Tips for Success at College

Shelby Weitzel

Why go to college? A high school student once told me that the reason he wanted to go to college was “You know, to learn stuff.” Like many students, this young man assumed that attending college is what one does after high school. Then (as the story typically continues), one either goes to medical, law, or business school, or one gets a job that will pay a great deal of money. Such goals are often formed without much self-awareness, and unfortunately tend to block further development of self-awareness while in college. By contrast, students who come to college with a better understanding of why they are there are far more likely to have an enriching experience. This understanding also helps with the transition to meaningful employment after college or to further education that capitalizes on one’s unique set of talents and interests.

This is the first in a series of articles intended to help students have the most meaningful, enriching, empowering college experiences possible. To begin, I will offer my thoughts about some of the main purposes of college. I will then explain why, given these goals, it is worth getting to know a few of your professors. I will conclude with some suggestions about how to initiate rewarding relationships with professors—it’s easier than you may think!

Why go to college?

One does not go to college in order to learn a set of facts. As you already know from your own experience with what interests you, motivated people can teach themselves a great deal by reading the relevant books or online sources on their own.

College offers you the opportunity to participate in a learning community. As learners, we strive to master academic material. Mastering academic material goes beyond mere memorization. It involves evaluating the information, making use of the information, and in some cases, contributing new information. Each of us has to be trained how to do these tasks, which is why we call our areas of study “disciplines.” So, what you do in college first and foremost is develop a set of skills which enable you to acquire, interpret, and apply information according to the dictates of the discipline being studied. The methods employed, the material studied, and the purposes of the disciplines vary considerably. Colleges often require you to take courses in a variety of disciplines, so that you can recognize the differences and make an informed choice about which disciplines you will delve into more deeply.

As learners in an academic community, we also strive to develop communication skills. Don’t panic. Remember, we go to college to learn how to communicate more effectively. You aren’t expected to already be an expert at it! Some of the communication skills you will develop include writing lab reports and research papers, making presentations alone or in groups, and taking exams. Most of your grade in a course will be determined by how well you demonstrate your mastery of the material through these modes of communication. Communication skills are also developed in class participation by learning to ask relevant questions at appropriate times, and to provide relevant answers when called upon to do so.

In addition to mastering material and improving communication skills, college offers a wonderful opportunity to develop greater self-awareness. Who are you? What are your interests and talents? What are your goals for the future? The more you know about yourself, the more likely you are to discover in which discipline it is best for you to major. The more you know about yourself, the more effectively and confidently you will communicate your ideas to others. The more you know about yourself, the more likely you are to develop a career path that is meaningful to you. When you think about work, you may tend to focus on a job as a means of earning income that will give you greater independence. However, you are much more likely to be successful in getting hired and staying employed in a field that really suits your talents and values.

At the beginning of this article I suggested that it helps to know who you are before you enter college. The reality is that most of us learn who we are as we encounter the challenges raised by participating in academic disciplines, student organizations, campus events and leisure activities, and by pushing ourselves to communicate our thoughts more effectively in each of these settings. Some of your most rewarding college experiences may occur when you take courses outside of your current areas of interest, join a student organization, or try new ways to have fun and relax.

Get to know your professors

Like dating or making friends, getting to know your professors is a numbers game—i.e., an activity that you might have to engage in many times in order to succeed a few times. In a numbers game, even a “failure” can be a success if you learn from the experience and remain open to trying again. Getting to know your professors is a numbers game because you will not like every professor, and not every professor will like you. Some professors may lack the time or ability to participate in a rewarding relationship with you. Still, ultimately, your efforts will be worthwhile if you befriend even one or two professors.

Why? One reason is that your professors are your gateway to their areas of study. They are the ones who have worked their way to the upper echelons of the learning community. They have sifted through great quantities of literature to identify what material is best for you to learn at this early stage of your academic career. You won’t always agree with your professors about what is interesting or important. However, the fact remains that they tend to be better able to recognize what is considered interesting and important in the discipline because of their greater experience. Even if your professors are not always right, you can still benefit greatly from working with them. As I mentioned before, mastering a discipline is not just about learning facts; it is also about becoming a member of a learning community with shared norms about methods of inquiry and communication. Therefore, you are likely to get more out of your courses if you have gotten to know your professors and have worked with them above and beyond merely attending class and turning in the assignments.

Here is another reason. If you give your professors the chance to get to know you, and if you take the time to get to know your professors, you may find that you “click” with some of them. These are the professors who are particularly attuned to what you have to offer as the unique individual that you are. These are the professors who can become your mentors. Mentors let you in behind the scenes of the classroom, and connect with you on a more personal (but still very professional) level. Because they know who you are, and because they care about you and your academic development above and beyond what is owed to all their students, these professors are the ones who can best connect you to opportunities that will enhance your academic experience. For instance, mentors can make you aware of scholarships, conferences, essay competitions, and internships. Sometimes mentors even co-author articles with their students.

Professors who are mentors not only enhance the quality of your time at college; they can provide the kinds of references that you will need after college. Whether you are applying for a job, an graduate program, or a professional school, you will need recommendations from respected authority figures who can vouch for your qualifications. In order to write a letter or to make a phone call on your behalf, the professor has to be able to say something substantive about you, so that you will stand out from the competition. They can do that only if they know you well.

Taking the first steps

Now that you know a few of the reasons why you should get to know some of your professors, how should you to approach your professors? Be brave! Follow the suggestions below, taking small steps over time, and you’ll find that it’s easier than you may think.

