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College 101: Make This Your Best Year Ever

Article appeared in Worcester Magazine, August 2007

Dear Jesse,

It seems as though I just sat through your high school graduation on that humid New Hampshire afternoon. You endured the requisite family pictures and then led your friends and their parents to your house for a post-graduation feast. The after-party party took place in the large, unfinished third floor rooms of your house. You mom tells me that she doesn't know what went on all night, but everyone seemed healthy and sober the next morning. I hear you've had a great summer. You've caught up on sleep, earned some money, said good-bye to high school friends and gathered a carload of supplies that you'll transport to college in a few weeks.

Before you jump right in to all that college has to offer, I hope you will take some time to think about why you're there. Do you have some special goals for this year? Whether your goals are academic, personal or professional, consider writing them in a prominent spot so you can periodically check on your progress. Think about what you have to do to reach your goals and set specific tasks for yourself. Are you hoping for a better summer job next May than you had this year? A higher gpa? Progress toward a career decision? Some indicator of personal growth or maturity? Figure out what you have to do to reach your goals and make plans for your success.

You learned in high school that the first weeks of class set the tone for the rest of the semester. Beautiful New England fall days make it easy to forget how difficult it is to play the catch up game in college. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 46% of students who begin college fail to finish their degree within six years. Many of these students are bright enough to complete college level work, but struggle to make the shift from high school to college. Comfortable with the structure that high school provided, these students have difficulty managing the independence that they enjoy in college.

The ability to organize, plan and implement is crucial for success in college. As opposed to high school, where teachers kept track of homework assignments and tested students on small amounts of material, college professors provide major deadlines, but expect students to structure their own time in order to meet those deadlines. Dr. Mel Levine, expert on individual learning patterns and author of A Mind at a Time, suggests four types of organization that facilitate learning. Perhaps one of these will help you. Levine describes the management of time, the management of materials, the use of strategies, and the integration of multiple tasks.

Levine says that students who have good time management and material management skills are good at planning in advance. They know when they need to start reading a book in order to finish it and write a report that is due on a specific date. They manage schedules, meet deadlines, and allocate time wisely. They know what materials they need in order to complete a task and they are able to keep track of these materials. When they sit down to complete a task, they can be confident that they have not left the materials they need in the library.

If you suspect that managing time and materials is not your strength, begin now to keep track of how you spend your time and organize your belongings. Keep an hourly record of how you spend your day and see where you have time that could be used more productively. Keep track of deadlines and plan backward to determine what parts of your assignment need to be completed by what date. Determine which materials you will need for each assignment and organize these materials so that you will have them when you need them. Set a date with yourself at the beginning of each week to go over your upcoming commitments and make sure you are prepared for them.

Levine defines students who are able to consider a variety of ways to accomplish a task as good strategists. These students develop effective study skills because they know that there are different ways to study different kinds of material. Some students intuitively know different ways to master complicated material. Students who are not good strategists expend time and energy trying to learn material in ways that are not effective. Levine notes that non-strategic students review material in a random, disorganized way, while strategic students think about how they are doing things instead of just trying to get through them. Thinking about how many different techniques you use when you study or tackle a difficult task will give you some awareness about your skill at devising a variety of strategies.

Levine's final mode of organization is the ability to integrate multiple tasks. College life requires students to keep track of multiple courses with complex assignments, as well as social and personal obligations. Students who are not adept at planning and prioritizing can easily feel overwhelmed. These students sometimes feel that they are not capable enough or smart enough to manage the demands of college. In reality, they may be struggling with organizational issues, rather than with lack of ability.

Colleges know that moving from a high school learning style to a college learning style is difficult for many students and have tried to implement services to ease the transition. To ensure your success in college, become familiar with the academic supports that your college has created for you. Know that you must seek out assistance from your professors, peer tutors, or the college learning center. College success requires the ability to advocate for yourself. Know what you need and know who has the resources to help you. Being as specific as possible about your difficulty will increase the likelihood that you will get the assistance you need.

Plan your schedule thoughtfully. If you struggle to express your thoughts clearly on paper, three writing intensive courses in one semester may be an unrealistic burden. Know when you are at your best and schedule your most difficult courses at that time. Do you fight late afternoon drowsiness? Don't schedule organic chemistry right before dinner. Do you learn best in classes where there is lots of discussion and interaction among students? Are lecture classes stimulating for you? While you may have had little choice about your classes in high schools, college offers you a smorgasbord of classes. Choose what will work for you.

Remember that some of the best learning in college takes place outside of the classroom. Seek out students who share your interests. Form study groups or activity groups and learn from others in your college community. If your college provides opportunities to get to know professors or administrators in informal settings, take advantage of those opportunities. Professors are human. They teach because they enjoy their subject and they like sharing their expertise with others.

Professors want to help students who want to learn. Do your best to get to know your teachers. Sit near the front of the classroom so that your teachers know who you are. Let them see by your body language and attitude that you are paying attention. Ask appropriate questions in class or after class. Visit them during their office hours if you need help or clarification with something that relates to the course. Professors typically give students their e-mail address and are happy when students use it as a learning tool. If you reach out to your professors, one may emerge as a mentor. A mentor who is invested in your education is a valuable part of your college education.

Know how to keep yourself safe and who can help if you feel you are unsafe or in danger. Take advantage of programs offered by your college's counseling center to learn what to do if you or a friend is at risk from substance abuse, someone's violent behavior, unplanned or unsafe sexual practices, or eating disorders. Remember that friends watch out for their friends. If you are going to a social event with friends, make sure that everyone has a safe way home. Be street smart and encourage your friends to make safe choices. Know that even moderate alcohol use can put someone in a dangerous situation. A call for help can be the most important call you ever make. Know whom to call if you have concerns about your physical or mental health. Make sure you have an adequate supply of your prescription medications. Be sure you understand possible interactions between your prescription medications and alcohol or recreational drugs. Keep your doctor's phone number with you in case of emergency.

Because your college is home to people from many different backgrounds, it is fertile ground for you to think about your own identity. Some people identify themselves by race, gender, marital or relationship status, profession, religion, major, hometown, personality, political affiliation, or socioeconomic class. Looking at the characteristics that define your perception of yourself may help you find other characteristics that are also part of your identity. As you learn more about yourself, you may become interested in the qualities that others use to define themselves. College offers many opportunities to learn about the lives of others and to join with them as they celebrate the aspects of their identity that they consider important.

Use this year well, Jesse. Take advantage of the opportunities that will help you to grow into the kind of person you want to be. Work hard, but be sure to have fun. Stay healthy. Learn lots of new things. Remember to call your mom even if you don't need something. Make this your best year ever.

Love, Aunt Joan

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