Go To Office Hours – The First Visit

Your professor is available to meet with you on a weekly basis. The time slot is called “office hours” and most of the time, no students show up. For lots of students, the though of meeting with your professor one-on-one is terrifying—something to be avoided at all costs! Yet, not going to office hours is like walking past a $20 bill on the sidewalk and not picking it up.

Most students go to office hours to ask about grades, to seek help when they are performing poorly in class, to alert them to a personal issue affecting their school work, or to ask for a letter of recommendation. There is nothing wrong with this, but there is nothing strategic about it. If the first time you attend office hours is for a letter of recommendation, you are not going to get a very strong letter. You will attend office hours to build a relationship and make that professor part of your professional network. If you work to maintain that relationship, that professor is more likely to alert you to scholarship or job opportunities, research experiences, or events that might be of interest to you. And if you do ask that professor for a letter of recommendation, it will be a good one.

You should plan to attend office hours within two weeks of the start of the course. Introduce yourself, tell them why you are taking the course, and let them know one or two interesting things about yourself. Maybe a sibling or parent attended the same college. Maybe you like to compete in fishing tournaments, or run half marathons. This is the kind of thing that would help differentiate you from the other students in the class. Ask the professor what their area of research is. This will give them a chance to talk, and will take the pressure off you. If they say something you find interesting, say so. Let the professor know how you feel about taking the class. Maybe this is the first time you are taking a class in that subject matter and you are a little intimidated. Or maybe this is a more advanced treatment of a subject you had and enjoyed in high school. Maybe you don’t know anything at all about the subject. Give voice to your hopes or fears. Finally, ask them what the most successful students in their classes do. This will give them a chance to tell you exactly where you should focus your efforts and energies in that class.

Bring a pen and paper, and write down the answer to that last question. Thank them for their time, make a graceful exit, and say “I’ll see you in class.” You have just laid the foundation. The professor will recognize you in class and will remember you when you return to office hours later in the term. Most importantly, you effectively positioned yourself for future opportunities.

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The Power of Showing Up

Ninety percent of success is just showing up.

When you start college, lots of people will give you advice. “Go to class” is the best advice there is. Wait a minute. Going to class is a choice? You don’t have to go? No, you do not have to go to class. But be warned—freshman who do not go to class usually fail out. Upperclassmen who do not go to class get poor grades and fail classes. But it is a choice—no one makes you go.

You do not have to go to class, but that seems economically foolish. For example, I teach a 4-credit class. I calculate that most students pay nearly $100 to attend each of my 80 minute classes. International and out-of-state students pay more, about $150 per class. I get paid whether students show up or not.

When you take a class, you will often find that there is a lot of stuff to learn. It seems amazing that there is so much information on a single subject. But guess what? Your professor looks at it a different way. The professor’s challenge is to distill a large body of knowledge down into a tiny sliver that can be squeezed into 45 hours of lecture. What your professor teaches in class is what they deem to be the most important things to know.

Read that last sentence again.

You are being taught the most important things you need to know on a given subject. It is what you will be tested on. And if you miss a class, you miss a lot. In a very real sense, the professor is telling you this—we have limited time together. I am going to teach you the most important things you need to know for the exam, and for the subject in general. If you take future classes in this subject area, the stuff I am teaching you is foundational—you need to know it.

Sometimes you should miss class. You have a contagious illness. There is a family emergency or other crisis involving someone close to you. You have a religious observance. So what do you do if you miss class?

You could send an email to your professor and ask if you missed anything important. This is a bad idea. Of course you missed something important! Every minute was important. Try this strategy instead.

  1. Get the notes from the class, ideally from 2 students. Not all students take good notes. By getting notes from two sources, you are likely to get the most important points you missed.
  2. Write the notes into your own notebook. It is not enough to read someone else’s notes. Write them out.
  3.  If anything is not clear, write to the professor (or visit during office hours) and ask questions. Tell them you missed class and got notes from other students. That signals you are not wasting their time. Then ask your question—you will be glad you did.