Before I begin, however, I should mention the issue of disclosure. Whether and when to disclose to a professor is a complicated issue that cannot be adequately addressed in this article. I recommend consulting Dr. Stephen M. Shore’s book on disclosure, Ask and Tell, as well as the sample disclosure letters available in the AANE adult information packet, to help you decide how you will proceed. In the meantime, the following advice can apply whether or not you disclose.

  1. Send an email. Email is a safe starting point because you can plan what to say and send it without having to interact directly with the professor. You might have a clarificatory question about the course syllabus, for example. Most professors are reliable about answering simple, specific questions via email within 48 hours.
  2. Visit during the professor’s office hours. Your professors are unlikely to notice or remember you unless you talk to them face-to-face on a regular basis. Therefore, if you want a mentor or decent recommendations as you apply for programs or jobs upon leaving college, you must get out of your room and go visit at least some of your professors. Office hours are the best time to do this because the professor sets this time aside specifically to meet with students. That said, the office hours are meant for all of the students who might want to talk to the professor, so you don’t want to monopolize the office hours. Some good news is that office visits may last only 5 to 10 minutes each as you get to know the professor during the semester. What can you talk about when you come to office hours? I will give you three suggestions:
    • Ask a question about the course material. Just about everybody gets nervous when they first approach a professor. It is OK to write your question down in advance. Not only can this make you more comfortable, but it also demonstrates that you care enough about the course to prepare for your visit to office hours. When you can, visit sometime other than the week of an exam or paper that is due in that class. You will be less likely to have to wait in line to talk to the professor and you will not be mistaken for one of the students who flood the office at these times because they care more about their grades than about learning.
    • Here is an example of what I mean by asking a question about the material. In literature courses you are often expected to interpret a character’s intentions or feelings. Let’s suppose that you have difficulty recognizing the unstated intentions of others. In this case, office hours would be a good time to ask the professor for advice about how to interpret the reading. In this example, you could ask if there is a key passage that he or she might be willing to review with you, to show you what clues to look for as you read it. The question is about a specific passage, but the purpose of the question is to improve your reading/interpretation skills, not simply to get “the” answer about a specific character from a specific passage in a specific novel.
    • Ask your professors about their work. This topic is appropriate if there are not other students waiting for help. When did they realize that this is what they wanted to do? What do they like about it? Many professors enjoy talking about their professional lives and their areas of interest. If you do decide to ask these kinds of questions, do a little research about your professors before you visit them. Many professors provide information about themselves and their work on their web pages, so you would want to look at that first. In the context of conversations like these, mentor relationships can begin to blossom. Another benefit is that what they have to say can help you decide what you want to major in.
  3. Ask about your performance in the class. Many students only come to office hours when they want to dispute grades. However, disputing grades almost never succeeds and it typically gives the professor a bad impression of you. If you perform poorly on an assignment, however, it is very important to meet with the professor. Even though it is unpleasant to get a bad grade, you can benefit greatly if you can maintain a positive attitude. Instead of disputing grades that you do not like, a more productive strategy is to ask the professor what you could do to improve your performance in the future. Instead of creating tension between you and your professor, you create a positive relationship based on acquiring the skills and the means to communicate those skills that you have not yet demonstrated in your graded work.
  4. Participate in class. Some courses are lecture-based and the professor is only open to student participation when the professor specifically asks for it. Other professors are more flexible and welcome questions throughout the lecture. Still other professors prefer a more casual, discussionbased format. Once you determine when it is appropriate according to the kind of class you are in, ask questions when you genuinely don’t know the answer, and believe that it is important. It is also good to ask clarificatory questions if you missed something the professor said. Avoid asking questions as a means to demonstrate what you already know, or simply for the sake of asking a question. It is best to limit yourself to asking only one or two questions per class period.Sometimes you may think the professor is mistaken and feel the urge to interrupt. Sometimes you will be confident that another student is mistaken and feel the urge to correct him or her. Do your best to avoid interrupting the professor, or correcting another student in a way that may be perceived as condescending. Let the professor correct the student, or wait until the professor asks students for their input. When you think that the professor is mistaken, instead of interrupting, write it down and ask about it after class or during office hours. Be prepared to be corrected, and be prepared for that fact that sometimes professors do not admit mistakes even when they are wrong. You have to ask yourself if it is important enough to jeopardize everything else that you could benefit from in the course if you alienate the professor. (Sometimes it is, but usually it is not.) This is not only about being right or wrong, but about getting the most out of a course for yourself, and maintaining your position as a member of the learning community who makes constructive and valued contributions.

In conclusion, getting to know some of your professors can greatly improve the quality of your college life. Their unique perspectives and life experiences can add a level of interest and excitement to a discipline. If you ask them questions and let them teach you, you will learn more. You will be less likely to have to cram for exams and papers, because you will have mastered the material along the way. You will also have given your professors the chance to get to know you. This will be a tremendous help when you need letters of recommendation or references for jobs. The professor needs to know who you are, what you have done, and what you are capable of doing if he or she is to stay anything substantial enough to make you stand out from competing applicants. Perhaps most importantly, you will have allowed some of your professors to become mentors, a vital source of the support and encouragement that everyone needs in this exciting and challenging time in life.

A former college professor of Social Philosophy & Ethics, Shelby Weitzel is currently a coach in AANE’s LifeMAP program. A resident of Maynard, Massachusetts, Shelby has recently opened a private practice as a college transitions coach serving Worcester and Middlesex counties. You may contact her by email at , or by telephone at (508) 954-3996.