Occupation: Student

I’m now in my senior year of college, which means that I’ve spent three quarters of my life in school, as have most of those who are reading this right now. Isn’t that just simply astounding?

And yet even though we’ve spent all of these years in school, taking notes, doing homework, and stressing over standardized exams, how many of us can say that we are truly good at being students?

If somebody on the street asked you what you do, your answer would most likely be “I’m a student,” like other people would say “I’m a graphic designer” or “I’m a hairstylist.” Being a student is your occupation. But think about it: nobody has ever really told us how to be good at our occupation, how to be good at being a student. Yes, we’re Macaulay students, and we’re incredibly intelligent and do well in our classes. But in terms of “occupational training,” all we’ve ever been told is to pay attention in class, to study hard, and to not cheat. But being a successful student is about more than just that.

Here is a list of some obvious and not-so-obvious things about being a great student. It’s never too late to remind yourself of these things or to learn them for the first time!

1. Minimize lateness and absences. 

This one is important for either your small classes where the professor takes attendance or just classes where the professor gets to know everyone.

Even if you always make sure to leave plenty of time to get to class, I guarantee that you will be late to at least one class each semester. You’ll get stuck on an elevator or there will be a medical emergency on the train or the hallways will just be super crowded. Life happens, and that’s okay. Just be sure to explain the reason for your lateness to your professor at the end of class.

Keep your absences to less than three during the course of the semester. Anything more than that and the professor will think poorly of you. Not to mention that you’ll be missing a ton of material. If you have to miss class, send the professor an email explaining why (before class is preferable to after). Also, ask a classmate if there were any important announcements that you missed and for a copy of the notes from that day so that you don’t fall behind.

Sometimes a professor will deduct points from your final grade if you’re late or absent frequently so make sure that you’re aware of his/her specific policies.

2. Take notes.

Come to class with a notebook, a laptop, or a tablet so that you can take notes. And actually take notes! Don’t just sit there and tell yourself that you’ll remember everything that is being said. You are lying to yourself! You have multiple classes and have multiple obligations so unless you have some kind of special memory (and I’m jealous if you do), you’re not going to remember that one important point that the professor made about the French Revolution a month ago. Listen carefully, and jot down the important points.

As soon as you can after a class session, review your notes, and fill in anything that you might have forgotten to write down. You can do this on the train or in a coffee shop or really anywhere. I recommend doing it the day of the class and no later than the day after so that your memory of what was discussed is still fresh. It doesn’t take long, and you won’t find yourself with 30 pages of notes to review before an exam. Plus, you’ll be ready for the professor’s questions during the next class session while everyone else is flipping back in his/her notes.

Photo by Tulane Public Relations via Flickr. Some rights reserved.

3. Have a plan as to how you will study and complete major assignments/projects.

Mark all exam dates on a calendar, and make a plan as to when you’ll be studying and what specifically you’ll be studying.

As soon as the professor hands out the instructions for a long assignment, start thinking about how and when you will complete it. Break up the work appropriately. Don’t just ignore it all semester and then pull two all-nighters to finish it. You will be miserable and will have learned nothing about how to schedule your time.

Start brainstorming early, meet with your professor to discuss your ideas and to go over drafts, and work on it continuously so that you never feel overwhelmed at any one time.

4. Get acquainted with at least one person in each of your classes.

Don’t know anybody in your class? Get in the habit of saying hello to people, and you’ll be surprised at how quickly those hellos become extended conversations. You’ll make some new friends, and who doesn’t need more good people in their lives? I met one of my guy friends a week into my first year of college when I sat next to him in chem lecture. Three years later, he’s one of my best friends.

Even if these people don’t turn out to be your BFFs, it’s great to have someone to ask for notes if you’re ever absent or for clarifications if you don’t understand something that is discussed in class. 

5. Participate. 

Participate, participate, participate. Whether or not it’s a big or a small class and whether or not you’re asking a question or answering one, speak up in class. This shows the professor that you’re paying attention and actively analyzing what is being taught. It will also keep you awake! Sitting there taking notes for 75 minutes can get boring, but if you participate, you’ll break up the monotony and simultaneously help yourself learn the material better.

