Advice for College Students

I’m teaching a first-year seminar this semester. This isn’t a math course, although there will be some math in it. The title of my course is “Decisions, Decisions! Why We Make Bad Ones and How to Make Better Ones.” We will be using four texts, Writing Analytically, How to Think About Weird Things, Weapons of Math Destruction, and How Not to Be Wrong.

I will also be the academic adviser 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. [It is a slight modification of the one I gave the last time I taught a FYS.]

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, get an internship, 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 online 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 drink alcohol.
  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.
  41. Have a growth mindset (not a fixed mindset)—you can improve at anything if you put in the time and effort.