The College Coach is here to help

The College Coach is here to help you. If you have a problem you want solved or a question you want answered, chime in.

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Leverage Your Superpower

As students navigate college, they sometimes find themselves wondering what comes next. After all, college is temporary. It is a detour between high school and working life that, if all goes well, will somehow transform you into someone ready for a good job.
This is a little bit true, and a little bit of a fantasy. College is not unlike basic training in the military. The analogy is a bit stretched, but bear with me. In combat, you learn a bunch of skills and you get fit. Does this make you combat-ready? You are more ready for combat after basic training than you were before basic training. That does not make you ready for situations you would experience in combat. Likewise, college makes you more ready for a good job after graduation, but that does not mean you are ready to walk right into a good job.
A college degree will get you further in life than not having any post-high school training, but it is not enough. You have other skills that when combined with your college degree will make you unstoppable.
Skills? What skills?
Do you ever notice how your friends point out that you are really good at something? Your friends seem to think that you can do that one thing better than anyone else they know. We all have a skill or two that does not seem that special to us, but other people find amazing. Maybe you can write formulas in Excel. Or perhaps you are a great storyteller. You are the go-to gal for copy-editing. You are a WordPress master. You are good at something.
How do you make take your skill and turn it into a career? Charlie Hoehn’s TED Talk might point you in the right direction.
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The Mid-term Office Hours Visit

The term is halfway over. You have received some graded work, so you know how well you are meeting academic expectations. Whether you are doing well or poorly, you need to go to office hours again.


For each class you take, you should attend office hours three times: once at the beginning of the term, once in the middle, and once at the end. The first visit is an introduction. The second visit makes you a familiar face; it conveys you are serious in your studies. The third and final visit…we will address that in a future post.

Fewer than a third of students in any class will make use of office hours. About 5% attend office hours more than once a term. There are a few reasons why 95% of people are missing out on the benefits of attending office hours. Maybe they don’t care, or they’re afraid of speaking to professors one-on-one, or they think the professor is too busy, or they don’t think it is worth their time.

You have two options for the mid-term office hours visit. If you are not performing as well as you expect, you can solicit advice for a mid-course correction. If you are doing well, use the opportunity to deepen the professional relationship with your professor. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

If you are not getting the grade you want, go to office hours to get advice on improving. If your grade is based on exam scores, tell your professor that you want to improve. Tell them how you are studying, and ask what you should be doing differently. Also share with them your notes from a recent class or reading assignment, and ask if your notes are sufficiently detailed. If your grade is based on papers, bring your work. Ask “what are the one or two areas I need to improve on to do better on the next paper?” Take notes on the advice you receive.

If you are doing well, congratulations! If you are enjoying the class, say so. You might ask the professor how you might link some of your own personal interests in the context of the discipline. For example, if you are a dancer, or a gamer, or an athlete, you might say “I really enjoy doing this thing. Is there a way I could link this thing with your discipline professionally?” You might also ask if they offer courses on similar subjects. After all, it is almost time to register for next term.

Maybe you don’t like the class or don’t find it very interesting. You might say something like: “I find this course pretty challenging since it does not align with my own interests, which are X and Y.” This can be a very good conversation starter. Your professor might point you in the direction of a class or another professor that would be a good match for you.

The mid-term office hours visit accomplishes two goals. In the short-term, it helps keep you on track with the class and could help you identify smart next steps to take. In the long-term, you are building a professional networking relationship that will help you in the coming years.

This week, look up your professor’s office hours. Plan to stop by. If you can’t make that time, email them and set up an appointment. Your future self will thank you.

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Concerning Professors

This post is largely concerned with Professors, and from this post a reader may discover much of their character. Now Professor is rather a general term for the person that teaches your college class. But it can also be a specific term, as we shall soon see.

A college department, be it English or Psychology or Communications, is filled with teachers of all kinds. There are the professors, and the instructors, and the visiting professors, and the adjunct professors. It is useful for a student to learn a thing or two about this taxonomy. It satisfies curiosity, sets expectations, and prevents surprises.

