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St. Lawrence News


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 grade.

  • 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 Site
    St. Lawrence University's First-Year Program


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