Defining Success

A college education is aligned with greater success in many areas of life. Are there patterns of success you strive for but aren’t yet reaching? Where might you shore up your support? What strategies can you use to achieve success in your college endeavors?

Personal Responsibility for Success

A college education is aligned with greater success in many areas of life. While enrolled in college, most students are closely focused on making it through the next class or passing the next test. It can be easy to lose sight of the overall role that education plays in life. But sometimes it helps to recall what a truly great step forward you are taking!

It is also important to recognize, though, that some students do not succeed in college and drop out within the first year. Sometimes this is due to financial problems or a personal or family crisis. But most of the time students drop out because they’re having trouble passing their courses.

In this section, we examine the elements of college success. Are there patterns of success you strive for but aren’t yet reaching? Where might you shore up your support? What strategies can you use to achieve success in your college endeavors?

Defining Success in College

How do you define college success? The definition really depends on you. You might think that “success” is earning an associate’s degree or attending classes in a four-year college. Maybe success is a bachelor’s or master’s degree or a doctorate. Maybe success means receiving a certificate of completion or finishing skill-based training.

You might be thinking of other measures of college success, too – like grades. For example, you may be unhappy with anything less than an A in a course, although maybe this depends on the difficulty of the subject. As long as you pass with a C, you may be perfectly content. But no matter how you define personal success, you probably would not think it means earning a D or lower grade in a class.

If most students believe that passing a class is the minimum requirement for “success,” and if most students want to be successful in their courses, why aren’t more college students consistently successful in the classroom?

Perhaps some common misconceptions are at play. For example, we often hear students say, “I just can’t do it!” or “I am not good at math,” or “I guess college is not for me...,” or “I am not smart enough.” But these explanations for success or failure are not necessarily accurate. Considerable research into college success reveals that having difficulty in or failing in college courses usually has nothing to do with intellect. More often success depends on how fully a student embraces and masters the following seven strategies:

  1. Learn how to take effective notes in class.
  2. Review the text and your reading notes prior to class.
  3. Participate in class discussion and maybe even join a study group.
  4. Go to office hours and ask your instructor questions.
  5. Give yourself enough time to research, write, and edit your essays in manageable stages.
  6. Take advantage of online or on-campus academic support resources.
  7. Spend sufficient time studying.

So if you feel you are not smart enough for college, ask yourself if you can implement some of these skills. Can you make more time for learning? One approach is to create a regular study schedule and make sure you allot ample time. Most college success experts agree that students should study two hours outside of class for every hour in class. Only break away from your committed schedule if an extreme situation prevents you from sticking to it.

Another strategy to consider implementing is group study. For example, rather than relying just on your own knowledge, notes, and skills, try studying with other students in your difficult classes. Studying in a group gives every group member a chance to ask questions and talk about concepts.

You can also add a tutor to your study group. You will really be able to notice a positive difference. Tutoring is generally free in college, and the strategies and knowledge you gain will be invaluable. Usually tutors have taken the class you are currently enrolled in, and they are trained to get the best out of you.

Overall, students struggle in college not because of natural intellect or smarts, but because of time management, organization, and lack of quality study time. The good news is that there are ways to combat this, specifically by doing things like creating a regular study schedule, studying in groups, and taking advantage of your school’s academic resources, like a tutoring center, instructor office hours, and any available online help.

How Grades Play a Role in Shaping Success

In a recent online discussion at a student-support Web site, a college freshman posted the following concern about how serious he should be about getting good grades:

As a first semester freshman, I really have taken my education seriously. I’ve studied and done my homework nightly and have read all of the assignments. So far, I have all A’s in my classes, including calculus and programming. Now, with a month left to go in the semester, I feel myself slipping a bit on my studies. I blow off readings and homework more to go out at night during the week and I’ve even skipped a few classes to attend major sporting events. I also travel most weekends with a sports team that I joined. Still, I’ve gotten A’s on the exams even with these less extensive study habits, although not as high as before. So, my question really is this. Should I just be content with low A’s and B’s and enjoy myself during college, or should I strive to achieve all A’s?

How would you answer this student’s question, given what what you know and sense about college life? Grades do matter to your success, right? they? The answer depends on who you ask and what your college and career goals are.

To help you answer, take this quick self-assessment about your college goals and beyond. Put a checkmark in the Yes or No column next to items in the “I Want to Be Able to . . .” column.

I Want to Be Able to... YES NO
Change my major during my college years
Have good relationships with my professors
Be eligible for financial aid
Be eligible for scholarships
Get awards
Be a resident assistant (RA) in my dorm
Get reductions on my car insurance
Prove to my employer that I can work hard
Keep my parents happy
Get a free master’s degree

You may be surprised to learn that each reason on this list directly relates to your grades – even changing your major. For example, colleges typically have a minimum GPA requirement to switch majors. Consider these additional factors:

    • Undergraduate grades have been shown to have a positive impact on getting full-time employment in your career in a position appropriate to your degree.
    • Grades also have been shown to have a positive net impact on your occupational status and earnings.
    • Getting good grades, particularly in the first year of college, is important to your academic success throughout your college years.
    • Grades are probably the best predictors of your persistence, your ability to graduate, and your prospects for enrolling in graduate school.

