9 Things Every College Student Should Know… But Doesn’t.

These types of articles pop up around August and September every year. In fact, a year ago I wrote up a list of 9 things I wanted my college-bound daughter to know and I also asked my many professor and grad-degree-ed friends to chime in on what made them successful or what they would want freshmen to be thinking about.

But this type of list is invariably in one ear and out the other amidst of the firehose of information and life experiences hitting these 18 and 19 year olds all at once as they begin their post high school journeys.

So now I wanted to revisit the topic, both for those sophomores with some real college classes now behind them (and some accompanying scars and bruises to show for the process), and for those freshman who might just find a moment to listen and find their first year improved for it.

First, THE LIST:


9 Things Every College Student Should Know… But Doesn’t.

  1. Stay AHEAD
  2. 1 hour in-class = 2-3 hrs out-of-class
  3. Use professors’ office hours
  4. Use tutoring resources
  5. Get the urgent out of the way of the important
  6. Focus on growth, real experiences, & meaningful outputs, not GPA
  7. Learn to take care of yourself first
  8. Have fun
  9. Don’t take any of this too seriously

Below is an expansion of THE LIST, with more explanation and quotes and comments added from my friends and associates in higher ed:


1. Stay AHEAD.

It is a helpful trick to think about the importance of any period of time in college as inversely proportional to how far along you have progressed (e.g. Your freshman year is your most important academic year, sophomore year the second most important, etc. The first week of the semester is the most important, the second week is next most important, etc).

“In the first month of class each semester, you will have hardly any work due. Use this time to get ahead in class. Do papers and assignments early. That way, you won’t suffer when you get sick, your grandma dies, your boyfriend dumps you, or whatnot. Instead of being a month ahead, you’ll only be three weeks ahead. You’ll have no stress and college will be easy. You won’t cheat or plagiarize because you won’t feel pressure. You’ll have more fun at parties and such because you won’t feel like you’re procrastinating.” ~ Professor, Georgetown University

“I made a point to always read one chapter ahead. So I’d been introduced to the concepts before hearing them in class. This worked well for me in science and math classes.” ~ MD, Phoenix AZ

“That reading a chapter ahead tid bit… I didn’t figure out until dental school.” ~ DDS, Tucson AZ

“Being ahead is sweet, you can always drop what you are doing and be there for a friend if you are ahead on all the readings.” ~ Professor, Creighton College


2. 1 hour in-class = 2-3 hrs out-of-class.

Further, the most valuable form of independent study is SELF-TESTING… Flash cards, quizzing, online study platforms, practice essays, blogging/journaling, recorded vocal practice, etc. Reading an assignment or your notes from class is only preparation for independent study.

“I treated it like a job (the best I could) 8-5. I studied during the day when the library was quiet. I took early classes to get me out of bed (and reduce hangover). I ran drunk a lot too, early in the am.” ~ DDS, Tucson AZ

“Approach this course as if it were your professional job, including staff meetings (class session), reports (exams, essays), and daily tasks (assigned readings). Repeatedly ask yourself, ‘If I did this on my professional job, how would the boss respond?” If you regularly come to class/meetings late, would this be good or bad for your future career trajectory? If you write a sloppy, incomplete essay/report, how would that affect your chance of greater rewards?” ~ Tony Gill, Professor, University of Washington


3. Use professors’ office hours.

Leverage these visits to both support your immediate academic needs and develop mentor relationships over time (1-2 years).

“[Showing up during office hours] is the most under-appreciated… make it a game with yourself. See if you can read the professor’s expectations and deliver.” ~ Professor, Creighton College

“Professors liking you helps you, professors were all undergrads once before, they have heard every excuse, and obviously not stupid.” ~ Professor, University of Arizona


4. Use tutoring resources.

Leverage these visits to both support your immediate academic needs and develop connections/friendships with upperclassmen.

“I used the writing tutors to help for any essay I did. I learned a lot about checking my own work and it helped me a ton!” ~ DDS, Tucson AZ


5. Get the urgent out of the way of the important

I’d say 70% or more of college is proving you can dedicate yourself and succeed over a long period of time within a large bureaucratic organization. College is a perfect opportunity to develop an ability to efficiently manage (do, delegate or dispose) those tasks that may need to be done but are distractions from deeper more meaningful opportunities and work.

“Don’t try to do five things. Whole-ass one thing; don’t half-ass two things.” ~ Professor, Georgetown University


6. Focus on growth, real experiences, & meaningful outputs, not GPA*.

Take summer school to round out your learning (financial accounting and business law are two good suggestions), get an internship, go abroad, work on projects that can go in a portfolio of accomplishments. Bottomline, if you start avoiding worthwhile challenges for easy A’s or B’s: You’re doing it wrong.

