If you graduated high school near the top of your class, you probably didn't see many B's or C's on your report cards. And chances are you had a comfortable routine you used to approach tests and projects. There's no doubt you're capable of studying at the collegiate level, but you will have to adjust.
Many good students "get their first B, C, D or F, in that first semester and it's the first one that they've had," says Dave Leonard, dean of freshmen at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. "Those study skills got them by in high school, but now it's a whole different ball game."
Couple the new academic challenges with the social upheaval of freshman year, and it can all seem overwhelming. "It's an emotional roller coaster ride," Leonard says. "It's trying to figure out how to walk through that maze with highs and lows."
What should you expect in the academic portion of that maze?
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A faster pace. Your coursework in college will move fast. Often, professors want to deliver a predetermined amount of material within the semester. "It's full throttle," Leonard says.
Higher intensity. Your professors will have spent most of their professional lives studying the topics they're teaching. You may not care about philosophy or statistics, but it's a safe bet that they do. Add other talented and competitive students to the mix, and the classroom can get very intense.
Independence. Professors lecturing to hundreds of students probably won't notice if you, or half the class for that matter, don't catch on. The professor may expect you to teach yourself to some extent. "The biggest shock for most students is the vast amount of reading they have to do," Leonard says. From reading to practice problems to study groups, sometimes it takes extra effort to keep up.
While it probably doesn't come as a surprise that college coursework will be more challenging than high school coursework, it can also be tough to grasp until you experience it. Here are some tips to help you adjust.
1. Time management. In order to keep pace you'll have to manage your time effectively. Keep a calendar with you and note important dates, then work back from them. Scheduling study time for mid-term exams well in advance will reduce stress and the need for all-nighters later.
2. Read the syllabus. Most professors pass out an outline for the coming semester on the first day of class. Read it carefully, paying close attention to due dates and test dates. Add those dates to your calendar. Professors may expect a research paper to be completed without so much as a mention, let alone a reminder, during class.
3. Start strong. Don't let precious weeks slip by before you start your reading or project. The semester is a marathon, and keeping a steady pace early will prevent you from having to sprint to cover lost ground later.
4. Reach out. Although you'll have greater independence than you're used to, it doesn't mean you have to do it alone. You should feel free to approach professors outside of class if you need guidance. Try forming a study group with your peers or asking a TA for more help if you need it. And don't forget about upperclassmen. They've taken these courses before and can help you understand the material, and the professor.