How to Graduate from College on Time: Part II

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In Part I of this two-part article, I told you about four mistakes that prevent so many college students from succeeding in their courses and graduating on time. However, you need to know more, understanding not only what goes wrong but how to avoid these pitfalls. This article focuses on the “how.” There’s a lot to cover, and to keep this article brief, I’m going to give you straight talk, with no sugar coating. You’ll see for yourself how these solutions merge and fit together like puzzle pieces.

Solution #1: Get the right college attitude—be college smart

Let’s start with leaving high school attitudes behind and understanding college as a completely new and different learning experience. What’s the main academic difference? College courses require twice the learning in half the time. Most of this learning is done independently, outside the classroom. So you have to develop new ideas, both about learning and using your time.

Learning is a process that requires dedicated study time. College students are expected to leave class and learn what their professors tell them to learn. In other words, college students are expected to actively pursue knowledge. Here’s a college motto for you: “You can’t learn without studying.” Sounds obvious, right? But what does that really mean?

In college, learning cannot be a passive process, as it often is in high school. Too often high school students complain that their courses are “boring.” They wait for subjects and teachers to become more interesting, and then they’ll study. The truth is that because teens don’t study daily, they don’t feel really “connected” in their classes. When you’re really hoping that teachers will simply uncork a hole in your head and pour in knowledge during class, it’s completely passive. That doesn’t help with the boring.

In college, however, students cannot sit around waiting for knowledge to come to them. Professors expect students to leave class and immerse themselves in the learning process. If college students are waiting for a professor to pour knowledge into their heads, they’re in for a long wait. The responsibility for learning has shifted to the students.

So how do you make the change from a passive experience to an active college learning routine? It requires a change of attitude, a change in the way you think about your education.

You begin by taking responsibility for your own learning successes and failures. No one can make you interested in what you’re asked to learn. Nobody can make you study. It’s all up to you, your dedication to being proactive about your education. Do it right, and you’ll succeed.

If you need motivation to study in college, think of this: if you succeed in college, you’re likely to succeed in whatever comes next, whether it’s a career or job, or perhaps more education.

Solutions #2 and #3: Set goals and organize your days “to get the job done”

In Part I, I talked about the goal of graduating on time. The four solutions in this article are some of the goals you must achieve that will help make it happen.

Solution #1 is setting the goal of becoming an active learner, a college-smart student. Solution #2 is the first in a series of three more solutions (goals.) They give you a system, a means, to succeed as an active learner:

  1. Manage your time and your work to reach your goals.
  2. Understand the connection between every day and your future.
  3. Decide on good major for yourself—do it as soon as possible.

To achieve these goals, you have to get your life together, and that means getting organized by creating and following a daily and a weekly study schedule. Forget your high school habits. In high school, if studying was fourth or fifth on your daily to-do list, college will be a big change for you. College is a time to set new priorities.

As I said in Part 1, every good college expects its students to make studying and learning a full-time job—that is, 30–40 hours each week. That’s why you need a schedule; otherwise you’ll find yourself procrastinating and letting time slip through your fingers. The result? You’ll be playing “catch-up” in all your courses, getting unexpectedly low grades, dropping courses that are “too hard,” and quickly becoming overwhelmed. Managing your time is a big deal in college.

Following a college study schedule may mean turning your life upside down. Has your high school life consisted mainly of texting on your cell phone, cruising the Internet, updating your Facebook page, reading your friends’ updates, and watching television—all the while listening to “whatever” through your earphones?

In college, all those things have to be pushed aside until you’re finished studying. Leaving high school habits behind you will mean getting “unplugged.”

Getting into a college study schedule may be difficult at first, but when you sit down and prepare a daily and weekly study schedule for yourself, you’ve made a great start. Here’s how.

