Show Up at College Primed for Success

Here's some inside advice on how to give yourself a head start.

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[Learn how to make a smooth transition to college.]

In your first semester:

1. Take a variety of courses: College is more manageable if you sign up for a variety of classes that demand different levels of work. For example, if you enroll in four reading-intensive classes in one semester, you may soon find yourself swamped by the nightly assignments. But there's another very good reason to take a variety of courses: You might discover you're passionate about a field you didn't even know existed. What you decide to major in, and even what career you pursue, could be shaped by a single course or professor.

2. Speak up in class: No professor enjoys standing in front of a class and asking questions only to be greeted with silence. Speaking up is your way of showing that you're engaged, that you've done the reading, that you're genuinely wrestling with difficult concepts—and that you want to further your own understanding. Show your interest, and seek clarity when confused.

[Read about ways to impress your professor in class.]

3. Leave electronic devices behind: Given the ubiquity of iPhones, iPads, and laptops, this might seem all but impossible. But recent research suggests that students learn more and get better grades when not distracted by electronic devices in class. And while many students may find typing notes on a laptop more efficient than taking them by hand, it's also true that most find it difficult to resist checking E-mail—or Facebook, or YouTube, or Twitter—at the same time. In fact, a growing number of schools are making it possible for professors to turn off the wireless signal in their classrooms to minimize disruptions.

4. Learn to manage your time: This is spectacularly obvious and yet very difficult for most students to learn. To keep up with your assignments, you need to be disciplined. If you wait until the night before a major exam to start studying—or the day before a 15-page paper is due to start writing—of course your performance will suffer. One strategy is to break big projects down into manageable bits that you can complete one day at a time. Try writing a page or two a day over the course of a week instead of dashing off 15 pages in a single sitting.

[Read 10 ways to ruin a college paper.]

In general, turning in assignments late is a big no-no. If you know well ahead of time you can't make a deadline, speak to your professor. Many will be flexible and understanding if you can make a compelling case—but honesty matters. In addition, don't expect to get an extension if you routinely cut classes or seem unengaged when you do bother to show up.

At the end of the day, college is supposed to help you expand your knowledge and prepare for life. So, it is only to your benefit to take your classes seriously. Rare is the undergrad who scores really well on exams without consistent study. Similarly, the strongest essays tend to evolve over time, as students work through multiple drafts. If you are one of those who can't stomach the idea of revising your work, take heart from Ernest Hemingway.

When asked what led him to rewrite the final page of A Farewell to Arms an astounding 39 times, Hemingway said what had stumped him was "Getting the words right." Like a successful college career, there's no shortcut to that.

Justin Snider is an advising dean at Columbia University, where he also teaches undergraduate writing. This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education news outlet based at Columbia's Teachers College.

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