Many students have already begun to receive, or shortly will get, their college acceptance letters. There's a wealth of information contained in those thick envelopes—or, more likely these days, text messages, videos, or goody bags. But some of the really important stuff is almost never told: secrets of college to be discovered (or not) by the select few who can see behind the curtain. And so this week, to those newly admitted or shortly to be admitted to the college of their choice, we offer our congratulations—and the 10 things you really ought to know about where you're going:
1. You're in charge of this thing. For most students, the biggest difference between high school and college is that there's no one there to hold your hand. Picking courses, getting to class, doing the reading, and figuring out what's expected on the papers are all things you're going to have to do mostly on your own. Sure, there are profs and TAs who'll give you suggestions and tips. But when it's 25 degrees outside, you're the one who's going to have to take responsibility for hauling your a - - out of bed and getting it to the auditorium.
2. Your parents might not be a help. Even students who are closest to their parents will find amazing the transformation that occurs when your slightly overinvolved parent becomes a low-flying helicopter parent. Maybe he or she is worried about you, takes vicarious pleasure in going back to college with you, or just has nothing to do all day with you out of the house. Whatever the reason, your well-intentioned parent can lead you astray. Colleges today are different—and in many cases much improved—from what they were 25 years ago, and professors' expectations have changed accordingly. Your parents aren't (in most cases) experts in the fields you're studying. And, most important, the professor wants things done the way he or she wants them done. Suggestion: Turn down (or tune out) your folks.
3. Two thirds of the work is done at home. When you get to college, you might be quite awed by the large lecture halls and the well-spoken faculty. And you might conclude that the material done in lecture sessions is all you need to know and, as long as you make it to class, everything will be 100 percent. But, unlike many high school teachers, college professors expect you to prepare for each class, to review the material periodically on your own, and to spend large amounts of time studying for the tests and writing the papers. Rule of thumb: t wo hours of on-your-own work for every hour of lecture. Put another way: 15 hours of lecture weekly, 30 hours of work at home weekly. (Think about it.)
4. A C is a bad grade, really. Many students come into college thinking if they get only a C in all their classes, they're doing just fine. Or at least adequately. But these folks should know that in many courses the grade distribution is 20 percent to 30 percent A's, 30 percent to 60 percent B's, and only 15 percent to 20 percent C's. In many universities (not just elite private colleges but also large state universities), the average GPA for all courses is 3.15 (that is B/B+). Set your sights—and work at college—accordingly.
5. It's the product that counts. Many students come in thinking that effort is what counts most. That's why, when they get a bad grade, they go to the professor trumpeting how many hours they worked, how many sources they considered, and how they made it to all the classes. But in college, what counts is the product—the paper (not how it was produced), the test (not how much you studied for it), and the presentation (not how much you knew about the subject but couldn't quite get out). Kind of like the real world.
6. No amount of practice is too much. Especially in skills-based courses—like math, languages, and sciences—students often think that if they've done the assigned problem set or translation homework, they're home free. But really, that's just the required work—the minimum the prof thinks he or she can reasonably assign for that week. If you want to do really well in such courses, you should apply the concepts, techniques, and methods to additional problems and exercises—often available in the back of the book, from the prof or TA, or even on the course Web page.
7. Understanding is not just memorizing. Many intro courses have some amount of memorizing: vocabulary in foreign languages, theorems in math, names and dates in history. But professors regard these as just the "common currency" that all students will have mastered before they do the real work of the course. That's why on the test, you'll usually find some IDs, some short answers, some true-false—and some essays. These essays typically require you not just to regurgitate what you've memorized from the lecture or textbook but to do some analysis, apply the concepts to some new cases, or organize the material in some new or interesting way. Pretty different from what you might be used to.
8. Content is doled out in large units. In your daily life, circa 2009, content comes at you in shorter and shorter units: first, books and magazines, then Web articles, then YouTube videos, then IM-ing, then Twitter. Unfortunately, professors, textbooks, and articles aren't yet on the bandwagon. A typical college lecture lasts much longer than a cellphone video clip; a textbook chapter or journal article is way longer (and more complex) than a blog post. Bottom line: You've got to adjust your focus from bursts of content to sustained arguments. And retrain your attention span to process long—very long, it'll seem—units of content.
9. You need not major on the first day. Though in many schools there's tremendous pressure to declare a major right when you come in—owing to shortage of places in classes, a desire to start on a career path, or the hope of finishing in a finite number of years—we steadfastly maintain that it's best for most students not to pick a major until they have taken at least three or four courses in the field (including at least one or two advanced or upper-division courses). You won't know what the field is until you've worked in it for a while, and if you make a wrong choice or two, you've guaranteed yourself a stay in college past 2015.
10. The profs are on your side and want to help. Though it's not obvious at many of the mega-universities (and even many of the small, fancy colleges), the professor would like to see you succeed and is even willing to help you do so. Try to meet with each professor one-on-one away from the lecture. Every college professor is contractually required to spend two to four hours a week sitting in his or her office helping students with their work. Make use of this single most underutilized college resource. And if there are small section meetings or review sessions before the test, take the opportunity to use these to ask what you most want to know about. Sort of like a presidential press conference with you being the reporter.