How to Master Your Bachelor's

Learning is not attained by chance; it must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence.
- Abigail Adams, 1744-1818

I could not believe it. A 90-degree day in August, and there was one little orange leaf lightly resting on the windshield of my car. A little leaf, as if I could possibly miss the all the back-to-school circulars and the stores touting their academic attire and merchandise. While I may not be heading off to campus this fall, there are thousands of college students who are making the transition. A few years ago I wrote a letter to my cousin as she embarked on her collegiate career. (For those of you who are close readers of this column, yes, it is the same cousin who is currently in the Peace Corps in Turkmenistan.) Here are some of the highlights from my 13-page letter. You may not be going back to school, but perhaps you know someone who is going to be starting their first year of college this fall.

Academics a.k.a. Why You Are In College In The First Place ~ this may come as a huge surprise, but the things that made you successful in high school are not the same things that will make you successful in college. The rules are different in college, pay attention to the differences.

Charting Courses ~ grab a course catalog and your requirements for graduation. The goal is to take care of as many requirements as possible as soon as possible. Doing so will allow you to take elective courses in your junior and senior years. Check to make sure that you will not have to run from one end of campus to the other in between classes. And despite your strong inclination to sleep in, take the course offered at the earliest timeslot available. Chances are there will be fewer students, which means better attention from the professor.

Purchasing Professors ~ your college education is THE most expensive single purchase you have ever made in your life. Get to know the people who are providing you with this education. Office hours are there for a reason. Within the first two weeks of each semester visit each of your professors. The more you know about your professor the more you will understand his/her perspective.

Making Grades ~ there is a psychology theory known as the Halo Effect. Basically what this means is that if you start of getting A's it is easy to maintain an A. But if you start off with C's it is that much harder (if not impossible) to work up to an A. Study VERY hard at the beginning of the semester. Some courses exempt you from the final exam if you have A's on all the midterms. This is well worth the effort.

Writing Papers ~ as a teaching assistant, I was amazed at the stuff students would hand in for papers. Many students did not answer the assignment question and then wondered why they received a poor grade. Write using an outline first. Never make the grader search for your topic sentence. Always, always, always use the basic formula for writing an essay.

  1. Opening Paragraph: Wide-open statement to draw the reader in to your topic and paper. Introductory remarks (2/3 sentences). Then a well developed topic sentence.
  2. First Paragraph: Summary statement of what you will prove in this section followed by corresponding text.
  3. Second Paragraph: Summary statement of what you will prove in this section followed by corresponding text.
  4. Third Paragraph: Summary statement of what you will prove in this section followed by corresponding text.
  5. Closing Paragraph: Restatement of topic sentence. Concluding remarks.
Going Abroad ~ junior year abroad is one of the best experiences you can have -- actually living and studying in a foreign country. When else in your life can you pack up and spent six months living elsewhere half a world away? After college there are loans to pay off, apartment leases, and jobs to be found. College is the most opportune time to travel.

Working ~ whether or not you need the money, a part-time job in college is a good thing. It helps give you valuable experience that will be very helpful in finding a job after school. There should be a student employment office on campus. Look for a job that is approximately 10 hours a week, in one of the university administration offices. The jobs in the dining centers are a bit more taxing, but also tend to pay more. DO NOT take a job as a waitress or bartender (etc.). These jobs are not experience builders for your resume and the hours are horrid.

Getting Involved ~ the best way to meet people (friends and potential romantic interests) on campus is to get involved in organizations which interest you. Go to the first few meetings and see what you think. You will know which ones you want to join. After you declare your major, be sure to join that professional club.

Roommates ~ no matter how much you like the person, it is not easy to live in a tiny, boxy room with another human being. During the first few weeks, take time to talk about how you want to handle things such as: cleaning, lights, sleeping, alarms, visitors, noise, overnight guests, borrowing each others things, messages, etc. Talking about potential situations ahead of time can help ward off fights later on in the year. Find time to do things together, even if it is watching a particular TV show once a week. While your inclination might be to do everything together, especially at the beginning when you do not know too many other people, be sure to cultivate friends separately too.

Safety First ~ First year women are easy targets for rape. And it happens more often than the universities would like to admit. Upperclassmen, seemingly very mature and handsome, prey on freshmen women. Here are some ways to make sure you are safe:
  • Go with at least two other women. One of you should stay sober. Agree on a leaving time and location. Go together, try to stay together, and most importantly, LEAVE together.
  • If you or one of your friends thinks a guy is cute, get his name and phone number, check him out in the light of day.
  • If you must drink (alcohol in the woman is almost always a factor in campus rape incidents), eat before you go to the party, get your own drinks, watch the beer being poured and NEVER drink any spiked punch drinks. Even better, go with a piece of gum in your mouth and don't drink at all.
Finding Yourself When You Did Not Know You Were Lost ~ There are two ways college students go about finding themselves. The first is to party all the time, skip classes, sleep late, hang out with weenies and pontificate about how college is one big party. The other way is to work hard and play hard, to study and do well in classes, and to have fun when not in class by joining clubs and organizations and going out with friends. As Dean Wormer says in Animal House, "Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son." Words to live by!