The College Survival Guide

I write a lot of posts on this website about things that I am not really qualified to write about, but this is not one of them.

Just so you know, I rocked college. I went to a really hard school where people were known to fail so many classes that when you asked them what year they were they would reply with something like "3rd year" instead of "junior", because they weren't yet a "junior" in terms of academic credits.

I went to a school where failure was expected, and I came out with nearly straight A's. So if you are going to take advice from someone who knows how to do well in college, take it from me.

Now, you might be thinking "okay, you did well, but are you just really smart?"

Intelligence is a very subjective topic and the measure of intelligence will always be limited by what is deemed "important" to our society. That being said, I would say that I probably have above average intelligence in the subject areas of math, science, and engineering (which I studied mostly in college) when compared to the American population. Am I a genius? Probably not.

That being said, whatever my intelligence level was in college, I can assure you that many of my peers had intelligence that was far greater, and yet I did better than most of them. My college was basically made up entirely of people who were at the tops of their respective classes in high school, so pretty much everyone was "smart." What separated us at the next level took more than raw intelligence, it took drive.

So, here is my list of ways you can succeed in college:

1. Go to Class

This advice was given to me by some upperclassmen when I started. It seemed so obvious, and yet was so frequently violated by my peers.

Here's how it normally went: you're a wide-eyed freshman, and the world of college is new and exciting. You don't have your parents telling you what to do anymore, and this sense of power can be difficult to control. At first, you set out to be an academic and diligently study and go to class. You have a tough schedule but you know you can get through it. The toughest part is that you have an early morning class with a professor who only speaks in monotone and just reads off powerpoints for the entire lecture. You have a difficult time staying awake during this class, but you still attend regularly. One day, you oversleep due to a late night of studying and/or partying, and you miss your morning class. You feel kinda bad about it, but it also feels oh so good to skip that boring class. The next time the class comes around, you rationalize skipping it by saying to yourself "I didn't really learn anything in that class, I would learn more if I just read the textbook instead of attending." Except you don't. You never attend that class again, and your performance in it progressively declines.

It's amazing how difficult it is to sleep in a bed at night and how easy it is to sleep during a lecture
Photo Credit

I saw it happen time and time again. People would start skipping a class and then rationalize their reasons for doing so. The point is, even if you feel a class is boring and that you don't really learn anything from attending, you should still go. You may still absorb things from the lecture, and forcing yourself to go to all your classes develops a routine, which leads me to my next point...

2. Develop a Routine

For some reason there are a ton of movies and TV shows that seem to demonize "the routine." Stiff and close-minded characters are shown how to "loosen up" by cooler, more likable characters. If you grew up watching a lot of these movies and TV shows, you may thing that having a routine is "un-hip," and you want to be "cool."

But the fact of the matter is that people crave routine, and college is no exception. Compared to high school, college is like the wild west. In high school, you probably had a strict schedule that your parents more than likely enforced (if they were good parents), so your days were pretty predictable. College is far less structured. You have different classes on different days, different projects and assignments from week to week, and perhaps different social engagements. On top of that, there is no one to enforce these things, it is up to you. The chaos is there, it comes with the territory, so you have to balance it with self-imposed order.

On Tuesday afternoons I would do laundry. I would eat lunch and dinner at the same time every day. Every weeknight I would push to finish my homework or studying by 12:36 a.m. so that I could watch The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson (I miss that show). On Saturdays I would take a day off from school and relax. Having these little "islands of order" helped to break up the sea of uncertainty that was college, and ultimately helped to keep me sane (well, mostly sane).

Routine helps to keep you rooted like a strong tree. When the winds of change start blowing, you will stay upright. If you aren't rooted in anything, then you will just blow away like a leaf.

3. Know How Much to Study

I think one of my high school teachers in an AP class told us that we should be studying "twice the amount of time we spend in class." That is a commonly accepted adage for college work ethic that many people probably don't come close to, and I will say that it isn't necessarily true.

The amount of studying (and I will use the term to mean both studying for tests as well as doing homework or other assignments for a class) I did depended entirely on the class. For some classes I could get away with spending a few hours per week on the homework and a little cramming before each test. Other classes I would spend several hours each day on homework and assignments and start studying for tests several days in advance. The point is that you have to tailor your studying for the class, don't just project a "6 hours per week" rule and think that will be fine for every class.

4. Don't Memorize, Internalize

One thing I really liked about engineering school was that very few of my classes involved very much memorization, in fact, most of my classes even allowed crib sheets for the tests! How could a test be hard if you could bring in a sheet with whatever you wanted on it? Well, because engineering involves more than memorization, it involves understanding difficult and abstract concepts,and applying them to solve various problems.

