The 5 Critical Mistakes College Students Make

06/02/2014 11:33 am ET | Updated Aug 02, 2014
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Two students email a professor asking for help getting a job. The professor says yes to a student with bad grades, and no to the student with straight A's. Why?

There are secret rules to academic life. Students who know the rules win, others lose. These rules are invisible to most students, and there is no college course that explains the hidden paths to success.

We have taught more than ten thousand students at Harvard, the University of Michigan, MIT, Pepperdine, UC Irvine, UCLA, and Chapman University. Day after day we observe students wasting effort in self-defeating activities. They study the wrong material, perform below their potential on exams, and miss myriad opportunities.

Here are 5 mistakes students should avoid.

Mistake 1: Go to your professor when you need something.

"Hey Prof, I am in trouble and need your help." All too frequently this is how we meet students, particularly late in the semester.

It is much better is to introduce yourself before you need help. For example, swing by office hours in the first week of the course, and spend 53 seconds saying, "Hi Professor, my name is Natalie. I am a linguistics major from Dallas. I am just stopping by to tell you that I enjoyed the first lecture, and am excited for the course." It is easier to get a favor from someone you already know.

Mistake 2: After a bad exam, resolve to work harder.

What would you do if you received an F on an exam? One response is to do more problems, read more of the textbook, and generally do more of everything. While admirable, such a response fails to capitalize on the information in the exam.

A better response is to work smarter, not harder. Students should study their bad exams -- like a crime scene -- and determine the professor's style of writing exams. Some professors write exams based on the textbook, some on the lecture notes, and others use automated tools to create exams. Study the exam. Learn the professor's exam-writing modus operandi.

Mistake 3: Facebook in lecture.

"Mr. Smith, what do you think about the efficient market hypothesis?" we asked once during class. The student was texting, and responded with, "Wait a minute, let me finish sending this text." While most students' behavior is not so egregious, Facebook and other e-distractions are ubiquitous and insidious.

All too often, students come to class physically, but are not present mentally. We suggest that students buy a notebook and pen, and turn off all electronics in class.

Mistake 4: Attend office hours to get answers.

Students frequently attend office hours to review content from homework or exams. This is a waste because there are better ways to get answers.

Office hours present the unique opportunity to ask the professor non-content questions. What are the most compelling mysteries in your field today? If you could change students' behavior in one way to improve their college experience, what would it be?

Mistake 5: Be satisfied when you earn an A.

Grades are very important. However, there are many other outcomes that a professor can provide independent from, and often more important than, the grade.

A student sought our help obtaining a job in a subfield of economics. She was an A student with an undergraduate degree from Yale. We could have gotten her a job in a few minutes, yet we did not help. Why? Because, she violated the secret rules, wasted our time, and was annoying. This losing behavior would have made her a poor employee.


Professors have dreams, hopes, financial pressures, competitors, and, most of all, feelings. The more the student understands the Professor's world, the better the outcome.

Learn the secret rules of college and win.