Starting College this Fall? 10 Things a Professor Wants You to Know

For those of us in higher education, new life doesn’t begin in spring, it begins in fall. That’s when leaves flutter to the ground, the days get colder, and new students appear on campus. It’s a time when the freshman class move in with their posters, mini fridges, and hopes for the future. Will they like their roommate? Have they chosen the right college? How tough are classes, really?

I’ve been a professor for almost two decades and at this point in my career I’ve taught thousands of students. I love what I do. And every year, without fail, I get excited to see a roll call of strangers registered for my classes. Who are these people? What are their interests and worries? Going to college isn’t just about cracking open books — it’s also about learning the architecture of who you are. Most high school graduates don’t know what to expect from college. Oh sure, we’ve all seen college life depicted in movies, but what’s the first semester actually like? What follows are ten things that most professors would like incoming students to know.

1. We’re Happy You’re Here

No matter where you’ve chosen to go, you’ve placed your trust in a specific institution. At one point in time you nodded your head and said, “Yes, this campus feels right.” You’ve made a big decision about your future and it’s one that your professors do not take lightly. You’ll never hear the long discussions we have behind closed doors about improving our classes to make sure everything runs smoothly, but these things happen. You’re the reason we teach. Welcome.

2. It’s Okay to be Nervous

Your fellow students may look cool and calm about starting college but deep down they’re as uneasy as you are. That guy in the baseball hat? The one in the back row that just yawned and rolled his eyes in boredom? Yeah, he’s nervous too. Want to know something else? I suspect it will come as a surprise even though it’s 100% true: your professors are a little nervous as well. The first day of class is full of energy and anxiety for everyone. But being nervous is good. It means that you’re trying new things, meeting new people, and exploring new ideas. Being nervous means that you’re out of your comfort zone. This is good. It means that you’re learning.

3. Leave the Letter Jacket at Home

When you’re packing up your bedroom and thinking about what you’ll need, you will definitely not need a jacket emblazoned with your accomplishments in high school. No one cares what you did in high school. Sure, sure, those things helped get you into college, but that chapter of your life is over. The page has turned. As you walk around your new campus, think about the university you’ve just joined. That’s what matters now. Jump in. Make it yours.

4. What’s in a Name?

Your professors will have different feelings about what they’d like to be called. Some will want the full respect of their title (e.g. Dr. Stevens or Dr. Fowles) while others will be fine if you use their first name. Me personally? I’d rather be called Patrick instead of Dr. Hicks. Other professors will feel differently so I’d recommend using the full title in your first few meetings or whenever you send an email. Because we’re experts in our field, the “Dr.” in front of our names required a lot of work. Getting a doctorate meant years of school and research and personal sacrifice and dedication. We worked hard for those two letters and whenever we hear “Mr.” or “Ms.” instead of “Dr.” it sounds like you don’t understand what it means to be a professor. Just as you wouldn’t waltz into a courtroom and call a judge by her first name — that would be insulting — many professors will want you to use the honorific in front of their names. Rule of thumb? Be formal.

5. Speaking of which…

One of the many things we’re trying to teach you in college is how to be formal, self-reliant, and professional. For this reason, we want you to meet deadlines and get your work in on time. When you start a career, you won’t have the luxury of turning in sloppy or late work (at least, not if you want to keep that job for very long). From the moment you step onto campus, think of college as a training ground. Success is built on showing up and doing excellent work. If there’s a family emergency or if your life is imploding for reasons beyond your control, come to us and we’ll point you in the right direction to get help. In America we like to believe that success is a solo act. It isn’t though. We all need people around us to offer support. Your professors can steer you in helpful directions when you feel rudderless.

6. Failure is Your Friend

We’re a society that loves winners and doesn’t have much time for those who stumble. We focus on success and we idolize victory. And yet it’s only by stumbling — by failing — that we learn to pick ourselves up and try again. This isn’t very fun to think about though. We tend to gloss over the fist-clenching frustration of not getting something right and wanting to throw a book against a wall. So let me say this in capital letters: IT IS OKAY TO FAIL. You won’t get everything right the first time but, as long as you keep on trying, your professors will be there to help. What? You think we got this far without being knocked down a few times? We know that failure is a key ingredient of success. Failure helps you learn. Failure makes you better. Don’t be too hard on yourself when you get a bad grade. This will happen in college. Pick yourself up. Dust yourself off. Make the next assignment better.

