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What professors want 1st-year students to know

If you’ve passed your first couple years of high school then you’ve likely already started the universal pursuit of the college-bound: What do colleges want to see in prospective students? But while playing the game with admissions offices, most students vying for college spaces forget the people who will actually affect their academic experience the most: their college professors. And although professors don’t usually influence the admissions process, they also have expectations for incoming students.

Being a first-year college student myself, I set out to discover what my professors would have liked me to know six months ago when I got here, and even a few years before then. I interviewed three of them, each with a unique perspective on what incoming first-years should know about college, classes and life in general. (Small disclaimer: My school has a reputation for being one of most demanding in the country, so while my professors are coming from the perspective of teaching highly ambitious students in a very stressful environment, most of what they have to say is true of American colleges across the country.)

The first prof I went to see was my French professor, a native of France. She said that first and foremost she wants students who are active learners, who learn not just for grades but also for the love of knowledge. She expects them to know that they are completely responsible for themselves – and that includes taking charge of their learning. Even though she wants to see great academic curiosity, she stressed that realistic goals are paramount, and ambitious students must come to terms with the fact that they can’t do everything, and that includes not getting caught up in extracurricular activities. Although some might be tired of hearing it, she said that schoolwork must come first, even as incoming students are encouraged to branch out. 

Acknowledging that she can’t expect every student to come in with the same knowledge, she said she wants new students who possess cultural literacy, appreciate cultural differences/diversity and “know what’s out there.” She also expects them to be fully articulate (to know how to clearly communicate what they want to say). She mentioned specific experiences and abilities she wants her new students to have before they come here: English literacy, experience in at least one foreign language and experience in several social studies classes, experience in another country – even if it’s just across the border in Canada.

My advisor, a linguistics professor, had a very different take on things. His first few points were all about adjusting to a new kind of life, and he identified one of the most important changes as the new level of freedom and control: You’re in charge of yourself; no one is holding your hand any more, he said. But what’s more unnerving is the realization that you’re no longer automatically No. 1 (especially at an academically challenging college like Swarthmore). In competitive regions like northern Virginia, students pride themselves on being at the top of their class – just like almost everyone else at their new college.

A new community, he explained, can be a jolt to someone’s personal self, and new students should be aware of this. If you haven’t already learned time management, you should pick it up pretty soon. If you haven’t ever maxed yourself out, you might find your limits in college by hitting them head-on. Figuring out how to keep yourself from crashing as you near capacity, he said, is like a water sport: You find out what works best by trial and error. He also said that with deadlines, it’s important to turn in what you have on time, even if you could have done better with an extension. That way, you’ll improve your skills; perfectionism is simply not a viable part of the learning process, he said.

He thinks it’s good to keep in touch with people who can make sure you’re doing okay: Call home, talk to an advisor, a friend, a professor or someone who will lend their ear. He suggested trying out new things or things you’ve always wanted to try; doing a physical activity; and getting out to enjoy nature all as good ways to expand your horizons and grow. When faced with college, some people plunge in, he said, while others just dip their toes in, and both are good ways to adjust.

My third visit was to my anthropology professor. She stressed that new students should understand that being smart and being skilled are entirely different matters. She expects her students to know what a college essay looks like, how to read and understand a text and how to behave in a classroom, but all of these are skills that some students will be better at than others because of their own educational opportunities.

She wants incoming students to know that if you find yourself still learning how to play the game, it doesn’t mean you’re stupid: It means you’re learning. The practical challenges of academic work, the importance of keeping yourself healthy, the ability to prioritize – these are what she calls cultural capital. It’s as necessary for succeeding as being smart, and everyone has to learn it. If you’re a latecomer, the world won’t end for you.

She said that humility, tolerance and respect are all important virtues. Like my advisor, she mentioned that students often get in because they were “the best,” and then reach college to discover that everyone is used to being “the best.” But you don’t have to be the best in the class to contribute to the discussion, and besides, part of growing up is learning that being special comes from other things. Like my French professor, she felt that openness to diversity is important. Everyone comes to college with different skill sets, aptitudes and expectations. Respecting that is key, she said, because the people you meet in college, and the friends you make, are one of the most important parts of the entire experience.

Posted: Apr 01, 2011 by Alison Ryland

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