(Moses and the Tablets of Stone by Laurent de La Hyre)

“Go very light on the vices, such as carrying on in society. The social ramble ain’t restful.”

By Paul Culp, MA (Oxon.), CFT, GCDF, CCSP

A few weeks ago, we published an article about the 50-percent-plus dropout rate among American college students (More than Half of American College Students Leave Without a Degree. Here’s Why, September 14, 2018), in which we cited multiple factors, including some over which students may have little or no control, such as financial strictures, family crises, and health problems. Lack of academic preparedness can also lead to an unsuccessful college experience, as a student may be admitted to an institution or program for which he or she is not in fact qualified.

Assuming that you have the necessary fiscal wherewithal and the requisite stability in your health and personal life, and that your transcript and test scores reflect your actual potential for post-secondary academic success, there are a number of areas in which your performance and the quality of your experience will be entirely up to you.

The following ten commandments are words to live by for the college student who aspires to high achievement, so please give me your undivided attention, everyone, and don’t make me grind up your jewelry and force you to drink it.

I. Thou shalt know thyself.

Another recent article by The Coaching Educator, Ten Common Mistakes You Must Avoid in Applying for College (August 31), noted the importance of choosing a college compatible with your temperament and abilities:

“High school students generally don’t know quite who they are in many respects, but by the time you apply for college you should have some realistic idea of your strengths, weaknesses, and personality traits. It’s important to know when to challenge those and when to go along with them.”

Just as you should choose your college realistically, you should choose your course of study with a similar outlook. The American system, unlike the universities in most other countries, allows students great latitude to experiment, especially during the first two years, when a large percentage of courses are outside the student’s major. This can be good in the case of students who are not quite sure what they ought to do, and bad in the case of those who enter with unrealistic expectations or who make ill-advised changes of major.

The fact that your transcript and test scores qualify you for a particular program doesn’t mean that program is a good fit for you. If sitting down and writing a paper roils your stomach, the humanities or social sciences might not be right for you, whatever allure they might possess, and you are unlikely to perform well in those fields. If you don’t especially like or excel at laboratory experiments, pre-med is probably a mistake. If you don’t enjoy logical argumentation, preparing yourself for law school is likely not the best plan.

One of my professors, Dr. X, a country boy from the wilds of West Texas, decided to major in philosophy while attending college in Dallas, because he saw that philosophy majors all carried neat little books of quotations from the great philosophers, along with tidy little black notebooks, and he thought that was immeasurably cool. Three degrees and a tenured full professorship later, he appeared to have made a choice that worked for him. However, we don’t recommend selecting your major on such a non-rational basis; the fact that something seems cool or otherwise admirable doesn’t necessarily make it a wise choice for a field of study.

A case in point: One of my best friends from childhood and adolescence has done quite well for himself in a computer science career, but only after a long and fruitless quest to complete a pre-med program for which he had little aptitude. However much he wanted to become a physician–a lucrative profession that carries great prestige and ample opportunities for helping others–he simply didn’t have the necessary talents. With great fortitude he manfully gritted out the lower-level courses and kept going for a while, but he finally had to change majors, and his college experience was stressful, inefficient, and expensive, with a cumulative GPA well below what he would have produced had he assessed his own abilities a bit better and chosen an appropriate major sooner.

II. Thou shalt not multitask.

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(Photo by rawpixel)

Multiple scientific studies have demonstrated that multitasking hinders productivity–at any age.  As Jessica Rose puts it in Thought Catalog:

Research shows we are bad at multitasking, but we are REAL good at fooling ourselves into thinking we are good at multitasking. Ditch the distractions. Each one is taking away from your concentration and effort. For every distraction, you decrease the amount you learn and increase the amount of time it takes for you to learn.”

Put the phone away. Put it where you can’t reach it and can’t see it. Turn off the TV. If your friends won’t keep quiet, maybe they aren’t exactly friends. Concentrate on one thing and quit scattering your energy and wasting your time.

