Making the grade: Ace your college classes with this advice on choosing courses, selecting a major, writing papers, and dealing with professors

Making the grade: Ace your college classes with this advice on choosing courses, selecting a major, writing papers, and dealing with professors – On Campus

Tracey Randinelli

Swarthmore College? One of the toughest liberal arts schools in the country? No sweat, thought Esther Zeledon. After all, the Miami resident graduated sixth in her class from Braddock High School, the largest secondary school in the U.S. with more than 5,400 students. In high school, she took 10 AP courses and pulled mostly A’s. She figured work at Swarthmore would be more of the same. “I thought college was going to be like high school: Do some homework, a test here and there,” she says. “I thought I would be able to get straight A’s.”

It didn’t take long for Zeledon to realize she wasn’t in high school anymore. The environmental science major soon discovered the workload was staggering. “I get about one paper a week for English and one every other week for history, as well as 800 pages a week to read,” she says. That does not include a five-hour chemistry lab and four hours of pre- and post-lab work, as well as stuff like eating and sleeping.

But the worst part, says 19-year-old Zeledon, is that despite long hours of studying, she hasn’t managed to pull the top-notch grades that came so easily in high school. “It is so difficult to get an A,” she says. “I haven’t even seen that pretty letter since I got here.”

Zeledon’s story isn’t unique. Even the most successful high school students can find their academic world turned upside down at college. The problem: They haven’t been prepared for the vast differences between high school and college academia.

“Students find that the strategies that served them in high school are not good enough for college,” says Pat Grove, campus director of the Learning Resource Center at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. “The volume and complexity of the material is so vastly different, and the expectations of the faculty are entirely different from the expectations of their high school teachers.”

In high school, says Grove, students are required to memorize and recall information. But in college, professors expect students to truly analyze and understand concepts.

Colleges are just beginning to recognize that graduating high school students need mote guidance to make the transition. Many schools now require freshmen to take orientation courses designed to teach them time management, communication dynamics, and other skills they need to be successful in the brand new world of college.


In high school, choosing your courses is easy–most are requirements and very few are electives. At many colleges, however, it’s a little more complicated. You get a course book that may contain several hundred pages of classes. Which classes you take, the times you take them, the days you take them–it’s more or less all up to you.

It doesn’t have to be overwhelming, though. You most likely will have an academic adviser to help you. “Your adviser is your university resource broker,” says Elizabeth Teagan, director of the University Transition Advisement Center at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. The college adviser is familiar with faculty knows what’s needed to fulfill requirements within the university and in your major, and he or she can spot problems that you are likely to miss.

For many students, one of those problems is filling general education, or gen-ed, requirements. In order to graduate, many colleges require that you take a number of credits in liberal arts disciplines–English, math and science, a foreign language.

“Gen-ed courses teach a lot of skills that students will need in their other courses–working in groups, critical thinking, analysis,” says Dave Meredith, director of enrollment management for the honors programs at the University of Cincinnati. It’s important to balance your schedule with a required math or foreign language course as well.

Getting gen-ed requirements out of the way early can be particularly beneficial to students who are still undecided about their major, adds Meredith. “If you can say ‘I’m wiping off my history requirement,’ that can make you feel like you’re progressing.”

You also want to make sure your schedule is balanced with courses that are extra challenging and some that require less effort. “You shouldn’t take biology, calculus, physics, and chemistry together the first semester–that’s ridiculous,” says Rutgers University’s Grove.

Robin Diana, associate director of the Center for Student Transition and Support at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, suggests meeting with your adviser early in the course selection process. Take a look at the course sequence for your major with an eye toward the next four years, nor just the coming semester. Then agree what courses you should be raking, says Diana, “so that four years down the road you don’t realize you need two classes that are not being offered that semester.”

Other points to remember:

* Be flexible. At many universities, first-year students are the last to register. That means that many of the more popular classes and class times have already been filled. “Know that the days and times that you want will probably nor be the days and times you get,” says Diana. “Have a Plan A, a Plan B, and a Plan C ready to go.”

* Keep your own personality in mind. If you’re a morning person, schedule your classes early in the day. (Early birds are at an advantage, since the competition for an 8 a.m. class is much less fierce than for a class at a later hour.) If you know you can’t function before 10 a.m., however, don’t force yourself to take early morning classes.

* Make sure you’re prepared. Some classes have prerequisites. An introductory class in chemistry, for example, may require that you have had several years of chemistry in high school.


