Timeless Tips For College Students

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Want to get good grades in college or help your favorite student thrive? My older sister gave me what I still consider the single best piece of advice on how to do well in college. Struggling College Student of College Survival Tools agrees, and has timeless and contemporary tips. 

My older sister’s best advice on how to do well was pretty simple: Go to class. Struggling College Student’s equivalent is “stay away from… skipping class” (#6).

With the exception of a couple of sessions (one of which was to attend an NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship game in Philadelphia; another was to catch a ride home on a Friday afternoon), I never missed a class. I wasn’t trying to be a perfect student (which perhaps I should have done) but it did occur to me, at some point in my college career, that doing a bit of work on the front side meant a lot less work overall.

More tips from me: 

  • Do all of the required reading
  • Go to tutoring sessions if you need to or think you could possibly benefit; getting help from another student or instructor, rather than drudging through books or assignments alone, can give you better perspective on a subject and may cut your studying time dramatically
  • Tackle any problems as quickly as possible; don’t wait until the days before the final exam to visit your professor’s office
  • Get a job or engage in some sort of significant extracurricular activity; you’ll end up managing your time better
  • Watch out for deadlines
  • Participate in discussions (especially if you are taking an online class) even if you think you know everything already; you can at least learn what other people know or think about a topic that will help you later
  • Visit class websites daily or the amount of information you have to process will be overwhelming

and from Struggling College Student:

  • Dedicate 3 hours per week to every 1 credit hour you are taking (for example, study 36 hours per week if you are taking 12 credit hours), according to a poll of professors (seems excessive but studying some on weekends can help you make this quota)
  • Minimize or completely avoid television, video games, and hanging out with friends who don’t study much
  • Have fun but don’t overdo the socializing and partying

My sister’s advice (given 25 years ago) is still relevant. If you’ve got tips for soon-to-be or current college students, please share.

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Guest's picture
Ruth Ann

The best advice I got, from a friend who a PhD student at the time was to always go to class. Even if you were going to sleep through the class or do other class work, the key was to ALWAYS go to class. His reasoning was that once you had to make a decision about whether or not to go to class, you'd have to make that decision every time and sometimes you would choose wrong.

I didn't completely follow his advice while I was in school, but it did make sense to me and I went to almost every class. And, yeah, sometimes I went and read the newspaper or did other things, but I was almost always there.

Guest's picture

I'm a little mindboggled. People not going to class? People socializing and goofing off instead of doing schoolwork? People not paying attention when they do go to class?

Gee. That must be a nice planet to live on.

I worked full time while I went to school. As graveyard and swing shift, then off to school while I was exhausted, then up for several more hours doing homework. Mommy and Daddy didn't contribute a nickle. Goofing off was never an option. I had to survive.

Maybe my advice for college students would be "Fish or cut bait. Either go to school and be conscientious about it, or go ahead and get that job at Taco Bell that you've always dreamed of."

Or how about this: "Not feeling appreciative for your chance to go to school? No sweat. I've set you up as an exchange student with a nice kid from a third world country. He's always dreamed of getting to go to school, so this will be his golden opportunity. You'll be staying in his parents' shack and helping out with the subsistence farming. By the way - they don't have plumbing, so watch out for cholera."

Guest's picture

DO NOT stay up all night studying. Not only do you risk over-sleeping and missing your exam altogether, but you also probably will not do too well on the test anyhow.

I can honestly say I NEVER pulled an all nighter during my 6 years of school. Instead, I'd start studying early... a few days (or even a week) before the test. If you follow the other tips like going to class and reading, this should be a cinch. By the time exam-eve comes you can just relax and review while your friends and classmates flip out.

Guest's picture

I absolutely agree that Going to Class is the #1 key to doing well in college. Additionally, find out what your learning style is. The three types are Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic. Personally, I lean very strongly toward Auditory, so I learn easily by listening to a lecture or hearing something described, but find it difficult to learn from reading. I religiously attended class in college because I knew that listening to the lecture was the only way I'd learn. I didn't read one textbook through all of undergrad or grad school (I did/do read - but only more creative non-fiction; textbooks are DRY!). Let me just say I did exceptionally well in college, which I attribute to knowing HOW to learn. If you know HOW you learn, you can cut back the number of hours spent studying, because when you study you'll be much more efficient about it.