III. Thou shalt pace thyself and not over-commit.

College presents students with highly anticipated new opportunities for clubs and other officially sanctioned extracurricular activities, new friendships, and the social whirl. For many, especially freshmen, college life looms like a feast placed before a man who has been starving or who at least thinks he has been. The resultant problems can be especially acute for freshmen, who binge on the new opportunities without having a clear idea of what is expected of them academically and how they need to manage their time in order to achieve it. As we noted in our article on the dropout rate, time-management is the number-one challenge for freshmen, who essentially have no idea what they’re doing.

A surprising number of students never fully master the art of time stewardship, and their day-to-day lives are a chaos of moving parts, like untethered tools and food containers floating about in the weightless environment of an orbiting spaceship–until an exam or paper or other academic crisis abruptly restores gravity and brings the whole mess clattering down to earth.

None of this is conducive to strong academic performance. Chances are you won’t be able to do everything you want to do. Students should work out at least a rudimentary budget for time outlay, choose a limited number of activities that fit within that budget, and learn how to say no.

IV. Thou shalt not procrastinate.

This admonition can relate to the previous one, but in fact outright procrastination tends to occur when there really isn’t much happening, though social activities are a common manifestation of it. The wise selection of a field of study can be helpful in this arena–we are less likely to procrastinate if the task we face is one for which we have some aptitude and in which we take an interest–but in almost any field of endeavor there are times when we must heave a deep groan of the spirit and simply get down to some unwelcome business.

Procrastination tends to compromise performance by causing work to be done hastily and sloppily once time is short and the task is no longer avoidable. Perhaps more importantly, it creates an underlying uneasiness and sense of dread that undermine the enjoyment of life and the performance of other tasks. Procrastination is a cancer that metastasizes to the entire scholastic organism.

Go ahead and get it over with. You’ll do better work, and you’ll derive much more enjoyment from life.

V. Thou shalt not cram.

Cramming and procrastination often go hand in hand, but sometimes cramming results not from dread of studying, or from poor time management, but from a flawed conception of which study methods are effective.

While it might make sense theoretically to try to pour all the knowledge into the mind just before the test, it’s a fact that the brain can process and retain only so much information at once. The most effective way to prepare for tests is to go over the material in small portions, building up to the test over a period of days or, preferably, weeks, with plenty of repetition. This gives the intellect time to assimilate the material fully and relate facts to each other in a manner that enhances comprehension and retention.

The gradualist approach to test preparation has the added advantage of affording the student the opportunity to get a reasonable amount of rest the night before an assessment. We recommend having one last look at the material before turning in, and another the day of the test. And go easy on the coffee and sports drinks; taking them to excess is begging for jitters and nervous diarrhea.  

Another of my professors, Dr. Y, claimed that in his undergraduate years he never studied for tests at all, that he simply kept up with things on a day-to-day basis and then went and shot pool the night before the test. Then again, it was Dr. Y who assigned Wordsworth’s Prelude, which ran 200-plus pages in a 3,000 page anthology (if ever any poet deserved to be named Longfellow, it was Wordsworth), and gave test questions that required the student to remember the page number for a particular passage. The Billiards Method might not be as tactically sound for the rest of us as it was for Dr. Y, but the general idea–study steadily and go into the arena well rested and relaxed–is eminently sensible. 

As for Wordsworth, well, the guy rowed a boat across a lake. I remember that much.

And the sixth commandment is like unto the fifth, and giveth life:

VI. Thou shalt take notes faithfully and transcribe them regularly.

One of the most constructive habits I learned in college was inspired by the example of a U.S. history professor, Dr. Z, who told me that when he was an undergraduate he would spend part of each evening typing up the notes he had taken in longhand during that day’s classes.

This is no small encouragement to academic achievement. Transcribing your notes in this fashion gives you a daily review that reinforces learning on an ongoing basis and can be a vital component in a gradualist study approach that eliminates cramming by promoting cumulative learning. In the long run, it’s a huge time-saver.

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It also enables you to build a library of do-it-yourself textbooks that can serve as a resource for subsequent courses or in later life. I printed off my notes after transcribing them and kept them in a loose-leaf binder, and for ten years as a teacher of ancient and medieval history I regularly taught from notes I had taken in a political theory course in graduate school.