7. Go Away

I don’t mean this figuratively, I mean it literally. Go away. Get out of my face. Get lost. In other words, study abroad. The idea of living in another country for a semester might not even be on your radar during your first semester at college, and yet what I’m about to say next is packed full of truth. Between the ages of 18 and 22 you will have more freedom than you will ever have again. After graduation you’ll be thinking of a career, a mortgage, health insurance, perhaps marriage and children, but during this slender band of time when you’re in college you can explore other countries. Make the most of it. Why not live in London, Seoul, or Buenos Aires? If it’s at all possible, pack your bags for a semester and study in a foreign country. When you’re in your 50s, you’ll smile at the fact that you once called Paris home. Or maybe Barcelona? Tokyo? Caracas? Do yourself a favor and get on a plane. Explore. Become a foreigner.

8. Take Charge of Your Education

As a professor, I’ve never understood what I call the “back row slackers”. You’ve seen them before. They’re in the back, looking bored, not taking notes and, while their body might be in class, they are mentally elsewhere. Don’t be a back row slacker. Take charge of your education. This isn’t about pleasing your professors or being a suck up; this is about putting yourself in the driver’s seat of your life and taking personal responsibility for what needs to be learned. Be curious. Ask questions. You’re surrounded by experts so tap into their knowledge. I’m not saying you need to be a bookworm all the time — have fun, party, stay up late, laugh, join clubs, do goofy things — but remember that your first job in college is to ask tough questions of yourself and your future.

9. Speaking of Money

Let’s talk about something uncomfortable for a minute. College is not a customer service industry. Your professors are there to give you an education and this means you’ll be exposed to ideas that are challenging and sometimes hard to grasp. Our job is to give you what you need, not what you want. Let me tell you a quick story. I had a student not long ago that jokingly said (I think she was nervous) that she paid my salary and, therefore, had some kind of dominion over what should be taught. “No,” I said. “You don’t pay my salary. The university pays my salary. You pay to be in my class.” Put another way, if I visited my physician and said, “Hey, I pay your salary so this is what I want my diet to look like,” he could nod and tell me that my idea of eating pizza all day and drinking a six pack is great for my health. This will make me very happy, but it’s not what I need. It’s his job to tell me to put down the deep fried jalapeño poppers and start eating more kale. I hate kale — ugh — but he’s right to steer me in this direction. Do you see what I mean? Your professors aren’t there to tell you what you want; we’re there to educate you, and this means pushing your boundaries. Think of us like coaches. You may not want to do that extra lap or spend another hour in the weight room, but we’re training your brain for the future. Go to the library. Read the assignments. Hit the bio lab. And when you get grumpy with us, which you will, remember that we’re on your side. We’re your mentors, we want you to succeed and…well…let’s move on to the next point.

10. Setting Your Brain on Fire

I can almost promise that at least one professor is going to change your life. It might happen in an English class, a government class, or maybe in physics — who knows? But at some point in time, you will enter a classroom and your brain will be set on fire. An unknown professor will kick open doors you didn’t know existed and they’ll shake things up with new ideas. The world will appear more vibrant, more colorful, and you’ll look forward to this class. A giant lightbulb has been switched on and you’ll find yourself doing extra work because you want the answers — not the professor — you. And as the years roll by, you might find yourself inviting this professor to your wedding, and sending updates about what you’re doing, and asking if they’ll be around for homecoming. When you look back on your college experience, you’ll think about this one class…the class that changed everything.

11 (Bonus Point): You’ll be Missed

Graduation is one of the best days of the year and it’s also one of the most bittersweet. While I’m cheering for my students who walk across the stage for their hard-earned diplomas, I’m also aware that I may not see many of them again, especially if they are international students. So consider this simple truth: you will be missed. In fact, years after you’re gone, sometimes we see your ghost walking across campus or we remember a joke that you cracked in class or we recall that time you busted your hump to get a bio-chem experiment right. Incoming students often remind us of those who have moved on to new adventures. You change us just as much as we change you. And so, as you pack up your bags to start college this fall, be excited about entering the classroom. It’s one of the greatest places on earth.

Patrick Hicks is the author of The Commandant of Lubizec: A Novel of the Holocaust and Operation Reinhard , The Collector of Names , and Adoptable . He is a Professor of English at Augustana University and a faculty member at the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College. His website is www.patrickhicks.org