Creative Nonfiction

9 Secrets of College Success

After a couple decades in higher ed, here are some lessons every student should know. Plus they’re also just good life skills.

Millions of students returned to classes this week. Many are entering college for the first time. This year marks my 27th first day of school going back to first grade. Not as many as lots of other teachers but enough to have figured a few things out about life as a student.

SECRET #1–First impressions aren’t everything

Clays 1st day of school 2013
It gets easier. Honest.

Even if you have a completely horrid first day it will be okay. You can’t get fired at college for being incompetent. Getting lost is natural. Being confused is normal. You don’t have to know everything on day one. Do your best. There will plenty of time to get into a good rhythm, so let some of that unnecessary pressure fall from your shoulders right off the bat.

SECRET #2–Be prepared

I’m amazed at how many students leave the basics at home. You should carry a couple pens, pencils, and some paper, preferably paper that is bound in a notebook. If you use electronics to keep notes make sure everything is charged up. Invest in a $3 stapler or start dating someone who owns one.

SECRET #3–Take Control

I’ll borrow this one from professors Lynn Jacobs and Jeremy Hyman who wrote The Secrets of College Success. Your college education belongs to you and no one else. Higher ed learning is not for spectators. Be active, not passive because nobody else is going to do the work for you. Develop the right mindset, find out what needs to be accomplished, and get it done.

SECRET #4–Get involved

Can’t emphasize this enough. Don’t be invisible. Even shy students have the ability to ask good questions and make thoughtful comments. Participation is critical and not just for your own value. Participation is graded. In larger classes I sometimes reach the end of the semester and still don’t know the names of certain students! Believe me, you’ve gotta be hiding pretty good for me to not know who you are. And when it comes time for your prof to grade those final subjective assignments the last thing you want is for him or her to have no clue who you are. Unfair or not, that tells us you didn’t put forth much of an effort.

Education should never just be about writing down the correct answers to things. The academy is a place where ideas should be exchanged. Okay, I gotta get off this point but get involved. If that sounds too scary, if you think I really don’t understand how paralyzed you get in a classroom situation, well, I do. So does Amy Cuddy. Watch her TED Talk and “Fake it ’til you become it.”

SECRET #5–Practice civility

Some students treat the university like a house party in a basement. Every once in a while I encounter a student dropping f-bombs and other foul language like it’s Night at the Improv. And every time other students approach me and rightfully ask when I’ll confront the obnoxious behavior. Even MTV censors certain things. Yes we are all adults and sure I know all about the First Amendment freedoms but college is part of the public square. Be respectful of those around you including hallways and other areas of the campus.

RECESS for a second…

At this point someone might wonder where all the secrets to academic success are. Those are easy. Show up, pay attention, study, and do the work. If you are failing a class get help from a tutor, fellow student, or the teacher. If that doesn’t work and you still fail, well, the beautiful thing about college is that you just take the course again. I did that twice and got an “A” the second time. If you fail every class every time then, and I honestly say this without any negativity, higher education is probably not what you are wired for. Reevaluate the larger plan and consider if you might be better off pursuing a different path.

Truth is, most of the obstacles that trip us up on our way to academic success have little or nothing to do with academics. This point was driven home to me this summer as I listened to the keynote speaker at an academic conference where I spoke. Steve Piscitelli made me think a lot. He sometimes uses video to communicate with his students and posted this short clip.

Worth watching but in case you don’t want to at the moment here are Steve’s main points and our remaining secrets to college success.

SECRET #6–Pay Attention to your relationships

Audition your classmates, find an adviser, and visit your professors. You really should listen to Steve describe this one.

SECRET #7–Find and use available resources

“You will probably never be in another area again in your life with so many resources dedicated to your success. But you know what? You gotta find them and then you gotta use them.” ~ Steve Piscitelli

SECRET #8–Priority management

Time management might be a cliched term but man is it critical. Google Calendar literally changed the way my life functions. Find a system for you. Get all key academic deadlines in your calendar in advance. Determine those things in your life that are non-negotiable and stick to your plan.

SECRET #9–Personal well-being

Piscitelli believes in finding balance in life. 7 Habits guru Steven Covey preached about “sharpening the saw.” Take care of you.

We could add plenty more tips to this list but the most critical points are here. Success really is a mindset. We either keep going until reality catches up to our way of thinking or we give up and fail. Trust me, you never know where you might end up. Take it from Yoda if you don’t believe me.

Which of these “secrets” stands out most to you?

Would you add any others to this list?

By Clay Morgan

Clay Morgan is the author of Undead. Say hi on Twitter.