Monday, July 18, 2011


Advice for Incoming Students

The son of some family friends is starting college this Fall. They know where I work, so they’ve asked for pointers, and I’ve shared them freely. It occurs to me that some other folks might find them useful, too. So in the spirit of openness, some advice for students starting at a community college this Fall:

1. Register and schedule ASAP, if you haven’t already. The most popular timeslots fill fast; if you snooze, you lose. A secret that many newbies don’t know: most cc’s won’t actually bill you if your financial aid application is in process. Apply for aid and register. Get a schedule that reflects your preferences and needs, rather than whatever is left over. Good intentions are great, but if you’re just not a morning person, I don’t like your chances of sticking with that 8 a.m. class for four months.

2. Let your employer, if any, know ASAP about your class schedule. The sooner you give a heads-up, the likelier you’ll be to find a mutually acceptable compromise. Drop the bomb at the last minute, and you may find yourself in a world of pain.

3. If your placement test indicates that you need “developmental” or “remedial” classes, first, ask if you can re-test. If you can, especially in math, then schedule the re-test for a week or two later and cram like you’ve never crammed before. Yes, it will hurt, but it will save you a semester and hundreds of dollars. If you can’t, or if you’re honestly so lost that you know the results are accurate, ask about “summer bridge” courses. Some cc’s offer “catchup” developmental classes over the summer, so you can start in the Fall already on track. These courses have surprisingly good success rates, and they can save you an entire semester. They’re one of the best, if least known, deals to be had in American higher education. Seek them out.

4. Once you have your schedule, go to the bookstore and find out the ISBN numbers of the books you’ll need. Then go online and look them up at Amazon, Powells, etc. In most cases, you will save a surprising amount of money. Here, again, speed is the key. If you wait until the day before classes start, you won’t have time for them to ship. Do it in July, and you’re golden. The savings could easily go well into three figures for a single semester. That’s a lot of hours at your crappy job. It’s worth the extra effort.

5. If you’re sulky because you feel a stigma attached to being at a community college, make an appointment ASAP with the college’s transfer counselor. Learn exactly which courses to take to transfer to wherever it is you’d rather be. Then sign up for courses that will get you there. In September, join a student organization or two. You’ll get much more out of school if you get involved, and the students who join those groups tend to monopolize the transfer scholarships. (Yes, there are such things.) Spend a year or two building up credentials that nobody can dispute, then cash in. Getting a four-year degree with two years at the cc tuition level, and two years with a transfer scholarship, is a damn good deal. When you get out in the real world, you’ll find that student loan payments really suck, so it’s a good strategy to minimize them upfront.

6. Transportation. Most cc’s don’t have dorms, so chances are that you’ll have to commute to and from campus. I VERY STRONGLY recommend having multiple contingency plans. If you’re like most college students, your car, if any, is an unreliable piece of crap. (Don’t be offended -- I didn’t have a non-embarrassing car until I was thirty.) That means that “car trouble” is likely. While you’re in non-emergency mode, look at alternate plans. What are the local bus routes? Do you have friends taking similar schedules to yours? To the extent that you can carpool, you can reduce the damage from any one car being in the shop at any given time. It will also reduce the cost of the inevitable parking tickets, since you can split them.

7. Professors. At most colleges, professors are required to keep “office hours.” This is time specifically set aside for meeting with students. Most professors actually post their office hours on their doors, so you can find out what they are without even having to ask. Once you’ve been in for a few weeks and you have a sense of the professor you’d be most comfortable talking to, make an appointment with her to drop by during her office hours. Use that first appointment to talk about where you want to go -- future major, career plans, transfer plans, whatever. They can be wonderful resources if you let them. If you’re a conscientious student, most professors -- okay, not all, but you’d be surprised -- will be happy to talk with you.

8. Skipping class. For the love of all that is holy and good, don’t. Just don’t. Yes, I know, it’s legal now. But it’s a terrible idea. You’re paying for this, and you’re making impressions on people. Show that you have a work ethic -- especially if you’re struggling -- and people will help you. Show that you don’t give a crap, and they won’t, either.

