Off to College

Off to College

Off to College – A Simple Guide to Success

(dedicated to my sibling who is headed to college this fall)


The potential of the new school year always invigorates me…


So many young people are off to college this fall and a lot of them don’t know what to expect at all. In the fall of 1991 I was just like them – I was a first generation college student who’s only real experiences with college revolved around attending college football games and watching movies where the Dean’s car inevitably ended up on top of a building. My college experiences to that point were deeply shaped by John Belushi and Rodney Dangerfield and much less impacted by any academic that I knew.


As a result, I nearly failed out of college and this wasn’t for a lack of trying. However, I didn’t know what trying in college looked like, I didn’t know what studying looked like, and I didn’t recognize that hijinks wasn’t my first job, but rather attending classes was what mattered.


I eventually figured out that if I did three things I would get good grades and I became superstitious and obsessive about these things – but doing these things led me from the brink of failing out to earning a Ph.D. and now being a faculty member at one of the nation’s great universities.


  • Go to class. It seems so simple, but going to class was a hard thing for me – especially because I was up late at night trying to be involved in the hijinks and trying to be popular, but once I started going to class my grades started improving.
  • Take notes by hand. Write down lots and lots of notes – you may never use them, but take a ton of notes and write out questions that the lecture or other material spawns. Take lots of notes. Then if you want to really get ahead, transcribe these notes into typed documents – this is a form of studying as you get to interact with the material a second time. Try and transcribe these materials within 24 hours of hearing them. (For the really industrious you might consider, if it is allowed, selling your typed note sets).
  • Get to know your Professors. Make sure you get to know them and they you (in a good way). Go to their office hours, ask questions, try to answer in class, and thank them for things that you enjoy or spark your curiosity.


Like I mentioned I was obsessive about these things and my grades went up and up. I was never the smartest person in the room, but I knew I could outwork other people and these three things became my job. I later took on a few more things and this is where my career turned from trying to finish school to really succeeding at school and that happened when I made the leap with these few things:


  • Recognize that it’s not about the grade but about the process of learning. Once you quit working for a grade, but rather work to increase your own knowledge you will truly be getting a great deal out of college and surprisingly the grades will then take care of themselves.
  • Do the reading. The books are assigned for a reason and they may not be tested, quizzed, or discussed, but being involved with thoughts that are related to the lectures or other class activities helps you to expand your mind. Your mind is looking to make connections and a lot of times those connections can be found in the reading.
  • Use your resources! A lot of the learning that can go on in college happens outside of the classroom. So join a club, set-up a group study / review group, volunteer, get to know the graduate students and by all means use the University Counseling Center, the Writing Center, and other resource centers, Hall Assistants / Directors, etc. Too often college students make the mistake that the resource centers are for those who are struggling, but if you go inside any of the resource centers on any campus in this country you’ll find that the resource center is really filled with those who are about to succeed!


Doing those things helped me to succeed and I’m certain that doing those things will help any student who is looking to change their life and their patterns. It’s not about being smart it’s about goal setting and follow through and in that process hopefully students discover themselves.


Too often I hear of students making the mistake that I almost made when I started college which was having too much fun and not getting enough work done. If I could offer one more piece of advice it would be:


  • Have fun in moderation. If school is your 45-50 hour a week job this leaves only a little time for other work, exercise, sleep, and play. You can work hard now and play a bit throughout your lifetime or you can play hard now and work a great deal throughout your lifetime – the choice is yours.


I’m truly excited to greet the next class of freshman to arrive at our university in a few weeks. I hope they’re excited too and moreover, I hope they’re making a plan to be successful, safe, and happy in their new environments!

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Brian S Collier, Ph.D.
107 Sandner Hall - Office 206M
University of Notre Dame
Notre Dame, IN 46556