What New College Students Really Need
By Steven Horwitz
You've bought the laptop. You've rented the little refrigerator.
You've even figured out how to get everything in the car. But are you
really prepared to head off to college? Are you ready to manage your
time – both for short-term assignments and long-term goal-setting?
A lot of new college students aren't.
Coming from high schools where every minute of a seven-hour day is
thoughtfully structured, and from homes where after-school activities
and weekends are increasingly full of what might be called "highly
scheduled leisure time," new college students are often frozen into
inactivity when faced with having to schedule and plan for themselves.
For those who got good high school grades with minimal homework, colleges'
higher expectations coupled with students' lack of time-management
skills can lead to unaccustomed academic difficulties.
A lot of students simply aren't ready for the often bewildering array
of choices they face at college. Even small schools have dozens of
majors and minors, many of which have fairly specific sequences of
courses that require students to plan ahead with some care. Liberal
arts institutions will especially encourage students to explore as
much of the curriculum as they can in their first year or two, and
some students find themselves lacking requirements for a major when
it's time to graduate, because they didn't plan ahead.
How can new college students and their parents better prepare to
avoid these problems? Here's a few tips:
- Think of it as your first full-time job, and start by being
prepared to spend at least 40 hours per week on your schoolwork. A
good rule is that each hour of class per week should be matched
with two to three hours of work outside of class. With the distractions
of campus social life, extra-curricular activities, the Internet
and video games, students need to prioritize, first scheduling
those 40 hours, and then building everything else around it. And
don't forget the most important block of time of all: the seven
to eight hours of sleep each night that far too few college students
get on a regular basis.
- Remember that you're not in high school anymore. Even students
adept at scheduling run the risk of failure due to differences in
academic expectations between college and high school. In high school,
daily and weekly assignments ensure that students are keeping up
and frequent feedback lets them know if they're not. In college,
professors assume that students are taking charge of their own learning.
A couple of exams or a final paper are all that might count for a
- Get a plan. Students need to enter college having some familiarity
with the curriculum and its choices, and should not be afraid to
seek out resources, whether on the school's Web site or through direct
contact with an academic advisor, to help them navigate their four
years. I tell students it's good to develop a "flexible plan," marking
out what they would like to do at any point, but recognizing that
what they would like to do is not always what will happen. A course
they want to take might not be available every semester, for example,
or they might discover a new area of interest in college. The plan
can change, but it's important for students to think ahead and make
choices with a plan in mind.
- Get to know your advisor. New students should create a solid
relationship with an academic advisor. Unlike high school guidance
counselors, advisors are not there to tell students what to choose – they
are resources for students to consult as they navigate their free
time and a complex curriculum. Early and frequent contact with an
academic advisor can help shape a student's interests into just the
right kind of flexible plan. Advisors can also help students find
the resources they need for support when they're having difficulties
with time management and the many other challenges of campus life.
What can parents do? The hardest thing of all – let your
sons and daughters make their own choices, good and bad, and allow
them to deal with disappointment and even failure. Hovering over
them as they make every single decision; calling on the cell phone
after each class, game or meeting; and instant-messaging for hours
at night won't help them learn how to make their own smart choices.
Trying to "fix it" when they don’t get the course they wanted,
or when they have troubles with a roommate, will only prevent them
from developing precisely the skills they lack. Remember, you're
sending them off to college to learn things and to develop skills,
and that includes the skills to plan their own education and learning
to deal with disappointment.
Steven Horwitz is associate dean of the first year and professor
of economics at St. Lawrence University.
Professor Horwitz's Web
St. Lawrence University's