Guest's picture

My best advice that I give is to make friends with people in each class. This has a few benefits. For one if your friends are studying for the same test/final then you wont be tempted to go out because no one else is either. Another reason is that you can form study groups without having to worry about whether or not you like your partner. The last reason is that people dont like getting stuck with partners on a school project they dont like. So the more friends you have the better chance you have of getting with someone you do like. Thus making your work better because your not arguing all the time.

Guest's picture

The best thing I did in college: Get a job.

Working 15-20 hours per week forced me to set better priorities during the week.

It also helped me pay off more than 1/2 of my student loans - $15,000 of $22,000. I couldn't afford tution at the beginning of each semester, but I was able to "pay as I went" with no accrued interest. :)

It sounds AWFUL, but it's only $4,000 per year or $350 per month. I sure am glad I did that!

Guest's picture

I know I might get pounced on for this one, but for some people, doing well in the college environment is far more important than doing well academically. This was definitely true for me.

I got a good GPA (3.5) and graduated in 4 years, but I didn't spend nearly the amount of time that I saw many students studying. Instead, I got a work study job and a job catering events on campus that together took up about 20 hours a week. I also got involved in intramural athletics and clubs on campus. I studied when I had to, but I spent a larger portion of time working on my interpersonal relationships with my fellow students and co-workers.

I saw a lot of kids with great GPA's, fellowships, and scholarships who spent their time at school maximizing every educational opportunity, and missed out on the true learning that college offers. It's about learning what you are passionate about and how to find your niche in society.

Guest's picture

Hi Jonathan,

I'm just wondering if you'd agree that if the academic part of college isn't a number one priority, and that there are lots of other things one can learn at college such as the (very valuable) interpersonal skills and learning about oneself, perhaps it might be better/cheaper/more interesting to learn these skills while travelling the world, doing voluntary work etc. Doesn't having to go to class and take tests distract from the ultimate goal (for some) of finding yourself and your passion?

This isn't a criticism, just a curiosity. For me, while I realised that finding myself and developing social skills was important, it didn't take precedent over the reason I attended school. I shelled out so I could develop academically, so I'm curious as to why someone would pay (and it is expensive) for an education only for it not to take top priority.

Guest's picture

I agree completely! Its not all about book learning, that can really only take you so far! Learning to build better relationships and how to manage time and money are just as important as knowing all about ancient Greek customs or anything like that. At least when you look at the long run, good grades are important & they can help you get valuable scholarships/internships that'll help you pay for school & gain experience. But the key thing is balanace, which I know is a shitty word at times, but its true, college (at least the early 20s college experience) is only once a lifetime, even if you go back, its not the same so make the most of it in everyway possible!

Also visit www.calnewport.com/blog if your in school or taking any type of classes! He's a master at hacking studies to make life more enjoyable! My school experiences would not be even close to as wonderful as they are if it weren't for his advice!

Good luck,

Guest's picture

I graduated with a comp degree and the top grad in my class actually didn't attend classes. He (and I) learned far more from spending an hour reading or doing exercises than we did from spending an hour in class.

Now, it wasn't always true. We had one prof who crammed more into an hour than seemed possible, but he was the exception, not the rule. Now by all means, attend your English Lit classes or your collaborative Management classes, but getting the most out of college or university involves pushing the class.

So my advice is to Push the class to learn what you need to learn. This means:
- Do your readings (and do the end of chapter questions as well)
- Start assignments when they're given (or posted to the class website). I know people who started researching their term essay on week 1.
- If you're going to attend class, write down questions from your readings and ensure that they are answered by the end of class. Otherwise, e-mail the questions to your prof the night before the class.
- Make friends with the smartest people in the class and work with them. Students tend to group, hanging out with the B students is likely to get you a B.
- Avoid managing time. Manage activities: "Read chapter 3 and do exercises", "Find 10 sources for essay", etc. The goal here isn't to make your life a prison by booking off 6 hours / day for study, the goal is to get your work done, whether that work takes 2 hours or 10 hours.

Guest's picture

I really agree with your last piece of advice...it makes it easier to manage activities versus time. It helps you break down big projects into more more manageable pieces. It also help you keep track of what you are doing and what you need to do.

