For years college feels like an endpoint, the focus of so much of our kids’ energies. But it turns out to be just a beginning. We have looked at the view of one experienced professor regarding successful students and we have asked graduates for their input as well. Now we have reviewed what experts have found through years of research and present nine findings on how freshmen can find college success.
1. Stick to Your Own Definition of Success in College
Students who did best in college were not motivated by outside factors like jobs, or grades, but rather a genuine desire to learn.
“Intrinsically motivated by their own sense of purpose, they were not demoralized by failure nor overly impressed with conventional notions of success.” “These movers and shakers didn’t achieve success by making success their goal. For them, it was a byproduct of following their intellectual curiosity, solving useful problems, and taking risks in order to learn and grow.”
2. Take One Small Class, Every Semester
Students who took one small class, defined as less than 16 students, had a higher level of engagement and actually worked harder, according to Professor Richard Light of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Another study showed that students who took a small freshman seminar (thus had an early experience in a small class setting) were less likely to drop out of school.
“Students who choose at least one small course each semester have, on the average, a significantly better overall experience than those who do not. [They] are noticeably more engaged, by their own rating, than students who take only larger classes. …Either small classes demand more time or students choose to invest more.”
3. Engage With Faculty, Early and Often
Every study seemed to confirm that students who engaged with faculty, in venues outside of the classroom, had better educational outcomes. The studies concluded that for most students, more contact with faculty was always better.
“Informal student-faculty interaction activities—being a guest in a professor’s home, working on a research project with a faculty member, talking with instructors outside of class, and serving on committees with faculty—are positively correlated with student learning and development.”
4. Don’t Just Look to Get Requirements Completed
It is tempting freshman year to look at the list of graduation requirements and to try to knock off a substantial portion of them freshman year. Professor Light suggests being careful with this strategy, because when sophomore year begins, these students have little idea of what subject matter genuinely interests them.
“When talking with freshmen, I stress this point especially heavily. I urge them not to just choose a series of large, introductory courses during freshmen year. “
5. This is Not High School, Work in Groups
In many high schools, individual work is stressed, but this is not high school. Students who seek out study groups and connect with their peers over academic content have greater academic success and satisfaction during their four years.
“Not only do students who work in small study groups outside of class commit more time to their coursework, feel more challenged by their work, and express a much higher level of personal interest in it—they are also much less likely to hesitate to seek help. The critical point is that the relationships are not merely social. They are organized to accomplish some work—a substantive exploration that students describe as “stretching” themselves. And almost without exception, students who feel they have not yet found themselves, or fully hit their stride, report that they have not developed such relationships. “
6. If it is an Option, Live on Campus Freshman Year
Every school is different and not all students are offered on-campus housing their first year or any year. But multiple studies showed that living in freshman housing increased social engagement. Students living on campus were more likely to be members of study groups and get involved in extracurricular activities, both markers for success.
“…living on campus had a direct, positive effect on learning outcomes, and educational aspirations had the greatest indirect effects on learning and intellectual development. In fact, living on campus had the greatest total effect (i.e., the combination of direct and indirect effects) on learning outcomes of any institutional characteristic. “
7. Pick the Right Friends
Students should think carefully in choosing their friends because no influence seems to be as forceful as peer group pressure. A student’s peer group, according to one study was, “’the single most potent source of influence,’ affecting virtually every aspect of development—cognitive, affective, psychological, and behavioral.”
“Peer interactions are particularly important with regard to social integration because students are more likely to stay in school when they feel comfortable and connected to other students with similar interests and aspirations. … In addition, institutions with higher levels of student social interaction also have higher levels of student educational aspirations.”
8. Parents Still Matter and Our Kids Need Our Encouragement
Even as our kids move on with their lives, it appears our influence is still very relevant. College can be a daunting and far more challenging experience that high school, requiring a great deal more self-direction. Some kids stumble their first year and can become demoralized. Research shows they are aided by a reminder that their parents’ confidence in them is undimmed and support unreserved.
“Aspirations and family support foreshadow student success. … On balance, it appears that students perform better and are more likely to succeed when their families affirm their students’ choices and encourage them to stay the course; this is especially important for underserved populations.”
9. The Effects of Success in College Linger Long After Graduation
A 2014 Gallup-Purdue University study of college graduates showed that it is a few simple things that increase the odds of turning a successful college experience into satisfying work life. Every freshman should know that the positive effects of constructive relationships with professors, meaningful work experience and extracurricular activities and in-depth academic work, can last a lifetime.
“ if graduates recalled having a professor who cared about them as a person, made them excited about learning, and encouraged them to pursue their dreams, their odds of being engaged at work more than doubled, as did their odds of thriving in all aspects of their well-being. And if graduates had an internship or job in college where they were able to apply what they were learning in the classroom, were actively involved in extracurricular activities and organizations, and worked on projects that took a semester or more to complete, their odds of being engaged at work doubled as well.”