As I look with resignation at my incomplete and overly optimistic list of “Things to Accomplish This Summer,” I am coming to grips with the summer being almost at the end, and that means I am about to become the mentor/advisor to a group of wide-eyed freshmen honors students. I have been teaching college students for 11 years. I have seen both student successes and failures, and when I talk to my incoming group of freshmen I will share the following advice with them:
College is hard work. It means that you have to sacrifice things for academic success. It doesn’t mean that you won’t have a social life, but Wednesday night showings of Monty Python’s “Holy Grail” at the Dollar Theater are out 95% of the time. I know you will sound like your mom, but say to your friends, “Sorry, I can’t go to the movie. I have a quiz in theoretical physics in the morning, and I need to study.” There is no magic substitute for hard work in college—you must have your posterior in a chair for extended periods of time to become properly educated.
Organize your life. Stop relying on others to remind you when papers or projects are due. Get a Daytimer, Blackberry or Google Calendar and use it. On the first day of class enter all of the important dates from the syllabus onto your calendar. Check it every day. Every day.
Study where it is quiet and there are no distractions. Cut down on distractions and your study time will be more effective. Don’t study with friends or in a group if you can’t resist the temptation to talk or if your friends can’t resist chatting with you. Students will often testify that they studied for hours, and they don’t understand why they failed the test. Being at a coffee shop with your book open for 4 hours while you chat for 80% of the time does not constitute studying.
Learn how to read. No, I don’t mean that you need to return to your early years of watching Sesame Street, but you need to develop proper strategies that will enable you to efficiently read a text. If the hardest things you read during high school are your friends’ tweets or Facebook posts, you will have some work to do. Go purchase Mortimer Adler’s “How to Read a Book.“ Read it, and follow his suggestions as you read it. Most people don’t read well. If you learn to read well it will become increasing clear to you that most people don’t.
Use a dictionary. Look up words you don’t know—don’t guess. Just because you have read that word before doesn’t mean that you understand its definition. So much of your early university experience will be mastering (and by that I mean understanding) vocabulary. Practice using your new growing vocabulary. Academic success is predicated on a veridical comprehension of seminal nomenclature (go look it up).
Don’t let embarrassment or shame keep you from asking questions. Knowing that you don’t know is a very important part of being educated. Acting like you do know to avoid being embarrassed only gets you into trouble.
College professors (at least the ones I work with) like to help their students—they really, really do. Don’t hesitate to use our office hours — that is what they are for. One caveat: Think about what you are going to talk to your professor about before you show up. This makes for a much more helpful discussion. It drives all of us crazy if you come in to our offices and say something unclear such as, “Plato is hard,” and then expect us to figure out what type of academic help you need.
Go to class. I know that you slept in and missed class because you went to the midnight showing of Monty Python’s “Holy Grail,” but now you don’t know that the test has been moved from next Monday to this Friday.
Don’t procrastinate. Nothing good happens by putting off a project. Most people can’t craft a well written paper overnight. Your friends who say they can are lying. I know, I read those papers, and sometimes generously give them a C. The key to writing is rewriting, and that takes time.
Don’t procrastinate — part deux. Don’t cram. Most of the information you shove in your head at 4 am oozes out when you “rest your eyes” at 5:15 am. Take advantage of this opportunity to learn, and don’t waste it ineffectively attempting to learn facts just to pass a test.
Get 7-8 hours of sleep. A lack of sleep severely affects your cognitive abilities and messes with your immune system, which are both necessary for a successful and healthy college/dorm life.
Eat a healthy diet. I realize that the café has all you can eat pizza and fries, but throw in some veggies without mounds of ranch once in a while, okay?
Exercise 3 to 4 times a week. Healthy body, healthy mind — cardiovascular health helps when you are carrying a heavy load of books across campus.
Spend time in prayer and reading the Bible. As Dallas Willard said, “It is the most important book about the most important things.” Develop a habit of talking to God. It is a focus on God that will enable you to have a successful educational experience.