Let us start with the Professor, in the specific sense. Your professors almost without exception have a doctorate in their field of expertise. They will spend 6-10 years after college in graduate school to earn this degree. Your Professor probably did not grow up in the same area where you attend college. In fact, they have probably crisscrossed the country a few times before settling where they are today. A university will hire a Professor based on the specific expertise they possess. For example, a history department may want an expert on early American history. A biology department may want a neuroscientist. They are sought out for their expertise, not because they are necessarily good teachers. Professors are expected to conduct primary research and make new discoveries as long as they remain employed. How much time they spend doing research depends almost entirely on what the college expects.

Professors come in three flavors, sometimes four. There is the Assistant Professor. This person has not been at the university very long. They are typically young, full of energy, and trying to do a good job. The Assistant Professor is a probationary employee that is subject to dismissal for almost any reason. They remain probationary for 6 years. At that point they are either promoted to Associate Professor, or they are fired. The 6-year mark is important because the university decides whether to award the Assistant Professor tenure. To obtain tenure, an Assistant Professor must conduct productive research, do a reasonable job teaching, and contribute to the life of the university by serving on committees. Tenure is a misunderstood idea. Most people think it means a job for life. Not true. It means your employer needs a reason to fire you. I have seen more than one tenured professor fired for cause (and good riddance)!

An Associate Professor is accomplished in their field, and is usually (but not always) a good teacher. One can remain an Associate Professor for their whole career, if they choose to. Then there is the full Professor, or just Professor. A Professor is extremely accomplished in their field. They typically have completed tree or four times the amount of research required for tenure. They are often quite good as teachers. Just as the university decides if an Assistant Professor can become an Associate Professor with tenure, so to do they decide if an Associate Professor can be promoted to Professor. There are also Distinguished Professors at some schools. A college may have one or two of these folks. They often are recognized globally for their area of expertise.

If you are interested in getting research experience, talking to a Professor is your best bet. They are also almost always the best people to get letters of recommendation from.

Next, there are the Lecturers and Instructors. These professors sometimes have a doctorate degree, but are just as likely to have spent less time in graduate school. They will often have a Master’s degree. They are hired for their general knowledge, not because they are experts in a specific area of expertise. Their primary job is teaching, and they are often better teachers than the professors. They do not know more, necessarily. But they do not have research responsibilities and all of the divided attention that professors have. At most colleges, Instructors are the probationary employees. Once promoted, they often have something like tenure called a continuing contract. The college decides they are good and want to keep them. Some colleges also have Senior Lecturers. These folks are Lecturers who are promoted for their exceptional work.

Lecturers and instructors can write you good letters of recommendation, and can help you network professionally. They usually cannot offer you research opportunities, but can point you in the right direction.

Last, there are the Visiting Professors and Adjunct Professors, and Adjunct Instructors. These are people as well educated as your professors, almost always possessing a PhD. They differ in that they have no job security. They may appear one year on campus, never to be seen again. Adjunct Professors and Adjunct Instructors are usually paid very poorly, and make less than $2000 per class. At one time, universities only used Adjuncts on a temporary basis. They filled in when a professor or lecturer was sick or on leave. Now, they are viewed as a cost-saving measure. Universities increasingly rely on Adjunct Professors to teach classes. Many Adjunct Professors teach courses at multiple schools in a single term, trying to make enough money to pay the rent.

These professors in the broad sense view themselves as being the heart and soul of the university. They often gripe about administrators and “the administration.” These are the deans, vice presidents, and president of your university. The administrators and the professors have a very different vision of what college is about. But that is the subject of a future post.

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You bombed the exam. Now what?

The class comes to an end. As you leave, you pick up your exam. You look at the grade in disbelief. There must be some mistake! You flip through each page, seeing answer after answer marked as wrong. You check the name on the exam again—is this really mine? It is still your name at the top of the first page. Yes, you bombed the exam.