Guest's picture

I can agree that going to class is very important, not only with learning but with being consistent. I know my first semester in college I skipped a lot and it just became a habit. Once you start it's hard to stop.

I also think it's important to watch your workload. Don't take all your toughest classes in the same semester if you can help it. If you do, a 15 credit workload can feel more like a 21 credit workload.

Guest's picture
Ginny Lavender

My best advice would be "When you read the material, think about it. Argue with it. Find holes in it." That was my natural way to read stuff, so even though I did all of the dallying and goofing off mentioned above, I still made close to a 4 point while having fun. And yes, I worked too.

Guest's picture
Ginny Lavender

My best advice would be "When you read the material, think about it. Argue with it. Find holes in it." That was my natural way to read stuff, so even though I did all of the dallying and goofing off mentioned above, I still made close to a 4 point while having fun. And yes, I worked too.

Guest's picture
Always Private

This is the only secret you need to know...

Your entire college experience is determined in those first 3 months from the start of classes in your freshman year... to that break at Thanksgiving...

If by then youve attended all the classes.. and developed disciplined study habit... and really seriously dug deep into all your classes ...and formed your social group with other serious students... then you can pretty much put it on autopilot for the rest of your college years...

If alternatively you skip classes... party instead of studying... gloss over the course content... hang out with stoners... then you'll be too far behind to ever catch up and the rest of your college career will be an ever increasing downward spiral of failure and diminished outcomes...

Just remember.. the first 90 days determines it all... so do it right.

Guest's picture

So NOT true...last time I checked people can change, and I know dozens of students who have either started out with a 4.0 first semester freshman year but ended up with a 2.5 by the end of their sophmore year! Or vice versa...people who did badly freshman year (still adjusting or hating their original college so they transfered) and ended up raising their gpa and having the best college experience possible! Where as one student I know well had a VERY high GPA until his sophmore year when he just suddenly decided not to come back! So the first 90 days are the adjustment period, but kids don't be scared it does NOT determine your entire college career!

Guest's picture

I want to thank you all very much for bringing attention to my site. I left high school and initially joined the military in response to the Sept. 11th attacks. I wished to stay with the military but ran into some unforeseen medical issues. After that I enrolled at the University of Minnesota in their Electrical Engineering program. The ROTC program offered several scholarships for this program at the time. My college advisers initially told me that I would be a good fit for this major. As time progressed, the scholarships I was promised faded away. To put it simply I got stuck. I withdrew from the ROTC program and quickly realized I was on my own. I began paying for college myself and the tuition quickly became out of control. I got myself a part time job working about 30 hours a week, to help cut the costs of tuition.

My grades quickly became an issue in my junior year of this program. I felt it necessary for a change and enrolled in the Mathematics program. I am currently majoring in Actuarial Science and minoring in Economics. I strongly believe that my experience in Electrical Engineering did me well. At this point in my life I no longer wish to pursue Electrical Engineering. Currently I am a 6th year senior and plan to graduate in the spring of 2009. I created this blog to hopefully make college students aware of the potential risks they encounter in school.

While many students will graduate in 4 years with success there will be a few that encounter problems along the way. Nearly 50% of college students at this university will change majors within 2 years. Clearly graduating in 4 years is becoming a thing of the past. My hope is to empower college students to choose the right major and make the right decisions along the way. I thank you all for your comments and wish you all the best of luck in your future.

Struggling College Student

Guest's picture

Take advantage of campus recreation! I'm terrible at sports, but there's something for everyone out there. In my case, it was aquafit classes and Pilates (for a fraction of the price anywhere!) Not only is the exercise great stress relief, but there are definitely other benefits. Attending a regular class is good for time management (you don't have to worry about when to fit exercise in), you learn new skills from a qualified instructor and you get to meet new people.

I also have to say I agree with Jonathan: There's more to school than just studying and grades. When I went back to school to do my graduate degree, I aimed to focus on areas of my life that I ignored when I did my undergrad. Despite a heavier and more intensive workload, I took exercise classes, volunteered, and did more with my friends. I learned important skills volunteering that apply to my job, and I still keep in touch when people I volunteered with. And yes, I also worked (as a teaching assistant and then a research assistant).

