3 Tips for College Success from a College Instructor

There’s nothing quite like the first semester of college. New friends, new campus, new classes, and of course, new study habits. There are many resources online about effective study habits, and I recommend taking advantage of the services offered by your specific college (tutoring, writing center, peer study groups, etc.). Below are three tips from my own experience in college and advice I give to my college students (who range from freshmen to seniors) to succeed in and enjoy college.

1. Go to a professor’s office hours.

Toby stopped by my office hours one day to ask about something class related. What could have been a two-minute question and answer turned into a 45-minute conversation. I learned that Toby was from the northern-Lower Peninsula in Michigan and that his family owns a bakery. In high school, Toby often woke up at 2:30am to help in the bakery. Toby really likes getting to know people and is excited about going into engineering because “we need social engineers that can talk to people” and he is excited to be the first engineer in his family. I remember the conversation, and I remember learning Toby’s name faster than most of the other students. Beyond his name, I enjoyed getting to know more about Toby’s interests and goals for the future.

Students likely have five, maybe six names of professors and TA’s to remember. Many times, professors have hundreds to remember. Professors care about students, but often it’s hard (if not impossible) to remember everyone’s name, much less what that student is studying and what interests them.

My recommendation is to stop by the office hours of each of your professors. The office hours are written on the syllabus and probably on the professor’s office door, too. Swing by within the first or second week to introduce yourself. This doesn’t have to be a long conversation, but the simple act of talking one-on-one with your professor will make an impression. It shows you take your studies seriously. It helps the professor learn more about you and might even give them ideas on topics or activities to incorporate in class.

If this sounds intimidating, don’t worry, you’re not alone! Many students find visiting office hours to be awkward or scary at first. Emily Irwin writes about the “13 Stages of Visiting Office Hours” that is worth reading if you’re nervous. As Irwin states, the first time will be the hardest, and the next visits will be smoother because you’ve established that connection with the professor. Here are some ideas for what to say, “Hi Professor Jones, my name is Sally Joe, and I’m in your Tuesday/Thursday section of Chem 101. I just wanted to drop by and introduce myself. I’m enjoying the class so far, and I’m looking forward to our first lab. Chemistry was my favorite subject in high school, and I want to go into medical school after graduation to become a surgeon.”

A short introduction is all that’s needed. Many times, the professor will ask you questions, so don’t feel like you need to prepare a long speech. Let the conversation flow naturally after the first introduction. You might ask the professor what their favorite unit is to teach in this class or what other classes they teach. Remember that professors are people too, and you can ask us questions about classes we teach, how our semester is going, and even why we decided to become professors in our specific discipline.

2. Find a new chair to study in.

One evening in graduate school I called my mom, burnt out and unable to write another word of a term paper. My mom always asks what I’m doing, and I told her I was in my office. She asked how long I had been there. “About 7 hours,” I replied. “Honey,” my mom said, “you need to find a new chair.”

Try out different study environments to see where you focus best.

This advice at the time sounded strange to me, but now I use this wisdom constantly with myself and my students. Shifting from one study environment to another gives us a new perspective. That day, I left my office, went on a walk, and then cozied up in the library to write again.

Now you may be asking, “does the room and environment you study in really impact your studying?” Absolutely.

Everyone has different preferences for where (and when) to study. I encourage you to try out different study areas to see where you feel most comfortable and focused. Some students prefer studying in their dorm rooms. There is nothing wrong with that, but the potential for distraction is high if you have a chatty roommate or a TV in the background.

The library can be a great place to study, but sometimes can be crowded. I hear from students that many of them study in academic buildings at small tables tucked away in the corner. It’s quiet, and the potential for distractions is low.

Many schools have standing desks or biking desks. These are a great option if you find yourself fidgeting or getting tired from sitting in one spot. (Actually, everyone can benefit from taking a break every 1.5-2 hours to walk around for 5 minutes. Try it!). If you’re not sure where to find a standing or biking desk, or if your college even has them, email a staff member at the library.

The takeaway point is if you’re stuck studying and unable to concentrate, find a new chair. In the process, getting up and moving will help you refocus, and finding a new chair can help you find a new perspective and renewed energy for studying. Check out “7 Tips to Create the Perfect Study Environment for You” by Ashley Cook for more ideas.

3. Set a timer and be intentional with your study time.

I’ve taught university writing courses for three years now, and I hear the same thing from students: “I just don’t have time to work on this paper. I have so much engineering/calculus/biology/(fill in the blank subject) homework.”

Set a timer for 20-25 minutes and work diligently for that amount of time.

Students are busy, and professors know that. We know you likely have four or five other courses, are involved in extracurriculars, and are a human being that values time with friends and family. One tip that I tell my students when they feel they can’t find the time (or feel like other subjects take precedence over their writing class) is to intentionally carve out 15 or 20 minutes to work on their essay or outline. Usually everyone can spare 15-20 minutes. Set a timer on your phone, and work on what you need to work on. No breaks. No checking your phone. Just reread a draft and make changes, find another two sources to incorporate into the paper, or brainstorm all your ideas for the essay to get everything out of your head and on paper.

It seems simple, but it works. When I was in college, I also struggled with the “all or nothing” mentality. I felt like if I wanted to study well, I needed to devote massive amounts of time, 3-4 hours to the one subject specifically. From my own experience, I am much more effective when I block out short quantities of time (20 minutes) and work fast and hard on that specific task. Many of us struggle with distracting thoughts and worries about how to get it all done. If you block out four 20-minute sections of study time on your busiest night, you can feel good that you’ve covered all your subjects and worked with more concentration than you likely would have should you have spent 4 hours on just one subject.

The concept of working in short bursts of time is called the Pomodoro technique. Using a kitchen timer, the inventor, Francesco Cirillo, wrote for 25 minutes, took a short break (5 minutes), reset the timer and worked for 25 minutes, took a short break, and continued this for 3-4 rounds. After that, he took a longer, 15-minute break.

Give it a try! Remember, you don’t need long blocks of time to study effectively. Working intentionally and with concentration is much more effective than simply working longer hours.

You can and will succeed in college. Believe in yourself, find what works for you, and remember the quote from Henry Ford, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.”

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