How to rock college

How to do well in college

Whether you are attending college 3,000 miles away or just down the road, you've landed at what is likely Home for the next four years. Nicely done! Getting into college is quite an accomplishment. But just because you are in and now well into your first quarter or semester, it doesn’t mean you can take it easy for the next four years. What matters nearly as much as where you go to college is how you make the best of it while you’re there.

Even if you are a time-tested upperclassman who found this article by mistake, these five steps can help you succeed where other capable co-eds may have crashed and burned.

Step #1: Choose classes based on reputation (not start time)

Rolling out of bed at noon for your first class may sound sweet -- and it is. But there are more important priorities in designing your class schedule. When you sign up for classes, focus on professor reputation, course reputation, your interests, grad reqs, and then convenience -- in that order. It may require some leg-work, but twenty minutes into the course you’ll be glad you didn't opt for the snoozer next door. The best professor can make Economics 101 shine like a sketch on SNL, while the worst prof can make Intimacy in Literature feel like a federal pen. So if the Will Ferrell of professors is teaching about bearish markets at 8am, grab some coffee and warm a seat.

An equally backwards strategy is rushing to crush your general-ed requirements as if college were a game of whack-a-mole. Instead, use your grad reqs to explore what your campus has to offer, from Art Through the Ages to The Physics of Flight. A little academic self-discovery will also add clarity to your search for a major.

Step #2: Make office hours a must

Office hours may seem like a relic of the pre-email Dark Ages, but they are still the best way to establish genuine face time with your profs, which can be critical to building lasting professional relationships. You never know when you might need a glowing recommendation or help securing an internship.

Visiting a prof can feel intimidating, but if done properly, it's time well invested. The key is to go during the first week or two of the semester -- before the panic of midterms and finals strikes -- thus giving you some quality face time with your professor. While you don’t need to recite passages from his latest book or comment on how you loved his thesis, have a few questions at the ready to spark conversation.

Continue to visit office hours every couple weeks so your face doesn’t recede into the blur. By the end of the term, your professional relationship and your performance in class could lead to a top-notch reference, and perhaps the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Step #3: Study in solitude

As you wander on campus, take careful note of quiet, well-lit nooks where few seem to tread. The quad lawn is not one of them. Neither is the student center, nor your dorm room. Sometimes even the library can be risky. If you really want to do well in college (and if you have a few extra minutes to hoof it), check out the grad student libraries, where you are guaranteed anonymity and perhaps a bit of inspiration.

Step #4: Visit every booth at the activities fair, but guard your email

They mean well when they promise to unsubscribe you anytime if you’ll just give them your shiny new university email address, but life gets busy. And before you know it, you’re getting a decade's worth of spam from people you’ve never met and groups you don’t plan to join.

Save yourself the headache. Establish a free dummy email account to give out generously over the course of the activities fair. As you check the account regularly and follow the threads, it will help you narrow things down to your group of choice. Once selected, you can send that group your primary email address and close the dummy account.

Step #5: Aim for at least one independent study

Just you and the prof, with no option to skip class? Why would anyone ever want to do that? In building on the idea of professional relationships with profs, consider this the next step in developing a vast and lasting network, not to mention a rich talking point in future interviews about how working with a lauded anthropologist for a semester gave you deep insights into the complexities of human interaction.

Once you find a professor that you love and that you have a good rapport with, take the next step and express an interest in helping her with her research by creating an independent study where you can work side by side. Realize that professors have very limited time, so be sure that what you are suggesting lightens your prof’s load instead of adding to it. And don’t be miffed if she declines. It may take approaching a few profs before you succeed, but if done with diplomacy and grace (as opposed to entitlement), you are likely to win an opportunity to study with a great mind sometime in your junior or early senior year. 


All this advice may seem straight-forward -- maybe even obvious -- but you would be amazed how many students make choices completely contrary to these five steps and as a result miss out on achieving their best. My colleagues, a dean and a professor from Duke University, and I analyzed over 50 years of experience on college campuses, and in doing so discovered that incredibly few students applied these five key principles. Those who did achieved remarkable results. Fortunately, with these tools in hand, you are now well on your way to greatness and we wish you an excellent journey.

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