9. Ego. At some point, it’s entirely likely that you’ll struggle with something. It’s college; it’s supposed to be hard. The best thing to do is to swallow your ego and go to the professor’s office hours, and/or the tutoring center, for help. These are free, and they’re there to help you. You don’t get demerits for using them. Yes, it can be embarrassing to ask for help, but you’re not the first and you won’t be the last. And you know what’s even worse than asking for help? Failing.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what tips would you add?

1. If you're thinking of majoring in math or science, make completing your intro sequences your #1 priority. You can do your gen ed/101 requirements anytime (since they generally lack prereqs), but if you're behind on your math/science sequences, it could mean an extra year of school. I've met far too many CC transfers who didn't have o-chem under their belt at the time of transfer and who then found themselves shut out of the upper-level bio classes they needed to finish the major on time.

2. Remember, when you transfer, most schools will want at least one letter of recommendation from a professor. If you never have one-on-one contact with any of your profs, those letters will be lackluster. So get to know at least a few of your profs even if you don't really want to.

3. Use Rate My Professors -- but with caution! Ignore the outliers among the comments. Frankly, the best profs I've had were those with a majority of raters claiming that they were "too hard." If a teacher is viewed as difficult but is still well-liked, s/he's a winner. Skip the ones who are well-liked only b/c they're easy.

4. If there's a requirement that you know will be tough for you (for many students, that will be math, foreign languages, and, for pre-meds, o-chem and/or physics), take it at the CC! YMMV on this, but in my experience, it's much easier to do well (or at least decently) at a CC (even though I learned just as much, if not more, at my CCs as I'm learning at UC-Berkeley). IME, that's b/c
1. the teaching is, overall, much better at the CCs (and the class sizes are much smaller);
2. I've never had a CC class where the prof maintained a strict curve, whereas at Cal, I've had tons of classes where only 15-25% of students were given As and half the class was given Cs or lower.
3. Again, YMMV, but IME the tests are generally easier at CCs -- the questions on exams are usually very similar to things you've seen before in class, lab, or on homework problems. At Cal, the tests are much more likely to stretch your knowledge and make you apply it in new ways.
Those are good tips. We have a rant coming up in a couple of weeks about people who think they can go to school full-time and work full-time.

We don't recommend it.

(Except in very special cases in which the person is very efficient, smart, hardworking, and organized and needs the degree for the same full-time employment said person is currently in. We have known one person in this situation and he was on a fast-track management position.)
thank you for #8. I tell them that all the time. Yes, technically you can now skip classes but if you are paying for it then you are wasting your money. If your parents are paying, you are wasting theirs (and interest).

I would add to crack open those books before the first day. Read through the chapter titles or intro areas.

And for the love of kittens, come prepared on the first day. You know, pens and some paper might come in handy.
Excellent list, but number 8 deserves to be higher. As important as your item #1 is, there is a reason why I put "You don't have to attend class, but we don't have to pass you" as the biggest issue left out of orientation. (Full article is linked from my name.) Even good students get carried along in the backwash of "extra credit" and slow pacing needed to ensure that that bottom 30% passes HS.

The other is allowing time for homework, because you will now be taught at your level and expected to do a significant amount of learning on your own. Part of that work schedule needs to allow for homework, as nicole-and-maggie allude to above, and using office hours or meeting with a study group.

Finally, you probably meant to include "make a plan" in your item #5. Even students who start at a university get caught in the problem ashley lists first, and even more take those classes and then burn their notes and empty their brain after the last exam. Students need to understand (1) the sequence of courses needed to blend seamlessly into a major and (2) that they will be expected to still know the material taught in those classes when they get into that major.

The only thing worse than being shut out of that upper level biochemistry class is having forgotten all of o-chem when you get there.
One word of caution on buying books online. Every semester I have students who wait until classes start. They go with sketchy sellers and wait weeks to get books. If you buy online start early and look at the reputations of sellers carefully. Saving that last few bucks may cost you in the long run.

You can't emphasize going to class enough. You must go and if you are a commuter that means have the back up plans dean dad notes. And coordinating the work schedule is key too. They are all wrapped together!

