Ten Tips for a Successful New Semester

brackensnowEspecially for the new year, and as we all return to campus from winter break and once again transition from home and family to school and work, I thought I’d offer a few tips that would make everyone’s life a little easier. I won’t tell you to come to class, read whatever your professor assigns, or study for tests. These are obvious preconditions for success, and any reasonable student understands the connection between not fulfilling them and low academic performance. Here I’d like to focus on those little and often overlooked issues, which can be addressed with relatively little effort, and yet could make a big difference for you. So, if your last semester wasn’t as great as you had wanted it to be, if you are still in your first year of college and trying to figure things out, or if you are about to start college next year and are a bit concerned about the future, this list is for you.

1. Find a mentor. It can be a professor in your department or someone you have taken a random class with in an area you are not likely to study again, it doesn’t actually matter. I have emphasized this many times and it still tops my list. If you don’t have at least one professor with whom you are particularly close, a teacher you can talk to about everything, not just academics, it is probably time to find one (or more). Having even one professor on your side will positively and significantly transform your college and post-college career. Finding the right person and building a long-lasting and meaningful relationship takes time, so get to it right away.

2. Connect with your professors. Don’t be just a name or a number on a class roster. This is important not only for the purpose of finding mentors, but also so your teachers get to know you, even on a superficial level, and even if it’s a gen-ed/core curriculum class of 200+ students. Let your professors know what’s going on in your life, especially if you believe personal issues may affect your academic performance. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, but do so before a test/major assignment, and not after you have already gotten the bad grade. Demonstrate you are serious in words and in effort, and when the time comes to decide on final grades your professor will likely be more considerate of your situation.

3. See your advisor(s) at least once a year, even briefly, especially if your advisor is a professor within your major (students who are double majors typically have 2). Showing you are serious about being on track to graduation will make your advisor/department more willing to help you out if something goes wrong. If you feel your advisor isn’t too helpful, don’t hesitate to ask to be switched over to a different person, especially if you’ve already connected with another professor in your department who is willing to advise you.

4. Read the syllabus, carefully. The syllabus is a contract between you and your professor. By taking his/her class, you agree to the terms set forth in the syllabus, so make sure you know what you are allowed and not allowed to do, what the course requirements are, and what you need to do to get the grade you want. Not all syllabi are as thorough in detail as they should be, so ask questions when you aren’t sure. And please, before you email your professor with a question, read the syllabus again. You would not believe how many emails I get every semester about issues that are clearly explained on the syllabus, which the asking student has clearly not read. Remember that the time it takes a professor to respond to such superfluous queries is time that could have been invested in helping you succeed.

5. Read emails, especially from your professors. Many professors send out updates on a weekly/bi-weekly basis. Please respect the time it takes the professor to write them by reading their messages. Those emails often include important information you need to know. Some professors have stopped responding to emails containing questions about issues already explained in prior emails. Others (like me) still respond, but with great frustration. It isn’t really that hard: check your school email at least once a day, make sure you don’t skip messages from your teachers, and reply when a response is called for. As a student, not replying to a professor’s email is not only rude; it is counter-productive. You do want your professors to think highly of you after all, no?

6. When emailing your professor, write a letter, not a text message. A formal letter begins with Dear Mr./Ms./Dr./Prof., (find out if your professor has a doctorate or not, it really isn’t that hard) and ends with All the best or Best or Sincerely or even Thank you. Most professors wouldn’t mind an email starting with Hello or Hi, and some would allow you to call them by their first name, but few would find an email that reads like a text message (“so what do we have to read for next week?” or “I couldn’t come to class today can you tell me what I missed?”), and contains one or two sentences without punctuation, appropriate. Your professors may be very friendly, but they aren’t your friends yet. Be polite and respectful, and use your correspondence with them to practice for the real world, where even one such lousy email could sabotage your chance of getting that job you really want.

7. Mind your grammar (and style and punctuation too). When you write, whether an email or an essay, use correct English, not colloquial expressions, common abbreviations (lmao, lol, etc.), slang, or emoticons. If you aren’t sure how to use English grammar properly, get help. While language problems are somewhat excusable for foreign students, there’s nothing that makes a professor depreciate a student more than an email containing gross errors that clearly demonstrate subpar command of one’s native language (for example, I should of worked harder instead of I should have worked harder)

8. Show up for scheduled meetings with your professors. Always, and on time. If you can’t make an appointment, let your prof know as soon as you can, and preferably at least a day before. Professors keep a very busy schedule. Some teach hundreds of students a semester. If you fail to show up for a meeting, you are not only being inconsiderate of your professor’s time, but also of your classmates, one of whom could have had the chance to meet with your professor instead. A “no show” is in a way the equivalent of not replying to an email: it portrays you as an irresponsible person, which means fewer opportunities for stellar letters of recommendation down the road. In such a competitive world, why would you risk that?

9. Disagree with your professors, but know your stuff. College is about helping you develop your own views, your own voice. If you plan to spend four years in college in silence without saying anything meaningful or even controversial in class, you will be wasting your time. So learn the issues well (because most likely, your prof does know what he/she is talking about), come up with solid arguments, and don’t shy away from a good debate. While many students fear disagreeing with their teachers might hurt their grade, most professors would in fact welcome a good debate that demonstrates the student has put in some effort to learn the issue at stake.

10. Don’t withdraw. Unless you have exhausted all other options, including getting help via tutoring, talking to your professor, and discussing your options with your advisor, do not withdraw from a class. Doing so will likely make things worse for you: You will have another class to take (or you will have to repeat the same course), and there will be a W on your transcript, which indicates to potential employers and grad school admissions people that you are a quitter. While having one or two Ws on your transcript early on in your college career will probably not hurt you too badly, you have to bear in mind that no one wants to hire people who give up when facing challenges. A decision to withdraw from a class should therefore be taken very seriously.

Have other tips to share? Post your comments here or on the Facebook page.

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