach that accords well with the tenets of the sociology of scientific knowledge as developed by David Bloor in Knowledge and Social Imagery (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).

    2. Michael says:

      Here’s a paper that discusses the Sokal affair, giving an overview and analysis:

  4. Robert Talbert says:

    The percentage you gave in #32 surprised me. Do you know if that’s typical for colleges like yours? Or typical across the board?

    1. I’m pretty sure of those figures. The First Year Seminar faculty heard a presentation last week by the head of our counseling center. As I recall, she said that 15-20% is typical for schools like ours.

      A quick internet search pulls up this article which says that 10.4% of all college/university students use the counseling center each year and the percentage is 18.3% at colleges with fewer than 1500 students (our school has about 2300).

  5. Kamlesh Gupta says:

    Excellent list of do’s and don’ts for all students in general.

  6. D MacKinnon says:

    The other list in your post is interesting too – the list of topics in your “science or nonsense” course. I hope that you post some of your notes & lessons from that also. Thanks!

  7. david freeman says:

    Glad to see “Learn to write well” in your list. Even the Humanities majors (who tend to write with too much fluff and flourish) can benefit from a few hours embracing “The Elements of Style”. It’s small size and straightforward approach make it especially accessible to engineering, math and science students if sufficiently motivated.

    I’d add “The Elements of Style” to any course list regardless of topic.

    1. I read Elements of Style when I was writing my book. I enjoyed it. Even more entertaining is the book Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

  8. Phil says:

    Related to number 1, I might add: if you HAVE to leave during the middle of lecture, notify the professor before class starts and exit as quietly as possible.

  9. Robert says:

    I’m about to start my freshman year of college. I came here to learn about math and computer science but this post might just be the most helpful thing I have read yet. I love this blog!

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