You have entered the magical world of the first-year composition course. Congratulations and welcome!
If you aren’t entering first-year composition, though, you’re still welcome — these ideas should help you succeed in pretty much any college class, even though I’ve geared them specifically to FYC.
- Get your course materials right away: Check to see what textbooks have been assigned in your classes before the semester starts. If you aren’t buying them at the campus bookstore, make sure you order them well ahead of when you’ll actually need them. If you have any trouble getting what you need, let your professor know ASAP.
- Study the Syllabus: A syllabus is like a contract for the course. Study it carefully. Know what’s going to be expected of you in the class, and make sure you give yourself plenty of lead time on big assignments across all your classes. Later in the semester, when you have a question about the class, check back in with the syllabus — your question may have already been answered.
- Show up to class: Attending every class session might not be an absolute guarantee that you’ll pass a class, but I don’t think I’ve ever had a student attend every session and not pass. Showing up, showing up on time, showing up prepared, and paying attention during class are probably 90% of the battle.
- Visit office hours: Look, I know sometimes you have a question that you just don’t get around to asking in class. Maybe you’re a shy student, or maybe you just think it’s particular to you and not relevant to the class as a whole. Maybe we just didn’t have time because there were so many other things going on. Or maybe you don’t have a question, per se, but you’ve got a draft you’re working on, and you want some feedback. This is the kind of thing that office hours are for. Office hours are hours set aside for you, our students. Many universities and departments require professors to keep a minimum number of office hours per class, because our institutions recognize this time as important. Most professors want you to visit. It’s a great chance to talk to your professor one-on-one. Planning on applying for study abroad, an internship, a grad program, or a job? The professors you’ve visited during office hours are going to be the ones best prepared to talk about you and your work, and the most likely to be receptive to that kind of request. Tl;dr: visit office hours. You’ll be glad you did.
- Visit the tutoring center: Most universities and community colleges have tutoring and other support services available free of charge to students, especially students in required courses like FYC. They might even have weekly tutoring available; as someone who has been both a tutor and an instructor, I highly recommend seeking this type of service out if it’s available. Meeting weekly with the same tutor will benefit you more than drop-in tutoring because your tutor will better have the opportunity to get to know you, your class, and your writing. Often you have to sign up at the beginning of the semester to get in on weekly tutoring, so don’t wait.
- When the going gets rough, get help: My university offers mental health services to students who are anxious and stressed (so…all of them), as well as for those dealing with more severe mental health issues. Don’t hesitate to get help. I struggled with depression and an eating disorder throughout high school and most of college, and I waited way longer to get help than I should have — but because I eventually did, I was able to leave college much healthier and more resilient. I also encourage students with documented or suspected disabilities to register with with the disability resource center on their campus ASAP, and to be frank with professors at the beginning of the semester about the accommodations to which they are entitled.
- Contribute to your classroom community: In addition to just plain showing up to class, being a productive member of your classroom community can really help you get the most out of a class. If you’re fully engaged with class discussions and peer review, it means you’re also making a habit of being prepared, doing readings, and writing and revising your own drafts. All these good habits? They make all the other good habits easier to maintain.
- Do the assignments: Read your assignment sheets carefully. If you have questions, ask! I can’t speak for every instructor, but I know I personally would much rather clarify something for you before it’s due than have to grade you down because you did it wrong. When you’re doing an assignment, check back in with the assignment sheet periodically, and make a checklist if necessary to make sure you’re doing everything you’re supposed to do. Office hours are your friend if you want to check in with your professor and make sure you’re on track.
- Sweat the small stuff: When it comes to quoting accurately, spelling names correctly (including your instructor’s name!), and formatting your assignments as requested, sweat the small stuff. Some aspects of writing are genuinely complicated and challenging, but these are things that you can do right just by taking a little time and paying attention. Take the time. Pay attention. It’s a good habit to get into.
- Don’t plagiarize, and cite your sources: If you’re reading this, you’re probably not the type of student to intentionally plagiarize. But it bears repeating: don’t copy the work of others. (Instructors have a way of finding out, even in the most improbable situations. I could tell you some stories, but I’ll save that for another time.) To make sure you’re contextualizing, quoting, and citing correctly, refer to a handbook like A Pocket Style Manual or Writing Matters, or use always handy OWL at Purdue online resources for research and citation. When you’re using the words, ideas, and/or structures of others, cite. When in doubt, err on the side of giving credit.
- Be willing to fail if it’s the right thing to do: This sounds like odd advice in this context. But what I mean is this: passing isn’t the only thing, and sometimes it isn’t the right thing. Sometimes a student’s life makes it impossible for them to do their best in a given class, in a given semester. If this happens to you, be honest with your professor, and let them know as soon as there’s a problem (especially if dropping the class very early in the semester means you get at least a partial refund!) In that case, dropping, withdrawing, or taking the not-passing grade is the better part of valor. Sometimes a student just isn’t able to pass because, despite putting in their best effort, they still aren’t meeting the goals of the course. That’s not a bad thing. If you pass despite not being ready for the work you’re going to do as a writer in the next class down the line, I as a teacher have done you no favor, but a great disservice. To be ready for college-level writing, sometimes a student needs a bit more time. A failing grade in that case is not a personal failure: it’s an opportunity.
These suggestions aren’t rocket science — they’re just the habits of effective students. As for the last item on the list…Students have a hard time believing it when they’re fresh out of the world of GPA- and test-obsessed k-12 education, but trust me, the important thing to take away from your college education is not your GPA, but the learning you did as a student. It’s the growth you went through, the insights you gained. It’s the reading and the thinking and the conversations that stick with you, becoming as much a part of you as your skin. It’s the ideas that crowd in your mind and get friendly with one another as the years go by, and the moments of inspiration that strike when you bounce ideas and concepts against one another like billiard balls on green baize. Success in first-year composition, or any other college course, isn’t defined by the grade you get — it’s defined by how well you bring that learning with you into the rest of your college life, and the years to come.
I’ve adapted this post from the section “How to Succeed in FYC” from Chapter 4 of the Student Guide To First-Year Composition: San Francisco State University, which I co-authored with Sugie Goen-Salter, Tara Lockhart, and Andrea Schriner. The book has since become an online resource for our students, but used copies are available if you think the print copy would be a useful resource.