I teach at a regional 4 year college that has become increasingly selective. My experience is that excellent CC students consistently make excellent 4 year students, but average CC students sometimes really struggle. Put in the time and effort now; it will pay off down the road if you transfer.
Excellent advice! Read it twice!

I am amazed every semester by wait-listed students who don't do anything while waiting for a space to open up. Show up Day One. Have your book and act like you're already enrolled. Seize the day. If you wait to get your textbook and do homework until you're officially on the roster, you just gave yourself a late start. (This advice does not apply if your college or professor closes enrollment immediately after the first day, but at my school we process adds and drops all during Week One.)

One other thing: Many instructors are around during the summer -- teaching summer session or attending to various random tasks. You may be able to meet one of your potential teachers and find out if you're on the same wave length. I give out advance syllabi to summer visitors so they can see what they're in for if they enroll in my class.

And thank you, thank you, thank you for underscoring the importance of going to class. Yes. Show up!
Make friends.

I know it sounds counter-intuitive to say having a social life will help your grades, but it does.

There is a strong possibility that college/university is going to be the hardest thing you've ever done, and what's surprising is that it's hard emotionally also. You feel like a moron; you feel invisible; you feel like you're drowning.

Make friends. Having peers to talk to helps you decompress from stressful events like tests and it also helps you keep things in perspective: You're not the only one struggling. You're not alone.

If those friends happen to be in your class, all the better. You can study together. You can slink into the prof's office to ask questions together, thereby reducing the terror factor.

Make friends. Your head's getting a workout, but your heart is too. Find some great people to help you take care of it.
Do the work. It is silly--if not stupid--to fail a class simply because you blow off assignments.

My experience (37 years) as an English teacher tells me that reading is THE key to success in college, no matter what your major. People who read for pleasure, not just what's required for their classes, are generally pretty good at spelling, punctuation, and grammar. More important, they know things that non-readers don't.

No matter who you are or what your background or interests are, there's a wealth of material out there that you'll find absolutely fascinating--if you look for it. And once you begin to read about whatever it is that interests you, you'll find that your horizons will begin to expand: You'll become interested in lots of other things, too. It's like a snowball growing as it rolls downhill.

Students who don't (or won't) read are almost certain to be miserable in college. They'll miss much of what their professors are saying, and they won't get a lot of what's in their textbooks.

Here's a quick example: In my developmental comp classes (one semester before the traditional freshman comp transfer writing course), one of my assignments is to describe and analyze a couple of editorial cartoons.

In one of the cartoons, a character is identified by a pin on his lapel that says "GOP." NOBODY, and I mean NOBODY, knows what that means. I don't care that they can't identify Grand Old Party, but I do care that students don't know that GOP is a convient shorthand for the Republican Party.

Because students don't read, they can't begin to decode a simple political cartoon.


Thanks to ashley for confirming my suspicions: "[She] learned just as much, if not more" at her cc as she's learning at UC Berkeley because the "teaching is, overall, much better" and "class sizes are much smaller."

The original post mentions students feeling "sulky" because of the "stigma" attached to ccs. Comment's like ashley's need to be part of the advice our students get, too.

The one most urgent tip I regularly give to freshmen is so very simple: read the syllabus!

Then go ahead, transfer all the assignment deadlines from the syllabus into your daytimer. You do have a daytimer/scheduler/planner right? Notice any conflicts? Highlight those, and start those projects as early as possible.

Is extra credit offered? Do it. Do it early. Do it right.

Admittedly; this assumes the student has already registered, etc, and is aimed at succeeding once they're in. My freshmen's biggest surprise is that I don't remind them of deadlines. It's in the syllabus. If they forget, they lose out on the points.

As for attendance, our Dean mandated 10% of the grade go towards attendance. I dislike this policy. I will apply it, but I will dock points for students who are tardy. This is in the syllabus. Dropping off your backpack and then disappearing again for 10 minutes for a smoke break does make you officially tardy. Again; it's in the syllabus.

