5 Essential Strategies to Excel in your Freshman Year of College

Many students experience a culture shock when they enter college — not because they finally have no curfew or can eat whatever they want in the cafeteria, but because the academic expectations professors & teaching assistants have for their students are dramatically different than most high schoolers have experienced.

In college, students are expected to be independent learners — they have to take initiative for learning (going to class, visiting office hours when they struggle, interpreting an instructor’s comments on papers, etc) without anyone looking over their shoulder. What usually poses more of a difficulty is that students are also expected to engage in original thinking. In high school, students are largely required to regurgitate material that the teacher or textbook have presented; in college, students need to start thinking outside the material they are presented to arrive at new conclusions.

But this transition does not have to be difficult — here are five strategies every incoming college freshman should adopt in order to successfully transition from the high school classroom to the college lecture hall or discussion section.

#1: Learn to write effectively and revise your work

How many times do you sit in front of a blank screen, terrified? Or, you write your paper and, in the final paragraph, the light bulb goes off: that was what I was trying to say… In “Shitty First Drafts,” Anne Lamott recommends that you write a “down draft’ — a draft written after you’ve turned off your inner critic. You sit down and write, without worrying about grammar, word choice, or even coherence. This sounds like the recipe for a disastrous paper (and grade), but that’s because it’s just the first step.

Once you’ve figured out what you want to say, then you should revise your paper to reflect how you want to say it. When I taught freshman composition, my students regularly commented that this was the first class that they regularly revised papers. In high school, they were accustomed to reading through a paper to make sure there were no grammatical errors and then submitting it. Contrary to popular opinion, this is not revision, but editing.

Revision involves reading through a paper and evaluating how convincing the argument is, how clearly it’s presented, and whether it effectively engages with other people’s arguments. Then, only after the paper is polished, do we edit it for grammar, style, and formatting. (Sidenote: this paragraph reveals the secret formula that your instructor will use to grade your college work.)

#2: Learn how academic arguments are made 

Listening to a lecture can feel like being tossed into a completely different rhetorical mode. Understanding that rhetorical mode is crucial to deciphering what your professor is saying as well as comprehending the textbooks and articles that you’ll be required to read.

A book I have regularly used in the college classroom is They Say, I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing. The authors argue that academic writing is in essence a conversation between you and anyone else who has written about your topic before. Their book also reveals how to engage in that conversation — they introduce several basic “moves” of academic writing: specific steps that every academic author/speaker has internalized and use whenever they deliver an undergraduate lecture or write an article for publication. They Say, I Say not only outlines what those basic steps are, but it provides templates that the beginning writer can use to start incorporating them into paper drafts.

Reading They Say, I Say before you go to your first lecture or read your first college textbook will also help you understand precisely what’s important to pay attention to. It additionally prepares you to develop original ways of thinking about difficult material — to do more than say ‘this is what they said,’ but to also be able to say ‘and this is what I think about what they said.’

#3: Learn how to participate in a class discussion

In a typical class discussion, half the class sits in utter silence while five or six students dominate the conversation. The TA or instructor will try to draw quieter students out — sometimes by calling randomly on them — but these drive-by comments rarely help develop a conversation.

Successful students learn how to participate in class without dominating the conversation. This means listening carefully to the conversation and offering additional examples that support or challenge what someone else in class has just said. It’s a pretty basic skill, but very hard to master.

If you’re having trouble speaking in class, require yourself to respond to one other person in every class; once you’re in the habit of speaking, you’ll keep doing it. If you’re having trouble coming up with something to say, think about what interested you in the reading or what frustrated you or what made you curious to know more. Or, think about what you’ve learned in another class that contributes more to what you’re learning in this class. These are the building blocks to effectively driving a conversation (which is really what a class discussion should be) and are very similar to the writing you’ll be doing in class.

#4: Learn how to talk to professors

In the middle of the spring semester, freshmen realize they need recommendation letters — for summer internships or jobs, for programs within the university, for scholarships, and so forth. Then they realize that none of their professors even know their names, much less would be likely to recognize them on the street. While this is less true for liberal arts schools where the classes are small, if a professor only sees you in the classroom, they won’t know why you’re taking their class or how it fits in with your larger academic interests or career plans. It’s these details that separate humdrum recommendation letters from ones that communicate how well you’ll do at whatever you’ve applied to do.

So regularly attend office hours for at least one of your professors. Ideally, this should be a professor with whom you might want to work in the future or one who you think could write you a solid letter of recommendation (either because you perform well in that class or because you’re fascinated by the material). If you’re having trouble talking with your professor, don’t worry. Just go to their office armed with a question about something in the reading or lecture that confused you or that you want to know more about. Professors are accustomed to talking so they can usually keep the conversation going! (There are some exceptions — I once visited a professor who could only look at the floor during our conversation!)

#5: Create a narrative about your studies

Particularly the first year of college, you’ll take random classes in scattered subjects, few to none of which directly prepare you for your major or future career. But the value of a liberal arts education is that learning different types of material and being able to put them together facilitates original thinking and new ideas. For example, Geoffrey Chaucer once wrote an entire poem about a navigational instrument called the astrolabe (oddly enough, he also named his child after the instrument!). And many poets have been intrigued and inspired by scientific discoveries. These sorts of inter-connections are all over your studies — finding them will help you understand the world we live in. They’ll also help you write more interesting papers and have interesting contributions when speaking in class or with professors.

But you also need to explain to others how your college career has benefited you — how classes in widely divergent fields actually helped you prepare you for your future career, how they make you qualified to think critically and creatively. You’ll be asked such questions when you apply for your first job and, when you write a cover letter or graduate/scholarship application, you need to explain how what you’ve already done prepares you for what you want to do. Be prepared to say, “this is what I learned in this class and how I intend to apply it to other classes/jobs/etc.” and you’ll get the most value out of your classes — even if you initially think a class will be a waste of time.

image credit: flickr/Sean MacEntee

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Chelsea Avirett

About Chelsea Avirett

Chelsea is the founder of Spyglass Tutoring, a Humanities enrichment tutoring service located in Rockland, ME. She has taught English literature to middle school and college students and is also certified (in the state of Georgia) to teach gifted education. She also holds a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She and her husband moved to Midcoast Maine in 2013 and love the excitement and vibrancy of the area’s creative economy.