  1. Use a planner (paper or electronic) that shows all the days of the week and all the hours of each day. First, block out the hours that you sleep. From Sunday night through Thursday night, you should be sleeping at least seven hours a night—from 12:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m. Weekends may be different, but getting a good night’s sleep is very important when you have classes the next day. Whether you believe it or not, the research shows that effects of sleep deprivation affect your power to concentrate!
  2. Fill in your planner with your class schedule. In fact, when you register for classes, spread out class times when possible. That way you can use the time between classes to review your notes, so you’re always ready for the next class. Treat those break times as part of your 30–40-hour “work week,” doing homework, reviewing notes, and studying—don’t waste that time just hanging out.
  3. Schedule time to eat regularly. Schools at all levels preach “a healthy body means a healthy mind,” and college is no different. Eat well and take care of yourself. Schedule in some exercise too.
  4. Finally, total the hours you will study. Make sure you’re studying at least 30–40 hours each week. Prime study hours are from 7:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m., Sunday through Thursday. In addition, study between classes. And don’t neglect the weekends. You’ll use them to plug in “extra” study time when workloads are heavy or when tests and assignments are due in a single week.

To recap, everything you do should be accounted for in your schedule, including “free time” to hang out with friends or just relax. Your study times are sacred. If you start making exceptions and cancelling study times, you’ll quickly fall apart.

Remember this important fact. In college, studying and learning are a full-time job. The work you do each day earns high grades. High grades are the “salary” you get for your efforts. You use this salary to buy your future.

Succeeding in college centers on wanting to be successful, with wanting to get ahead and stay ahead. How do you do that? We’re back to setting goals: short-term and long-term goals. In fact, you can say that by keeping your mind on the future, you’ll know what to do right now in the present.

Think of that weekly schedule you so carefully prepared. Now you have to stick to it. Following your schedule is a short-term goal, and you must achieve it every day. Want another short-term goal? Going to class each day. Seems simple, but you’d be surprised how many students get into the habit of skipping classes. Another goal: Stay on top of things. If you have a quiz and earn a low grade, what do you do? Set a goal of making sure it doesn’t happen again by resolving to study that subject more/better and talk to the professor to get help. Catch the problem early. You move yourself toward your future one day at a time, and it takes drive to reach your goals. Think of yourself as an academic athlete.

Solution #4: Look ahead—don’t delay choosing a major

Long-term goals look further ahead. We already know that graduating on time is a very important long-term goal. Here are some others you must achieve first. Do you have a major? If so, is it the right one for you? If you have doubts about a major, do something about that right away — during your freshman year. Don’t listen to people who say, “Just wait. Some semester you’ll happen to take a course that really interests you, and then you’ll have your major.” That advice is a sure-fire formula to stretch your stay in college to six or more years.

Deciding on a major always requires advice from professionals. When you start college, you’re assigned an adviser. Start talking with that person right away about a major. This adviser may send you to other advisers around campus. What’s more, all colleges have counseling centers and career offices with advisers to help you. And, of course, there are professors in major departments who can tell you about a certain major. Go talk to these people. Using you communication skills is essential to finding the right academic direction for yourself.

Selecting a major that you really like is a crucial goal. And goals such as getting the most out of that major and your college education help you achieve even longer-term goals, like these:

  • What are you going to do after you earn your degree? What comes next? You need to start thinking about a career and setting goals to get there.
  • What kind of job would you like for yourself? Do you see yourself working in areas of business, technology, education, law, medicine, social service?
  • The goal of deciding on a career area for yourself, even if it’s fairly general, affects so many of your other goals. Particular career areas might require particular majors and degree programs. You want to get started taking these courses as soon as possible, so you graduate on time.

Also consider this point. Liberal Arts majors are usually not “career specific.” That means starting even earlier to set long-term goals for yourself. You may want to supplement your major by taking specialized business, media, or technology courses. Or you might plan for continuing your education beyond college to take “career directed” courses, or graduate programs, or professional programs, like law school.

Your goals empower you

Goals keep you focused, and they motivate you. Successful students use goals every day as a means to graduate on time and bring them closer to the future they desire.

College is a turning point in your life. A successful college education will determine whether you’ll have a direction in life to pursue, or if you’ll always be wandering around hoping something “will come to you.” You have to find your future for yourself, and the only way to do it intelligently is to set your sights on taking college seriously. Get the best education you can, and graduate on time with a great degree — a great academic credential that will open doors to your adulthood.

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