Read the syllabus. Read it again. Now read it with highlighter in hand. That syllabus is a contract. Treat it as such.

I will never forget how chuffed I was no both occasions when, a semester later, the students came back to me and told me how well that had worked. They had an A, but they also impressed their instructors with the fact they were always on top of their deadlines.
A few more tips:

5. Registering early is always the way to go. BUT, if you really want a class that's full, IME, you can usually get in. As early as possible (i.e. before the semester starts), go and introduce yourself to the professor and tell him/her why you're dying to take the class (that means showing enthusiasm for the material, not just moaning about how you need it to fulfill a requirement). Professors like students who are interested in the material and who want to be there. Unless there's an inflexible limit on class size (which is true in some lab classes), most professors will let in an extra student if you make a good enough impression.

6. KNOW YOUR DEADLINES FOR DROP AND WITHDRAWAL!!!! Seriously, put them into your phone's calendar now. NEVER just stop going to class -- it takes just a minute to drop or withdraw and avoid the F on your transcript.
If you're doing poorly in a class, it's better to take the W than get a crappy grade. Hopefully your CC has a generous drop period and a late withdrawal deadline. When the withdrawal deadline is approaching, take a realistic view of your likely grade in the course.
If you're one of the many students who engages in magical thinking (i.e., "I've gotten Cs and Ds on all the tests so far, but I know I can get an A+ on the final..."), then ask the prof whether s/he advises withdrawing.

7. Do all assignments as early as you can do them well. Do every lab report immediately after the lab, even if the reports aren't due until the end of the semester. When possible, write your final papers before the final weeks of class. If you save everything until the last minute, you won't have time to do a good job on anything and the last weeks of the semester will be very stressful. If you have issues with procrastination, you'll need to get over them ASAP. This is especially true if you're working more than 25 hours a week.

8. Before enrolling, ask yourself whether you really WANT to be in college now. Far too many academically disengaged students finish high school and head to the CC as a default, b/c they don't know what else to do with their lives and/or b/c everyone else they know is going to college. If you're not motivated or engaged enough to go to class, read the syllabus, and put forth your best effort, then it's not the right time for college for you. It doesn't matter what "everyone else" is doing or what your parents think you should be doing -- there's no point wasting time and Pell grants just to rack up crappy grades that will follow you forever.
Well, now I know at least one place where that nonsense about a prof being able to put students in their class comes from!

I can't put extra students in my classroom. Only the Dean can do that at my CC. And we are not supposed to knowingly allow unregistered students to attend our class, both for insurance reasons and because they might take up the last desk needed by a registered student.

Trying to contact me in the summer about getting added to the class will only put you weeks behind someone who knows to go directly to the Dean with this problem.

BTW, one reason for this rule is that we get paid more if our enrollment exceeds a certain number because it counts as an overload. I know a few faculty who would use this to get a magic pay increase.
Similarly, in many departments, there are policies NEVER to give students above the course cap permission to enroll in a course for a couple of reasons: 1) in a time of increasingly shrinking budgets, we have to fight tooth and nail to keep our class sizes small when administrators would rather have faculty teaching larger sections for no increase in pay, and 2) one overenrolled course in a department can often mean other underenrolled courses, which would then have to be cancelled (again, this is even more true in the current budget climate), in other words, causing havoc in the broader course offerings.

And if you try to contact me in the summer, when I am not on contract, the most you'll get is an email saying to contact me during the first week of the semester. And you won't get an advance syllabus because it's not written yet. Yes, I do update my syllabi each and every semester. Call me crazy: I thought that was part of the job.
I wish my college district enforced enrollment limits, but it sure doesn't. The cannibalism factor is a problem, too: I have at least two colleagues who think every student deserves the opportunity to be taught personally by him/her and will over-enroll their classes to the point of bursting (never mind that another section is under-enrolled and in danger of being cancelled).

The variety of advice in this post and its comments underscores the importance of doing your homework when it comes to learning about the school you're going to. We have different rules and different procedures and you don't want to wait till the semester begins to find out what they are.
Don't know basic grade school math? Reach for a calculator to multiply 4 x 6? Have a rough time adding fractions? Can't look at -8 - 3 and see that the answer is -11?

