When I was a sophomore at Spelman College, I was enrolled in a group dynamics class. It was a psychology class all about group relations and interactions. Every group project and exam I scored over a B+. When final grades were posted, I was shocked. I did not receive an A; I got a B.  I scheduled an appointment with the professor and had all my grades with me as proof that I deserved an A. The professor asked me if I read the syllabus.  In my head, I thought “the syllawhat? That piece of paper that was handed out the first day of class? Never looked at it.” Turns out, class participation was 20% of the grade. Duh, it was a group dynamics class. I was disappointed that in spite of my good grades, I was left with a B. It was a lesson that I took with me all throughout college and graduate school; read the syllabus, get to know your professors, and participate.

Though finals are in a week or so, I thought I could provide some advice that might help for future semesters or post-grad.

I could give you my own college tips and tricks, but I thought, why not get some feedback from my colleaguesDr. Robert Brinkmann is a professor of geology, environment, and sustainability, director of sustainability studies,  and   director of sustainability research at the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University and Dr. Christopher Niedt is an assistant professor of applied social research and academic director of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University. 

You might recognize them from the Vision Long Island and Van Jones panel posts. I also sometimes blog on Dr. Brinkmann’s sustainability blog On the Brink. 

I asked each of them “what do you wish students knew?” Their responses were insightful. In no particular order, these are 11 things Professors Brinkmann and Niedt wished students knew.

1.  Develop long term goals. 

It is easy to focus on one day at a time or one semester at a time. Professor Brinkmann advises that students “develop a sense of long-term goals that go beyond individual classes.  Recognize that you can have an impact now while you are in school.  This is the only time in your life when you will have the opportunity to explore ideas openly without external pressure.  Figure out your values, your personal ethics.  While it has little to do with succeeding in individual classes, it has everything to do with providing enhanced value to your classes and long term success.”

2. Get to know professors. 

I had a lot of great professors in college and graduate school. I wished I told them that and kept in touch with them, because they can be great mentors. The relationship between student and professor can be productive. Professor Brinkmann believes professors “have your back if you give them a chance.”

3. Participate. 

If you are a freshman or an underclassman in an upper level course, it can be intimidating to participate. Professor Niedt suggests taking “advantage of office hours – whether you have questions about a project, the class, a reading: just go.  If you’re shy about participating in class, try dropping by office hours for a few minutes to talk about the readings.  It may make you more confident when you’re in the thick of the classroom discussion.” Professor Niedt humorously added he would highlight this with a thick, black Sharpie.

4. Read the syllabus. 

You already know my experience, but Professor Brinkmann candidly added “The syllabus matters.  Don’t be late with assignments.  Let your professor know if things get f’d up in your life.  They might just cut you a break.”  Professor Niedt also humorously added he would highlight this with a thick, black Sharpie.

5. Do the assigned reading. 

If you ever do read your syllabus, take a look at the last page. Usually there is a list of assigned or suggested readings. Professor Brinkmann suggests taking “cues from your professor about what matters on the exam. Take the time to do the assigned reading. It is there so you can add depth to essay questions.” Professor Niedt added “if you can figure out ways to be creative with your assignments, you’ll get more out of them, and you’ll delight your professors.  You should get their blessing first, but they’ll usually give it to you.”

6. Do not plagiarize. 

I think every school has a code of conduct and plagiarism policy. I’ve written posts about how to cite sources and how you have to cite yourself. Professor Niedt feels strongly about plagiarism stating “don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t plagiarize.  Err on the side of over-citing your sources.  Don’t plagiarize.  Please don’t.  It’s epidemic in higher education, but we professors actually catch many of our students.  Even in “minor” cases, and even when your professor does not administer strong penalties, at the VERY least your relationship with that professor is damaged.  Fairly or not, professors talk to one another, and your relationship with other professors may be affected without your knowledge.  So don’t do it.  You can recover from “mediocre”, and from “late”, but not from plagiarized.  If do you get away with it, it will haunt you, if you’re a person of integrity.  I had a good friend of mine confess that he had bought papers during senior year, and that he feels that his college degree is fraudulent.  He told me this almost ten years after we had graduated.  Don’t do it.”

7. Turn in a draft assignment. 

If you are not a procrastinator, it does not hurt to ask your professor to review a rough draft of assignments. I never thought of doing this in college, but Professor Niedt suggests “if your professor offers to review a rough draft of the final paper, take it.  You can also ask professors who haven’t offered, but be polite about it – ask them face-to-face, offer to give them a rough draft at least two weeks before the final due date, and be graceful about it if they say “no”.  (Keep in mind that they’re doing you a favor.)  A good rule of thumb for the Fall semester might be that if you do ask the professor to review a rough draft, try to do so before Thanksgiving.  And in general, whenever a professor gives you feedback, do your best to incorporate it.  This includes detailed comments about style and mechanics.”

8. Don’t be a party animal. 

Unfortunately, this is one piece of advice, I would not have been able to follow in college. I partied. A lot. Professor Brinkmann thinks becoming a hermit might be helpful. “Life starts again after finals.  Don’t give in to the holiday temptations or various social events that come this time of year.  It will make celebrating that much more fun when you are done.”

9.  Exercise and sleep well. 

Stay active in college. Don’t gain the “Freshman 15” and join intramural clubs. Gym memberships cost on average 50 dollars a month, while in college take advantage of the free fitness centers. I know it is tough, but try to go to bed before midnight.

10.  Make lists. 

It feels great to make a list and cross off accomplished feats. Professor Brinkmann says “make to do lists and keep to them.”

11. Don’t beg for a grade. 

If you never showed up for a class or exam, don’t last minute beg for a better grade. Professor Brinkmann said “don’t send last minute emails pleading your case.  Also, do not address emails to professors that start with, “Hey,” “Hey Prof”, or your professor’s first name.  While it shouldn’t matter, it does.  Be formal in emails with professors.”

What a great list! Do you work in academia? What would you add?


An urban planning PhD student finding  peace in creating a balance between the mind, body, soul, & environment.

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