07/29/2014 07:08 pm ET | Updated Sep 28, 2014

College Advice from the People Who Matter Most (Pt. I)

The world enjoys no shortage of advice, both good and bad, about how students can get into college. But for all the thousands of dollars that families spend on college counselors, test preparation, extracurricular activities, and the like, all of that support vanishes once students actually enroll. Fortunately, some of the best advice about how to survive, and thrive, in college is free for the taking.

The most important people at college are not roommates, coaches, drinking buddies, pledge sisters, bosses, boyfriends, or girlfriends. They aren't parents, either. All of those people matter, but those relationships aren't uniquely related to college. Professors are what separate college from the rest of the world. They are the people who have the most to give students, and who demand the most in return.

I can't fathom the mindset of someone who completes seven-plus years of rigorous schooling and then lands a job at a reputable college. Their expectations, standards, and approach to academics are far different from those of the typical high school teacher. I am, however, fortunate to have many friends who know firsthand what it's like to stand in front of a college classroom.

I asked a few of my professor friends for advice that they would give incoming college students. I told them that I did not want them to lament the shortcomings of high school education or to grumble about "kids these days." I wanted them to offer kids real insights into the demands of college, and to help smart, eager kids be as successful as possible.

The following responses come from professors in a good cross-section of academia. They all regular people who care deeply about their students' success. (And not a single one of them defines "success" in terms of salaries or career advancement.) But, their advice isn't limited to their own students - it's worth heeding, no matter where a student goes and what he or she studies. I thank all of them for their contributions.

Here's the first of two installments (please stay tuned for the next post):

Advice for Classes

Pick your classes based not just on the topic but also on the professor. Don't use Rate my Professor but rather your university's internal student evaluation system (which there should be) to find the best professors. A good professor can make almost any topic interesting and even for courses that aren't so interesting (e.g. calculus), they can make it a lot less painful.

Alison Coil
Astrophysics & Space Sciences
University of California, San Diego

Try for curiosity. At this stage, you get to choose your interests and invest your time/energy where you want, so do it! You also have more free time than ever before and more than you'll ever have again. Read. See plays. Learn new skills. Grow.

Don't play it safe. Take courses in disciplines that are new to you and maybe even super-difficult. Court failure and incomprehension--and see if you can overcome them.

Rachel Franklin
Population Studies
Brown University

The world belongs to those who read the syllabus.

Kent McIntosh
University of Oregon

Advice About Teachers

Learn basic email etiquette (e.g.: "Dear Professor X, [body of email] Sincerely, Student X). Do not write to your professors and TAs as if you were texting your friends. Use the words "please" and "thank you" when appropriate.

Make an effort to go to office hours. Get to know your professor and TAs, both because they can offer you valuable advice and help, and because it will be helpful for when you need letters of recommendation.

Name Withheld
Department of English
University of California, Los Angeles

Make use of your professors' office hours. Go with questions about class material, career questions, life questions. Get to know at least a few faculty while you are in college. They're just people, and not so scary once you talk with them.

Alison Coil

Be proactive. If you find that you're not understanding material in a course or not doing well on assignments and exams, talk to the professor right away. Don't put this off -- they can often help steer you in the right direction, but the earlier the better.

Some professors won't have the time of day for you, but the more you interact with them, the easier it will be to find the ones you click with. These will be the people who do practical, necessary stuff like write letters of recommendation. They are also sources of advice and even friendship.

Rachel Franklin

There's more where these came from. Read Part II here.