Some Tips for Beginning College Students

Some advice for beginning college students at the end of a busy semester.

  1. Understand that when you do not turn in assignments by their due dates, professors are not obligated to accept them. Many will, sometimes with a penalty, but they are not required to do this. Consequently, it is important that you approach such situations (in most cases) with a degree of humility. Your professors will appreciate it as it suggests you are taking the course seriously.
  2. Never suggest to your professors that because you “paid for the course,” they have some sort of customer service obligation to you that goes beyond what is spelled out in the course syllabus. All students “pay for the course” or have someone else “paying for their course” (e.g. scholarships, Pell Grants, etc…). Whoever paid for the course is irrelevant to your final grade (whether an A or an F). Telling a tenured professor that they should adjust their course policies because you “paid for the course” seems a bit like telling a police officer that you “pay their salary” to get out of a ticket. It’s only going to make things worse.
  3. Be formal when addressing your professors at the start of the semester. If they have a doctorate, their title is “Doctor” (e.g. “Dr. Smith”). If they do not have a doctorate, or you are unsure, then their title is “Professor” (e.g. “Professor Smith”). The title “Professor” covers both. Many professors with doctorates will show disdain (genuine or not) for the use of their title, and prefer less formality, but let them be the ones to tell you (e.g. “Call me Bob”) rather than you assuming it is okay.
  4. When emailing your professors, particularly in the first part of the semester, make sure to professionalize your email and its tone. Include a salutation, write formally rather than as if you were writing a text to a friend, and sign your emails, particularly if you are emailing from a private email account that does not show your name (e.g.
  5. Make sure the purpose of your email is clear and does not require additional back and forth to clarify your need. I teach multiple courses per term and sometimes at the start of the term students email me assuming I know which class they are in or that I am aware of “the assignment due next week” without clarifying which assignment or which class. I would then have to take the time to scan the various rolls of my courses to match the name provided in the email to locate the student’s course and then look up the assignment the student is referring to. It is much easier for you to include this information initially.
  6. Never begin an email to your professor with “Hey!” or “Yo!” This is especially the case at the start of the term or if you do not know the professor.
  7. Frame any requests you may have for your professors in the form of a request rather than a demand. For example, rather than “Hey! Tell me what I got on my paper,” you might write “Hi Professor Holt, I’m sorry I was not in class today when you passed back the papers, but could you please let me know my grade?” At that point, I will be happy to email you back to remind you that all your grades are posted on Blackboard.
  8. If you are in an emotional state when you go to visit your professors during office hours, perhaps on the verge of tears due to some recent personal tragedy, please do not walk into their office and shut the door leaving you alone in the room with your professor. Leave the door cracked (at least) as it will still allow for enough privacy to discuss whatever issue that has come up and make your professor far more comfortable during the discussion.
  9. Don’t be late to class, but if you are for some unavoidable reason, find the nearest empty seat by the door and sit there, rather than walking in front of the class and interrupting the professor’s lecture in an effort to get to a seat on the other side of the room.
  10. If you miss class and want to find out what you missed, never inquire with your professor by asking “Did I miss anything important?” The answer is always “yes.” Would you really expect your professor say anything else about class time?
  11. Generally, you should avoid writing in the first person in college. Avoid phrases like “I feel….” or “I believe….” While I value all students as individuals, including their feelings or beliefs, such things are often irrelevant in academic history papers, which should make arguments based on evidence (from assigned readings) instead. There may be exceptions to this rule in some classes or on some assignments.
  12. Modern college history courses consider and discuss controversial matters related to politics, religion, culture, etc…. Realize that, as an adult, such issues will be discussed in ways that you may not have experienced in grade school. It is your responsibility, as an adult, to handle such discussions maturely and interact politely with other students in the class who may have views that differ from yours. This will help foster meaningful discussion and dialogue between students with different views.
  13. When posting on Discussion Board for academic courses, as part of your grade, don’t post as if you were posting on a thread on Facebook. It is still an academic setting in a virtual classroom. All the same rules apply there as they would in a face to face classroom situation. Write in full sentences, keep your tone professional, edit your comments, and make substantive comments.
  14. Your time in college will not be as structured as it was in high school. You must be disciplined to get up on time, go to class, stay awake, take notes, turn in assignments, etc…. College professors will fail you otherwise. There are no notifications sent to your parents seeking an intervention as you are considered an adult.
  15. Related to point 14, please do not ask me to speak with your mother about your grades or your assignments unless it is related to an emergency of some sort. You should also let your mother know that she should not email me for information as I cannot provide it without some sort of waiver process (I’m not sure what it is, but I know it exists).

Addendum: I showed this to other professors and asked if they had anything to add. I received the following responses.

  1. “Don’t forge medical notes to obtain a last-minute make-up of the assignment. Professors can walk to the clinic from which you claim that you have obtained the note, and prove that you are a liar.” -Professor Florin Curta, University of Florida.
  2. “If you are near the end of the semester, do not ask if there is any extra credit that you can do to raise your grade. Your grade is based on the work you were assigned; you have earned it, and you should not ask for additional opportunities to make up for deficits in the work you turned in. In any case, it would be unethical for your professor to give you an extra credit opportunity that the rest of the class doesn’t have, and she is probably not going to want to give the whole class a last-minute extra credit that would require extra grading.” – Professor Philip Kaplan, University of North Florida.
  3. “You might add that women professors, in particular, get a lot of “Mrs” or “Miss”, even when they’ve already told students they have a PhD. It is disrespectful, and they’ll assume you’re sexist.” – Professor Penelope Hardy, Xavier University.
  4. “Also: Go to office hours. Go to the writing center. Make appointments with the reference librarians. Each of these is guaranteed to raise your grades (assuming you follow their advice.) Also, don’t be afraid to use the counseling services your school offers. They are confidential, your tuition is probably already paying for them, and a *far* greater percentage of your peers is using them than you’d ever guess.”
    – Professor Penelope Hardy, Xavier University.
  5. “Yes, all of the materials listed as “required” on the syllabus are actually required for the course. Yes, I am aware of the number of books and readings assigned. I assigned them. Yes, I know that you have other classes, a job, and a life. No, you can’t skip purchasing required materials and still complete assignments based on those readings. No, failing to purchase the book is not an acceptable excuse for failing to complete your work. No, I’m not making up an alternative assignment because you can’t afford your books. And finally: No, I’m not going to scan all of the books and email the scans to you.” – Former Professor Denice Fett, University of North Florida. Currently Curator of the Archives at Calvin College.

*I’m happy to add more tips as they come in. Now, back to grading….


Addendum [12/06/2017]: Thanks to The College Fix for doing a write up on this blog post.