A Primer for First-Time-In-College Students

by | May 15, 2016 | Education, Mental Health, Professionalism | 0 comments

Congratulations on starting your college career!  In my time in higher education, I’ve noticed a number of similar problems that first-time-in-college students  tend to have when they arrive.  I recommend that all college students familiarize themselves with these tips.  These are based on my experiences with students, as well as recommendations from past students and fellow teachers.


Tip 1. College is a lot of work and can be expensive; plan accordingly. Plan your course load carefully. It’s not like high school; seven classes in a semester will likely overwhelm you.  While costs at community college are much lower than most other colleges, textbooks are still a significant cost that you should budget for when you’re planning your course load. It’s okay to politely ask your teacher by email or in class if the textbook is required. If it is, you can also ask if it’s acceptable to purchase an older edition of the text. Note that you might place yourself at a disadvantage by not getting the textbook or by buying an older edition, but the library will often have a copy on reserve.

Tip 2. Understand the rules around dropping courses. Every state and college/university may have different rules on this one.  In Texas, for instance, over the course of your entire Texas state public education, you can only ever drop six classes (though not all drops count toward your six).  So get the facts!  Are there penalties for dropping?  Will dropping below a certain number affect your financial aid?  How will failing and retaking a class affect your GPA?  Does the new grade replace the old one in your GPA calculation or do they both factor in?  Will falling below a certain GPA risk your academic standing?  It’s also good to know the deadline for dropping courses and what percentage of your money will be reimbursed depending on your drop date.

Tip 3. There’s a lot to keep track of. Use a calendar, planner, etc. to help you manage the large number of deadlines and to avoid having large assignments, projects, and exams from sneaking up on you. Watch the academic calendars online too, which will tell you when your finals are, when the deadline is for payment or dropping courses, etc. Teachers may also put up course-specific calendars on the syllabus and/or in your online learning management system (platforms like Blackboard, D2L, etc.).

Tip 4. Pay attention to what counts toward the core or your degree. You might suspect that Music Fundamentals, Popular Songwriting, Painting, or Drawing would count toward your Creative Arts core requirements. They don’t at our college. Only a very small number of courses count toward these requirements due to state mandates. You should still check out these classes as potential electives though!

Tip 5. You don’t have to finish in two or four years. Some students will manage to get through a community college education in two years and a university education in four, but many will not.  In fact, the majority of community college students take significantly longer than two years to complete their degrees, often due to competing responsibilities, like work, school, and family.  Keep at it!

Tip 6. Don’t take too many credits. While these rules periodically change and vary by state, you may be limited to the number of credits you can take.  In Texas, the current guidelines state that the state will not fund students who exceed the number of credit hours required for their four-year degrees by more than 30 hours (this usually amounts to a total of 150 hours). To make up for this lost income, most four-years will charge you non-resident rates once you exceed this maximum.  There are important exceptions to what counts toward these hours; for instance, workforce courses, remedial courses, and courses taken out of state do not count toward this limit.  (Details for those in Texas: Read Sections 54.014 here and 61.0595 here.)


Tip 1. Figure out how to learn from your different teachers. In an ideal world, each teacher’s approach would be customized to your needs, but the reality is that there are many students in the same class with different backgrounds, skill sets, and learning styles.  If we can’t always customize our teaching styles for you, try to customize your learning to get the most out of the class. That doesn’t mean teachers won’t help you there; it just may need to be out of class (office hours, tutorials, etc.). Also, you might get some teachers who are just not stellar or are poor matches for you.  But to quote Neil deGrasse Tyson’s January 10, 2015 tweet: “Students who earn straight ‘A’s in school do so not because of good Teachers but in spite of bad Teachers.”  (PS- You don’t need to earn all As!)