If you take class notes in digital form, complete transcription obviously isn’t necessary, but it’s a good idea to go over them at night, make sure they’re coherent, and correct the typos.

VII. Thou shalt highlight.

Highlighting can seem like a drain on your time while you’re doing it–since it usually involves reading the passage once and then reading it again as you go back and highlight it–but in the long run it’s a significant time-saver. One approach to it is to highlight only the truly outstanding facts or salient points and use them to jog your memory when you revisit the text. That can be highly valuable, but If you take things a step farther and highlight everything that’s absolutely necessary to the argument or narrative, instead of just, well, “hitting the highlights,” you will in effect have created a condensed book that you can quickly re-read instead of having to read the whole thing again, or instead of seeing a few isolated highlighted portions and having to go back and figure out why they’re significant.

college success

We strongly recommend reading back over your highlights the day after you make them, or even in the evening of the day you make them, as well as looking over them in preparing for tests. Highlighting is a key component in the gradualist approach to learning that eschews cramming and staves off exam crises.

Be sure not to try to stretch the life of a felt-tip highlighter too long. Depending on the texture of the paper in the book you’re reading, the highlighting may fade over time–very little time–if it wasn’t heavy enough to begin with. The peril is obvious. See next commandment for painful example from real life.

Yes, copious highlighting can reduce the resale value of your books, but if the most lucrative way to get rid of your books is your paramount concern, you surprise us by even reading this article.

VIII. Thou shalt safeguard thy health.

Being sick is bad for you in general, of course (remember, you heard it here first!), and it can exercise a decidedly deleterious effect on your scholastic performance. Irregular hours and insufficient rest, whether attributable to socializing or a heavy schedule of extracurricular activities or studying, invite a reaction from the body. So do poor eating habits and lack of vigilance about handwashing and the sharing of foods and utensils. For a thorough discussion of student health problems and preventive measures, see These Go to Eleven: Our All-Star Lineup of College Illnesses, October 9, and College, Flu, and You, October 4.

I regret very much that I cannot recall who it was who, while majoring in literature, developed keen insight into Dante’s Inferno while cramming during the agony of a severe toothache. I do recall in which book I read this, but my highlights were too faint because I was trying to stretch the life of my well-used highlighter, and they have faded into oblivion. 

Whoever she was, we congratulate her on a meaningful learning experience and we admire her ability to relate personal misfortune to great literature and vice versa, but we do not recommend illness as a pedagogical implement.

IX. Thou shalt gather intelligence about teachers and register for classes accordingly.

A personal friend of the literature professor Dr. Y had warned me in advance that the doctor was “a wonderful human being but the worst literature teacher in the universe,” yet when I saw the good doctor’s name accompanying a section in a convenient time slot, I ignored the warning and registered for that class. I am not sure whether my friend was right about Dr. Y’s character, but if anything he was too charitable about Dr. Y’s talents as a teacher, considering the Wordsworth episode and other bizarre indignities. I learned from this harrowing ordeal to gather any information I could about professors and their methods and to try to avoid the bad apples, who are much more numerous than one would wish.

While it is important not to give credence to irresponsible rumors, and always to consider the source of negative comment, a teacher with a longstanding and consistent reputation for being incompetent, abusive, vulgar, or prejudiced is probably one to shun if you can sign up to take the course with someone else. If you have to take an early-morning class, so be it.

X. Thou shalt take feedback seriously.

Whatever your grade might be on a particular assignment, there are reasons for it. If you just look at the number and walk away with the attitude that there’s some stuff you didn’t know, no big deal, this one’s over with and there’s always next time, you nullify the point of college–learning–and you compromise the opportunity to perform better when that next time comes.

If your teacher has made comments on the assignment or assessment, failure to read them and take them seriously is foolhardy. Where did you do well, or badly, and why? What did you study, and how? Are you deficient in matters that are relevant to the future direction of the course? In matters related to your overall academic abilities and methods? Even in the absence of comments, if you know from the grade and the markings which answers you missed or where your reasoning broke down, you can deduce the nature of the problem and build for a better future.

