How to Succeed in College: Some Suggestions for Students

When I first began my collegiate life as an undergraduate in a quaint little Ohio village, my faith in higher education was dwindling. Hiram College, my first alma mater, extolled the virtues of the liberal arts: a broad education, an intimate learning environment, a close-knit campus community, and other, similarly noble characteristics. The overall notion of education as more than a mere credentialing exercise was highly appealing to me. I was hungry for a comprehensive learning experience, but practical concerns soon interfered with my otherwise abstract intellectual ambitions. I didn't know it back then, but two things were working against me. First, I wasn't ready for Hiram. Second, Hiram wasn't ready for me.

I knew, early on, that college was going to be expensive and that I would need to fund my own way. Before I even set foot on Hiram’s campus for my first day, I had a job lined up. Later on, I moved on to a different job, which offered more hours, and added a second job to boot. Eventually, I was a full-time college student working a nearly full-time work schedule, often at all hours of the day and night. Needless to say, I quickly burned myself out. By burning the candle at both ends, I made myself virtually useless in the classroom and I went on to fail nearly all of my classes during my sophomore year at Hiram. Academically, I hit rock bottom.

About six years after I began my journey as a perpetual college student, I finally found my groove at a new school. Earning my spot on the dean’s list for part-time students five consecutive times, I ended my undergraduate education on a high note and finally graduated with my bachelor’s degree in December 2012. The very next semester, I started working on my master’s degree.

When it comes to balancing work life and a college education, there are no easy answers for working students. It can be far too simple for people to write “how to” articles with a smug sense of pride, perhaps assuming that what worked for the author should work for others too. I make no such claim in this post. Every person is different, every situation is different, and the intersection between individuals and their respective situations creates unique challenges that others may not fully comprehend.

With all that in mind, this post explores the topic of being successful as a working college student. These are some strategies that have worked for me. Hopefully, they will work for you too. If they don’t work for you, modify them until they fit your circumstances. If these strategies won’t work for you at all, scrap them and come up with your own strategies. The primary goal of this post is to get you to think consciously about the strategies that will work best for you. The rest is just gravy.

Start everything early

When I first started college, I found it rather easy to start off strong — especially during the first 1-2 weeks. There was something about the hustle and bustle of a new semester that energized me. Soon, however, that energy faded to black. For the rest of the semester, any desire to read, write papers, and complete assignments was almost completely absent. I could sometimes muster up just enough energy to complete the bare minimum, but nothing more.

It never hurts to get started as early as you can. Whether it means reading an assigned chapter a couple weeks before it will be discussed in class or writing a few pages of that ten page paper now, starting these tasks early can give you breathing room when it’s crunch time. Don’t believe that bullshit about working better under pressure; it’s almost certainly a self-serving excuse you've been using to justify procrastination. Stop making excuses and start working now.

The benefits of starting early are numerous. For example, if you've read some material well before it will be covered in the classroom, the professor’s presentation will reinforce what you've already learned. Additionally, hearing your professor describe the material in a slightly different way may help clarify concepts you initially found confusing or add depth to what was covered in the book.

Starting early can also help you manage those inevitable life events that are bound to throw you off track. One spring, for example, I unexpectedly needed to take time off of work and school to care for a critically ill family member. Fortunately, however, I had already written all but one of my papers in an effort to clear my schedule for a much-needed vacation. While the family illness was certainly a setback, the initiative I took to ease my workload for one reason ended up helping me adapt in the face of adversity.

Change the way you view papers

There are at least two ways to think about those pesky papers professors ask you to write. Popular opinion is that papers are a chore and that one has to bullshit through them to pass any given class. An alternative way to think of papers is to view them as opportunities to expand your expertise in a subject. Before you dismiss this suggestion, first consider how you might feel about writing a paper on a topic you actually care about. Then, align your current assignment with your interests as much as possible.

Writing papers will be a chore if you don’t care about the topic you are writing about. That’s why topic selection is so important; a topic you enjoy will provide you with the motivation to do the necessary research and, ultimately, to become invested in your written work. Once you care about the paper you are writing, it ceases to be an obligation and transforms the paper writing process into an intellectual journey that is worthy of your time.

If you’re writing a paper for a class you have no interest in whatsoever, try to frame your topic as one that seeks to refute the discipline you loathe. For example, if you’re in a philosophy class (assuming you hate philosophy) and you've been assigned a paper on a philosophical subject, try as best you can to argue against the views espoused by the philosophers covered in your class. In other words, caring for your topic doesn't necessarily have to be an exercise filled with positive emotions. To care about something merely means that you must devote serious attention to it; it doesn't imply that the object of your attention evokes your deepest passions. It is possible to direct your hatred of a subject into a constructive form of caring in the sense that you can devote serious attention to refuting a topic for which you otherwise have no good use. It isn't an optimal approach, but it’ll get you through the assignment.

Of course, if you choose to write about what you hate, you’ll have to be extra careful to ensure that you've followed the directions provided by your professor. Incoherent rants do not make great papers. But, as long as you fulfill your professor’s expectations in terms of what questions to answer, what content to discuss, etc, there is no reason why you can’t make your grievances with a subject area known to your professor. If nothing else, it may motivate some interesting classroom dialogue.

Test yourself

I don’t mean this in the abstract sense, as in “test your limits” or some other nonsense. I mean actually test yourself, as in write up a multiple choice test just for you, set it aside for a while, and take it after you've forgotten most of the questions you wrote. While there are a number of good reasons to bemoan the existence of multiple choice tests, there is a point to this exercise — and it isn't just about learning the answers to your test questions.

The process of writing a test will be more valuable to you than the experience of taking the test at a later time. In order to write the test, you’ll have to review the material you want the test to cover. Reading can sometimes become a passive exercise, but reading for the purpose of writing your own test questions forces you to interact with the material in a different way. Thus, while taking your own test may prove useless in the end, actually writing the test may help you engage with the course content in way that helps you remember what you've learned and facilitates your ability to differentiate between similar concepts.

These are just a few strategies that have helped me achieve success as a working college student. There are certainly an abundance of other strategies that may also help. For example, actually attending class, taking notes, and not taking tests while hung over are probably sound suggestions. But, if you’re the type of person who reads essays like this, you’re probably not in need of such basic instructions. Or maybe you do need to hear those things. What do I know?

Best of luck to you on your educational endeavors.