Tip 2. Expect to manage your own learning. Some teachers will give extensive handouts or online resources, while others will not. Do not expect your teachers to post notes for you; take your own notes in class, review them at home, and bring questions to your teacher. Read up on material before class too, so that you already have some grasp of it before class. Also, follow your degree plan carefully. Use the advisors to guide you on general questions, but it’s often better to bring questions about your major to the department chair or another full time faculty member in that department.

Tip 3. Be prepared for different expectations from your teachers. Oftentimes, learning in high school can focus on test preparation and memorization. In college, teachers may be more interested in how you think and how you support your arguments. You may feel frustrated by not being able to find the “right answer” to your teachers’ questions, but you are learning about how to think, which is ultimately more valuable than being taught what to think. Teachers may also engage in different types of teaching styles, such as a “flipped classroom,” where you learn most of the content outside of the class (from videos, articles, etc.) and then get hands-on experience with the material in class. Embrace these opportunities to try learning in a new way.

Tip 4. Engage with Your Classes. Engage fully while in class! You’ll have more fun, learn more, and may just discover a passion for a new subject that could last a lifetime. Try to focus on learning over grades; we know that can be challenging, but it will help ease the pressure and you’ll probably end up with better grades too. Five years from now, you won’t remember the grades you got in your classes, but what you learned may still make a difference in how you think and live your life.

syllabuscatTip 5. Read the syllabus. This is a contract between you and the instructor. If you want to contest a grade or policy, the syllabus sets the rules. Note that many calendars on syllabi are tentative and subject to change, but assume that all dates for quizzes, projects, etc. are correct unless your teacher tells you otherwise. While some teachers will remind you of upcoming deadlines, ultimately, if it’s on the syllabus, it’s your responsibility. The syllabus also contains information on how you will be graded, how many absences you can have, late homework policies (some teachers do not accept late work at all), etc. While the syllabus may set terms under which teachers may drop you from their classes, it is never the teacher’s responsibility to drop you. If you want to drop the class, you should arrange to withdraw on time yourself.

Tip 6. Understand how finals work. In most cases, you have to take both the final and the midterm (if there is one) to pass a class. Normal classes do not meet during finals week; the finals week calendar is generally available online. Read it carefully and check your syllabi to make sure you know when your final exams are. Finals may be different from your normal class time, meaning you have to take time off work, arrange a ride, etc., so mark it down in your calendar right at the start of the semester and plan accordingly. In most cases, you can’t make up a final.


Tip 1. Watch your attendance and grades. Instructors monitor attendance and grades and you should too. In many classes, there is no quicker route to a failing grade than failing to attend or to submit homework on time. Check the syllabus to see what your instructors’ policies are on attendance and class participation. If your instructor uses online learning management software (Blackboard, D2L, etc.) to track your attendance and grades, you should be able to see your records and keep track too.

Tip 2. Understand what plagiarism is. Plagiarism is using someone else’s work and passing it off as your own. If you use someone else’s work, use proper quotations and citations. Don’t let quotations take up too much of your paper though; we want to see your ideas. Also, changing a few words doesn’t keep it from being plagiarism. If you’re presenting someone else’s ideas as your own, it’s still plagiarism. Your teachers and librarians can help you learn more about this. When in doubt, ask! Plagiarism is a serious offense and consequences could include failing the class.  Academic honesty is a larger umbrella term.  Academic dishonesty might include things like resubmitting a paper to a class when you wrote it for a different class.  Academic dishonesty can carry very severe consequences, including potential expulsion, so err on the side of caution.  When in doubt, ask your professor well in advance.

Tip 3. Give presentations you’d like to watch. If you have to give in-class presentations, make it into a presentation you’d like to see.  Don’t put too much text on the screen and don’t just read it. Know the material, speak fluidly, and use visuals to help bring the message home. Don’t let the on-screen presentation make you redundant; speak to your audience and let the on-screen portion supplement (not repeat) what you’re saying.  It’s usually best to limit text to key terms and words/phrases that may not be understood if they’re just heard.

cellcatTip 4. Show good cell phone etiquette. Don’t call, text, or go on your phone during class. At best, you may miss things as you split your attention. At worst, you may frustrate your teacher, violate syllabus policies, or risk accusations of cheating during in-class assignments and exams.

