Back to School: 10 Essential Strategies for Success in College

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It’s that time of year again. Another fall semester is beginning at Boise State, and my son also begins his college career. As a college instructor, I wanted to provide essential information on how to start strong. Some of them seem rather obvious, but it’s amazing how students fail to follow them.

1. Be Prepared BEFORE Classes Start
Make sure you check your schedule and know where to go to your classes. You should visit the campus and physically walk to all of your classrooms, knowing ahead of time where they are. This will save you time and stress during that first week.

Purchase your books and notebooks and pack your supplies before classes start. I advise purchasing spiral-bound notebooks with sleeves inside to place all of the course handouts you receive the first day of class. Buy two–one for your Monday/Wednesday/Friday classes and another for your Tuesday/Thursday classes. That way you won’t have to carry around more than you need.

2. Attend All Classes and Arrive On Time
This may seem like another no-brainer, but again, you’d be surprised how many students simply don’t show up or have sporadic attendance. Instructors always notice this and may even take attendance. Show up to class, be attentive, respectful, and participate fully in conversations and activities. Make it an important part of your day. After all, it is.

3. Review Each Course Syllabus
This is something students fail to do, but is very important. Read through each course syllabus and make sure you understand how to best contact your instructor. Record critical assignments and due dates on your calendar. Use your phone calendar and sync with your Google Calendar Enter dates and include reminders. If you have a term paper due on a certain date, put a reminder alert for at least 2 weeks before. If you enter all of your assignments and due dates in your calendar, you can review and see where you might have a couple of assignments due around the same date. You can then plan on how you want to organize your time to successfully complete everything.

4. Take Good Lecture Notes
There are many strategies for taking lecture notes in class. One online resource that provides Word documents to download is the Academic Skills Center at Dartmouth: I sure wish I had known about these various systems when I was attending college. Many students know about the Cornell Notes Taking System, where you jot down lecture notes on the larger right-hand side of a page, then review those notes as soon as possible after the lecture, reducing them to smaller bites in the left-hand column. Reviewing lecture notes is an important aspect and will improve learning, too. This Dartmouth site tells us that individuals can only recall 50% of what they hear and that 20-30% is incorrect. So, note taking is essential, to remember what the instructor has said.

There are many tech tools out there to facilitate and empower note-taking. One of my favorites is Evernote, which also can be downloaded on an iPad and iPhone. If your instructor does not allow laptops or phones, I would advise writing her a brief email, explaining how these devices can be used to facilitate note-taking. Your instructor might ask you to demonstrate, which would be another great way to get to know her and totally impress her! Here is why I think EverNote is so cool:

  • Notes can be taken on your iPad or laptop and accessible on any computer with Internet access.
  • Lecture notes can be captured using your phone camera, with searchable text capabilities.
  • Clips of web sites can be saved to your account.
  • You can tag your content (think of tagging different class names, for instance) easily searching for content.
  • Separate notebooks can be created for different classes.
  • Content is easily searchable, so if you are trying to remember about the mytosis lecture, search for that word.

5. Make and Maintain Connections

  • Your Instructor: Know where your instructor’s office is and her office hours. Visit your instructor to say hello during the first or second week of class, providing your name and the class you are in. If you have any questions, ask. And always notify your instructor of anything that might prevent you from learning. If you need special accommodations, tell her. She is not a mind-reader and staying in touch with your instructor is a great way to reinforce your learning and gain valuable connections throughout your college career. Don’t be shy–stop by and say hello.
  • Your Librarians: You should know where your library is, visit the website, know how to log in to access and download resources, and how to search for resources. Visit your library and spend some time there. Know where the reference librarians are and ask them for help. Remember, reference librarians LOVE to help students find resources and show them how to use the library.
  • Your Advisor: If you have an advisor, make sure you maintain a consistent line of communication with her and contact her with any questions or concerns. This person is your liaison and support for any changes in your career plan. If you don’t have an advisor yet, find out about getting one by contacting the college of your career major plan.
  • Student Services: Have fun and meet other students by joining clubs or other organizations. Subscribe to the university activities calendar and keep track of what’s happening on campus. Enjoy and take advantage of all of the free movies, activities, events, and other things going on. Take a class at the recreation center or exercise during your breaks. Take advantage of whatever interests you.
  • LinkedIn: Set up a LinkedIn account and begin networking with other students and instructors. Keep adding information as you progress in your program to this resource, which can be a great way to get recommendations for jobs and other advancement. Only post appropriate content and keep it professional.

