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From our answers to questions from readers...

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Tips for the College Bound


"What is important to tell incoming students?"


As a former and sometime college teacher in both undergrad and grad school, I can offer a few tips. Some may seem obvious, but it is surprising how many students forget the basics.

Sign up early if you can.

1) The best sections of a course are usually the first sections; the worst is the last section. While the last section can indeed have a wonderful professor and excellent students, it is also true that often the very best students are more concentrated in the first-filled sections. They were committed to take the class earlier than the students who signed up late, and sometimes that same commitment to education carries over after registration. So, if you want a better chance of having a greater percentage of serious students in the section with you, try to sign up early.

Educate yourself about plagiarism, then don't do it.

2) Don't even think of plagiarizing. You *will* get caught. It is actually much easier just to do things right with quotes and references than it is to plagiarize successfully. If you are in doubt about a passage, ask the teacher *before* you hand in the assignment.

In college, it is (usually) assumed you can write your own sentences. Except when summarizing a long passage, there is no advantage at all to so-called paraphrasing. It is far better to give a properly quoted and referenced direct quotation. These actually count in your favor!

If a piece of text, even just a phrase, is on the Web, the teacher *will* know you took it if you don't put it in quotes and give a reference.

If a piece of text is not on the Internet, don't bet on the professor not having already read it. Many professors are very well-read in their fields. I remember one hapless student who copied most of his paper from a 1960s engineering book. Little did he know it was here on my shelf.

Remember if a piece of text or even a list or outline is good enough to plagiarize, your teacher probably already knows about it.

It is so much easier just to always give credit where credit is due!

And teachers do not usually take kindly to the many hours of extra work they have to do to document and process each instance of plagiarism. There were many reasons my heart always sank every time a student handed in something copied. :(

I strongly recommend taking this short free tutorial on how to avoid plagiarism.

The tutorial only takes about 30-60 minutes but has been shown to be a great help. Do not assume you already know the rules about plagiarism. Some of the issues are subtle. Take the tutorial, and repeat it every term as a refresher.

Start work on each assignment as soon as you can.

3) Speaking of due dates: the best students start assignments, reading, papers, etc., early and work on them on a continuing basis. If you leave the work until the last minute, there is little time to ask questions, get interim feedback, or even get a second chance at an assignment before the due date.

Hand in interim versions of assignments if allowed, for early feedback.

4) You may approach most teachers with interim versions of a paper or assignment to make sure you are on the right track. Why wait until after the due date to find out you took a wrong turn? But always first ask politely!

Learn by teaching. Teach somebody.

5) There is no better way to learn something than by teaching it to someone else.

If you can't find another student who wants your help, seek out another victim, however unlikely. If necessary, teach the subject to your child or younger sibling or employee or lunch buddy.

Show the other person how to do something from your class. Explain to him or her the who, what, where, why, and how of a concept from your assignment. But definitely teach someone else what you are trying to learn. This is highly effective.

Explain and check your work.

6) For each assignment, double- and triple-check that your work meets every requirement before you turn it in. Even check the obvious: are your name and section on the paper or file?

Make a checklist of all the things you were to do. It can even help if you attach or include the checklist with or in your assignment, with an explicit explanation next to each requirement about how you fulfilled it.

This sounds like overkill but can make a teacher much more friendly about allowing a re-do in case you missed a requirement or two. This also demonstrates organization--not a bad trait--and can even make it easier for the teacher to do the grading.

You should also explain your thinking.

On multiple-choice questions, write an additional little explanation of your reasoning, especially next to those questions that seemed unclear, tricky, or difficult.

This holds true for math, too. Here's some advice from a successful math major:

In math homework and tests, write out all the steps, and give a written explanation of your reasoning for each step. Many math problems are missed because of skipped steps. At least half of doing well in math in school is (surprise!) English. Most of the rest of doing math is being neat and careful. Very little "math" is involved.

In all this writing, be very neat, not just for the teacher but also for yourself. Many math problems are missed because copying errors were made from one step to the next.

Explaining all the steps of your reasoning can also result in more partial credit being given, even when your answer was wrong.

Keep extra copies of all your work.

7) Make sure you keep backup copies of everything you turn in, just in case. Be prepared. Anything can happen.

Never pass up an opportunity for extra credit or make-up credit.

8) Most students who failed a class had passed up multiple opportunities to catch up and to make up missed work and failed tests. The best way to make sure you don't fail is to stay in very close communication with your teacher on an ongoing basis.

If you do badly on a test or assignment, ask the teacher nicely whether he or she has any advice for you, and whether there is any way you might be able to make it up.

In case of emergency or illness, talk with the teacher as soon as possible.

9) If you do have a health or family or work emergency that will keep you from doing your classwork for a while, don't be shy! Contact the teacher and ask for advice on how to handle it. The earlier you ask, the better.

It is rarely ever too late. Don't give up. Ask for advice or help.

10) If somehow you forget the advice above about keeping in close communication with the teacher, all may not be lost. Strictly speaking, things are only set in stone after the teacher hands in the grades. It may not be too late to save things, get an extension, do a makeup exam, whatever. The teacher does not owe you extra chances, so be extra nice all term if you can. Honey is better than vinegar.

One caveat: the teacher has no choice about the due date for the grades being handed in; that is one fixed deadline that even the teacher has to meet. And you need to give the teacher time to compose a make-up exam or assignment--a lot of work--plus time to grade your late or make-up work. Grading well takes time. So try to help the teacher help you, and don't expect the impossible.

Build a network.

11) Much of the value of attending college, other than eventually getting a diploma, is in forging personal and professional relationships with other students, teachers, and staff. You can learn most things at home and save the tuition. But you will meet wonderful people in college--and they will meet, and remember, you. Make the most of this opportunity.

How do you want the people you meet now in college to remember you in twenty years when you are looking for a job, a contract, or a vote?

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