08/26/2012 09:10 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

5 More Things Every First-Semester College Student Should Do

Co-authored with Douglas Dechow

Last week, we offered advice for students starting their first semester of college. This week, we get to some practical advice that no one else may bother to mention to you.

1. Buy the books required for the courses you're taking.

To our surprise, some students don't buy books, or don't buy all the books for a given course. The purchase is an investment in the larger intellectual community as well as an investment in yourself. Trying to get all the information from class lectures and off the Web puts you at a disadvantage.

Books are required for courses because instructors want you to study them. We know they can be costly, so we choose carefully. These texts contain information, examples, and perspectives from which you can learn. And books are designed for sustained attention and long-term retention; they connect information and ideas. Whether it's electronic or print, a book you have in your hands is easier to read--and read again.

If you can't afford to buy the books, suggest to your professor that he or she put them on reserve at the library. If the library doesn't have them, find out about interlibrary loan right away; it's a great service that gives you access to materials beyond your own campus, though it can take some time.

2. Use the appropriate title when addressing your instructors.

Some instructors will give you clues as you how to address them. One might say, "I'm John Doe. You're welcome to call me by my first name." Others will introduce themselves as "Dr. Lastname"; a doctorate is something many of us have worked hard to earn.

2012-08-26-ChapmanU.jpgBut many instructors won't give you a clear signal on what to call them. When in doubt, call an instructor "Professor Lastname." If you know that the professor has a doctorate, using the title "Dr." is appropriate, but if you don't know for sure, avoid it. Whatever you do, don't use "Mrs." or "Miss" unless your professor introduces herself that way; marital status is not relevant to your professor's job.

If you don't know your instructor's name, look at the top of the syllabus. Actually, read the whole syllabus carefully, since those are the rules of that particular academic road.

3. When sending email, use the subject line (wisely). When sending an attachment, name the file wisely.

Imagine your professor waking up, pouring herself a cup of coffee, and opening her email to make sure she responds to the most important messages before her first class. Three messages have no subject, three messages use "hi" in the subject line, and three messages state "ENG 204 - question about reading." Which do you think she will answer first, then file away neatly in her ENG 204 email folder so that she can refer back to conversations with students as the semester goes on?

Imagine your professor has given the class an extension on a writing assignment. He has told students that they can each email him the paper as an attachment by noon the next day. After lunch, he opens his email, quickly downloading one attachment from each message his students have sent. He closes his email and looks at his computer desktop to find 18 files with the file name "paper.doc" and one document with the file name "ENG204#1Lastname." Though he is not ready to grade the papers--we actually call them essays in college--he spends a half-hour opening each file to see who sent it, then changing the file name and checking off the submissions in his grade book.

In other words, put yourself in the recipient's position when you decide how to format email messages and attachments. That's a small gesture of empathy that's really useful. These seemingly small steps will cultivate good habits for your future career, too.

4. Take notes.

Many students these days don't take notes, and that's a shame. Note-taking doesn't just provide a record to which you can refer back when studying for an exam, though that's important. Note-taking helps you pay attention in the moment.

2012-08-26-DeskWork.JPGNote-taking requires that you listen with intent and that you write ideas and information down (or type those into a laptop or electronic device). In other words, you engage three senses in your learning--hearing, sight, and touch.

If you're not good at taking notes, ask for guidance at your university's writing center or library. Even if your instructor makes lecture notes available, take your own notes during the lecture so that you can compare the two sets and figure out whether you're paying attention to the most important content.

5. Silence your cell phone during class and other campus events.

Sometimes, there exists good reason to leave your phone on. Maybe your kid is home alone or your mom is in the hospital. If that's the case, you can let the professor know that you might need to step outside if you receive a call. Otherwise, turn off your phone.

Don't text while driving, and don't text in class. Even if you hold the phone under your desk, we know what you're up to, and it's not paying attention to what's happening in class.

Don't distract others. Don't distract yourself. That goes for cell phones, but it's also a good general attitude. Students are in college to learn. Of course, socializing is fun and important, too. When it comes to your courses, though, stay focused and help others do the same.

Note: Both authors teach and work at Chapman University in California.