After dropping her son off at college, a Penn GSE faculty member shares the higher ed advice she gave him

August 24, 2022
a teacher in front of a class

Image:  Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher teaching a Penn GSE course.

Having a professor as a parent can give you certain advantages when you enroll in college. In the spirit of uncovering this “hidden curriculum” for others, Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher wrote the following tips for the college-bound this fall.

Not all of this will apply to all people, says Ghaffar-Kucher, who is a senior lecturer at the Graduate School of Education. This is what she’s learned in her last two decades as a graduate student and faculty member in American higher education. (You can find these tips and more on her Twitter feed, where she originally posted this advice.)

Ask for help!
I cannot stress this enough. Especially do not be afraid to ask your professors for what you need to succeed (whatever that may mean to you).

Take advantage of office hours.
Office hours should really be called student hours, because they are for the students, not colleagues. It’s not the time when professors happen to be in their office, it’s the time they are dedicating to meet with students. Show up (but don’t overdo it!). I love it when students show up to student hours with a clear agenda. I love it even more when they can email it to me in advance. But it's also OK just to come in and chat (again, don't overdo it).

Dear Professor…
When emailing professors, keep it short and to the point with a clear ask. Have a helpful subject line. If you’re in a large class, include your full name and the course number somewhere in the email (after your sign off, for example).

Get acquainted with the staff.
They run everything and deserve your respect and kindness, not just because they will be important allies but because it is the decent thing to do. At the very least, learn their names.

Learn what support services are available to you.
Services may be academic, emotional, or psychological. Use them. They are there for you, and you are paying for them. Their existence depends on you using them. It’s a win-win. In particular, seek out librarians. They are probably the most underused resource in college. They are amazing. Get to know them and ask them for help. They really love helping and are so good at what they do.

Build your network.
Make few or many friends, but make a lot of acquaintances. This includes building relationships with people who can serve as a reference for you one day. You cannot always turn to the same person, or they might not be available when you need them. Have several people who will be happy to write a recommendation letter for you. On the topic of recommendations, if a professor makes an excuse or hesitates when you ask them, do not press them to write for you. They’ll likely not write you a strong letter. Find someone else if possible.

Stretch yourself.
Attend events or take classes that are out of your wheelhouse. Don’t get stuck in your major silo. College is a time to broaden your mind. Take advantage of it.

Be open to learning.
Even in classes that bore you or where the professor isn’t the greatest pedagogue, there is always something to learn. Do not stick to subjects you’re good at. It’s OK to try something new and fail. Just always be open to learning.

“Do” the readings.
This doesn’t mean reading every word. It’s about understanding the big ideas: 1) Why is the professor assigning this? 2) How does it fit into the class session? 3) What are my three most important takeaways? Along the way, learn to skim.

Throw out the highlighters.
Annotate instead. Why are you highlighting something? Why is it important? OK, you don't have to throw them out entirely, but be sure to write notes and not just highlight.

Do not be invisible in the classroom.
While there is balance to class participation (listening is also important), it’s important that your professors get to know you. Professors who get to know you are likely to support you more. Do not be afraid to ask questions — in class, in student hours, etc. Especially if you've at least made a good faith effort to figure it out on your own. Ask questions. There is only one question you should never ask: Never ask a professor, “What did I miss?” And especially do not ask, “Did I miss anything important?” Ask your peers.

Find your people.
If you miss a class, a follow-up email is courteous. You need not give a long explanation, but some info is helpful. Let the professor know you'll be talking to peers to figure out what you've missed, and find someone in each course you can ask for information if you miss something. This could be a peer or a TA. This is especially important in classes where you do not know most people, or in very large classes. Make a study group or a reading group, especially in classes where there is a heavy reading load. Divide and conquer.

Read. The. Syllabus.
Really, just do it. There’s a reason why #ReadTheDamnSyllabus exists. Figure out what you need to know that’s not on it and go see your professor or TA to get that information.

Read the assignment description as soon as you get it.
Ask the professor or TA questions if you’re confused about something. Break larger assignments into smaller tasks and work on one task at a time. I love this story from Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life:

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird."'

Manage your time.
A college class schedule looks really different from your high school schedule (which is typically 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.). In college, you'll see a lot of blank space in the week. But don't fool yourself! You need time to read, assignments, and so on. For every three-hour class, make sure you schedule two to three hours outside of class to keep up.

Do not wait until the last minute.
Adrenaline is great and all, but it will not be your best work. Relatedly, try to put work aside for 24 hours before you hand it in. You will catch all those typos.

Take a walk.
When you’re stuck on something, take a walk, work out, or do something totally different. Your brain will still be working on whatever got you stuck as you do something else. Trust me. The brain works in mysterious ways. Also, exercise is important. Schedule it in!

Gain experience.
Use college as a time to build your resume. Add experiences and/or skill onto there that will help you find a job later. This could be a campus job, volunteer work, or research experience. Add at least one thing every year. Don’t talk yourself out of applying for jobs and opportunities that interest you because you think you will not get it. The worst that can happen is you’ll get turned down or it’s a no. But you'll never know if you do not try.

Learn about yourself.
College is not just about grades and a good GPA or getting a job. It’s about learning about yourself, stretching yourself and finding things that excite you. Explore and take advantage of all that is around you — including just hanging out and relaxing with friends.

Now for some advice that borders on "mom advice"…
There will be a lot of temptation in college, especially if it's the first time you are on your own and figuring out "adulting.” It’s tempting to go crazy. A little crazy is OK, but don’t lose sight of why you’re in college, and know that everyone’s “why” is going to be different.