You stand to gain immeasurably when you earn good grades.

Your Grade-Point Average (GPA)

Grades may not be the be-all and end-all in college life. But to the degree that you believe they can help you achieve your greatest goals, you will pay close attention to them and to your GPA.

Your GPA is a calculated average of the letter grades you earn correlated on a 0 to 4.0 or 5.0 scale. Each semester you receive a GPA based on the grades you earned in all of your classes during that semester. You also maintain a cumulative GPA – an ongoing average of all your semester grades beginning with freshman year.

Many institutions provide students with an online GPA calculator. Use the calculator to keep track of where you stand. Your college may also publish data on the average GPA of your fellow students. Sometimes it’s nice to know where you stand relative to your peers.

Words of Wisdom

It is important to know that college success is a responsibility shared with your institution. Above all, your college must provide you with stimulating classroom experiences that encourage you to devote more time and effort to your learning. Additional institutional factors in your success include the following:

    • High standards and expectations for your performance.
    • Assessment and timely feedback.
    • Peer support.
    • Encouragement and support for you to explore human differences.
    • Emphasis on your first college year.
    • Respect for diverse ways of knowing.
    • Integrating prior learning and experience.
    • Academic support programs tailored to your needs.
    • Ongoing application of learned skills.
    • Active learning.
    • Out-of-class contact with faculty.

Ensuring Success In Your First Year

Support Structures for First-Year Students

Why is the first year of college so important? So much happens that year! Shouldn’t there be a grace period for the newest students to get acclimated to college before the pressure sets in?

The fact is that the first year of college is the most crucial time in your college life. So much is happening, but it serves to establish your trajectory to success. Consider the following typical first-year experiences, all of which strategically support students during this critical make-or-break period.

  • Orientation

Most first-year students attend an orientation program, which typically leads to the following results:

    • Students participate in more educationally enriching activities.
    • Students perceive the campus environment to be more supportive.
    • Students have greater developmental gains during their first year of college.
    • Students are more satisfied with their overall college experience.

  • First-Year Seminars

First-year seminars may be of the “orientation to college” variety; others may be based on your curriculum. Students who participate in these seminars tend to

    • Be more challenged academically.
    • Be more active and collaborative in learning activities.
    • Interact more frequently with faculty.
    • Think of the campus environment as being more supportive.
    • Gain more from their first year of college.
    • Make greater use of campus services.

  • Advising

The quality of academic advising is the single most powerful predictor of your satisfaction with the campus environment. First-year students who rate their advising as good or excellent

    • Are more likely to interact with faculty in various ways.
    • Perceive the institution’s environment to be more supportive.
    • Are more satisfied with their overall college experience.
    • Gain more from college in most areas.

  • Early Warning Systems

Early warning systems are especially important for students who start college with risk factors or who may be struggling academically. Midterm progress reports, course tests and other assessments, and early alert systems are most effective at helping students cope with difficulties in the first year.

  • Learning Communities

Learning communities are programs that enroll groups of students in a common set of courses. The effects of learning communities are greatest for first-year students. Students report gains in personal and social development, competence, and satisfaction with the undergraduate college experience.

  • Student Success Initiatives

Student success courses typically address issues like how to use campus support resources, manage time, study well, develop careers and skills, set goals, take tests, and take notes. The College Success course you are in right now is such an initiative.

  • Remediation

About one-third of first-year students take developmental courses to bring their academic skills up to a level that will enable them to perform well in college. Developmental courses can make the difference in a student’s decision to stay in college or drop out.

  • Grades and Your First-Year Success
    • Your freshman year accounts for a significant portion of grades that can be used in getting an internship.
    • Your freshman year can account for a significant portion of grades that matter to starting your career.
    • Top companies can have early recruitment programs that begin identifying prospective students and looking at grades as early as your sophomore year.
    • Many top clubs and major-specific honoraries on campus look at your grades in the screening process.
    • When you get good grades as a freshman, you tend to keep getting good grades as a sophomore, junior, and senior.
    • Instructors tend to give the benefit of the doubt to students who get good grades.

The best advice is to commit to making your freshman year count. Make it the absolute best. The earlier you can establish good habits during this time, the easier your future years will be—not just in college, but in your work environment, at home, and beyond.

Tips for First-Year Students Embarking on Academic Success

The following is a list of tips from a college educator for college students embarking on their journey to academic success:

    • Early is on time, on time is late, and late is unacceptable!
    • Get the book(s) and read the book(s).
    • Take notes in class and when reading for class.
    • Know your professors (email, office location, office hours, etc.) and be familiar with what is in the course syllabus.
    • Put your phone away during class.
    • Emails need a salutation, a body, and a close.
    • Don’t write the way you might text – using abbreviations and clipped sentences.
    • Never academically advise yourself.
    • Apply for scholarships – all of them.
    • Speak it into existence and keep your eyes on the prize.
    • Enjoy the ride! Cheers!

Check Your Understanding

Answer the question(s) below to see how well you understand the topics covered in the section. This short quiz does not count toward your grade, and you can retake it an unlimited number of times.

  1. What Matters to Student Success: A Review of the Literature; National Postsecondary Education Cooperative 

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Last modified: Thursday, March 28, 2019, 4:12 PM