A Word To College Freshmen

The following is reprinted from the Education section of the New York Times. It offers such excellent, clear and practical advice that we felt it was worth sharing.

Lionel Anderson is an academic adviser at Temple University. A decade ago, he received a New York Times College Scholarship, which he used to attend the University of Pennsylvania. He later graduated with bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Now, he offers a few words of wisdom.

Nearly 11 years ago, I left for college. Having agonized over the essay, the campus visits and the months between January 1 and regular decision notices, the hard work was over. I got in.

My job was done. Or so I thought.

What I know now is that a successful entry in no way guarantees a successful exit. Amid the obsession over getting in, I gave little thought to how I would stay in, excel or graduate. In high school, I succeeded on intellect and expected to do the same as an undergraduate.

Years later, as an academic adviser, I know that success, particularly in your first year, is contingent on your actively becoming a savvy college student. And this idea, as it turns out, has little to do with what you’re assigned and a lot to do with what you assign yourself.

In that spirit, here are some recommendations I make to first-year students:

Manage your time.

Savvy students dictate the pace of their day.

For starters, wake up at the same time every morning, no matter what time your class is. Varying when you get up on weekdays reduces your likelihood of developing a routine and decreases your productivity.

Managing your time also means being wise about how you work and play. Have fun on the weekend, but if you’re out at night be productive during the day. Treat whatever’s on your social agenda as a reward for disciplined time spent studying. And distance yourself from Facebook and texting while you work.

With regard to extracurricular activities, be sensible. They’re an enormously rewarding part of college, but over-extending yourself can be costly.

Don’t fall behind.

Savvy students partition their work and attack it in stages. Identify assignment/project due dates and work as if they’re two to three days closer. This gives you time to revise and polish submissions. Working towards the date your professor sets encourages procrastination and doesn’t afford much flexibility if something unexpected occurs.

Don’t fall behind in your program. Meet with your advisor early on to chart a course toward graduation. Seeing the finish line motivates performance. The sooner you can visualize your full trajectory, the more time you’ll have to plan for study-abroad or explore a minor as an upperclassman.

Visit the Career Center.

Savvy students don’t wait until senior year. Visit as a freshman. While most first-year students aren’t internship-hunting, meeting with a career coach can provide tremendous insight on selecting a major and understanding how to use it later.

Identify a mentor.

Savvy students seek one out. Cultivate a relationship with a professor or administrator whose work and background appeal to you. Borrow from his/her experiences and seek counsel in areas you’re still developing. With time, s/he will be able to speak convincingly about your talents and capabilities. Sooner or later, an internship or job opportunity will require someone to do so.

Get connected and stay connected.

Savvy students align themselves with others. Form study groups, participate in student organizations and recognize the value of your peers. Like-minded students are resources for each other. Tutors and peer mentors of yours as a freshman may be networking pathways for you as a senior or alum.

See the forest.

Savvy students see the big picture. Beyond your major, much of your undergraduate education is learning how to think critically and arrive at new ideas. Information will be memorized and forgotten. Focus on concepts of problem-solving. Improve your communication and public speaking. Most importantly, challenge yourself to acquire knowledge and skills you didn’t have when you arrived.

Now that you’ve gotten in, give some thought to staying in, excelling and, ultimately, graduating.


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Ellen and Rachel are two old friends and “expert” mamas—one a pediatrician and one a family therapist—with fifty years of parenting experience between them.

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