7 Secrets of Savvy Students

by Donald Asher

What does it cost a student to go to college without any idea of how to manage the process? Perhaps a lot. Those students who have knowledgeable parents and older siblings to guide them can finesse the process, earn higher grades, get along better with faculty, solve problems with the business office, and so on. Those students who are the first in their family to go to college have no one to guide them, and their mistakes can cost them that most awesome post-college job or access to the very best graduate schools.
I was recently at a conference with a tableful of staff from undergraduate research programs, including the McNair Scholars Program, Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC), and the Summer Research Opportunity Program (SROP). Over a few adult beverages, we got to musing how nice it would be if all students knew the insider tips and techniques the best students seem to soak up from the aether.
Of course a student should study hard and master the material. We’re starting with that as a given. This is not about being smart and diligent. This is about being savvy. So from our notes scribbled on a stack of paper napkins, here is what savvy students know that others seem to miss:

  1. Grades are engineered, not earned. A savvy student wants to earn as many A’s as possible, as few B’s as possible, and C’s are to be avoided at all costs. So how do you engineer a GPA? Don’t just study—study what’s going to be on the exam. Class shop by talking a lot to students who have taken the classes you will have to take, so you can avoid boring, crazy, or arbitrarily difficult professors. Or sign up for more classes than you can possibly take, and sometime in the first two weeks drop those that look like they’re headed in the wrong direction. It won’t even show up on your transcripts. If you get a bad exam or quiz score, ask the professor what you can do to fix your performance and salvage your grade. Ask the prof if there is any method for earning extra points (sometimes there is; sometimes there isn’t). Reading an optional book, writing a short one- or two-page paper, or even just helping the prof out with mundane tasks such as setting up for class can push you back into the A column. If you’re not earning the grade you want in a class, go see the professor, get tutoring, do whatever it takes to get back on track. Or, worst case scenario, drop the class before finals. You don’t want to do this a lot, but a “WDL” or two stamped on your transcripts is much better than a low GPA. Get involved with study groups, and your GPA will go up. Take a light load during semesters when you have a known difficult class, for example, organic chemistry. Be sure to take enough of a class load that you can ditch a bad class without dropping below minimum credits, especially if you’re on financial aid or your parents are strict about the four-year plan. Remember, you cannot graduate in four years by taking the minimum load.

  3. Visit professors outside of class. Professors are people, too. They watch football, they worry about being “liked,” whether they’re gaining a few pounds, and whether they’re successful teachers. So go visit them for help. Ask them for clarification of some point they made in class. Try out your paper or lab ideas on them to see if you’re headed in the right direction. Ask them, “What’s the best way to study for the exams.” It’s probably not a great idea to focus on grades only, as in “What do I need to do to earn an A in your class?” Get them to help you be a better student!

  5. Prerequisites matter. Naïve students always want to go around prerequisites and take any class that interests them. This is unwise. Prerequisites are in place to make sure you have the skills you need to do well in a class, so skipping them is perilous. Don’t take “Population Biology” until you’ve had “Math 321” or you’ll be sorry! If you think you don’t need the prereq, go visit the professor and see what she says before you sign up for the class.

  7. Internships are required, not optional. The norm now is two internships, not just one, so you have to build these into your summers starting at the end of the sophomore year. Recruiters look at students without internships as deficient, no matter how strong the GPA and rigor of the curriculum. So earning money in the summer on a fishing boat may be great for the first summer, but those other two summers need to be used for internships to support your post-college career or grad school plans. You can find a paid internship if you need the money, or a part-time internship combined with a part-time job. Savvy students know this, and un-savvy students have gone fishing.

  9. Study abroad in the sophomore year, not the junior. The junior year is a time to concentrate on your major and getting the most out of your department. If you’re abroad, you can’t do that. Plus, some students get distracted by drinking in Naples, or that cute French guy or gal in Nice, and blow the GPA during the abroad. Grad schools and employers care most about your GPA in the final two years of college, and if you go abroad in the junior year those grades are prominent. Finally, don’t tell anyone, but in the sophomore year you’re not 21 yet. In most of the world, the drinking age, official and unofficial, is much younger than that. So….

  11. Know your rules! Read your handbook and catalog! How many credits is full time? How many classes do you have to take to major in X or minor in Y or double major in X and Y? What’s the last date to drop a class without it appearing on your transcript? Is there any place to get a short-term, emergency loan? If you retake a class, do both grades appear, or does the first grade disappear? These are the kinds of questions that your catalog and handbook answer. Here’s a massive, massive tip: the rules in the catalog that’s in place when you begin your college career often apply until you graduate, even if the rules change. So keep that catalog! Don’t rely on your advisor or your professors for rules and regulations. They often don’t know them very well, anyway, and you’re the one who pays the penalty for following bad advice.

  13. It takes the entire senior year to get launched from college. No matter what your major, the career center can help you get a job or apply to graduate school. Naïve students worry about life after college in June after they graduate. They’ve missed a huge chance. You’re only a college senior once in your life. Participate in the on-campus interview process, because it’s part of the college experience and it’s there for every undergraduate. English majors and philosophy majors can get great jobs out of college, but not if they’re hiding out in the game room dissecting Kant and Bukowski and griping about how nobody gives them a chance. Spend the entire senior year making sure that come June, you know where you’re going. That’s what the savvy students do.

NOTE TO READERS: I got flamed by some faculty when this article came out. They didn’t like the class shopping suggestion, and some denied that there were any crazy or arbitrary faculty or any faculty who were not a complete expert at the handbook at any school with which they had ever had an opportunity to affiliate. And some thought I was too glib. I stand by the article, but welcome comments about how to improve it or what should be added. I consider this particular article a work in progress, and I will be updating it over time. Check back for newer versions.

Donald Asher is the author of eleven books on careers and higher education, including Cool Colleges for the Hyper-Intelligent, Self-Directed, Late Blooming and Just Plain Different; Graduate Admissions Essays (the best-selling guide to the graduate admissions process); How to Get Any Job: Life Launch and Re-Launch for Everyone Under 30; The Overnight Resume: Fastest Way to Your Next Job; and Cracking the Hidden Job Market. He welcomes your comments at don@donaldasher.com or visit his web site at www.donaldasher.com.© 2010 Asher Associates.


© 2016 Asher Associates. Permission for any individual to use as needed. For institutional or company permission, contact don@donaldasher.com.

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