Tip 5. Form good working relationships with your teachers and classmates. Show courtesy toward and respect for your instructors and your peers. These are relationships that can last a long time. You’ll turn to your instructors for letters of recommendation and job references and will likely see your peers again in the professional world.


Tip 1. Check your college email or get it forwarded. You are expected to check your official college email (including emails through the online learning management software, like Blackboard and D2L). Often, this is the only way teachers have to contact you. I strongly suggest that you check all college email accounts several times a week, but if you’re not going to, at least have your messages from both forwarded to an email address you do check regularly. I know students who have missed out on scholarships, nominations for the Honors College, and more because they don’t check their school emails.

Tip 2. Participate in extracurricular activities. Use college to become a more well-rounded person. Explore a new hobby or passion, join a student organization, get involved with a performance on campus, attend voluntary seminars or lectures, volunteer your time, etc. All of these things will help you get the most out of college and develop a community. They also look great on a résumé. Try not to over-commit though; your first academic priority should be your classes.


Tip 1. Type, don’t text. Anything you submit to your instructor should have correct grammar, punctuation, capitalization, and spelling. This includes one-line responses and emails to your professor. This not only helps create a professional relationship with your instructors, it is also excellent practice for the professional world.

Tip 2. Take responsibility for your choices. Sometimes you can’t keep up with the work and get a poor grade. Sometimes you didn’t read the syllabus and didn’t know there was a quiz or a grading policy that doesn’t work in your favor. If you own up to a mistake early (before an assignment is due), your teacher might be willing to grant you an extension or work with you in some way, but never expect special treatment. In most cases, you cannot redo assignments or retake exams. Study hard and do your best every time. Teachers will expect you to take responsibility for your actions and your work.

Tip 3. Professional behavior extends outside the classroom. Don’t expect that your teachers’ and classmates’ impressions of you are restricted to how you behave in the classroom. Behave professionally both in and out of the classroom by always showing the instructors and staff, as well as your classmates kindness, professionalism, and respect.

Tip 4. Call your teachers “Professor…” unless they say otherwise. If you’re unsure what to call your professors, stick with “Professor <last name>” or ask them, “What would you like me to call you?” Some may permit you to call them by their first names, some may favor Mr. or Mrs./Ms./Miss, and some faculty members who hold doctoral degrees may prefer “Dr. <last name>.”

Tip 5. Check your “entitlement.” The current generation has a bad (and often unearned) rap for being “entitled,” so many professors are quick to respond badly to it.  Don’t expect that your teacher will put up notes for you or make special concessions for you even if you had a good reason for missing class.  Check the syllabus, which is your guide for what to expect in those circumstances.  I also recommend that you try to push back on the notion that you have a right not to be offended.  Education is not about making you comfortable and confirming your current beliefs about the world.  Many teachers feel that part of a good education is brushing up against ideas that make you uncomfortable and that challenge you.  They may even present ideas that they, themselves, don’t agree with, in service of that goal.  To that end, while you can ask your professor for trigger or content warnings or, in some cases, for an alternate assignment, try to reserve these requests for when they’re truly needed and not just to avoid mild discomfort.  For example, you may not like profanity, but there may be an educationally sound reason for you to watch something that includes it.  However, if you were, for instance, a vet with PTSD, it would be very reasonable to ask to be excused from class or to wear noise cancelling headphones if there’s footage of war that’s shown in class.  On that note, if you have a documented disability like PTSD, it’s best to be proactive.  Visit your school’s offices of disability services. They can assist with the documentation needed and a negotiation of reasonable accommodations in advance, so that you can have equitable access to an education.


What other tips do you think would be helpful for students to know?  Comment on this post to share your best tips for students who are new to college!

Advice from other profs online:

©2016 Aaron Alon. All Rights Reserved.


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