Student Engagement

From Senior to Freshman: The Post-Varsity Playbook

June 28, 2012

Of the thousands of 18.5-year-olds that I've taught, some could not manage the challenges of college while others attacked higher education responsibilities with full uh-rah commitment. It is from observing the later group's mojo that I derived the following strategies.

Mastering Socio-Emotional Changes

Because the emotional health of college frosh is at an all time low, assume that kids who look collected are, in fact, hiding their sky-high transition jitters. You too will benefit from adopting the composure of General Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe) in Gladiator, because confidence and decisiveness are contagious to others and to you during subsequent challenges. However, if you need someone to lean on emotionally, seek out resident and academic advisors.

Immersing yourself in a foreign environment accelerates brain transformation. Therefore, avoid going home on the weekends. Practice making friends. How? Knock on neighbors' doors and use this surefire line: "I made some extra chocolate chip cookies . . . "

Avoid drama instigators who try to de-center you through a combination of seduction and rejection. What's more, avoid crushing on high maintenance coeds whose chief virtues are symmetrical features and conspicuous abs.

Buy a calendar. Establish realistic goals and a game plan before you arrive on campus. Every morning as an undergraduate, I awoke at 5:30, put on my Walkman earphones and played Thriller while jogging across the soggy equestrian grounds of the University of Puget Sound. Execute positive routines that help you feel in control.

Go to one campus event a week: a gallery lecture, a concert, a sociology master's presentation, etc. Invite friends. Dress up, be curious and chat with people over cured meats and Hawaiian punch.

Stay safe. Your corpus callosum -- a brain structure that supports intelligence and consciousness -- is still maturing. When he was a freshman, my dad and several sorority members clambered across a girder beneath the Tacoma Narrows Bridge on a bet. I assume he was drunk. I mean, it was 23 stories of nothing between that open beam and an angry ocean. Somebody should have explicitly told him: do not accept dares, attend parties that feature drinking equipment, or say yes while impaired in the dark. Also parkour is out.

Interacting with Professors

Discovering what your instructor views as canon in his or her area of expertise can only help you. Before classes meet, look up your professors' scholarly work and scan article titles to assess the interests and values of the author. In your essays, you might consider dropping in your teachers' technical language (i.e., jargon), but only if you can use the terms with precision.

If you receive a bad essay score, don't panic. Some profs assign lower grades to first papers to demonstrate that students can't zombie through the rest of the semester.

Avoid emailing professors. Changing out of your pajamas and yomping across campus to visit an instructor during her office hours demonstrates that you're serious about content that she has spent years researching. Besides, you learn far more during a face-to-face conversation.

If you do need to email your professor, write your message as a formal letter beginning with "Professor X" or "Hi Dr. X" (not "Hey . . . ") and ending with your name and contact information. Be as formal and concise as possible. Your subject line should include helpful information: "ENGL 1000 (Sect 2) - Question Regarding Syllabus Sept 14th Reading Assignment."When confused about a class requirement, request that the instructor a) explain the assignment in a different way, b) discuss how students in previous semesters messed up, or c) provide a model.

How to Study

Coffee up and find an isolated place to study. The library attic at my old college contained a table and chair next to an exposed air duct that throbbed and hummed -- white noise that cued my undergraduate brain to focus. Find a space (near a restroom) that you look forward to visiting.

Bruce Lee said, "The successful warrior is the average man with laser-like focus." But don't equate suffering with studying. Focus on doing things that help you actively comprehend your textbook. Write down not how long you'll study, but what content you'll master and then attach this list to the study carrel at eye level.

Every class has its own weird vocabulary to master. Relate difficult concepts to something else you know. Also, supplement required readings with outside texts in order to deepen your academic knowledge. When you are puzzled by something (which you should expect), write questions in the margins of your textbook. Being articulate about things that perplex you helps dissipate confusion.

Avoid Tumblr and Reddit, and keep your phone in your book bag while studying. If it helps you focus, listen to instrumental music like Bach, or Burial, or Explosions in the Sky.

Amateurs practice skills that they already know. Experts practice skills that need development.

Every forty-five minutes, take a short break, do twenty lunges and refill your eco-friendly water bottle.

If you have a serious academic problem, let your advisor know and get a tutor (my statistics tutor, Helen, saved me). Universities have computer labs, math labs, chemistry labs, and a writing center. If needed, take advantage of these resources.

Try not to study past 11:PM.


When you start composing an essay, researcher Robert Boice advises writers to spend several minutes scribbling ideas on four or five pieces of paper. Write enthusiastically. Draw pictures. Think of this first stage as play. Then use your generated material to create an outline. Next, use the outline to write very quickly. Revise and edit. Read your paper aloud. Finally, bribe the best writer you know with a Café Zorro to put check marks next to errors or parts of your draft that confuse him or her. Make yet another final edit.

Distraction-free word processors, like WriteRoom or DarkRoom, might aid your productivity.

Finally, use two back up systems, like Evernote and Google Docs, to store your work.


When taking a timed test, use all of the time offered.

You may need to be creative. During a timed essay exam in a literary criticism course, I was unable to decipher the short-answer rococo essay prompts. To show what I learned, I made up four of my own prompts and received an A.

Don't believe peers who claim they aced a test without studying.

Reduce Stress

Remember why you are in college: to wake up, exuberantly partake in multiple disciplines, learn what you are capable of, and be helpful. Read The Guardian, Longreads, Al Jazeera English, Slate, and the NYTimes Sunday Book Reviews. Work on something creative just for you: write a business plan, doodle, develop a curriculum unit, solve our country's debt crisis, compose a fable, etc.

Stress out 10% less.

Remember you aren't alone. Every time you doubt yourself, say the following: "George Lucas believes that I can do this."

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