“Intern and go abroad if possible. But be selective about your study abroad program. You want to immerse yourself in the foreign culture.” ~ Professor, Western Carolina University

“Experiment with classes. Do not let yourself be forced to take what others think is good for you.” ~ Professor, Georgia State University

“Do hard things to develop character. Take classes you’re not quite smart enough to succeed in. Join a sport that will physically test your limits. Do things that force you to radically step outside your comfort zone. Suffer a little. Character applies to all situations and lasts a lifetime, and this is a good time to develop it.” ~ Professor, University of Maryland

* Please note that this advice comes purposefully AFTER I have already told you to stay ahead, study 2-3 hours for every 1 hour in class, go to office hours, use tutoring, and focus on priorities… If you are doing those things GPA will take care of itself.


6.1 Focus on growth, real experiences, & meaningful outputs, and GPA.

WARNING: The advice in 6b only applies to students for whom GPA maximization is actually meaningful to their career or vocational track. Unless you are on a definite graduate school track it is highly unlikely you should worry about GPA beyond the advice given in 6a and above. If you are not headed to a selective grad school but still think GPA maximization matters, start by assuming you are wrong, then go really research whether it will matter.

If you have done your research and concluded that you are one of the rare few for whom GPA maximization does matter (or if you are just someone who likes getting all A’s) please do everything in 6a above AND take seriously these 3 suggestions:

  1. Start the work before you start the semester.
  2. The objective is to understand the class’s relevant topic, NOT the class itself.
  3. Assessments will test you outside the bounds of the subject.

“Everything in life is on the test and not everything is on the checklist.” ~ Mac Perlich, On Media Publishing

“Dear Student, Please recognize that while the exam is scheduled for Friday, February 2 at 11:30 pm, the actual start time and date is the first day of class… While the test ostensibly seeks to evaluable how much information you have retained in your cranium, I have surreptitiously designed it to measure how well you perform rudimentary life skills such as showing up for regular meetings, performing assigned tasks on time, and recognizing early when you may have shortcomings and designing methods — such as study groups — that allow you to overcome such problems before it is too late.” ~ Tony Gill, Professor, University of Washington


7. Learn to take care of yourself first.

Up to this point, you’ve likely been taken care of. Your parents watched what you ate, made sure you were involved in sports, got to church, served in your community, got enough sleep, dressed appropriately, etc.

No más! Time to start looking out for yourself. And like the oxygen masks on the airplane, you’re not much good if you aren’t holding it together for you first before starting to pitch in for others. One of the most important things you learn after leaving the supervision of your parents (whether that’s in college, or elsewhere) is how to make sure you are a healthy self-sufficient citizen.

Add productive non-academic activities to your weeks. Get a job, do regular exercise, join the outdoor recreation club, go to services on Sunday, make friends who encourage good choices. Choose housing based on what is best for your success. Figure out how to eat and drink moderately, healthy and within your budget. Use a solid, healthy lifestyle as a springboard for success in over areas.

“Sleep. Get at least 7 hours per night. And eat reasonably healthy. Take care of your body, esp the sleep part.” ~ Professor, Ball State University

“If I had it to do over again, I’d have a meal plan throughout. The opportunity cost of your time is too high to mess around with grocery shopping, cooking, etc… I lived on campus all four years, and I’d recommend this, as well. Expensive? Yes, but again, the opportunity cost of your time is high enough that messing around with commuting and parking probably isn’t a good choice.” ~ Professor, Samford University


8. Have fun.

“Earn vacations… then take them.” ~ Professor, University of Arizona

“My advice: Sex, drugs, and rock and roll–but at least make it to all your classes.” ~ Professor, University of Arizona

“The biggest thing I’d say is that by the end of college, you want to be able to look back on a lot of really awesome, fun, and boundary-testing experiences that you could only have had as a young person in college, but you also want to be able to look back and say that you worked your tail off and took advantage of the incredible learning opportunity you had. So make “Work hard, play hard” your motto, and never forget that the first part comes first but should always be followed by the second.” ~ Professor, UNC


9. Don’t take any of this too seriously.

You will reinvent yourself many times in your life. The modern world moves too fast for much of what you learned in a class one time over one 4 or 5 year period in your early twenties to stay relevant or even true. Treat college with your best effort as you should any opportunity, focus on the fundamentals, learn how to learn, make the big things the big things, love lots, do things you will be proud of, make a difference… and remember to call home.

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