Then LEARN the multiplication tables and how to add fractions and negative numbers BEFORE you get to your Elementary Algebra class!

A total inability to handle basic math may not be the students' fault, but it's their problem and they'd better fix it. Disguising a math deficit by cramming and guessing on a placement test isn't going to get you through College Algebra. Inability to pass the algebra sequence stalls out more academic program than anything else . . . or that's my strong impression.

If your CC offers a remedial summer class, great, take advantage of it!
Just a comment about enrolling in a class that is officially full... Don't make only one plan that requires getting in. Make alternative plans/class schedules with other options just in case.

I hate the students that come to my office three days into the semester begging to get into my class because it is the ONLY ONE that will possibly work and they didn't have the foresight to register two months earlier while there was still space.
I do get to override class caps to let students into my courses despite the capacity cap, and did let 2 more students into my 80-person course last term. This is not much of an issue in practice, because only seniors actually get any significant number of electives here in engineering. Also, we don't get paid depending on class size.
I'm obviously in the minority here, but I don't see any problem with skipping class, in certain circumstances.

If the professor is phoning it in or does not present information in a way that helps me understand the material, and I can skip class without taking a hit to my grade, you'd better believe I'm going to skip class. I don't see it as wasting money -- I see it as the professor and the university providing me with poor value for my money. I'll learn the material on my own and do the work necessary to get the credits, but why waste my time sitting in a hot classroom while the prof rambles incoherently?
Go to class for the first three weeks, no matter what. After that, go to class unless you're sick.

Skip if you wanna. They're your grades.
Regarding the post: passed along to family and friends. Great advice.
On the other hand...
college is a menu with 3 items
1. sleep
2. good grades
3. a social life.

you get to pick no more than 2 of these 3.
I would add three, based on my experiences:

1) A full course load is the equivalent of a full time job demanding 40 hours a week. Allot your time accordingly. So, if you're taking 4-class load, each of those classes gets at least 10 hours of your time each week. If 3 courses is the standard load, then each one gets a bit over 13 hours a week. Some of that will be in the classroom, but most of it won't. Plan accordingly - and, yes, this does suck if you're also working outside of school.

2) Be proactive, and take action regarding problems or potential problems as soon as possible. Don't understand something in the syllabus? Ask. Having a family crisis? Tell your professor as soon as possible (but see 3, below). Struggling with an assignment? Ask for help as soon as possible; don't wait until after it's due or the night before. Remember, your professor can't help you unless he or she knows that there's a problem, and you have to allow them the time to work with you to figure out a solution.

3) Be prepared for the reality that a problem for you isn't necessarily a problem for other people. Make it easier for them to help you by taking responsibility for your own actions and not expecting special favors. If you have to miss a class due to work, talk to your professor beforehand and make arrangements to go over the material outside of class. If a family event is scheduled for the day your paper is due, turn it in early, or approach the professor as soon as you're aware of the conflict about the possibility of an extension. Most professors I know will work with a student who is struggling or has an emergency or who takes responsibility ahead of time, but they'll rapidly tire of someone who has an excuse for everything.

(And for god's sake, don't ever tell anyone that the reason you didn't get your work in on time or failed to show up to class was that you were at a party or doing something "more important." Few people will take that well.)
Oh, and one more thing.

Take notes.

If you don't know how, learn, and practice. You may think that you'll remember that lecture when it comes time to take the exam several weeks later, but trust me, you won't.
For the student who comes into class and asks me, "What are we doing today?" so he/she can determine whether to skip out at break...I will not waste your time with "fluff"...and I will not waste my time with "fluff"... this is college. Being there to take your own notes and hearing information first hand is critical. If I repeat/emphasize something ... expect it on the next test.
All the professor required to keep office hours, so when they are staying their office, we can meeting professor. First,we have to appointment with professor before meeting professor and then, talk about future major and whatever. They can be helpful for me. It was suprised to me.
When I buy the books, we can go online and look them up like Amazon. It will be save a mount of money.
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