Thriving in College

As with most activities, what you get out of college depends very much on the focus and energy that you bring to it.  Here are some tips for improving your focus and finding situations where your energy will be enhanced.

Know the rules and procedures

Colleges and universities are organizations with formal rules and procedures as well as informal practices, and life in any organization is easier if you know them.  Pay attention to the general policies stated in the Academic Regulations and the Code of Student Conduct (go to the Dean of Students part of the UMass website), and to the Academic Calendar (click on “Academics” on the UMass homepage, and then on “academic calendar”).  For the informal practices, consult members of your information network.

Know when to connect with others

Though what you get from college depends on your own efforts, there are lots of times when you need to connect with others to do the best you can right now and enhance your abilities for the future:

Participate in study groups.  Talking about lectures and readings with others can help you understand them better.  Having a regular meeting time is also a good way to encourage keeping up with assignments during the semester rather than trying to absorb everything just before the midterm and again just before the final.  Courses that divide students into lab or project groups provide a basis for organizing study groups; in other classes you will have to organize them on your own.

Give yourself a break by participating in a campus activity (if your work schedule permits).  Student organizations, clubs, and volunteer work are good ways to develop your interests, practice working with others, and meeting people with similar interests who are not in your dorm or any of your classes.

Develop a good information network.  The most formal part of this network includes faculty and staff advisers in your college, your major department, and, if you pursue one, your minor department or your certificate program.  Once you have a major, your major department will be the source of much of your advising and, in your last semester as a senior, a last check to be sure you will have met your graduation requirements.  However you will need to check with your college, your minor department, or your certificate program about their requirements.  Most departments and programs have good website descriptions of their requirements, but it is also good to talk to a live adviser to make sure you understood the website statements correctly.  The next part of this network includes fellow students in your major, some your year and some more advanced in the program.  Some departments organize opportunities for more and less advanced majors to get together; if yours does not, try to identify more advanced students in your major through your classes.  More experienced students are a great source of information about professors and TAs, courses, and bureaucratic hazards.  The third part of this network is fellow students in your minor or certificate program, your dorm, or your student activity.  The student part of your information network and your circle of friends will overlap, but for your information network you want people who pay attention to detail and know what is going on.

Find mentors.  They may or may not be part of your information network; they will most likely include any professor from whom you take more than one course.  What you want from mentors is a willingness to listen, a general view of how to organize your college courses into a program matching your interests, information about possible careers, and honest feedback about whether you are reasonably on track to have the academic qualifications for the career you hope to pursue.  Notice the plural – it is good to have more than one mentor so you can get more than one perspective.

Know the occasion

Life includes a certain amount of inconvenience (processes that take longer than anticipated or situations that do not work out as well as you hoped) and conflict (disagreements among persons).  Focus your energies on removing those inconveniences and on resolving or getting around those conflicts that interfere with attaining your personal, intellectual, and career goals.  Ignore the others.

If you make a mistake, admit it (if only to yourself), repair it when possible, learn from it, and move on.  Only those people who never try to do anything make no mistakes.
As soon as it becomes clear to you that you will not be able to finish an assignment on time, let your instructor and any project partners know.  Instructors are much more willing to be flexible about deadlines if you raise the question in advance; they unlikely to be sympathetic if you come by weeks later asking if there is some way you can make up missed work.

Grades are not comments about you as a person; they are an assessment of the work you presented at a particular moment.  A grade lower than you like to see is a signal that you need to improve some aspect of your work.  Talk to your instructor to find out what needs work and how you can improve.