If you’re nervous about speaking in class, then make sure you do it on the first day. The first time doing anything is always the hardest, but if you participate that first day, even if it’s just to ask a question, it will be easier to do it during the rest of the semester. Also, if you’re shy and keep telling yourself that you’ll participate during the next class, eventually, you’ll find yourself at the end of the semester not having participated at all, which is not what you want.

Also, since participation can count towards your final grade, you can earn yourself some easy points!

6. Always do the reading and the written homework.

If you do the reading for each class session along with any written homework, you’ll save yourself a lot of stress later in the semester because you’ll have done the work consistently and won’t have to study as much. You’ll also be able to participate, so the professor will note your dedication. Most importantly, if you don’t do the work, you’ll learn nothing from the class, and it will all just be a waste of time.

Also, don’t embarrass yourself if the professor calls on you, and you haven’t read. I cringe every time this happens to someone in class.

7. Find out what books you need before the semester even starts.

A couple of weeks before classes begin, email your professors (if their names are listed), and ask them what books you’ll need to buy. It will give you plenty of time to find the most affordable options and for them to get to you before the semester starts. If you wait to buy the books after you receive the syllabus on the first day of class, then you’ll have to wait for them to ship (and might fall behind on readings) or be forced to buy from the expensive campus bookstore.

If you don’t know who the professor will be or if the professor doesn’t answer the email, just wait until the first day of class. There’s always the option of asking someone who took the class already, but I wouldn’t recommend doing that because the professor might change the books that he/she uses.

8. Don’t cheat.

Keep your eyes on your own exam, and don’t copy chunks of text from someone else’s paper. There’s nothing like holding a test with a good grade or an A+ paper and knowing that you did it all on your own. I’d rather do terribly and know that I did it myself than do wonderfully and know that it’s someone else’s work that got me that grade.

Often, professors will make their old exams available to students to be used as practice, but if they don’t, don’t go hunting for them. This includes asking your friends for free copies or buying copies from strangers. That gives you an unfair advantage over everyone else in the class.

Any kind of cheating can get you in serious trouble, including an F in the class. Or even worse than that: loss of respect from your professor and for yourself.

9. Don’t be that person.

There’s almost always that one person in each of your classes who constantly interrupts to ask esoteric questions or make long-winded comments on irrelevant topics. This can end up leading to a five or ten-minute discussion between him/her and the professor, while the rest of the class looks on in annoyance.

Professors like students who ask questions, but they don’t like students who interrupt a lot or who ask long-winded questions in the middle of lecture. If you think that you’re impressing them, you’re not. You just end up looking like an arrogant jerk to both the professor and to the other students in the class whose time you’re wasting. Of course, you are allowed and even encouraged to ask questions, but if you know your question will lead to a digression or if the question requires a longer response, save it for office hours. That’s what that time is for.

10. Stay organized.

Make sure that your workspace is free of clutter. Your mind will feel much less constricted if your desk is not covered in piles of papers and textbooks. Have a physical folder and/or a file on your computer for each of your classes so that you can easily access past assignments and notes.

11. Get yourself a calendar.

I like to use the calendar on my MacBook, but you can also use a planner. I put all kinds of reminders on my calendar: everything from hair salon appointments to exam dates. Your calendar will save you during those busy weeks of the semester when you feel like tearing your hair out and hiding in your bed forever. And believe me, you will have those kind of weeks every semester.

12. Do not pull all-nighters.

Not even one. Yes, it’s possible to get through college without doing one. I’ve gotten through over three years without one. If you manage your time, and don’t overload yourself with classes and internships, then you should never have to stay up all night to finish assignments or study for exams.

13. Have fun!

If you think about it, a student’s life is actually pretty awesome. This isn’t like other occupations where you’re there from nine to five each day and have two weeks off each year. Your schedule changes every semester so if you hate a class, you know that you’ll only have to suffer through it for four months and not the rest of your adult life. Plus, you get days off during the semester, a month off during winter, and three months off during summer. This time off is entirely yours to either chill at home, study abroad, take a class, volunteer/intern, or work on a personal project.

Plus, your job during these four years is just to learn. Take a second to think about how awesome that is.

But you shouldn’t be spending all of your days in the library studying. Join clubs, attend events, write for a newsletter (like this one!), start a blog, or join a sports team. Just get out there! You won’t regret it.

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