You’ll find that one of the biggest differences between high school and college academics is the relationship you have with the person standing in front of the class. “In high school, teachers pretty much tell you what your responsibilities are,” says Bonnie B. Gorman, director of first-year programs at Michigan Technological University in Houghton. “In college, you have to figure that out.” It’s your job-nor the professor’s–to make sure you are keeping up with assignments and progressing through the class.

What’s more, a college professor is often less accessible than a high school teacher. In high school, you saw your teachers every day in college, you may spend only an hour or two with a professor each week. And that hour or two is fur from intimate: In an introductory class, it may well be you, the professor, and several hundred other students.

“In a lecture hail, it’s not likely a professor is going to know you one on one,” says Diana. “You need to take initiative to get to know your professor and have them know who you are.

CLASSROOM IMPRESSIONS. Start in the classroom environment itself. That means showing up–and on time. (Victoria McGillin, dean for academic advising at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, says each cur class may cost you between $70 and $150. Ouch.)

Sir close to the front, and in larger classes, try to sir in the same seat or area of the room for each session. The professor may not immediately know your name, but he or she will begin to recognize your face. Show that you’re attentive by making eye contact. “It’s about being present versus that vague stare students get after the first 20 minutes,” says Texas Tech University’s Teagan.

In smaller, less lecture-driven sessions, class participation can also help get you noticed by a professor, particularly when you’ve done the assigned reading or writing. ‘While raising your hand to make a point is great, don’t forget that probing questions can be an effective way to participate in class discussions.

If participating is difficult because of class size, see if available alternatives exist. “Some faculty are increasingly playing around with Web-based e-mail discussions,” says McGillin. “They’ll consider that comparable to having raised your hand in class.” If all else fails, drop the professor an e-mail with questions or comments on the day’s lecture. “If it’s clear to a professor that a student is malting an effort in their class,” says Gorman, “that’s what’s important.”

THE OFFICE VISIT. One of the best ways of getting to know a professor is also one of the most underutilized. At most colleges, professors designate several hours a week as “office hours”: times when students can talk to them about grades, assignments, and problems they have with the class material. But if you ask most professors, you’ll find that office hours are often very quiet.

“We have several professors who use our center for their office hours,” says Rutgers University’s Grove, “and they get lonely sitting there.”

The University of Cincinnati’s Meredith suggests visiting a professor early in the semester to say hello and introduce yourself. “If you only see the professor after you’ve bombed the midterm, they may look at it as, ‘Oh they’re just trying to save their grade,”‘ he says. Meredith stresses that taking advantage of a professor’s office hours throughout the semester can definitely help your final grade: “If it’s a difference between a B-plus and an A, maybe if you’ve been to his office a couple of times he’ll remember it and you’ll get the A.”

It’s also important to remember that professors are people, too. Sure, they might have PhDs, but as Teagan says, “They’re dads and moms and aunts and uncles just like anybody else.” If you’re having a problem, most will do whatever they can to help. Becky Libby, a junior at the University of Southern California, found herself floundering in a first-year writing class. To her surprise, her professor noticed something was bothering her and came to her rescue. “She met with me every day for literally two weeks to bring my writing up to par, Libby remembers.


In high school, studying is a day-to-day process. You go to class, you get homework, you do it. Your teacher tells you you’re having a rest next Friday, you study, you take the test. You might know a paper is due in two weeks, but that’s about as far into the future as you get.

In college classes however, your semester is usually mapped out from Day 1. Most professors hand out a syllabus on the first day of class. The syllabus tells you when to expect quizzes and tests, when papers are due, what you’ll be expected to in time for each class, even the topics that will be covered in each day’s lecture. The syllabus makes it easier to see how you’ll progress throughout the semester, but it also puts more responsibility on you to make sure you’re getting the work done–and doing it well.

Instead, make sure you’ve read the assigned material before class–that way, you’ll have some idea of what the professor is going to say before he or she says it. During the lecture, don’t try to take down every word the professor says. Instead, look or listen for clues that will tell you what topics or ideas the professor thinks matters. Did he or she write something on the board? Mention something more than once? Illustrate an idea with examples? Chances are, those are things the professor considers important–and will probably include on an exam. “You want to synthesize and identify the main points,” says Michigan Technological University’s Gorman.