Your College Coach has been there. I took a philosophy class in my first semester of freshman year. I enjoyed the class, and did not miss a single lecture. I studied a lot, reading the textbook and reviewing my notes. I was putting in about 3-5 hours per week just studying. I took the first exam, and thought I did okay—not great, but not bad. When I got my exam back, I was devastated to see the red F on the first page. But the comments on the last page hurt even more. There was a brief note that read “If you do not come to class, you cannot pass this class.” I wanted to scream “I came to every class, you moron!” While I do not remember the rest of my day, I imagine that I walked back to my dorm room in the rain, without a jacket or umbrella, cold, wet, and defeated.

The next day, I put together an action plan. I resolved to go see the professor during office hours. I was going to tell him that my performance on the exam was so bad that it was indistinguishable from a student that never attended lecture. I was going to ask what I needed to do better.

The professor was surprised to see me, and ended up being very helpful. I was told to stop reading the book entirely, and focus all of my effort on what was covered in lecture. I was confused that the professor told me not to read the book he assigned for his class, but okay, whatever. He then told me that my notes were grossly inadequate. I should have 4 pages of notes for each 55-minute lecture. I typically had a half page to a page. I now had a plan to improve. It worked. I ended up getting a B in the class.

When you fail an exam you prepared for, you need to re-group and develop a new plan. First, review the questions you got wrong. Determine if you thought you understood it (but did not), or if you just did not know. Visit your professor during office hours to review the exam. Go over each question you got wrong, and prepare to ask follow-up questions like “I though the answer was C. Can you tell me why answer C is wrong in this case?” Have the professor review the notes you take in class. Ask if your notes are adequate, or if you should be taking more notes. Tell the professor how you prepared for the exam and how much time you spent, and ask what you might do differently next time.

On graduation day, nearly everyone that receives a diploma will have failed at least one exam in college. It happens to almost everyone. The trick is to let that F be a temporary set-back. Don’t let it define you. Regroup, develop a new plan, and overcome.

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Sleep Your Way to Better Academic Performance

Should I study for another hour or get a good night’s sleep? Sleep is always the best choice. To see why that is, let’s start with a question.

What is the purpose of studying? The ultimate purpose is to get a good grade on an exam. To achieve that, you need to commit material to memory, and develop a good understanding of how that material fits together in a coherent way. As you begin to master the material, you want to anticipate and write likely exam questions. For information to move from short-term memory to long-term understanding, it needs to be consolidated. Consolidation happens during sleep. With no sleep, there no consolidation of memories.

People who are sleep-deprived face several disadvantages. They cannot sustain focused attention. They cannot learn efficiently. They cannot consolidate memories effectively. They make poor decisions. Sleep is not just what you do at the end of the day. It is part of effective learning, and should be viewed as such.

How much sleep do you need? Research shows that people who get more than 7 hours of sleep the night before an exam do about 10% better than those that get less than 7 hours. However, your results may vary. You might be a person that needs a little more sleep. For example, I can do okay on 7 hours. My performance is impaired when I get less. But my performance is much better when I get more than 8 hours.

Sleep is part of my learning strategy, and it should be part of yours as well.


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What Is Your Major Worth?

I hate this question. It is crass. It reduces education to a commodity, an economic investment. Pay X today, and increase your earnings power Y over your lifetime. It assumes education is something that benefits individuals, and does not recognize that having an educated populace is a public good. And yet, the question is not irrelevant.

Recently, American University conducted a study of what recent graduates earned their first year after college. They created this online tool that allows you to search future earnings by major. They identify who employs them. It is useful information for any college student.



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You Need A Mentor

If you want to supercharge the value you are getting from college, find one or more mentors.

You might not know or have a vague idea of what a mentor is. A mentor is someone who is more experienced than you, and who agrees to help you. They do this by sharing knowledge and wisdom, identifying opportunities you might not be aware of, and helping you achieve your goals. Best of all, they provide these services for free. Sounds good, right? You need a mentor.


