The Top Five Things Professors Think New Students Should Know

To most students here at St. Mary’s, this week is just the beginning of another year of classes, but to some, this is the first week ever of college level classes.  For the benefit of those new students, numerous professors from across the campus were interviewed via email about the top five things they think new students should know as they embark upon their first year here at St. Mary’s.

Surprisingly, the lists submitted from professors across all different disciplines were very similar.  The following is a compilation of the top five most common pieces of advice.


1.  Take advantage of office hours, ask questions, and be respectful.

The concept of office hours may be brand new to many first-year students.  Office hours are a scheduled time when a professor is required to be in his or her office to receive any and all questions from students that may not have been covered during class.  Leah Eller, Assistant Professor of Chemistry, says, “Don’t be shy about approaching your professors … The professor is your conduit to understanding, so go talk to them.”  Samantha Elliott, Assistant Professor of Biology, agrees, saying that professors are “here because we like to teach and interact with students.”

It is also important to ask questions as soon as something seems unclear.  “To those who don’t feel like they know what they should be doing or what their professors expect of them, they should ask questions. Don’t try to feel your way in the dark. If you don’t understand ask questions until you do,” says Charles Musgrove, Assistant Professor of History. Lois Stover, Professor of Education, says, “As soon as things start to fall apart, get in touch.”

A way to really show respect to all professors is to address them properly.  “Don’t call your female professors ‘Mrs.’ unless they ask you to do so. Use ‘Prof.’ or ‘Dr,’” says Joanna Bartow, Associate Professor of Spanish.  While some professors are fine with students addressing them by first name, it is important to receive permission to do this before making any assumptions.


2.  Read the syllabus, get organized, and don’t procrastinate.

One way that college is different from many high school classes is that homework may not necessarily be explicitly assigned at each lecture, but instead may be pre-scheduled on the syllabus. “I can’t emphasize the importance of the syllabus enough.  And reading the syllabus,” Eller says.  A syllabus can outline anything from homework assignments to class policies.  The location of a professor’s office will be on the syllabus, along with the schedule of their office hours.

Making a calendar and keeping everything organized is a great way to stay on top of things and to also stay stress-free.  “Make time for schoolwork.  If your brain works best in the morning, set aside that time for work.  If you’re most productive at night, block out a couple hours then for reading/homework.  It can really help to know that a certain time every day is devoted to being productive,” says Scott Mirabile, Assistant Professor of Psychology.

“Get a planning calendar at the beginning of the semester and enter all due dates from all your syllabi on that. Use color-coding for exams, homework, and research papers,” says Linda Hall, Professor of History.  Having all coursework recorded in one place is a great way to make sure that important assignments are not forgotten.

Reading the syllabus can also provide students with a way to get ahead on homework and project assignments.  It is especially important not to procrastinate.  Christine Adams, Professor of History, says, “If possible, get ahead on your reading and homework.  You will not be less busy later in the semester.”


3.  Be open to different kinds of people and new subjects.

Coming to a liberal arts college gives students the rare chance to take lots of different classes and learn about things that are outside of their major.  “College is a unique opportunity for personal growth.  Be open to new ideas and experiences,” says Elliott.

The core curriculum at St. Mary’s requires that students take classes across many different content areas, a few of which may be outside the interest areas of some students.  For example, some students dislike math or natural science, and dread going to these sorts of classes.  As a way to get through these, Bartow says to “maintain your interest, and a positive attitude, by thinking about how that class’s information or methodology connects with things you already like.”

“Go out of your way to meet people who are different from you. You’ve left your familiar environment, so take advantage to meet new people and do new things,” says Bartow.  St. Mary’s is a place full of diversity and different schools of thought, so be open to all these things. “Fitting in is overrated. Stop trying,” says David Kung, Associate Professor of Mathematics.


4. Get involved around campus.

It is important to get involved in extracurricular activities on campus, but it is even more important to find a balance between these activities and academics.  It may be tempting to join every club that seems interesting, but it is important to remember that there is only so much time in a day.  “Be a joiner,” says Matthew Fehrs, Assistant Professor of Political Science, “Studies repeatedly link participation in such groups with better grades and a more enjoyable college experience.”

As a way to stay organized and only choose a manageable number of activities, Elliott advises picking “one or two extracurricular activities that you are particularly passionate about and concentrate on those.”

Extracurricular activities are not only about enhancing one’s resumé, they are also about “building people skills, team-work skills, and leadership skills.  Joining a club, team, or other organization can be a gateway into an awesome group of friends, can expose you to new interests and possible career options, and can help you grow as a person,” says Mirabile.

Another way to gain people skills is to make sure to stay present during all activities, both academic and extra-curricular. “Put down the cell phone and stop texting once in a while. Be friendly and interact with people around you,” says Bartow.


5.  Work hard and embrace challenges.

“Don’t be afraid to fail. Failure can be one of the greatest inspirations in your life. Be afraid of giving up,” says Alan Jamieson, Assistant Professor of Computer Science.  College level academics may seem daunting at first, but it is important not to feel intimidated by them.  “High school was easy for most of the students here, but no one expects college to be,” says Eller.

Every class will be different.  Some subjects may feel easier than others, and some may feel impossible.  Different levels of work may be required for different kinds of classes, and professors may have varying expectations for their students.  “There is no formula for how much you need to study—it depends on the class and the individual.  But, you often get out of a class what you put into it,” says Elliott.

As a class progresses, material tends to build on itself, becoming more difficult and complicated.  Andrew Koch, Associate Professor of Chemistry, says, “Start studying while the material is still easy.  It makes the transition into the harder stuff easier.”


On top of all these things, it is also important to remember that college is a time to make new friends and have fun.  “College is a wholly unique experience in a person’s life, an experience that one cannot fully appreciate until it’s over,” says Mirabile.  Though it is essential to schedule time for extracurricular activities and all the homework assignments found on the syllabus, it is also important to make time to relax and have fun. Jamieson says, “Enjoy your college years. It’ll be one of the times in your life when you’re the most free.”  Mirabile agrees, saying, “Make time for fun!  College is, by far, the most fun you’ll ever have in 4 years… until you retire.”

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