Taking good notes is a vital step in the process. Again, you’ll probably find it was easier in high school. A high school class environment is usually more interactive, while a college-level introductory class can consist of 90 minutes of lecture. Trying to copy the lecture verbatim isn’t very smart, unless you happen to be a court reporter or stenographer. Taping a lecture helps, but it takes valuable time to transcribe the tape.

Many high school students find their note-taking strategies–if in fact they have any–have to change once they get to college. There’s no one right” way to take notes; different strategies work for different people. Some prefer an outline. Others favor some variation of the Cornell, or “one-third, two-thirds” method, in which you record specific notes from the lecture on the right two-thirds of the page, and later, in your own words, summarize the main ideas on the left side of the page. Still other students prefer mapping out ideas on the page and linking relationships visually. You may even find you need to use several different strategies, depending on the subject.


College and high school exams are similar in that they measure what you’ve learned. ‘What’s different is the learning process itself. “A lot of learning in high school is memorization,” explains Texas Tech’s Teagan. “In college, memorization may be part of a body of investigation, but it’s really just the first step.” College learning isn’t just about knowing concepts–it’s about understanding the relationships between those concepts.

In high school, you’re usually tested on a few chapters or concepts every couple of weeks. Many college classes, on the other hand, hold just two exams–a midterm and a final–that measure your knowledge of weeks of lectures, dozens of pages of notes, and hundreds of pages of text. Obviously, this is not a process that happens overnight.

“Studying for an exam is really an extended review period you should be doing every day,” says Ken Miller, director of student affairs at Pennsylvania State University at Erie. “Day by day the material may not be difficult, but over 12 weeks, it will be more difficult to absorb and recall all of the material. Students who keep up are more prepared than students who try to cram.

When you’re faced with prepping for an exam, your first step is to find out what kind of an exam it will be. A closed-ended (multiple choice or true-or-false) will stress concepts: Was Robert E. Lee a southern or northern general? An open-ended (essay) exam will stress relationships between concepts: Compare Lee’s battle strategy to Grant’s. Knowing the type of exam you’re facing will give you a better idea of how you should study for it.

If you’ve kept up with the reading, paid attention during class, and practiced good note-taking strategies, you probably already have a good idea of just what material is going to be on the exam. “A professor is not going to put together a final that doesn’t look like anything you’ve seen during the semester, says Rochester Institute of Technology’s Diana. Many professors also keep copies of previous exams on file in the library or their office; while they won’t tell you the exact questions you’ll be facing, they will give you an idea of the professor’s style of testing. In any case, it’s your right to ask for guidance, says Teagan.


You know the academic strategies–but you still feel like you can barely keep your head above water. What can you do? Nearly all campuses have academic advisement centers you can turn to if you’re feeling the crunch. In addition, Diana suggests finding a mentor or “performance coach” other than your academic adviser: a staff or faculty member, even an upper-class student whom you can connect with and find support and guidance.

Also, realize that even the most successful high school students have some difficulty in college–but they usually survive.

“It is just getting used to the whole process,” says Swarthmore freshman Esther Zeledon. “It’s hard, but at least there are a lot of support groups that really make things easier. Just don’t give up!”



* LEARN TO READ CRITICALLY. Read material with an eye for key concepts. “A lot of students try to memorize every single thing they read and get bogged down,” says Dave Meredith, director of enrollment management for the honors program at the University of Cincinnati.

* USE A DAILY PLANNER OR OTHER TYPE OF SCHEDULE. “Even though you might not have many things going on, it helps give some structure to your life,” points out Bonnie B. Gorman, director of first-year programs at Michigan Technological University in Houghton.

* LEARN TO BE MORE INDEPENDENT. The more you can take responsibility for your own assignments, rather than relying on reminders from teachers or parents, the farther ahead you’ll be.

* FAMILIARIZE YOURSELF WITH THE COURSES YOU WILL BE TAKING. Many professors post a course syllabus on the Internet, says Ken Miller, director of student affairs at Pennsylvania State University at Erie. “A student can review the syllabus electronically before setting foot on the campus.”


CHUCK GUILFORD, associate professor of English at Boise State University, author of “Beginning College Writing” (Little, Brown), and creator of the Paradigm Online Writing Assistant (, offers these tips:

1. Own the topic. Ask yourself, “What about this topic do I care about? What about it has value to me?” Make the subject your own.

2. “Problematize” the topic. Mold the topic into a core question or problem that must be solved using research and investigation.

