How To Succeed In Academia By Really, Truly Trying: Advice from Professors, for Students

This past Fall, I found that many more of my students than is usually the case were struggling–struggling with work/life balance, struggling with extra-academic issues affecting their work, struggling to keep up with their coursework, struggling to pay attention in class, struggling to do the bare minimum, struggling to master concepts, struggling to do quality research, struggling to write a decent paper, struggling to earn a passing grade–the term, across the board, was A Struggle.

As I often do, I turned to the Academic Hivemind (AKA Twitter and Facebook) to reflect on why this might be, and what I might do to support my students with good advice and counsel. And as is most often the case, many colleagues responded with thoughtful suggestions. Here are the responses professors gave a fellow professor when asked simply: What is the one piece of advice you would offer your students?


The NUMBER ONE response, from Dr. Natalie Grinnell, Wofford College; Dr. Saskia Beranek; Dr. Elizabeth Rambo, Campbell University; Professor Brian Croteau, Thomas Nelson Community College; Dr. Kat Tracy, Longwood University; Dr. Kara McShane, Ursinus College; and Dr. Richard Newhauser, Arizona State University, is a twinned piece of advice: Read and follow the directions, and Read the Syllabus.


…from Professor Michael Smith, Allamance Community College: When I speak, listen. You don’t have to agree but at least listen because I often answer questions in class that you are going to ask later…like, you know…thirty minutes before the paper is due.

…from Dr. Calliope Schnell, Lindenwood University: Remember it’s YOUR education; it is wise to invest yourself in it. Professors are not your enemies.

… from Dr. Mary Valante, Appalachian State University: Be an active learner and participant in your classes, your education, your life.

… from Sharrieff De’Johnette, formerly at Virginia State University: Practice self-care; get plenty of rest, eat 3 meals, talk with friends in person, listen to music, don’t try to follow every trend.

…from Dr. Daniel O’Sullivan, University of Mississippi: Read all assignments out loud to yourself before submitting. Spellcheck is not enough!

… from Heather Frost, Santa Catalina School: Keep perspective. A long view will keep you on the path you have chosen.

… from Dr. Emily Steiner, University of Pennsylvania: There is no need to double major.

…from Dr. Carissa Harris, Temple University: Self-care and what that entails: get sleep, move your body, get fresh air, eat things that come from the earth, drink water, be kind to yourselves and to others.

…from Dr. Alan Baragona, James Madison University: Don’t try to guess what your professor wants and then try to tailor your response to that. Start with your own reaction to a piece of literature, then examine the text to see what triggered that response and whether you can defend it with the preponderance of textual or historical evidence.

Also, a rule of thumb to balance correctness with finding your own voice: don’t write just anything you would say, but never write anything you wouldn’t say in your normal speech. Read what you write out loud. If it sounds like you, it’s your voice. That also makes it harder to try to spout what you don’t believe but think will get you an A.

…from Dr. Michele Scott James, MiraCosta College: Pay attention: due dates, instructions, and thesis creation!

As far as I can tell, based on the answers I received and the discussions that ensued, what we are all trying to say to you, our students, is this:

Above All: SLOW DOWN. While learning to selectively read and to skim for important information is an important skill, don’t skim everything, and while learning to complete tasks and assignments efficiently is likewise an important skill, don’t dash through every assignment. Leave yourself the time you need to be thorough, especially when beginning (read the syllabus, and all descriptions and directions for each assignment) and completing (double-check everything you submit for completion, for errors in formatting, mechanics, and usage, and to ensure it has uploaded to Canvas, where applicable). The number-one and the costliest error students make in terms of their grades, is carelessness and lack of attention to detail. Cultivate care and attention to detail in your work, particularly at the beginning and end stages of each assignment, and you will reap the best possible outcome.

What about you? What advice would you give to college students heading into a new term?



About Melissa Ridley Elmes

Professor and writer; Unrepentant nerd; chaotic good. Author of Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems. PhD, MFA. She/hers. Views my own.
This entry was posted in Academia, Teaching and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to How To Succeed In Academia By Really, Truly Trying: Advice from Professors, for Students

  1. Tammy Jones says:

    Hi Dr. Elmes,
    I have some advice for all college students (young and non-traditional students) Make a list the week before of everything you need to accomplish in each class.(study time, homework, rough draft, etc whatever the case may be) Make sure to appropriate time for each class. And above all, try to abide by your list. I started making lists when I returned to college and it helped me keep my sanity and maintain a great GPA. It also feels so good to mark off things to do as “done”

    And please do not get discouraged if you were not able to check everything off your list. Maybe some family or medical emergency prevented you from reading all of Beowulf or reviewing French. Do not stress – that is the worst thing that you can do. Instead, communicate with your professors. I have went to several professors with concerns and I am glad that I did.

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