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Advice for Incoming Students
July 17, 2011 - 9:37pm

The son of some family friends is starting college this Fall. They know where I work, so they’ve asked for pointers, and I’ve shared them freely. It occurs to me that some other folks might find them useful, too. So in the spirit of openness, some advice for students starting at a community college this Fall:

1. Register and schedule ASAP, if you haven’t already. The most popular timeslots fill fast; if you snooze, you lose. A secret that many newbies don’t know: most cc’s won’t actually bill you if your financial aid application is in process. Apply for aid and register. Get a schedule that reflects your preferences and needs, rather than whatever is left over. Good intentions are great, but if you’re just not a morning person, I don’t like your chances of sticking with that 8 a.m. class for four months.

2. Let your employer, if any, know ASAP about your class schedule. The sooner you give a heads-up, the likelier you’ll be to find a mutually acceptable compromise. Drop the bomb at the last minute, and you may find yourself in a world of pain.

3. If your placement test indicates that you need “developmental” or “remedial” classes, first, ask if you can re-test. If you can, especially in math, then schedule the re-test for a week or two later and cram like you’ve never crammed before. Yes, it will hurt, but it will save you a semester and hundreds of dollars. If you can’t, or if you’re honestly so lost that you know the results are accurate, ask about “summer bridge” courses. Some cc’s offer “catchup” developmental classes over the summer, so you can start in the Fall already on track. These courses have surprisingly good success rates, and they can save you an entire semester. They’re one of the best, if least known, deals to be had in American higher education. Seek them out.

4. Once you have your schedule, go to the bookstore and find out the ISBN numbers of the books you’ll need. Then go online and look them up at Amazon, Powells, etc. In most cases, you will save a surprising amount of money. Here, again, speed is the key. If you wait until the day before classes start, you won’t have time for them to ship. Do it in July, and you’re golden. The savings could easily go well into three figures for a single semester. That’s a lot of hours at your crappy job. It’s worth the extra effort.

5. If you’re sulky because you feel a stigma attached to being at a community college, make an appointment ASAP with the college’s transfer counselor. Learn exactly which courses to take to transfer to wherever it is you’d rather be. Then sign up for courses that will get you there. In September, join a student organization or two. You’ll get much more out of school if you get involved, and the students who join those groups tend to monopolize the transfer scholarships. (Yes, there are such things.) Spend a year or two building up credentials that nobody can dispute, then cash in. Getting a four-year degree with two years at the cc tuition level, and two years with a transfer scholarship, is a damn good deal. When you get out in the real world, you’ll find that student loan payments really suck, so it’s a good strategy to minimize them upfront.

6. Transportation. Most cc’s don’t have dorms, so chances are that you’ll have to commute to and from campus. I VERY STRONGLY recommend having multiple contingency plans. If you’re like most college students, your car, if any, is an unreliable piece of crap. (Don’t be offended -- I didn’t have a non-embarrassing car until I was thirty.) That means that “car trouble” is likely. While you’re in non-emergency mode, look at alternate plans. What are the local bus routes? Do you have friends taking similar schedules to yours? To the extent that you can carpool, you can reduce the damage from any one car being in the shop at any given time. It will also reduce the cost of the inevitable parking tickets, since you can split them.

7. Professors. At most colleges, professors are required to keep “office hours.” This is time specifically set aside for meeting with students. Most professors actually post their office hours on their doors, so you can find out what they are without even having to ask. Once you’ve been in for a few weeks and you have a sense of the professor you’d be most comfortable talking to, make an appointment with her to drop by during her office hours. Use that first appointment to talk about where you want to go -- future major, career plans, transfer plans, whatever. They can be wonderful resources if you let them. If you’re a conscientious student, most professors -- okay, not all, but you’d be surprised -- will be happy to talk with you.

8. Skipping class. For the love of all that is holy and good, don’t. Just don’t. Yes, I know, it’s legal now. But it’s a terrible idea. You’re paying for this, and you’re making impressions on people. Show that you have a work ethic -- especially if you’re struggling -- and people will help you. Show that you don’t give a crap, and they won’t, either.

9. Ego. At some point, it’s entirely likely that you’ll struggle with something. It’s college; it’s supposed to be hard. The best thing to do is to swallow your ego and go to the professor’s office hours, and/or the tutoring center, for help. These are free, and they’re there to help you. You don’t get demerits for using them. Yes, it can be embarrassing to ask for help, but you’re not the first and you won’t be the last. And you know what’s even worse than asking for help? Failing.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what tips would you add?

 

 

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