Ace your semester by starting right now

10 tips for university success from Prof. Todd Pettigrew

Across the country students have either just begun or are about to begin their first week of classes. If you are a first year student, it may be a surprise to you how fast things move at university. In fact, if you play your cards right, you can lay the groundwork for a successful semester in the very first week. Here are ten ways to do just that.

1. Make sure you’re in the right classes. Partly this means that you should make sure that when you tried to sign up for psychology, you didn’t actually sign up for physiology instead. Similarly, make sure that the course is what you think it is. I once had a friend who took a course called “The Art and Craft of History” and sat beside a confused kid who couldn’t understand why the prof wasn’t talking more about arts and crafts. Finally, make sure that the course is right for you. Many courses — such as language courses, for instance—expect a certain level of competence in the subject. Don’t fake it: you won’t make it.

2. Find out about your add and drop dates. If you find that you are in a course that’s wrong for you, get out and get into one that fits better. Universities typically have deadlines for when you can add a course (probably a few weeks after term starts) and when you can drop a course (perhaps halfway through the term or year, depending on the course and where you are studying). You need to know these dates in case you want to switch from one course to another (which has to be done before the add deadline) or simply drop a course and take a reduced load. Typically, if you drop a course, you may be refunded some or all of your tuition fee for that course, but be aware that the longer you wait, the less money you will likely get back.

3. Memorize your student number. Nobody likes to think of themselves as just a number, but your student ID number is the thing that uniquely identifies you (especially if you have a common name) and profs and administrative assistants will be constantly asking for it. Save yourself hours of searching over the next few years by committing it to memory now.

4. Learn all your professors’ names. It’s always amazing to me how many students don’t actually know the names of their profs. Avoid the embarrassment of going to find your instructor only to realize that “goofy guy with beard” is not on any directory or campus map.

5. Find out where your professors’ offices are. Though it seems old fashioned, the best way to interact with your instructor is one-on-one in her office. Even if you don’t plan to visit for office hours, find out where your professors can be found—it will pay off at the end of term when you have five minutes to get that final paper in.

6. Chart out when all your assignments are due. Though it may seem now like the semester is vast and open, you will soon find it crowded with midterms, reports, and essays. And since your professors don’t coordinate on these things, it’s entirely likely that you will have several things due all in the same week. If you map out when all your various projects are due in advance, though, you can see when those busy weeks are coming and make adjustments. Maybe you get one of those papers done early. Maybe you change your work schedule at your job. Maybe you just steel yourself to the week from hell. In any case, don’t get caught off guard when that week comes.

7.  Find a friend in each class you can get notes from. If you miss a class, you really need to catch up on what you missed. Even if your professor makes slides or outlines available, you still need a detailed summary of what was discussed. For this reason, it’s good to make a few friends in each class who can lend you notes when you are absent and vice versa. Don’t rush into such an arrangement too fast. Try to get a sense whether your potential note-buddy takes good notes in the first place. And make sure that you repay the favour.

8. Get your textbooks for the semester. This is another one that seems obvious, but, for whatever reasons, a lot of students don’t buy the books for their courses. For the most part, professors don’t assign books that have no value; if it’s required, you probably need it. And don’t wait till the end of term, either. Some bookstores are short on space and will return books to the publisher to make room for next term’s tomes.

9. Find a place to study. The obvious places—your room and the library—may not be ideal for you. The one may be too loud and distracting; the other may be too quiet and restrictive. Many universities have collegial spaces—an old-fashioned reading room or a new-fangled learning commons—designed to be comfortable but not stifling. Keep an eye out for your spot.

10. Get to work. The biggest single cause of first-year failure, in my experience, is that students get behind in their work. Once behind, they can’t catch up and they either break down emotionally and quit, or they fail and are kicked out. The simple solution to this is don’t fall behind. Get ahead on your readings. Start the research you need to start. Finish your lab reports on time. Don’t let the semester just happen to you.

Many people are under the false impression that to be a good student is to be smart. Smart helps, but it’s no match for dedication, hard work, and getting off to a good start.

Todd Pettigrew teaches English at Cape Breton University. Follow him on Twitter @ToddPettigrew.