Notes for Undergraduate Success

Originally published 17 October 2016 but lost in the Great Server Mistake of 2017.

Some notes prepared for an undergraduate group-mentoring session.

There’s no great mystery to college success. All–or almost all–professors want you to succeed. All–or almost all–students want you to succeed. All–or almost all–of the people in your life want you to succeed. The only things you have to do in order to succeed is to build on that foundation in order to put the time and effort in to mastering course material, figuring out what you want to study, establishing how that relates to your goals for success later on in life, defining what “success” means to you, paying for college somehow, having a social life, broadening your horizons…

Well, you get the idea. At the 100,000-foot level, college success is pretty simple. You’re among the most favored people in the history of the human species. But up close and personal, the fact that you can afford to spend four (or however many…) years investing in yourself and your society doesn’t change the fact that succeeding in college is still hard.

It’s a time-honored tradition for older generations to try to pass down their hard-won wisdom to the young. You should be aware, as always, for all of the biases of advice. People rarely give you the whole story–and they even more rarely put themselves in a light that makes them appear bad. People gloss over difficulties and reaffirm platitudes, even though difficulties crop up when the platitudes fail. And everyone forgets to update their understanding of social context to account for the fact that decades (or, perhaps, just one decade) has passed since they last went through the ritual they’re describing.

With that said, here are my notes on how to succeed in college–from the standpoint of a current professor and a former student. For study tips and more traditional guidance, I highly recommend Cal Newport’s blog. For the social sciences, I tend to agree with Chris Blattman, but not on everything.

Do the reading.

Even before going to class, this is the most important one. Doing the reading isn’t optional–it is the class. If you start getting into a habit of doing the reading before going to the lecture for which it’s assigned, then you will immediately get much more from lectures than if you try to do all the reading all at once.

If you don’t like the reading, change the class–or the major.

After two or three classes in a subject, you should have a good sense about whether you like the reading that tends to be assigned in that discipline. If you don’t like it, and you don’t have a passion for that subject outside of the reading, then you are in the wrong major. This is a secret because nobody–certainly no student–ever says that they enjoyed last night’s assigned readings. But the people who are thriving in a course are thriving because they enjoy it. If you really hate what you’re doing, then you are literally wasting your life.

Fail more.

Don’t fail courses. But fail in the sense of trying something to see if you like it — and then finding you don’t like it. At 18-22, you will probably have little sense of what it is that you do like.  The only way for you to succeed is to proceed by trial and error–and the “error” part is going to feel like failure much of the time. But that’s okay! You should be failing — because if you don’t know the difference between success and failure, how do you know if you’re succeeding or failing?

Go to office hours.

Everyone says this, and nobody does it. But it really is essential. Professors (mostly) enjoy their topics, and they want to share their knowledge with you. If you’re not going to office hours, then you’re missing out on the chance to see an adult person who enjoys something so much that they’re willing to spend their waking hours working on it. Maybe you might take something away from that exposure.

Join one–or two–extracurricular activities.

If you’ve never done an extracurricular activity, college is a great time to start: the budgets are bigger, the audience is larger, and the freedom is much greater than in high school. Finding a club or two to be a part of is a great way to figure out how to fit in — and if you don’t like the first ones you try, then just keep trying.  But don’t do more than that: this isn’t high school, and your studies should come first.

Do the work. In advance.

Everyone, professors included, has stories about pulling all-nighters to finish term papers or other assignments. These are regarded as cherished stories of endurance and heroism. But really they’re stories of people who didn’t plan well. Try, try, try to plan your work and reading so that you can minimize the number of heroic stories you have.

Question what your parents taught you.

Your parents are people too. That should mean, by the time you roll into college, that you are ready to question much of what they’ve taught you about life. Sometimes you’ll find that you arrive at different answers than they did. Mostly, however, you won’t. But it’s better for you to arrive at your own answers, whether you agree or disagree with them. Because you’re also a person, with every much a right to your own opinions as your parents.

Question what your friends say.

Your friends are also people, and you will learn a lot from them. But keep listening to yourself about the advice and lessons they give, explicitly or implicitly. After all, they’re also people–but they don’t have all that much more experience than you do. (With that said, keep in touch with your friends–you will probably make more of them in college than at any other time in your life.)

Budget your time.


The one thing you have as much of as Bill Gates is time. Don’t be afraid to “waste” time every now and then. But don’t also fall into the trap of only doing things when other people tell you to. Sometimes, you need to be your own friend who tells you when to let go and relax–and sometimes you need to be your own boss who tells you to buckle down or else. (PS This never ends.)

Watch your money.

If you have a lot of money, you can afford to skip this section. If you’re like the rest of us…you can’t. The thing about money is that it’s finite. Invest in personal finance software (I use YNAB)–or at the very least learn how to budget. This applies especially if money is tight–it might feel like this is pointless, but if you don’t have much money you need to be smarter about budgeting it. (Oh, and in the future–vote for politicians who adequately fund higher education.)

Take stats classes.

You should take at least one statistics course, and really also one computer science course, while you’re an undergraduate. I don’t care if you’re a “math person” or not: stats and computer science are the core of all modern institutions. Not knowing how they work is akin to declaring your pride in being illiterate.

Put your laptop away during class.

Research backs up every instructor’s intuition that students who use laptops during their classes take worse notes, have worse recall, and get worse grades than students who handwrite their notes. (Confession: I took awful notes in undergrad, except in econ — and guess which classes I remember best now?)

Keep a running tab of opinions and beliefs that change during college.

Whenever an opinion of yours changes, make sure to keep a note of it, even if only mentally. If you find at the end of every semester or year you haven’t changed your mind about something, then you are probably missing out on something important. The point of four years of freedom is to get you to change your mind, not to just get better at doing the same old things you’ve always done.

Figure out what “success” means to you.

This is the biggest one, and I’ve kept it for last. Don’t take anyone else’s description of “success” as binding for you. Maybe success for you looks like being able to run a 4-minute mile or winning a Rhodes scholarship; maybe it means really understanding quantum mechanics; maybe it means just finishing and/or getting a job. All of these are valid. Work hard on defining success for yourself, and keep questioning your definition — but never, ever, let someone else make you feel bad because you didn’t live up to their definition of success. It’s your life. Make it successful by your lights.