Thursday, September 21, 2006

My "freshman 10"

snoozing at desk

Here’s a not-so-top-ten list from Deborah Spinney, executive director for student development at the University of Indianapolis. Any of these sound familiar? I wish I'd seen this list twenty-something years ago.

10 Mistakes Freshmen Make

1. Assuming college is an extension of high school
Many students aren’t prepared for the quantity and complexity of college work, and rely on high-school study habits to get by. A good rule of thumb: Spend the same amount of time studying for a course each day as you spend in that class. If you need help with study skills, seek help from your university’s academic support office right away. Don’t wait until you’re mired in midterms.

2. Saving money by not buying the books
Don’t be penny-wise and pound-foolish. Get the books right away and stay on top of your reading and related assignments. There are many bargains to be had, either in your own bookstore, from classmates who’ve had the class before, or over the Internet.

3. Being overly ambitious
A heavy course load in high school may have been manageable, but it could overwhelm you in college. Set yourself up for success by taking 12 to 14 hours your first semester, and give yourself time to acclimate.

4. Ignoring e-mails
As connected as students are, too many don’t read their e-mail regularly. They miss important messages from professors and other announcements that could make their life easier. Remember that parking ticket you got? Chances are you didn’t see the message about the temporary parking ban.

5. Working too hard
We’re talking about paid jobs here. As important as they are, if they demand too much time away from your studies, you need to reevaluate. For undergraduates, especially first-year students, working more than 20 hours a week while maintaining a full course load is a recipe for D-saster.

6. Looking for help in all the wrong places
Universities offer a wealth of resources for the struggling student—from professors’ office hours to math and writing labs, tutors, and workshops on topics such as study skills. You won’t be the first student who needs help; that’s why these supports are in place.

7. Thinking the professor is God
Their teaching may be divine, but professors really are quite down-to-earth and generally reasonable in dealing with students. But it’s a two-way street. They expect you to let them know when you have to miss a session (be sure it’s unavoidable), come to class prepared, and participate in discussions – in short, go the extra mile for maximum return on your education.

8. Over-socializing
If you’re thinking about parties more than your assignments, your newfound independence may be getting out of hand. Remember: With independence comes responsibility. Don’t jeopardize your long-term goals for short-lived pleasures.

9. Under-socializing
Just as there’s such as thing as too much social time, the other extreme is not wise, either. You’re missing out on the complete college experience if you isolate yourself from campus life. Clubs and volunteer service projects are a great way to connect with others who have similar interests.

10. Choosing the wrong career
Many students don’t know what they want to do when they enter college, and there’s nothing wrong with figuring that out once you get there. However, many declare a major with nary a thought to whether it’s the proper fit for them in terms of their academic preparation or strengths, and they proceed to waste considerable time and money before discovering the mismatch. Your campus career office is a good place to start. It should have resources and tests that can help you narrow the options.

My college experience would have been immeasurably different if I’d managed to avoid some of these mistakes. I struck out in 6 of 9 areas. (It’s only 9 because e-mail wasn’t the factor that it is now. Yes, it's true, I predate the Internet.)

I didn't learn effective study skills in high school, despite earning straight As. My high school prided itself on its college-preparatory program, but I don't recall anyone ever suggesting that college-level work required an hour of studying each day for every hour of class time. I don't know if I would have followed that advice, as a know-it-all 17-year-old.

I took something like 18 credit hours my first semester, because everyone else did. When I found myself floundering in a class, I tried to tough it out. I was too shocked and embarrassed to respond when a professor wrote "See me" on my test paper. I had never failed an exam before.

I let a friend "help" me with a few assignments. If there was a party, I figured I could study later. I allowed friends to talk me into skipping class, then skipped some more because I was ashamed to face the professor.

Things improved a little after freshman year. At the insistence of my parents, I lived at home sophomore year and improved my grades before moving back to campus. I changed majors, got closer to figuring out what I wanted to do, and really found my niche in graduate school. But I still regret the wasted time and energy.

I kept taking higher-level math and science classes, to the detriment of my GPA, even after it became clear to me that a research career was not in my future. I'm not sure why I did this. I was interested in the ideas, to some extent. But part of it was sheer stubbornness. I just didn't want to admit that some courses might be, well, more than a stretch for me.

Most of my college friends majored in sciences or engineering, and there was a pervasive bias at this university against the liberal arts. When I switched majors from physics to English, at least one person commented, "Oh, couldn't hack it, huh?" I spent a few years walking around with a chip on my shoulder before I began to value my own skills.

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