 

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Achieve Peak Performance In Your Math Class

Math class. Just reading those words can strike fear into the hearts of many students. The thought of enrolling in a college math class can be overwhelming. And yet, many colleges have a math requirement. It is a barrier between you and your degree.

Take a deep breath. There are a few insider tricks no one ever told you about. It is not some secret knowledge math professors refuse to share. It never occurred to them that anyone would not know those tricks. Your math professors became math professors because they liked math, were good at it, and worked hard to get better. It is therefore hard for them to relate to students who hate math and have a mixed record of success doing it.

Despite being rather proficient in math myself, I had my own stumbles along the way. I struggled with high school algebra. It took several tutoring sessions, but I eventually “got it.” It happened again in college calculus. I did not know the tricks, and I struggled as a result.

Here are the tricks you need to know.

Trick #1. Stop thinking of math problems as math problems. They are actually puzzles. Your job is to solve puzzles, not problems.

Trick #2. Recognize that your professor is using class time to teach you the rules to puzzle-solving. You will probably be introduced to a rule, and then see the rule applied to a few different puzzles. In your class notes, write down: RULE and then write it out in words.

Trick #3. If you are not 100% sure you understand the rule, raise your hand and ask. Read your notes back to the professor, and ask if that is correct. Revise your rule if necessary.

Trick #4. Always, ALWAYS! Do the assigned homework, especially if the homework is not collected. And check that your answers are correct.

Trick #5. When you get stuck on a math puzzle—and you will get stuck no mater how good you are—move on to the next puzzle. If you are stuck on that one too, stop working. Write your professor or TA an email. Tell them that you got stuck. Send a photo of your work. Your email should say something like: To solve this puzzle, I first applied the ____rule. Then for my next step, I got stuck. I was not sure what rule to use. Can you tell me how to make it past this step, what rule is used, and why. Thanks!”

Imagine you are the professor for a minute. You get two emails from students. One student says “I don’t get problem #4. How do you do it?” The other student uses trick #5. Both students are doing the right thing by asking for help, but one of them is going to be easy to help. And the other student? Not so much. There could be many different reasons the student doesn’t “get it.” A good professor wants to do more than help the student solve a particular puzzle. The student needs to discover the general rules to solve a whole class of puzzles.

Trick #6. If you are really struggling, take advantage of your university’s math tutoring services. These are usually offered free of charge. I would define “really struggling” as being unable to solve a third or more of the math puzzles assigned for homework. Working with a tutor will supercharge Tricks #3 and #5. Moreover, a good tutor will help you build self-confidence in your math abilities.

If you want to get strong, lift weights or do some kind resistance training. You can’t get stronger by going to a class on strength training. By extension, if you want to get better at math, work on math puzzles. Going to class and taking notes is not enough.

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Write Better Papers—A Big Picture View

In some classes, papers are high stakes—a single paper could make up 40% of your grade. In classes where the majority of your grade is determined by papers, you need to step back and develop a plan of attack. This is what I recommend.

First, think about your audience. Your audience is a professor with a stack of papers to grade. A professor grading 10 page papers in a class of 30 students is effectively reading and grading a book. Of the professors I have known over the last 20 years, not a single one likes grading. In fact, the majority would put it at the top of the list for the most disliked parts of the job. Write a halfway decent paper and you will be rewarded.

Assemble the resources at your disposal. Is there a rubric? If there is, the professor will judge your paper against this. Write to satisfy the rubric. Your university has a writing center. Make use of it, especially if you are a good writer. The poor staff people at the writing center spend long hours reading low quality work. You would not believe how excited they get when someone with writing skills seeks out their help.

Once you have your thesis statement, share it with your professor. Ask if it is an acceptable thesis statement for the assignment. Your professor will be happy you asked long before the paper is due.