When I use the term "memorization", I am referring to a method that many people use which involves reciting facts to yourself over and over again until you can recall them unassisted. It's effective if you need to learn all the state capitals or the Bill of Rights, but in many college classes you need to do more than memorize.

You see, if you memorize a list of facts, you just know them as discrete facts that have no relation to each other. You might remember them long enough to do well on the test, but soon after you will forget, and graduate college with a piece of paper and little to no new knowledge. If you internalize something, you learn the facts in context, and it helps you remember them on a different level than just pure recall memory.

If I say the terms "Scattering Parameters", "Impedance Matching", or "Transmission Line", you could somewhat easily look them up and memorize a one line description of what they are. To understand these terms, though, involves quite a bit more effort, and took me a Bachelor's and Master's Degree in Electrical Engineering to understand...and I am still learning about them.

When you make the effort to understand a concept, you move past the ideal of memorization and unlock deeper chambers of your mind in which you can remember things long after you stop reciting them to yourself. There are still times where you may need to do some brute force memorization, but if you try to memorize things in context you are far more likely to remember them.

5. Choose Your Major Wisely

The ideal college major would be a subject you feel very passionate about AND something that would give you the knowledge/skill needed to perform a useful function in the world. Often times, both these criteria can't be met in their fullest extent. Unfortunately, the world is a cruel place, and full of jobs that aren't very fun or exciting, but still necessary.

When you decide that you want to major in Renaissance Art History (forgive me, but artists are a favorite target of engineers), ask yourself these questions:

  • Does the world need more Renaissance Art Historians?
  • What kinds of jobs do Renaissance Art Historians get?
  • How much do these jobs pay?
  • How plentiful are these jobs?
  • Do people who graduate from my college with this degree have an easy or hard time finding jobs?
  • If I don't get a job doing Renaissance Art History, can I possibly get one doing something else?
  • Do I need to complete any graduate work in order to get a job in this field?
    • What kinds of jobs open up to me if I do?

The purpose of these questions is not to persuade you to change your major, but just to think about what course of action you will need to take in order to thrive with that major. Asking questions like "do I need to do any graduate work" will help you better plan out your future, and hopefully keep your finances in check should you need to stay in school for longer than 4 years. The best thing to do is to find someone who took a similar path as you, and ask them how it went.

An important thing to note for questions like "what do these jobs pay?", think average salaries. It's true that a degree in Business Management could one day allow you to be the CEO of a fortune 500 company, but just remember that there are lots of people with degrees in Business Management, and only 500 CEOs of fortune 500 companies (by definition). Some degrees may hold the potential for big salaries, but they are probably available only to a select few, and based more on personality, experience, and networking than actual knowledge. Assume that you aren't going to be in the top 0.0001%, and plan your future accordingly.

6. Get Some Sleep

At my college people would often refer to a triad that would contain academic success, fun, and sleep. The joke was that you could only pick two. I had many friends that chose to have fun and sleep regularly in lieu of academic success. I knew others who chose to be good students and have fun...but they didn't get much sleep. Everyone would try to achieve all three, but few actually did, and would usually involve compromising one or the other.

Depending on the definition of "academic success", even trying to achieve just that would involve a fair amount of sleep loss. I opted to be a good student and got "enough" sleep (probably about 6 hours a night, on average), but I never pulled all-nighters. It's important to be proactive in your scheduling so that you don't get yourself into the situation of having to pull an all-nighter, because they aren't very helpful for your mind or body. If you are studying for a test and the hour gets late, just stop studying and go to bed. You will do better on the test if you are alert and refreshed, even if you didn't cover all the things you wanted to.

7. Don't Go Home Too Often

If you are an out of state or international student, then this probably won't be an issue, but if you go to a college that is pretty close to your hometown, then you might find yourself going home a lot. It always annoyed me when the weekend came around and I would want to have fun and unwind from the week, but all my friends went home. College is about more than learning a bunch of subjects, it's about growing into an adult man or woman. If you always go home and get your mom to wash your clothes for you, then you aren't becoming a mature, self-reliant individual. Learn to live on your own, and go home only when necessary.

Parents: stop pressuring your kids to come home. We know you love them, but sometimes if you love something then you have to let it fly on its own.


Keep in mind that these are guidelines, not rules. In the end, college is about finding yourself and what makes you tick, so feel free to experiment with different ways of doing things until you find something that works.


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