If the feedback is in the form of an actual piece of paper or test booklet that is returned to you, don’t let the teacher see you casually dropping it in the wastebasket on your way out. This makes a very poor impression. One day you might need a bit of grace from that teacher, and you’re not likely to get it if you have displayed apathy by ostentatiously spurning the written feedback that has consumed that teacher’s time and energy.

Having now covered everything from personal hygiene to public relations, we have arrived at the end of our Decalogue for College Success, but as a bonus, we conclude with the oft-quoted all-purpose maxims of baseball immortal Satchel Paige:

Avoid fried meats, which angry up the blood.

If your stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts.

Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move.

Go very light on the vices, such as carrying on in society. The social ramble ain’t restful…

And don’t look back— something might be gaining on you.

The Coaching Educator of course does not endorse the use of “ain’t,” except as a flavoring agent in poetic contexts (such as the dugout or bullpen, if not Wordsworth’s Prelude). We do endorse the practice of using every resource at your disposal to identify the college that’s right for you, navigate the admissions process, obtain financial aid, and succeed with your program of study.

We hope you enjoyed “Ten Commandments (And Then Some) for College Success.” At TCE, “college success” means the entire journey, from making your college list to moving your tassel. 

To learn more about our philosophy and capabilities, be sure to watch our free webinars, listen to our podcasts, sign up for our four-week College App Boot Camp, consider our Ultimate Programs and our special services for athletes and performing-arts students, and book a consultation to hear what we can do for you and how we do it. Keep reading this blog, and look for us on social media (see links below) as we keep our clients and admirers advised of new developments in our effort to help students get into and succeed at the right school.

Paul Culp is certified as a global career development facilitator and writes about college admissions, college costs, financial aid, and college life in general for The Coaching Educator team. A former journalist and corporate ghostwriter who now operates Shenandoah Proofreading, Editing & Composition Services (SPECS), he has also been a humanities teacher at all levels from university down to sixth grade. Paul has degrees from Oxford University, Jacksonville State University, and Samford University, and also is certified as a fitness trainer.

Recommended Reading About College Success

Culp, Paul. “Beyond Tuition, Fees, and Books: The Other Costs of College,” The Coaching Educator, 7 June 2018, http://tce.local/2018/06/07/beyond-tuition-fees-and-books-the-other-costs-of-college/

Culp, Paul.”Getting to Grips With Test Anxiety,” The Coaching Educator, 28 November 2018, http://tce.local/2018/11/28/getting-to-grips-with-test-anxiety/

Culp, Paul. “More Than Half of American College Students Leave Without a Degree. Here’s Why,” The Coaching Educator, 8 September 2018, http://tce.local/2018/09/08/more-than-half-of-american-college-students-leave-without-a-degree-heres-why/

Culp, Paul “The Myth and Madness of Multitasking,” The Coaching Educator, 18 November 2018, http://tce.local/2018/11/18/the-myth-and-madness-of-multitasking/

Culp, Paul. “The Prez, the Prov, the Profs, the Veep, and the Redge: Who’s Who on Campus,” The Coaching Educator, 17 December 2018, http://tce.local/2018/12/17/the-prez-the-prov-the-profs-the-veeps-and-the-redge-whos-who-on-campus/

Culp, Paul. “Remedial Nation: The Ghastly State of College Preparedness,” The Coaching Educator, 19 January 2019, http://tce.local/2019/01/19/remedial-nation-the-ghastly-state-of-college-preparedness/

Culp, Paul. “These Go to Eleven: Our All-Star Lineup of College Illnesses,” The Coaching Educator, 19 October 2019, http://tce.local/2018/10/09/these-go-to-eleven-our-all-star-lineup-of-college-illnesses/

Culp, Paul. “What the Cap and Gown Mean and Why They Matter,” The Coaching Educator, 21 December 2018, http://tce.local/2018/12/21/what-the-cap-and-gown-mean-and-why-they-matter/

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