Do not use a thesaurus to liven up your writing. It almost always makes your paper worse. And unless the terms are frequently used in class, avoid fancy terms when a normal word will suffice. Depending on the class, a discussion of the hegemony of white male lead actors on TV shows might be appropriate for an assignment. Yet, there is never a reason to make a perspicuous argument when you could instead make a clear and convincing argument.

Write a little bit each day. I tell my own students to write for at least 15 minutes every day, whether they have an assignment or not. Writing well is a skill, and it improves with regular practice.

Use an online editing tool like Hemingwayapp to check your prose. I use this tool in my own professional writing. It is like having your own personal editor on call at all times.

Finally, you need to proof read your work in addition to spell checking it. A spell checker will make sure words are spelled correctly. And yet, “eye have a spelling checker” will not show up as wrong. When proofreading, read your paper out loud. This will help you find mistakes much more easily.

Follow these tips and you will have a paper worthy of an A.

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Exercise for Academic Success

Are you one of those people who would get more exercise if you did not have to spend so much time studying? Well read on, because I have some good news for you.

Exercise improves brain function, and scientists are not sure why. What they do know is that this cause-effect relationship is solid. There is a region of the brain called the hippocampus. It plays a large role in both learning and memory. This region of the brain actually grows in people who engage in regular aerobic exercise. Other studies reveal that regular exercise helps people concentrate better. This helps us stay on task for long periods of time.

Think of exercise as a memory enhancement drug. Unlike other drugs, this one is free and has only beneficial side-effects. Some exercise 3-5 times per week should be part of your academic success strategy. Some ideas:

-After class, walk for 15 minutes and think of the main points covered

-An hour before class, engage in 20 minutes of a strenuous physical activity. Examples include weight-lifting, running, stair climbing, or bicycling.

-Do 30 minutes of moderate exercise before you sit down to study. You can walk briskly, jog, or ride an exercise bike at the campus gym.

Find something that works for you and fits your schedule. If regular exercise boosts your performance on exams by a few points, you can think of it as a form of extra credit. Only this extra credit applies to every exam you take.

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The best study method for introductory level classes

The first test or first exam (I use the terms interchangeably) is coming up in a few days. If you are like most students, you will put in several hours studying. You will read the book, read over your notes, make flashcards, and hope for the best.

If you prepare for exams like most students do, you can expect the same average results those students achieve. If you want superior performance, you have two options. Option 1 – you can put in more hours studying. What you will find, though, is the problem of decreasing returns. If studying for 10 hours will translate to an 80%, another 10 hours will not get you up to a 160%. After all, you can only get a 100%. Each additional hour of productive studying will translate to less and less gain. And that is less time at work. Less time with family or friends. Less time doing what you would rather be doing. Option 2 – study smarter. Use the amount of time you have to study most effectively.

There are a few techniques for studying smarter. One of my favorite techniques is called “Write the Exam.” Each term, your professor has to write an exam for your class. Your professor probably has a bank of test questions, and each term will write a few new ones based on any new material covered in class. Here is what you do. At the conclusion of each class, sit down, review your notes, and try to think about what the professor will ask you from that class on the exam. Then write 4-6 exam questions, and answer the questions.

Once you have 12-15 questions, go and visit your professor during office hours. Tell your professor that you are preparing for the upcoming exam, and you are trying to anticipate the questions that will be asked. Then ask your professor to take a few minutes to look at the questions and answers wrote, and ask for feedback.

You will get one of two responses. Response 1 – you are not focusing on the right things. Your questions are too broad, or too detailed. This is useful feedback to get, as it will help you re-focus on what is important. Response 2 – “Why yes! These are exactly the kinds of questions I will ask on the exam.” Jackpot! You are already focusing on the right things. You are optimizing your study time. You are going to do well on the exam.

Wait a minute. What if you have no idea what kind of questions the professor will ask on the exam. That, dear student, is a red flag. If you don’t know what your professor will even ask you, you need to see your professor during office hours and say the following. “I am in your class, and I attend all of the lectures. However, I really don’t know what is important or what I should be focused on. Can you give me an example of the kind of question you would ask on the exam, based on our last class meeting?” A professor worth their salt would be willing to help you out with such a request, especially if you asked before the first exam.

