10 Things You Need to Know about College (but Probably Don’t)

Think you know a lot about college?  Maybe you do.  Or maybe you don't.  Professors Lynn F. Jacobs and Jeremy S. Hyman, authors of the new book The Secrets of College Success, tell you ten things you need to know about college – all from the professor's perspective:

1.  You’re in charge of this thing.  For many students, the most striking thing about college is that there’s no one there to hold your hand.  Sure, there are profs (and, in some schools, TAs) who’ll give you instructions and offer suggestions.   But when it’s 20 degrees outside (or 105, at some schools), it’s you who’ll have to haul your butt out of bed and do what you need to do. 

2.  Your parents may not be a help.  Some students are on their iPhone five times a day looking for advice from Mom or Dad.  But even the best-intentioned parents can lead you astray.  Tune down (or, in some cases, tune out) the parents until you have a firm handle on what’s expected at your college – by your profs. 

3.  Attendance isn’t required – but is expected.  One of the first things many students discover is that college classes can be huge:  100, 200, even 700 in a room.  In such an anonymous environment, it’s easy to think there’s no good reason to bother going to class.  But professors assume you’ve made all the classes, and they have no hesitation about asking a test question that focuses on the contents of a single lecture.  Kinda makes you want to go, doesn’t it?

4.  Content is doled out in large units.  You’re used to getting your content in short, entertaining blasts:  the one to three minute YouTube video, the abbreviation-filled IM, the 140-character tweet.  But the professor is thinking in terms of the 50 minute lecture.  Upshot?  You’ve got to adjust your focus from bursts of content to sustained argument.  And retrain your attention span to process long – very long, it’ll seem – units of content.

5.  Up to two-thirds of the work is done at home.  Contrary to what you might have heard, the lecture portion of the course is the least time-consuming activity.  That’s because the professor is expecting the bulk of the work to be done by you, on your own.  Doing the reading and homework;  preparing for the quizzes, tests, and presentations;  doing research and writing papers – all of these are activities that can easily eat up more than half the time you put into any given course. 

6.  A “C” is a really bad grade.  Many first-year college students – and even some students who’ve been there for a while – think that if they only get a C in all their classes, they’re doing just fine.  But someone should tell these folks that, in many college courses, the grade distribution is 20 to 30 percent A’s, 30 to 60 percent  B’s, and only 15 to 30 percent C’s.  Set your sights accordingly.  

7.  Not everyone who teaches is a prof.  At many state universities – especially those where the student/faculty ratio is 15 to 1 or greater – much of the teaching is done by graduate students.  At some of the better schools only very advanced graduate students are allowed to teach their own courses.  But at other schools the lecturer can be a first-year graduate student, who didn’t even major in the field in college.  Whenever possible, take courses with regular faculty, who’ll be more experienced and, in the best case, will actually have done research in what they’re teaching. 

8.  It’s the product that counts.  Many students think that effort counts.  They’re usually wrong.  In  college what counts most is the product:   the paper (not how it was produced), the test (not how much you studied for it), and the oral presentation (not how much you knew about the subject but couldn’t quite get out). 

9.  Understanding is more than just memorizing.   While some intro courses have some amount of memorizing, other beginning courses will include essays on the exams.  And in virtually every advanced or upper-division course, you’ll be asked, not just to regurgitate what you’ve memorized from the lecture or textbook, but to do some analysis, apply the concepts to some new cases, or organize the material or data in some new or interesting way. 

10. The prof’s on your side – and wants to help.  Many students see the professor as the enemy to be defeated.   But, really, the professor is eager to teach you and (believe it or not) would like to see you do well.  So, when the prof invites you to come to an office hour, go to a review session, or just communicate by e-mail, Skype, or Facebook, consider the possibility that the professor really means it.  Because he or she probably does.   

Learn more secrets of college success:

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Lynn and Jeremy are co-authors of the just-released book, The Secrets of College Success.  We blog weekly at US News online and from time to time at Reader's Digest, Huffington Post, and Fastweb.com.  

Our website is www.professorsguide.com and we'd love to hear from you at  professors@professorsguide.com.  Really.

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