So how do you find a good mentor? There are two ways to do this. There is the formal way, in which you approach someone you know and ask if they would be willing to be a mentor to you. Faculty members can make good formal mentors, but this requires you get to know your professors. This is one more reason why you need to go to office hours. The second way is the informal way. In fact, you may already do this, but not know it has a name. Other students that are a year or two ahead of you make great informal mentors. They can provide advice on how to navigate difficult classes, or effectively manage your time. They can point you in the direction of useful resources on campus. You do not need to ask these people to be your mentor—they already are.

Mentoring programs could already exist on your campus. Find out if your college has formal mentoring programs. For example, my college has mentoring programs for first year students, nursing students, and STEM students. It requires you to take some initiative, but it will be well worth it. In the future, you might even find yourself mentoring others.

Once you graduate, your mentoring experience will be valuable. Mentoring exists in the working world too. You probably will not be required to have a mentor, but people who have mentors get promoted five times more often than those that do not. The sooner you start working with mentors, the better.

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So What’s Your Major?

Tell me, how do you want to spend your working life? What job do you want? Please figure that out by the end of the term, or if absolutely necessary, by the end of the academic year, so we can put you in the right major.

No wonder picking a major often seems like choosing your fate in life!

Here are some things no one is telling you. First, your major is not your destiny. Most people in the working world do not work in a field directly related to their major. My college roommate was a history major, but he was also a DJ at our college radio station. He is now a radio host at WNCW in North Carolina. Second, you may find yourself someday working in a job that does not even exist today. When I was in college, there were no jobs for website developers, digital content creators or marketers, or social media managers. You could not take courses to prepare for those jobs. They did not yet exist. One thing you could do, though, is develop the broad skills set needed to learn those jobs later in life.

The truth is that most college majors broadly prepare you for the job market later on. There are a few exceptions. Nursing, accounting, and teacher education programs tend to be more narrowly-focused. But even these majors require you develop a broad set of useful skills.

How do you find the major that is right for you? A major should align with your interests and abilities. Look at your website bookmarks. Look at your film and television viewing habits, your Facebook page likes. Do you enjoy history documentaries? Maybe you should gravitate to a history major. Do you enjoy working out living a healthy lifestyle? Maybe you should look into kinesiology as a major (if your college has one) or biology. Environmental sustainability? You are in luck. You can gravitate to environmental studies if you are interested in social change. You can major in engineering if you want do design more sustainable solutions. If you want to understand the science of sustainability, you could major in geology, chemistry, or biology. If you are not sure if a particular major is right for you, make an appointment to talk with a professor (not an advisor) about how well your interests align with a discipline.

If you have a general sense of what you want to major in, like social sciences, but still are not sure, ask your advisor about meta-majoring. Your advisor may not be familiar with the concept—it is new—but more and more colleges are developing them. A meta-major is a set of courses you take across several majors but with a similar theme, like liberal arts or health sciences. It give you room to explore what you like, while ensuring the classes you take will ultimately count towards your major requirements.

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Stand and Deliver To Perform Better

“Welcome to college, please have a seat.”

We sit in class to take notes or engage in discussions. We sit while writing papers. We sit while studying for quizzes and exams. And we sit for those, too. A typical person sits for 9.3 hours per day. That means most of us sit more than we sleep.

Prolonged sitting has detrimental health effects on the body and weakens the mind’s ability to focus. You can improve your academic performance and your health by making a habit of standing up and moving when you can. Maybe you can’t do that in the classroom, but you can when you are studying or writing.

What does sitting do that is so bad? Biologically, sitting sets of a cascade of events. Your fat metabolism drops by 90%. Your blood sugar rises. Anxiety levels increase. Neck pain, shoulder pain, and lower back pain becomes common. Less blood flows to our brains, and our ability to stay on mental tasks weakens.


Movement might be the most under-estimated tool to boost mental performance. When studying or working on a computer, set a timer to go off every 15 minutes so you can stand up. If you can’t stand, raise your arms over your head repeatedly for about 15 seconds. Take walk for one minute every 30 minutes, even if you just pace in a room. Walk for five minutes for every hour you sit. These will help reset and offset the negative consequences of sitting.

I have written elsewhere about the brain benefits of regular physical activity. Stand and move whenever possible. You will think better and feel better.

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