As a first-generation college student, I had no generational wisdom guiding my path. Typical experiences, like navigating my degree, felt like real-world crash courses. Because of limited support systems, I developed my own system along the way.
While grades and graduation are outcomes, undergraduate study is a purposeful journey with many faces of success.
I hope that my strategies help students thrive along their path, especially those facing disadvantages.
1. OUTLINE YOUR DEGREE
Analyze and outline your degree plan by your target graduation date, semester by semester. Personalize semesters according to your interests, abilities, and timeline; mix courses by type (prerequisite, mandatory, elective) and level (introductory, intermediate, advanced). Plan accordingly, as courses are offered more frequently than others.
Degrees entail a certain minimum number of credits, and with creativity, you can save time and money as you fulfill credits.
If possible, take a course that fulfills two or more requirements (“double dipping”). A “Multicultural Psychology” course could count for a diversity course and your psych major.
Armed with a semester outline, register early. Early registration prevents late fees and helps you follow your degree plan on time.
2. FIND MENTORS IN PROFESSORS
Professors can impact your college experience. Research professor profiles; what is their training and expertise? What other courses do they teach? Do they seem passionate about teaching and/or mentoring?
What do other students say? Ask or search opinions online. What do they say about teaching style, personality, attendance policy, testing, grading?
Is feedback consistent across different students and years?
Consider mentorship potential, specifically relationship, respect, and relevance.
Faculty mentorship has many benefits: academic supervision, thesis guidance, recommendation letters, and wisdom on school (and life) decisions.
3. ENGAGE MEANINGFULLY IN CLASS
Raise your hand. Ask questions. Identify inconsistencies. Make connections, especially with examples from your life. Email professors and visit their office if you can.
Take notes, even if material is emailed or online. Mark key information as well as thoughts, reactions, and questions. Use notes for discussion, studying or research (“Does ‘cognitive dissonance’ vary by culture?”).
In online classes, be active because metrics track your attendance and participation.
Meaningful engagement immerses you in the course material, thereby improving how you learn, enhancing memory, and simplifying your studying technique.
4. SIT IN THE FRONT ROW
Sitting up front has at least three powerful effects.
First, it forces you to pay attention (no texting!). Second, it pressures you to attend class because your absence will be obvious. Third, it makes you visible to professors and classmates.
Upon grading or writing a recommendation letter, whom will professors remember better, you or what’s-his-face in the back? While online classes lack a physical “front row”, you can create a “front row” in minds of classmates and professors through meaningful engagement.
5. BE YOUR ADVOCATE
Self-advocacy is taking responsibility for your welfare. Waitlisted? Email the professor and express your interest in the course. State your status (e.g., junior in ABC major) and wait-list number.
Seek credit for work you do or skills you have. Is your volunteer work relevant to your major? Talk to your advisor about making it an independent study (and be prepared to do extra work and find a course mentor). If you speak Spanish or French, ask about placement tests to waive intro classes and/or get language credits.
If you struggle academically, emotionally, or physically, reach out to others to get the help you need. College is a paid service, entitling you to resources and benefits, from tutoring and health to career counseling. Some services are legally mandated. Seek help early to take advantage of support.
If services are subpar or non-existent, contact your professor. If that does not resolve the issue, speak to the Dean or other leaders.
In all cases, be professional and factual, and use email for documentation. In my experience, professors and advisors like to help proactive students.
6. TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR LATE ASSIGNMENTS
Your paper will be late, so what now? Email the professor before you miss the deadline. Do not explain why the paper is late. Be responsible and respect the professor’s time and syllabus.
Here is a basic sample text (tailor to your experience):
Facts: “Hi Professor, I am writing to inform you I will not be able to submit my paper by ABC deadline.
Consequences: I understand that this lateness may reduce my grade.
Deadline: I am working to submit my paper by XYZ.
Appreciation: Thank you for your understanding.”
Submit the paper as soon as you can. The professor may penalize you, evaluate you to a higher standard, or forgive the offense.
7. MAXIMIZE YOUR COURSEWORK
Coursework can be maximized through repurposing. This does not mean using the same work across classes, but applying them towards multiple purposes.
Your original paper (“The Growth of Online Degrees in the US”) could be applied to another course wherein you must consider, say, the economics of any topic.
With a new framework and new research (“The Economics of Online Degrees in the US: A Worthy Investment?”), you maximized your paper.
Repurposing saves time, challenges you to re-think previous work, and deepens your knowledge.
8. APPLY TO OPPORTUNITIES
Opportunities are everywhere: on-campus jobs; scholarships (FREE money); internships; volunteering positions; funding for studying abroad or conferences.
To find opportunities, search the school website, research online, sign up for organizational newsletters, and join associations.
Invest your time and talent in pursuits that interest you, build skills, and increase networks in your chosen field.
Enlarge and diversify your network to access more information.
When I see an opportunity for the future, I add it to an online file. I list opportunity names, site links, contact persons, deadlines, and how I learned about them. This helps for future reference.
During undergrad I applied to numerous academic and leadership opportunities on campus and internationally —and got them! My mantra was: “100% rejection until you apply for selection”.
That is, by not applying, you completely reject yourself. By applying, there is a chance to be selected.
Unsure about scholarship eligibility? Email relevant personnel to clarify. Eligible? Apply!
9. BUILD YOUR RESUME
Regardless if you already have a résumé, take advantage of online resources or the school career counselor. College is a résumé-building journey.
Consider and note your achievements, skills, and professional experiences. List your academic honors, languages, technical skills, and leadership and volunteer experiences.
Evaluate your résumé often. Seek feedback from others. Edit and expand as you learn and grow.
10. DEVELOP YOUR PERSONAL NARRATIVE
Who are you? How did you get to this point? What are your passions? Where do see your future self? Each of us has a story. A personal narrative is your life story.
Developing your personal narrative involves writing and reflection, which help you be aware of and make sense of experiences.
Cultivating my personal narrative has been helpful to clarifying goals and making big decisions like going to graduate school.
Personal narratives are also important in speeches and essays for scholarships. Personal narratives can influence others or give them insight into your life. Why? Personal narratives are humanizing.
As you grow, reflect on and note your journey.
This post by Tariana V. Little was originally published in Boston Latino Magazine.
About the Author
Tariana V. Little is a researcher, writer, and artist. She holds an MS in Clinical Investigation and a BA in Psychology. Tariana is co-founder of EmVision Productions LLC, a digital media production and consulting start-up in Boston, MA. Driven by science, storytelling, and social justice, Tariana’s work embodies what she calls “intentional creativity for social change.”