Surviving College

The information in the links below is also available as pdf file: Surviving College.

Surviving College Composition: A Student’s Perspective
Important Differences between High School and College
Dos and Don’ts of Success in College
Grading Criteria for College Papers

Surviving College Composition: A Student’s Perspective

by Jason Harrod

When starting as freshmen at the University of Michigan-Flint, or any university, students are often overwhelmed with warnings.  These might sound like “college is a lot harder than high school” and “you’ll have to make sacrifices to get all the work done, but it will be worth it all in the end.”  Parents, family members, or even friends that have been to college may be the source of this vague counsel.  Of course your family and friends want to see you succeed, so discounting their advice isn’t smart, as extreme as it might sound.  As an outgoing senior, I’ve learned a lot about the university experience, and none of the situations I’ve encountered needed to be solved by anything as drastic as studying all day, every day.  This essay is meant to provide insights into specific topics – responsibility, timeliness, tutoring, and class load – that an incoming freshman might not have considered.

The biggest difference between life as a university student and high school is the newfound responsibility.  Getting to school is your responsibility, as is going to class; there are no buses and no bells to signal the start and end of class periods, and in some cases, attendance may not be enforced.  Homework might not be collected.  There were days when I didn’t want to get out of bed or finish a reading assignment; I just wanted to sit in the Pavilion instead of going to class.  A few days I even managed each of those three ways to be lazy.  At the end of the semester though, I never remembered the extra hour of sleep I got that one Wednesday, or the delicious smoothie I drank in the Pavilion.  Instead, I was always disappointed that I missed out on a class discussion that would have been helpful when writing the final paper.  Still, it’s all up to you; no one is your boss here.  But there are people who notice what you do, and how you do it.

Besides attendance, maintaining a high quality of work is an important responsibility.  And like attendance, no one will force you to hold your work to a high standard.  Not procrastinating is the best way to maintain quality.  The more time you allow yourself to get even the shortest paper completed the better.  You may find you need to ask the professor a question about the assignment, or you need to do more research than you expected.  None of these possibilities can be addressed if you started writing the paper on the due date.  Revision is another step that cannot occur if not given time.  Sure, a bit of last minute time is enough to find surface errors, but a day or two to ruminate on what you’ve written can generate new and better ideas.  That time can mean the difference between just getting the paper done and getting an A.

Taking more time to write a paper has other benefits.  Professors and peers are great sources of discussion when you need to talk about a paper you’re having trouble with.  Most of the time, either will be willing to spend time with you.  But, you can’t expect professors to spend all their time helping just you when they have other students and lives of their own, and your peers have their own papers to write.  Luckily for every student at the University of Michigan-Flint, there is the Marian E. Wright Writing Center, located in 308 Lib.  The tutors there won’t write the paper for you, but they will help with everything from prewriting to organization to citation.

Along with attendance and work quality, professors notice those who are routinely late or dozing.  They remember who turns in papers late, and who never says anything in class.  They can also recognize a motivated student; consistent attendance, class participation, and turning in papers on time are easy ways to get a professor to have a positive opinion of you.  I’m not suggesting that a professor’s opinion of you will decide your grade, but it might make getting a deadline extension easier if the professor knows slacking is not your norm.  Your fellow students also form opinions of you and of each other based on the same factors.  They won’t want to be paired with you for group work, loan you notes from classes you missed, or discuss assignments with you if they think you don’t take the class seriously.

Blackboard is a great place to earn the respect of your peers and professor and gain useful knowledge while outside of class.  You can log in to Blackboard from, and see a list of all your classes.  Each of your classes will have its own page with class announcements, assignments, and discussion boards.  Some professors use Blackboard more than others, and some will require participation on the discussion boards.  Whether participation is required or not, you can still post on the discussion boards to identify yourself as an active member of class.  On-line discussions with classmates and the professor (if s/he chooses to participate, too) can only help you to be more prepared for class discussions, writing papers, and taking exams.  

Once you’re actually in class, there is another factor that can lead to be taken seriously, or not so seriously – your cell phone.  To say almost everyone has one is not an unfair claim, so you’re unlikely to be asked not to bring yours to class.  Plus, with Internet and file storage capabilities, cell phones can be a useful tool to have on campus.  But, be considerate.  Leave the ringer on vibrate or silent.  Just wait until the first time someone has to dig through his bag to stop his favorite song from overpowering the discussion; you’ll understand then how annoying it can be for everyone in class.

Now you know that it is important to turn in great papers on time and to earn respect from your professors and classmates.  The only thing left is to make sure you’re not burying yourself under a giant class load.  Eighteen credits is the maximum amount of credit hours in which a student can enroll without special permission.  Eighteen credits is the maximum for a reason.  Every student has a point at which they cannot accomplish any more work at the quality the work needs.  This point is different for each individual student, and is defined by things like jobs, family life, commute time, or any other number of unique circumstances; twelve to fifteen credits is a pretty average range.  You have to figure out just how much you can do for yourself.  If you work, it’s especially important that you figure out how many class hours you can handle. Academic Advising has a cool chart at to help you do just that! There is a drop deadline, so it’s best to figure your limits out before that time in order not to waste tuition money.  If you’re mindful of taking a realistic course load, too much homework won’t become an issue.  Instead, you can just concentrate on studying at a pace that works best with your newly increased self-responsibility. 

There is no way an essay like this can cover every issue that might come up.  I’m only writing from my own experiences about specific aspects of university life that stood out to me.  Being as responsible, as respectful of my professors and peers, and as mindful of the quality of my own papers as I could are the things I consider most important to my success as an undergraduate student.  You might find other things are more important to your success.  If so, feel good about the fact that you’re able to recognize those factors at work within your life at the university.  Your own advice is always better to follow than the vague warnings of people who could not possibly have the same experience as you.