3. Survey what’s out there. Your professor, former students in the class, or other faculty may. have suggestions for finding sources.

4. Get the information. Use the library, Internet, and even interviews, when appropriate.

5. Come up with the solution. Propose a hypothesis to your research problem, which you can use to help structure the paper.

6. Start writing. Divide the problem into the main points, and then plug in your information. The final solution or answer to the research problem should be the conclusion of the paper.

7. Document your sources. Note that departments within a university often have different requirements for citing sources.

8. Write it again…and again. Be prepared to do, at least three drafts, plus a final edit.

*And here’s that warning: Don’t be tempted to buy an essay off the Web. “Plagiarized papers lack the voice that students bring to their writing,” says Guilford. Having, someone else write your paper for you may save you a few days or weeks of work, but the reward may end up being an F for the paper or even the course.


For many students, their first academic dilemma arrives in the form of that little box on the college application labeled “desired major.” Most students do not have a clear idea of what they want to do for the next 40 years-and that can cause some “major” stress. Students also feel pressure to choose, says Texas Tech’s Teagan. “[Not having a major] has a negative connotation. The first question people ask after ‘What college are you going to?’ is ‘What’s your major?”‘

If you fall into the undecided category, you’re not alone. According to, a college-planning Web site, one-third of high school students haven’t a clue what they want to do for a living, and more than half change their major during their freshman year. Eventually, you will have to choose your course. These tips can help:

* GET TO KNOW YOURSELF Pinpointing the qualities that make you who you are can often help you narrow down career choices that best coincide with those qualities. What type of personality do you have? What do you enjoy doing? What are your values?

* TAKE ADVANTAGE OF CAMPUS FACILITIES Career counseling or resource centers are not just for seniors arranging job interviews. Schedule an appointment with a career counselor. “Talk about what you like, what you don’t like, your interests, your dreams,” says Wheaton College’s McGillin. Your academic adviser can also be useful in helping you determine the major that will best prepare you for what you want to do.

* TAKE TO EVERYONE YOU KNOW Everyone has a story about how they got into their field. Get the scoop first hand from adults you know-and pay special attention to people whose career path took an unlikely turn.

* INVESTIGATE INTERNSHIPS Many companies offer internships to high school as well as college students. If you have an idea of what you want to do, find an internship in that field to solidify–or negate–that interest.

* TAKE ADVANTAGE OF GEN-ED REQUIREMENTS. “We encourage students to think of general education courses as potential career avenues,” says McGillin. If you haven’t decided on a major by the time you matriculate, use your gen-eds to get a taste of several different job fields. You might not be excited about taking a required government course, but three weeks of the class might convince you that politics is your calling.

* DON’T BE AFRAID TO GO IN UNDECIDED. At most schools, you’re not even required to settle on a major until sometime during your sophomore year. “Undecided students are ‘a step ahead of those who declare and change, declare and change,” says Teagan.


You want advice on how to make it through freshman year academia with your sanity intact. What better brains to pick than college students who have, lived through the academics of freshman year and survived? We asked a few members of the CAREERS & COLLEGES advisory board to give future first-years some tips:

“The first day of class is usually dedicated to explaining the class and passing out a syllabus. If you find that you are not interested in the material, consider switching classes. You must make this decision early, because the longer you wait the harder it is to catch up on the lectures and homework you have missed in the class you switch to.”

–Nathan Hara, junior,

Kenyon College,

Gambler, OH

“Don’t study in front of the computer screen. Instant Messaging has become the best procrastination technique. I can spend hours every night chatting with my friends back home if I’m not careful.”

–Jennifer Dooley,

Junior, Randolph-Macon

Woman’s College

Lynchburg, VA

“If your college has a retreat-type thing, go to it. At CSU Sacramento’s retreat for incoming freshman, I was able to talk to some other college students who informed me of some classes to take and whom to take them from.”

–Jessica Pearl, junior, California State University,

Sacramento, CA

“Augment your course selection with a subject you are weak in as well as one that you are strong in.”

–Rachel Bullard,

junior, Alfred University,

Alfred, NY

“Make sure you stay awake in class – even if you have to stand up. The hour that you will miss will take a couple of hours that night to learn the same material. It is better use of your time to stay awake.”

–Daniel Flake, sophomore,

U.S. Naval Academy,

Annapolis, MD

Tracey Randinelli is a regular contributor to CAREERS & COLLEGES.

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