Going to college? Take my advice

I was a pretty good college student, and I’ve worked on and off as a college instructor during the past two decades. I’ve seen students succeed and fail — not just at their studies but also at life skills young people should be learning during that wonderful transition between youth and adulthood.

Based on my experience, here are a few tips:

1. Take notes. When I started teaching freshman comp in 1993, I was shocked at how few students took notes. When I was in college, I assumed everyone was writing as furiously as I was, though I might not have noticed those who weren’t because I was too busy writing.

Note-taking is valuable for several reasons: It gives you a summary of the lectures to study for tests; it helps you determine what the professor thinks is most important from all the information you’re absorbing from textbooks; and it shows the professor that you give a crap.

It also helps you retain information. Instead of going in one ear and out the other, information takes a pause in your brain, comes out your hand, and ends up on a page in words you can see. You’re using all your learning faculties — listening, seeing, touching — and the result is better retention.

2. Read your books. This should go without saying, but I’ve known many students who barely cracked a book in four years. If you don’t, you’re wasting your time and money and you’ll likely end up with worse grades and poor recommendations.

An underrated skill I didn’t learn until my junior year is taking notes from books. Instead of just running a highlighter (the most overratted tool at the bookstore) over the page, you’re learning actively with eyes and hands — summarizing, synthesizing, analyzing, responding.

3. Budget your time. The old rule of thumb is one to two hours of studying outside of class for every hour spent in class. College is the equivalent of a full-time job, so you should be spending 40 hours per week at it. The best way to manage your time is like you’d manage a job: Get your studying done during daylight hours. Use the evenings and weekends for socializing and recreating.

When you study, avoid the student lounges and noisy dorm floors. Find a favorite coffee shop or library carrel where you can study without temptation, and when you’re done, reward yourself by relaxing or hanging with friends.

4. Budget your money. For many, college is the beginning of a lifetime of debilitating debt. To prevent that, start out with a budget for tuition, living expenses and spending money, and keep track of everything you make and spend. If at all possible, only borrow enough to cover tuition, and use summer jobs and part-time work during school to pay for room and board. If you’re lucky enough to be a full-time student, try to limit your work hours to 20. I think it’s good for most students to work 10 to 15 hours per week to keep one foot in the real world and learn to manage time and money.

5. Beware of the dangers. During college years, many students learn positive habits that will help them on the job and in their relationships, but just as many learn bad habits that will dog them for life.

Foremost among them are booze, cigarettes, weed, casual sex, and the all-you-can-eat meal plan. The best defense is to know the dangers and go into college with a plan to embrace moderation. Eat smart, get some exercise, and limit your partying to Friday and Saturday. And for God’s sake, don’t drive drunk or drink 21 shots on your birthday.

We want you to make it to graduation.

Brett Larson is the editor of the Messenger.

This column was published in the Mille Lacs Messenger on Sept. 15, 2012.



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