Leave a comment and let me know how this works for you.

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Five Skills New Graduates Need, and How to Get Them

Imagine waking up the next day after your graduation. You are feeling accomplished. You worked long and hard to reach your goal, and you have arrived. And you are ready for the pay-off. After all, a college degree means you can start earning real money.

And yet, as you head out on the job market, you find that prospective employers are not at all impressed with your college degree. Sure, having a degree is a requirement of the job, but a degree alone is not enough. What do these employers want?

First, the good news. The attributes employers are looking for are all available for taking at college. In fact, most are required in many of your classes. At least one other requires a little initiative on your part. As a student, you need to recognize these opportunities as they arise. Then you need to tell prospective employers that you have these attributes.

What are the top five attributes employers are looking for? In reverse order:

Communication skills (verbal). Nearly 70% of all employers say that they look for evidence of excellent verbal communication skills in prospective employees (and that includes listening, too). Workers need to be able to clearly deliver and receive messages, whether it is in a team meeting, sales pitch, presentation, or a one-on-one discussion with a boss, co-worker, or subordinate. You can hone these skills in seminar classes and other classes that are largely discussion-based.

 Problem-solving skills. Just over 70% of all employers say that they want prospective employees who can solve problems as they arise. In other words, employers do not want someone who only follows simple procedures. They are looking for employees who are able to work independently and address novel problems in creative and effective ways. If you want to build this skill while in college, you should seek out opportunities for independent research projects. You can often do these for credit. Sometimes, you might be paid to work to work on research projects.

Communication skills (written). Over 70% of all employers say that they look for evidence of excellent written communication skills in prospective employees. In college, you will do a lot of writing. Think of writing as a skill, and commit to improving your writing. I advise my own students to write for 15 minutes a day, every day. You get better through practice.

Ability to work in a team. Almost 79% of all employers say that they want prospective employees who can work in teams. While employees complete most of their job duties independently, that work is done in the context of a broader goal. You need to be able to work well with others and to have other people be able to count on you. Many of your professors will have you work in teams for some projects. Most students dread this—the bulk of the work seems to always fall on one person, while one or two others end up doing little or no useful work at all. Recognize that working on a group project is a pretty valuable opportunity. It is a chance to develop strategies for effective teamwork.

Leadership. Over 80% of all employers say that they look for evidence of leadership in prospective employees. It makes sense. Organizations will thrive if they make an effort to recruit future leaders of that organization. The most important skill good leaders possess is communication. Their ability to manage, direct, and inspire others depends ultimately on their ability to be excellent communicators. Leadership skills are not forged in today’s college classrooms. You find campus leaders scattered among student organizations, or in other extra-curricular activities. There is likely a student organization that matches one of your interests. Get involved. If you stick with it long enough, you may eventually find yourself in a leadership position.

Future posts will drill down on each of these areas in detail. But for now, focus on the big picture. Your employer is going to be much more interested in which of these attributes you bring to the job than in the C you got in your chemistry class.

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Welcome to The College Coach

People will often advise you to make the most of your time in college. But what does that even mean?

I am The College Coach, and I have been teaching in higher education for 20 years. And in those years, I have seen many students—most students in fact—miss opportunity after opportunity. They end up graduating with lots of debt, and land a starter job that offers little in the way of future opportunity.

It could have turned out differently. But they had no guide, no one to coach them through their college experience. They did not know the insider secrets or the pro tips. They focused on the wrong things. They left college with a Bachelor’s degree and were indistinguishable from the other 1.9 million people that graduated the same year.

The College Coach is here to help. My mission is to provide you with the skills and hacks to help you get more out of your time in college. I can help you land the job you want, in the field you want to be in. I can help you improve your performance on exams. I can teach you how to make your professors work harder for you. And I am happy to do all of this for free.

If you want to work smarter, not harder, you have come to the right place. Grab a pen and a notebook. It is time to get to work.

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