6. Use University Resources Wisely

  • Google Docs for writing, sharing, publishing: At Boise State, students have a Gmail account that includes many Google Apps tools. I highly encourage students to use Google Docs for writing. This way, they can share their document with another for feedback and editing, publish the document, download it into multiple formats, and of course, access the document easily from ANY computer with an Internet connection. Folders can be created for separate classes, enabling you to easily organize your work. And it is safe and secure, so you don’t need to worry about losing anything.
  • Campus Wireless Network: Carry your iPad or laptop to class and use your university’s wireless network. Try to get work done between classes and any other spare time. If you are also working, then it is essential to use all of the spare time you have to complete assignments.
  • Computer Labs: If you don’t have a laptop, take advantage of the computer labs on campus. Again, if you use Google Docs, then you’ll have your work accessible when you get home. No transferring of files to a flash drive needed!

7. Use Technology Effectively

  • Blogging: Create your own Learning Log and post to it once a week. Keep records of your learning by attaching your assignments and write reflections about your processes and progress. You can make your blog private or share it with an instructor, parent, or friend. This might sound like a lot of work and a little corny, but in the long run, you will benefit from having a record of your university learning. Use Blogger ( or WordPress ( and get going. Keep the writing appointment with yourself and write every Friday, for instance. It doesn’t have to be much. Maybe just blow off some steam!
  • Google Reader: Subscribe to course news forums (we use Moodle, so your instructor can enable any forum to be RSS-enabled if using this LMS), interesting blogs, and other websites that have the little RSS icon on them. Use Google Reader as your feed reader and then go there to read anything new. This is the way you should be using the web now–having content delivered to you. Create your own customized feeds by using Yahoo Pipes! Information is out there and you should know how to get it and have it delivered. Kind of like pizza.
  • DropBox: This incredibly powerful and easy to use tool should be a requirement for all college students. All you need to do is create an account, install this software on your computer, save or place your files in your public dropbox folder on your computer, and it’s synced to your dropbox account. Then, anytime you make any changes to that file in that dropbox folder, it is saved on any of the other computers you have with dropbox installed. It’s hard to explain, but easy once you see how it works. Go to and get started. You will be utterly amazed and wonder how you lived without this tool.
  • Cross Loop: A great tool to sharing your screen with others Each party needs to have this software installed, but once you do, it’s a snap to share your screen. The CrossLoop Free program (and all of the programs I’m discussing here are FREE) allows unlimited screen sharing and unattended access to one computer. This tool would be very helpful if you were asking an instructor or classmate for help and needing to share your computer or theirs.
  • Zotero: If there was any tool that should be a requirement for English classes, this is it. This bibliographic software management tool makes finding, organizing, and citing resources almost effortless. You still need to double-check formatting, but this sure helps when needing to format citations in MLA, APA, or any number of other styles. Zotero is a Firefox plugin and will recognize the meta-data contained in articles found using many search engines. My favorite is Google Scholar (, which integrates with your school library, too. (Click Scholar preferences and find your library.) Also works with other article databases and of course, your school library database. Once you locate an article you want to place in your Zotero library (and you can create as many collections as you want), you simply click the little Zotero icon at the end of your browser address bar. The resource magically pops into your Zotero library, you can take notes on it, and begin your research. Heck, you could even begin writing your paper by taking notes on each of the resources in Zotero. Try this one out. You will love it.
  • Kindle Reader: I think that more and more textbooks will be available as ebooks. And I think that a great way to present textbooks would be on a Kindle or other device. However, you don’t have to have a Kindle to read a Kindle book. Download the free reader on your iPhone, iPad, or computer and read it that way. Yes, you still need to pay for the Kindle book to download, but you don’t have to own a Kindle anymore. Cool.
  • Gmail Chat: Easily chat with another student or instructor using this tool included in Gmail. If you are working on a paper with another student, chat with him and work on it together at a distance. All you need to do is install the Gmail Voice/Video plugin and you’re good to go.
  • YouTube Playlists: Whenever you find videos that are helpful for learning, save them to your own YouTube video playlist.

8. Be Pro-Active
Things happen. You may need extra help understanding a concept. Maybe you didn’t do so well on a test. Be pro-active and ask for help from your instructor and other peers. Contact your instructor immediately if you find yourself under stress or needing extra help. Your instructor will be able to help or direct you to someone who can. Many universities have special counseling services and other programs for students. Ask and you shall find.

9. Take Care of Yourself

Yeah, college is hard work and a test of how well you can perform under stress! However, make sure you take some time off to relax. Exercise and spend time with friends. Meditate. Do what is fun for you, whether it is baking a batch of cookies or skateboarding. In other words, take care of yourself.

10. Do Your Best

The world won’t end if you forget an assignment or your car breaks down. Just pick up where you left off and do the best you can. Everything will work out!

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2 thoughts on “Back to School: 10 Essential Strategies for Success in College

  1. What a great resource list for new (and returning) students. I added a link to Dropbox in my syllabi this year and have been promoting it to my students. And we are using Google Docs pretty extensively for collaborative data collection. But I like the way you have laid out these resources as a way for students to organize their own academic lives. I plan to pass on your post to my advisees.


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