Academic transition from high school to college

Here’s some advice to help students succeed in the academic transition from high school to college, from my perspective as a former faculty member.  These items are roughly in the order you will need them over the course of a semester, from earliest to latest.  Don’t see something you want to know about? Email me at and I will update this post (I can’t reply individually owing to the volume of email I get).

Where you decide to study matters.  Students will often pick a place to study because it is like the one they chose in high school: they studied in their room in high school, so in college they study in their room even if it is noisy, or even if their roommate or other things distract them.  Find a quiet place to study from the first day of classes. A pair of noise-cancelling headphones can help you focus.

Learn how to do a stack-rank. It’s a short exercise in which you write down the three most important things you have to do that day, in descending order from most important to least important, and a separate list of the three things you most want to do that day, from what you most want to do to what you least want to do. No more than three items on each list, no ties: “going to class” does not count. Put it on a post-it note on the back of your phone or on your laptop where you will see it, and work that day on the have-to tasks in that order.  No changing order unless your information changes (for example, you suddenly realize you forgot an assignment due tomorrow).

The skills you have to develop her are two closely related ones: (1) managing your time, which requires acknowledging some things are more important to do now and doing those first, (2) setting priorities among things to do when you have too many things to do and not enough time, which will be always. Limiting the list to three makes you define which of those many-more-than-three are the first-, second-, and third-most important things to do now.  The list of things you want to do should remind you save some time for them, because they matter, too, but they are usually different from the things you have to do.  Learning to stack-rank tasks well, and doing it consistently, will help you throughout and after college more than almost anything else.  If you have more than three things you must do in one day, that is fine – just make sure you do the three most important ones first, and then make another list of three.

Don’t be comfortable getting behind because you think you can catch up at the end. College classes go faster than high-school classes, and it is easy to wake up two weeks after not paying much attention in a class and find you don’t understand the material.  It is much more difficult to catch up with a burst of studying at the end than in high school, so if that is your pattern, be aware that it may not be as doable or help you as much in college.

Attend office hours for each of your classes at least once in the first three or four weeks of the term, whether a teaching assistant or the professor herself holds them.  If it’s a large lecture class with discussion sections, go the office hours of whoever runs your section.  Don’t go just to be seen, though: ask about the material or about an assignment or the subject in general.  This exercise has two purposes: one is to make you think hard about the material and to push yourself to where you have a question about it, and the other is to introduce yourself.  Instructors are sympathetic toward people who engage with the material, and if you do this early on you will get a better reception if you have to come in later on should you have trouble in a class.

Contact instructors as they want to be contacted. Most will take questions on email, and some via text.  Most will specify the intervals within which they promise a reply, and you should not expect them to reply more promptly, though sometimes that will happen.  You should address then in language that may be less formal than a letter but should be more formal than the texting you do with friends.  No one wants to be shouted at, so asking “PAPER RLY DUE TMRW??!!??” is likely to go over badly.  Use standard capitalization, spelling, and punctuation.  Don’t ask any question that is answered on the syllabus.  Don’t text them when you are angry, tired, or intoxicated.

When you get your first bad grade on an assignment, go to the instructor’s office hours and ask for help.  It is tempting not to engage with the painful results of a problem set or paper or whatever it is, or to dismiss them as just a subject you hate or as the instructor’s fault, but you need to address the problem sooner rather than later.  If you ask for help, the instructor will be much more sympathetic to you and more inclined to give you extra help or find you extra help if you need it later.  If you only show up in the instructor’s office after getting a bad final grade, you are not going to be able to change the grade (unless there is some kind of a mistake in the grading) or get any actual help with the material.

Should you ever be tempted to cheat or plagiarize, go see the instructor to ask for help instead.  There’s cheating and plagiarizing in college, under pressure to get grades, or time pressure, or from sheer laziness, or belief that one is entitled to a good grade.  We have all been so overwhelmed with work or need a particular grade so badly that we want a shortcut.  Don’t do it: college is temporary, but the consequences of cheating and plagiarizing weigh heavily and badly on things you want that will last much longer, like a desirable job.  Instead, go to the instructor and explain why you are where you are and ask for help.  This conversation will go better if it is not your first conversation with that instructor.  If you are ever in doubt about what kind of cooperation on assignments is allowed, ask the instructor (not a classmate).  I used to have a rule that students could discuss any aspect of papers with anyone, and could review each other’s outlines and thesis sentences and proofread, but all the actual writing had to be the student’s own work.  Instructors are glad to be asked.

When it comes to plagiarism, as opposed to cheating on an exam or problem set, remember the words of a senior colleague of mine: “when we convict them of plagiarism, we’re really convicting them of being stupid.” Instructors recognize student-quality writing; they are trained in the standard work in the field they are teaching you; they know what stitched-together work (some of yours, some of someone else’s) looks like; they deal with a lamentably large amount of plagiarism.

Don’t book end-of-semester travel until your exam schedule has been published. It is not your instructor’s job to give you an entirely separate exam so you or your parents can save money on travel.

Questions not to ask your instructor.

“I missed class; did I miss anything?” Yes, you did.

“I missed class; what did I miss?” Your instructor is not there to regurgitate what has already been taught for you.  Ask a classmate instead.

“I have another paper due that same day; can I turn yours in later?” Whether you get a positive reception will depend on how many other assignments you have, whether your school has a policy about such conflicts, and whether you are making an effort to manage your workload.  You may well hear “why don’t you ask the other instructor for the extension?”  Remember, the dues dates are on the syllabus: you should be planning ahead and able to manage competing priorities.

“What is [any piece of information on the syllabus]?” You just told your instructor you did not read the syllabus.

“Can I miss your class to leave early for break / travel to an away game / do something other than attend your class / take an extra shift at my job?” Your instructor may or may not have an attendance policy, and you should know what it is; it is not your instructor’s job to deprioritize class.  If you know there will be unavoidable conflicts, talk to your instructor well ahead of time; they day before the conflict is not ahead of time. Your college may also have policies about class attendance and what constitutes acceptable excuses (family emergencies, participating in (not just watching) intercollegiate athletic events); check.  If your work requirements are substantial enough to interfere with your ability to study, you may be able to make a case for relief to your financial aid office; normally the hours of a standard work-study job will not be considered interference.

Good luck!