How to Succeed in College (Involves Trying)

Beyond the fall rituals of moving in, finding classes, and getting involved on campus, there are “unwritten” rules for succeeding in college.

Here are some tips from “The Secret Curriculum: A Guide to the Unwritten Rules of College Success” by Chapman University Associate Professor Terry Burnham and co-author Jay Phelan:

  • Arriving at university without having chosen a major may be better.
  • Have a four-year action plan, including extracurricular activities and how you will spend the summer.
  • Have goals for different aspects of your life: academics, career progress, fitness, finances, and personal. Remember to have fun.
  • Make daily and weekly to-do lists to encourage progress and refine your behavior.
  • Choose quality instructors.
  • Use instructors’ office hours wisely.
  • Make a good impression on your instructors and remember that they are people too. Try to understand their world and perspective.
  • Have meaningful relationships with instructors – Develop at least one mentor and play the long game for future letters of recommendation.
  • Take your own notes, develop questions, use practice tests, and space out study times.
  • Maximize your exam points by anticipating what will be on your exam and answering accurately and concisely.
  • Be methodical and understanding and have fun writing essays. Allow time for reviews.
  • Build resilience by analyzing and accepting failures, including test scores, and learning from them.

Burnham, who has a Ph.D. in business economics from Harvard, spoke to incoming students on Zoom during Chapman’s orientation week.

“If you’re traveling you should get a guide, if you’re going to a restaurant you should go to Yelp, but the most important things in life are done by trial and error,” he said.

He advised freshmen to find “a guide, a mentor — it’s great to find someone or some source of information who’s been through this before you.”

He writes in “The Secret Curriculum” that he had no clear direction in college even though his father wanted him to be a doctor. He took time off from school and worked a variety of jobs.

It was “only after taking a day laboring job in a slaughterhouse and standing waist-deep among bloodied corpses that I had the epiphany that maybe college wasn’t so bad,” he writes.

“You can be forgiven for assuming that two Harvard Ph.D.s must have been through the school and therefore cannot understand the problems of typical students,” Burnham and Phelan write. “This couldn’t be further from the truth. We’ve certainly had some great results but, for the most part, we’ve been depressingly average in the mistakes we’ve made.

Leave a Comment