The best part? I love the work I do, and no employer has ever asked to see my grades since I graduated!

Julie Rains's picture

I have a friend who was given the choice between doing well in college and going to a third-world country. He attended college during the Vietnam War and didn't want to lose his college deferment to the draft; he graduated from college and then law school. See article on Going to College to Avoid the Draft (PDF).

My sister wasn't necessarily giving me the key to outrageous success but helping to remove any anxiety about how to succeed -- doing the basic requirement lays the foundation. There were kids who missed classes: I didn't think I was smart enough to skip and then make up the work.

The question of engaging in the non-academic aspects of college life vs. focusing on academics is a good one. I attribute much of my personal and leadership development to outside activities. Most of my classes focused on lecture and reading (or at least that is how I learned best) so for me, studying more didn't necessarily reap greater learning. Intellectual discourse came more through late night discussions with friends rather than debates in class. Looking back and considering comments, I can see that taking classes that required different types of effort would have valuable. We each come to college with strengths and deficits so what might be valuable to one person may not be as useful for another.

Stretching yourself without going crazy, and making alliances with the very bright and dedicated are wise choices. Those are some that I will pass on to my kids as they get ready to go to college.  

Struggling College Student -- I like the maturity of the blog combined with insight into day-to-day issues that college students deal with. You've made me think of something else I would do differently and that is to pursue a double major and develop an expertise in a field unrelated to my major (Business); years later I took Journalism classes but probably should have pursued those courses at the time or through a graduate program earlier.  

Xin Lu's picture
Xin Lu

Well, when I went to college a lot of my lectures were recorded so I rarely actually went to class. In fact, some classes encouraged students to stay at home because too many students in a lecture hall was a fire hazard. I sat in my dorm and watched them, though. The notes were online, too. The sessions that are more helpful than lecture were the small sections and labs that come after class. In those labs we did more hands on exercises and homework-like problems. Office hours helped, too. I also agree with other commenters that grades aren't the most important thing unless you want to go to graduate school or something. I got a 3.5 average GPA when I graduated, but noone really cares about that in the work environment. They just care that I can do the job.

Guest's picture

It's true: if you go to class, read the required readings, study, attend tutoring sessions, etc you will do well in class.

I can say that because that is exactly what happened to me. As an undergraduate I studied my tail off and never missed a class my entire three years there. Yes, I graduated in 3 years with a BA in Management..4.0 gpa too.

Then the same thing happened in during my MBA/JD studies..three years, two degrees, one great GPA, 3.98 (f'ing torts class).

Guest's picture

For implementing GTD for college you might try out this web-based application:


You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, schedules and a calendar.
A mobile version is available too.

As with the last update, now Gtdagenda has full Someday/Maybe functionality, you can easily move your tasks and projects between "Active", "Someday/Maybe" and "Archive". This will clear your mind, and will boost your school productivity.

Hope you like it.

Guest's picture

I'd like to start off by saying that I graduated with a 3.9 GPA and took an average of 17-21 hours/semester. I would NEVER recommend taking that many hours unless you absolutely have to.

Although I agree with the comment about going to class especially if you're a freshman, I also think there are other factors you need to consider. Is it a small class? Will the professor notice if you're in class? Is your class being taught by a graduate assistant? Does the professor give out pop quizzes or in-class assignments? Sometimes a professor is more willing to provide help to you if they see you in class and you are participating in lectures.

I have to disagree about reading the book all the time. I had several classes where the book material had little to do with what was discussed in class. Reading it would have only confused me. Know when reading the book is important and when it's not. Otherwise, you are just wasting your time.

Make friends of all types. Find someone who took the same class as you a different semester and see if they have any test material you could study or borrow. Sororities and fraternities are notorious for having files of previous tests, so making a friend with someone who has this access couldn't hurt. Also ask around before enrolling to see which professors are the best, it could make or break it for you in a particular subject.

If you have the opportunity, look for summer internships in your field. Some internships are paid, and if you do a good job they may be contacting you after graduation. It's worth a shot to get ahead in the game.

My final piece of advice would be to enjoy the experience. Don't get so caught up in your classes that you don't enjoy your time before joining the workforce.

Guest's picture

It all comes down to balance and keeping track of what you need to get done. Consistency is better than any study program.