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How to excel at university: Ten recommendations for first-year undergraduates

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In August and September, millions of students will begin their college careers. Before, during, and after orientation they will, no doubt, get lots of advice. Here are our top 10 recommendations drawn from decades of experience as teachers, advisers, and administrators:

What to Study: Each course you choose should meet one or more of the following criteria: It is offered by someone known on campus for great teaching; it addresses a subject about which you are curious, even if it is not, in the narrow sense of the term, “practical”; it satisfies a distribution, major, or other requirement; it develops a skill you’d like to acquire (e.g., writing, a foreign language, public speaking, computer literacy, financial accounting). Do not take a course just because it’s an easy A. At the end of your first year, assess what you’ve learned about the fields of study that interest you the most and in which you excel. Use this knowledge to confirm or change your major when you are a sophomore.

When to Study: No rule will work for everyone, but a little experimentation can help you identify the best time for you. Some people are more alert in the morning; some suffer a “slump” in the early afternoon; some prefer night time, when they have fewer distractions. We suggest two to three hours of study each day, Monday to Friday, between classes and after lunch, an hour or two each night, and about four hours on Saturday and Sunday. Take a 5-10 minute break after each hour. All-nighters rarely produce good results. Unlike high school, exams in some college courses may be scheduled only once or twice a semester, so it’s important to keep up with, or slightly ahead of, the assignments on the syllabus.

How to Study: Take notes on lecture presentations and assigned reading. Review your notes each evening. Compare them with notes taken by a classmate. Bring them to your professor and/or teaching assistant to see if you are missing any important information. If you find assignments confusing, excessively time-consuming, or impossible to complete, ask your professor for help. Take advantage of other college resources, such as writing and math centers.

Meet the Faculty: Professors may seem to be distant and forbidding figures, and you may think you are interrupting Nobel-Prize winning research when you request an appointment, but most are willing — and even eager — to get to know their students. Take the initiative to visit each of your instructors during your first month. If you have questions about the course, the department, or the field, by all means ask. Or just stop by to introduce yourself. If you sense the “chemistry” may be right, say something about yourself, your aspirations, and your anxieties. Follow up a week or two later. You may end up with an advisor and mentor.

Unplug: Studies indicate that teenagers spend too much time glued to screens and not enough time engaging with each other and the world around them. More time online is associated with lower levels of happiness and higher levels of anxiety. Set limits. Turn off your phone at night. Try to spend significant amounts of time each day screen free.

Exercise: You’ve heard it before: sound body, sound mind. If you are on an intramural, club, or varsity athletic team, great. If not, find other ways to get and stay fit. You’ll sleep better, feel better, and perform better.

Extracurricular Activities: Colleges have an endless array of opportunities for engagement outside the classroom, from sports to singing groups, from theater productions to college newspapers. By all means engage in your first year, but choose one or two activities that really matter to you. Depth is better than breadth.

Get Outside the Bubble: Most people these days get some or all of their news from social media, curated in ways that ensure they mostly see and hear views with which they already agree. You will learn a lot — about yourself and the world — by engaging with people who challenge your ideas. If you’re a liberal, read the Wall Street Journal. If you’re a conservative, read the New York Times. Get to know students and faculty with backgrounds and perspectives that differ from your own.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help: If you think all your classmates are doing great, you are wrong. Sooner or later, just about everyone struggles with something. More than ever, help is available virtually around the clock. Do not hesitate to contact a faculty advisor, coach, counselor, friend, or dean of students, or call a hotline. Doing so is not a sign of weakness; it’s evidence of good judgment.

Sleep. Your parents were right. You need seven to nine hours of sleep every night. Sleep improves memory and learning, athletic performance, and mental health. Every performance measure declines without sufficient sleep. Alas, adequate sleep is often the first thing students neglect when they get busy, but it’s the single most important thing you can do to succeed in college.

Summing Up: Work hard. Work smart. Make friends. Stay enthusiastic and intellectually curious. Have fun. Take care of yourself. If you do, the next few years can be among the best of your life. 

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Isaac Kramnick) of Cornell: A History, 1940-2015.

David Wippman is the President of Hamilton College.

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