Important Differences between High School and College

There are two key differences between high school and college that are important to keep in mind:

  1. You are responsible for your own learning. Your teachers will give you the tools that you need to excel, but it is up to you to use them. You choose your major/minor, classes, and schedule; you choose whether you go to class, do homework or choose to seek help. Ultimately, you must set priorities and balance important responsibilities and accept the consequences for your decisions.
  2. In college you are not just given knowledge that you translate to tests, you are given information and concepts that you are expected to use and apply to new situations or to solve new kinds of problems.

Here are some specific examples:

High School
Teachers have a degree in their field and secondary teaching training and certification.  Teaching is a main requirement of their jobs.  This means that they are accessible all during the school day and can regularly be found in their classroom. Professors have an advanced degree in their field. Teaching is part of their jobs, but they can also be researchers. This means that they may not always be on campus and have no regular classroom. However, professors do have an office and consistent hours that they are available in their office and will let you know the best way to contact them.
Parents are often very involved in the education of their children. When you turn eighteen you are considered an adult. When this happens, your record cannot be shared with parents without your consent.
There are consistent rules and consequences for tardiness/absences. Professors determine their own class policies. This allows them to construct their classroom in a way that best fits their teaching strategies and subject. However, many professors take and grade attendance, so it can affect your grade even more so than in high school.  No matter the individual grading policy, missing class means missing important information that will help you to do well in the course.
Teachers will often contact you and/or your parents when you are struggling. Late work is often accepted and extra credit given. You are expected to keep a copy of, and follow, the syllabus, that explains class policies and requirements and often gives assignments and grading scales. You are responsible for keeping yourself on track in the course. This means that if you are struggling, you are expected to take the initiative to ask questions and/or contact the professor for help. Late work is often not accepted and extra credit is rarely given.
If you miss class, your teacher will let you make up your work and help you to do so. If you miss class, you are expected to get notes from another student. Much of what is done in class cannot be made up.
You might study little outside of class and/or have class time to work on projects/assignments. You are expected to study at least 2 to 3 hours for every hour in class. This means that for a 3 credit class you could have 6-9 hours of homework a week (often more for a writing course!).
When you are given reading and/or assignments, these are often discussed in class. You are usually told what you need to know from assigned work. You will be given reading and assignments that might not be addressed in class or even checked, but that does not mean that the information is not important. Lectures and in-class assignments are given with the assumption that you have completed and understood your homework.
You are often rewarded in high school for a good-faith effort. Though professors do respect students who are making a good-faith effort, effort does not guarantee good results.
Many assignments usually make up your grade.

Grades are usually comprised of a few major tests and/or papers.

You often may not get out of your seat or leave class without permission of the instructor. You do not have to get permission to leave the room. But you must do so quietly. Professors will not tolerate students who are disruptive to the class. Being disruptive can affect your grade. You should also know that like arriving late, there may be penalties for leaving early and not attending the entire class session.

Cheating and/or plagiarism might have minimal consequences. You might be allowed to retake the test/resubmit the work.

Academic misconduct has serious consequences that could range from not passing the assignment to not passing the course. Repeated offenses might result in expulsion and can go on your permanent record.


Do’s and Don’ts of Success in College

DO take advantage of all services offered to you, such as advising, tutoring and the Writing Center.

DO consider college an opportunity and not a requirement.

DO worry about grades, but do not consider them the only indicator of learning.

DO NOT try to do too much at once. Think quality over quantity. If you try to work full time and go to school full time, something will suffer, possibly your health, your grades, and/or your job.

DO ask for help if you are struggling, and get to know your professors. They will help out if asked but will not seek you out.

DO remember that failing a class means paying to take it again.

Remember: Some of the most successful students in college are those who are not only hard working, organized and responsible, but are those who also have a good attitude.

Grading Criteria for College Papers

These are general guidelines for how college writing assignments are graded. Individual expectations of faculty will be described in their syllabi and assignment sheets. Always refer to those documents and if you have questions, ask your professor!

An Outstanding Paper

Excellent work, much above average. There are no notable problems or shortcomings in the thesis, development, organization, clarity, coherence, style, or documentation of the paper. There are very few (if any) problems in mechanics (spelling, punctuation, and grammar) and none that are distracting or glaring. Moreover, the paper makes a clear, forceful, intelligent statement and adheres well to the directions. It is interesting to read. It is convincing. It completely satisfies the assignment. It is an outstanding paper in nearly all aspects.

A Good Paper

Good work, above average. There are one or two problems or shortcomings worth noting, but these are relatively minor or isolated. For example, there might be a paragraph or two that need more support or development, or there might be a few too many mechanical problems, but overall the paper is successful; it has much more right with it than wrong. Might be a little too short but otherwise outstanding.

An Average Paper

Uneven work, average or slightly below. The paper has its strong points, but there is a serious problem or shortcoming in at least one area (usually in the thesis, development, organization, clarity, or documentation, although widespread or glaring errors in mechanics could also cause a paper to receive this score). The paper is less convincing than is should be. It may not satisfy all parts of the assignment. It needs significant rethinking and rewriting.

A Poor Paper

Poor work, clearly below average. This paper would earn a failing grade in an ABCN class. There are problems or shortcomings in two or more areas. Often the problems obscure the message the paper is trying to get across or otherwise might confuse the reader. The strong points are few. The paper might totally disregard part(s) of the assignment. Usually the paper shows very little effort, or simply does not conform to the assignment in important ways. Lack of original thought. Serious documentation problems or no documentation.