Situation 1: You are a freshman in college, you are in over your head and feel isolated and scared.
New college students have a lot of stress, no doubt about it. There’s the pressure of studying, interpersonal relationships, housing arrangements, changes in lifestyle, financial pressures, test pressures, failing tests, dissolution of relationships, low self esteem, etc. If you don’t feel the stress, you’re among the lucky few.
- If you find you are unprepared for your classes, drop them and take classes to better prepare yourself. It doesn’t matter if you got straight A’s in high school. College is different. Even though I took chemistry, algebra and trigonometry in high school, I took the non-science major’s versions of these classes the summer prior to starting as a freshman, and it helped immensely my freshman year. While my calculus classmates were puzzling over how to simplify cos(x) * tan(x), I was working on the next problem. Don’t worry about dropping behind your classmates – 60% of them are going to switch their major within the next two or three years anyway.
- Drop any survey or breadth classes that you can take later, and get yourself down to perhaps three core classes. Mastering these core classes is a prerequisite for later success. For example, for most technical students that means math, chemistry and physics. These classes are not that hard if you are prepared to study effectively and you have solid grasp of the prerequisites; most freshman just don’t comprehend how much study time they require. Going to the lectures, doing the assigned reading and turning in problem sets is notenough. You have to work problems until you have mastered the material. Survey or intro classes can be huge time sinks; don’t jeopardize your future because “Introduction to Taxidermy” takes up too much of your time.
- Form or join a study group for each of your core classes. These study groups will be your support structure.
- Talk to your adviser and professors as soon as possible. Studying is your job and your professors are your bosses. Your adviser is like the mentor assigned to new hires to show them the ropes. Can you imagine a job where you never talk to your boss and you avoided your mentor? So talk. Tell your professors you want to get an “A” in their class and ask what you have to do to get it. I flunked a midterm test as a graduate student in an undergraduate class in my major once. I talked to the professor (yes, a bit embarrassed) and he told me to work all the textbook problems in the back of every chapter we covered. I got an A in the class; many of the problems on the final exam were problems taken from the end of the textbook chapters.
Situation 2: You are an junior or senior in college and the work is piling up too fast.
- Drop something even if it takes you another semester to graduate. You are not in a race. At the beginning of my senior year in engineering my adviser told me there were three really tough classes that I needed to take and that I shouldn’t take more than one of these three at one time. I took all three at the same time, plus other classes totaling 18 units, plus I was grading papers for another class and working 5 hours a week at my co-op housing. I was burned out for months afterwards and it hurt my grade point average. There was another guy grading papers with me that quarter. He was taking only two classes – heeding his advisers advice, no doubt. He ended up in medical school and was later accepted in the space shuttle astronaut training program.
- You are always talking to your professors, your adviser, and your study group partners, right? Take their advice.