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6 Rules for Improving Your Chances of Success at College

Picture of African male college student celebrating his success by lifting hands in the library

For most new students, college is the first time they see their helicopter parents and the rule-heavy expectations disappear. It is a test of your mettle, the proving grounds that separate those with goals from the wanderers. Those who come with a plan already in place have the advantage, and this plan usually encompasses six things:

1. Design your own “new world order.”

What should be your “new order” for this “new world order?” This is seldom explored by students before arrival. Most new students take it one day at a time. Unfortunately, unhealthy behaviors hide their final impact, often not realized until a low GPA comes to haunt your future endeavors.

Keeping up with assignments, reviewing each day’s notes, and time management will pay off in the long run. Otherwise, when the time comes to pay the proverbial piper, many students will be forced into a corner of cramming and study “all-nighters.” These add extra stress and panic over grades and may tempt you with abusing stimulants to play catch-up. The best way to avoid such temptation is to have a set structure.

2. Maintain the mind-body connection.

Attending college is a major change in your life, but a change that pits your frontal lobes—your main executive decision-makers—against freedom, self-indulgence, and a complete lack of supervision. Any of these, without moderation, can be dangerous to both your physical health and your academic performance. To make matters worse, your brain is still developing, fraught with misjudgment and mistakes.

Both physical and educational make for a crucial relationship, because studies have well-documented the mind-body connection and how both physical and mental fitness enhance each other; and alternatively, how the lack of either can hurt both. This is crucial for any on-going brain maturation. Don’t fall into the trap of trading naps for exercise, and exercise regularly; take the stairs when you can and take advantage of the richly social intramural environments colleges offer. Socialize but within your schedule.

3. Don’t abuse yourself and your education.

Drug abuse is self-abuse. According to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, college students who misuse stimulant medication, even those prescribed for legitimate medical reasons, see higher rates of ADHD, supplementary substance use disorders, and co-occurring disorders than non-abusers.

But even without the risks of potential addiction, mood changes, and even overdose, when it comes to learning, the caution here is that using stimulants to help study is one step forward but two steps backward. The all-nighter itself is contrary to your brain’s memory processing and sleep cycle, weakening your ability to learn, retain, and recall.

4. Maintain sleep hygiene to learn better.

Sleep is the time when the memories of the day are preened—when short-term memory is laid down differently from long-term memory. Keeping up with your studies is long-term memory, but cramming is short-term. The best way to maintain learning at peak capacity is what is called “sleep hygiene”, that is, getting about 8 hours of sleep each night, and waking and retiring in the same circadian schedule each day. The entire night’s sleep is a complex activity with many phases, and improper sleep hygiene sabotages your learning.

5. Don’t fall behind.

Don’t put yourself at risk for temptation. When you become desperate to pay for procrastination or over-indulgence, this makes you vulnerable. Using stimulants to stay awake and alert, however, is a poor alternative to the healthy ways, i.e., regular exercise (again, the mind-body connection), eating right, avoiding excessive caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol, and avoiding lengthy naps (>30 minutes). If you feel overwhelmed with your workload reach out to your academic advisor, peers, or other faculty members for guidance.

6. Treat college like a job—with expectations and responsibilities.

All-important jobs are structured, with rules and a schedule: keep one. Your best strategy is a schedule you can keep that incorporates all of the items that are part of your college “job”—academics, responsibility, performance, and results. If you do it right, it’ll end up more than the job, one with perks (fun, socialization, intellectual stimulation, and recreation); one that will make college the major, fulfilling life-event it should be.

For more great college tips, check out the other blogs on College Basics.