As I enter my tenth year of teaching college, I’ve come to realize that not all high school college preparation programs are equal. There are those that focus strictly on academics, assuming that intellectual prowess results in collegiate success. There are also those that focus on test-taking tactics, in the hopes that once the student is in, she will find her way. Few, however, focus on the nitty-gritty aspects of higher education that all students will have to navigate. Below are the top ten trip-ups I see…as well as how to avoid falling into them.
10) All-Nighters Don’t Work
Many students believe they can make up for lost time by “cramming” the night before a big exam. Others believe that because they “work best under pressure” that they can wait until the last minute to write a research paper. Neither is effective. What is effective is organization. If the teacher does not provide a calendar and benchmarks, download your term’s weekly and monthly calendars and mark your homework, assignment, paper and exam due dates. Count backward to determine how much you need to do each week, and note each on the calendar. Create benchmarks to keep you on track. Allow time for surprises, illness, work and personal responsibilities. Stick to it.
9) Teachers Don’t Need TMI
Few college teachers require a doctor’s note when you’ve been out. If you stay out of class for a good reason (illness, bereavement, accident), you still have to keep up your work. If you stay out of class for a poor reason (good surfing conditions, April 20th, girlfriend/boyfriend’s parents are out of town and you have the house to yourselves), you still have to keep up with your work. Further, do not tell us if you are going in for gonorrhea testing. Yes, I really did have a student share that little morsel with me. And for all that’s holy, do not ask, “What did I miss?” or its backwoods cousin, “Did I miss anything?” the minute the teacher walks into the room on the day of your return. Instead, look to your syllabus and schedule of assignments, check with a study buddy for notes, and if need be, see your instructor during office hours.
8) Communicate With Brevity
While communicating with your teachers is essential, keep extraneous chatter to a minimum. Office hours are filled with emails, logistics, syllabus-writing and textbook-selection, scoring and grading, and meeting with students who have special needs. While we love opportunities to answer questions or help you along your way, we do not enjoy multi-page manifestos written late at night. Be clear. Stay on topic. Most importantly, if you have a complaint, see us personally, and keep it objective.
7) Select Essay Topics/Project Questions Wisely
Many teachers offer open-ended choices for essays and projects. This enables students to study and research information that is both of interest and relevant to them. However, beware the controversial undertones of hot button topics. Teachers are people; we have opinions. Some of us carry those opinions into class with us; others try to leave them at the door. If you know that a teacher holds the opposite opinion to you on a value-laden issue like capital punishment, abortion rights/restrictions, gun control or marriage equality, don’t use this assignment as an opportunity to persuade him or her to your way of thinking. Likewise, don’t use this assignment as an opportunity to suck up. We spot it a mile away and it detracts from the assignment goals.
6) Ask For Help
There are literally billions of dollars available to students who are having difficulty in their academic coursework or the college experience. From ADA to TRIO and tutoring services to crisis counselors, colleges actively attempt to retain students. If you don’t know whom to ask for help, start with a teacher or an advisor. We will connect you to the right people. One more tip: Do it early. See #10 above.
5) Treat Teachers With Respect
We have all had teachers who treated us unfairly (my story involves a frustrated math teacher who threw a white board across my seventh grade class room and hit me as I sat in my seat). It does not, however, help to live in the past. The vast majority of teachers recognize everyone has a tale to tell, and many of us also recognize that we may have occasional personality conflicts with students. To mitigate this, we employ strict rules, expectations and policies (see your syllabus) to prevent favoritism and to use in grading. Your role in this is to treat your teacher as you would a work supervisor: with respect and professionalism. One note: If you truly believe you are being targeted, see your advisor, a trusted faculty member (don’t identify the teacher you have the beef with) or, if your college has one, an ombudsman.
4) Take Responsibility For Your Education
As an adult, you will experience occasions when other adults are wrong. These people (including teachers, advisors and other school officials) will give you bad information, make mistakes, and cause you to spend more money, time and energy resolving problems that could have been avoided all together if they had checked up-to-the-minute information. That is why you must always take responsibility for your own education. Double-check everyone’s information against program requirements, carefully read every syllabus, and organize yourself (again, see #10 above).
3) Get Involved
Some educators call it the “X” factor–the connectivity that students feel to their school. It influences both retention and success in academics, not to mention making the entire college experience more enjoyable. How do you increase your “X” factor? Seek out a club, activity or student representative opportunity. You’ll meet like-minded people, feel less isolated, and who knows, you may discover a life-long friendship.
2) Buy The Textbook
I know this sounds like a “Duh,” but you’d be surprised at how many students come to class unprepared. Every quarter, students put off purchasing their textbook until the second or even third week of the quarter. In a 10-week quarter, that’s 20-30% of the time (and possibly the points). So, in addition to paper and pencil, you’ll need to buy, borrow or rent the required textbooks (occasionally, libraries will stock copies of particularly popular textbooks, but it’s not common). Similarly, consider purchasing any non-required materials that your teacher “recommends.” You’ll find bonus information, as well as some additional exercises, anecdotes and examples to help you when confused.
1) Get to Know Your Teachers
Research has shown that teachers grade those students they know well less consistently. More importantly, the grades tend to increase, not decrease, in proportion to how well they know the student. So how do you get to know them without the pitfalls outlined in #8 above?
Three tips: One, sit in the “T-Zone.” That’s an imaginary “T” across the front of the room and down the middle aisle–it’s where the highest-scoring students choose to sit (again, education research). In addition to putting you shoulder-to-shoulder with students who do well, your teacher will see your smile every day and begin to recognize you.
Two, visit during their office hours. Find a solid question to ask or comment to make. My personal favorite is when a student takes the time to tell me that something we discussed in class held significance due to something in their outside-class lives. Again, be brief: 8-10 minutes maximum.
Three, ask questions. It’s the best way to ingratiate yourself with a teacher. We need those questions to let us know if we’ve missed some key points, as well as that you’re listening. (Remember, we’ve spent a minimum of six years in college studying this topic for a reason. We’re excited about it, and want you to be, too.)
While all of the above guidelines will help to sail a steady academic course, it’s up to you to recognize that college is a great gift, inaccessible to many people in the world. It’s a place for you to become better, and find ways to make the world better. Take the opportunity to do both.
Lori Pollard-Johnson is a certificated teacher, and taught elementary school prior to her current position as an English college instructor. When she’s not wielding a scoring pen, she’s at the keyboard creating fresh fiction: children’s, YA or adult mystery. Her children’s novels, The Truth Test, and Recipe for a Rebel, as well as her young adult novel, The Lie, and adult mystery, Toxic Torte, are available at Amazon, as well as via e-book marketplaces.