How to Succeed in College


My son Ben is heading back to high school this week.

Ben graduated from Beloit College in May with a degree in mathematics, but his new school year started this morning at Lincoln High, a predominantly Hispanic school in Denver.  He will be spending the year as a teacher-in-training in the classrooms of two mentor mathematics teachers.

Through the Teacher Residency Program with the Denver Public Schools, Ben spent the summer taking master’s-level education classes at the University of Denver. The real work, however, was to begin this morning when he was expected to kick off the first 20 minutes of two freshman algebra classes. One of his mentor teachers, who he is incredibly impressed with, told him not to worry. If he “crashed and burned” during the first period, she said she would handle the entire second class.

Lincoln High School

Lincoln High School

Something Ben said on the phone this weekend when we called to wish him happy birthday (he turned 22) prompted me to write this post about how to succeed in college. My son told me that he feels much more confident and better prepared to begin his new career than he did when he started college as a freshman. It was scary to be a newcomer on a college campus, he recalled, which is something millions of college freshmen know too well.

How to Succeed in College

The conversation with Ben has prompted me to share some tips for freshmen on how they can flourish in college.

The list of tips below come from Andrew Roberts, a professor at Northwestern University, who wrote a book that I have been recommending for years: The Thinking Student’s Guide to College: 75 Tips to Getting a Better Education.  I’d urge that students (or parents who want to pass on tips to their children) read this book.

I’d suggest the same thing for the following two books by Cal Newport, who is a computer science professor at Georgetown University:

How to Win At College: Surprising Secrets for Success from the Country’s Top Students.

How to Become a Straight A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less

 Students should also greatly benefit by spending time at Newport’s blog, Study Hacks Blog. Newport used to write advice exclusively for students, but he has since switched gears to focus on how people can “reach elite levels in knowledge work careers.” Here is the link to Newport’s archive of student advice.

If you have children who have graduated from college or will soon, here’s a book that Newport wrote for them that debunks the follow-your-passion advice when looking for a career:

So Good They Can’t Ignore you: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love. so-good-they-cant-ignore

7 Tips for Starting College

To kick the new school year off, here are some great tips from Andrew Roberts:

1.Visit extra classes.

Visit five to 10 extra classes during the first week of the semester. Sampling classes can provide an early impression about which professors are topnotch and which are busts. His reasoning is sound. Why end up in classes with professors who are just okay when there are always lots of excellent teachers scattered across a campus?

I’m going to insert my own tip here:  Try to find out who the teachers of the year are at your school. Ben’s math professor  happened to be the college’s teacher of the year twice so no wonder Ben loves this guy.

2. Aim for variety.

High school students are not familiar with most subjects that colleges offer. That’s a great reason why underclassmen, in particular, should sample as many different disciplines as possible. By dabbling, they are more likely to discover a bksdiscipline that they like.

Some of Ben’s favorite courses at Beloit, including a philosophy class he particularly loved, had nothing to do with his major.

3. Don’t rush to complete general-ed requirements.

Freshmen and sophomores tend to focus on fulfilling their general-ed requirements early, but Roberts says that’s a bad idea. If you postpone some of the general-ed requirements, you can better determine which subjects that you’d really like to focus on in college.

4. Read faculty evaluations.

Most universities have students complete faculty evaluations at the end of each semester. If the results are made public—and they often are—pour through them. Students tend to agree with each other on what classes are best, and these also seem to be correlated to performance. Students perform better in classes that they rate highly.

5. At least once a year, take a class that challenges your beliefs.

Leave your comfort zone and become acquainted with world views that don’t sync with yours. If you’re a conservative, consider taking a class on Marxism or perhaps women’s studies. If you’re an atheist, try a theology course. A liberal could andrewchoose a class on conservative political thought. Even if you ultimately hate the course, Roberts suggests that you should learn more than if you had simply chosen a class that confirms your beliefs.

5. Take writing-intensive classes.

Choosing classes that requires copious writing sounds grueling, but Roberts offers pragmatic reasons for volunteering for this torture. Employers want graduates who can write, and you’re not going to get a pass even if you’re majoring in a technical or scientific field. You will also receive more attention from a professor in a writing-intensive class since he/she must review what you write.

7. Consider auditing classes.

The typical college student takes around 30 classes during their college career. In contrast, a university may offer 1,000 or more. If you want to soak up as much learning as possible, audit some classes.

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  1. Hi there Ms. O’Shaughnessy,

    Long time reader and college prep adviser in Texas. I think these are all excellent suggestions, but maybe difficult for students to implement, especially for those who are receiving time limited financial aid like Pell grants or who are trying to move quickly through school to avoid incurring excessive loan debt. Also, the state of Texas gives a rebate to students who graduate on time with no more than 3 (?!) credit hours over the degree plan. Lastly, if a student is attempting to transfer, it is much more likely that their credits will be accepted if they are “core complete,” giving many an incentive to rush the gen ed classes.

    For those students for whom this might be the case, I would add that electives are an excellent way to fulfill #2, 5 and 6. In addition, students should be creative with the required core curriculum, i.e., if you excel in biology, try chemistry or geology instead (major permitting of course!). They are many, many classes that are allowed under the general headings of humanities, fine arts, math, etc — try something new!

    Thanks for all you Ms. O’Shaughnessy!

    1. Hi Lauren,

      All good points! I think the advice is going to be easier to follow at private schools where there is much more flexibility in terms of declaring majors and exploring different disciplines. In California, for instance, it’s tough getting relevant classes at state universities because they are terribly impacted.

      Thanks for following my blog!

      Lynn O.

  2. Lynn, when I did my student teaching (in math), my mentor said: “Don’t worry. You’ve forgotten more math than they know!” Warm wishes to Ben as he begins a career that truly makes a difference.