Dr. Johnson’s/Aunt Kim’s Top Ten Ways to Be Successful in College

Our nephew is leaving for his junior year of college on this very day, after completing his freshman and sophomore years at a local college while living at home.  This will be his first extended time away on a college campus.  He is loading his Honda Accord and moving into a dorm room at Emmanuel College in North Georgia.  We recently had a family dinner to wish him well on his departure, and it caused me to reflect on the excitement I felt as I left home to go to college.  I am envious, because that stage of life when you have the world at your feet, a backpack on your body, Chacos on your feet and a map in your hand is the truest time of adventure and self-discovery.  There is no other experience like living on a college campus that helps us put the final touches on shaping and refining who we are.  Our values, morals, manners, and beliefs have been formed, and at this point in our lives, we fly solo in understanding what all that means to us.  This is also the school year when I get to see the Class of 2018 graduate.  I’ve looped with them since 7thgrade, and some of them I taught in primary school as well.  As Daulton begins his junior year of college and the Class of 2018 begins their senior year of high school, I want to offer my own version of the Top Ten Ways to Be Successful in College.  While it’s nearly impossible to put them in any prioritized order, I will count down to what I believe is the single most important factor of success in college and in life.   


10.  Don’t overreact.   Don’t confuse ripples in the surf with tsunamis.  Don’t pack any high school drama in your suitcase.  One of my favorite people in the world, Jill McAden, is a salve for a worried soul.  At a time in my life when every problem I was encountering was new and difficult for me in the road I was walking at the time, Jill came alongside me and absorbed me in a blanket of comfort.  She had been through a divorce and knew what was just ahead for me at every step of the process.  No matter what I shared with her in the ever-unfolding events of my situation, she never reacted with any facial expression, words, or body language that exacerbated my sadness or anger.  She didn’t give me more than 10 seconds to wallow in any form of self-pity or talk negatively about anyone who was upsetting me.  Instead, she turned every conversation into a helpful and guiding experience.  What I saw as tsunamis, Jill only saw as gentle waves.  In college, you will believe that many situations you encounter are tsunamis, when in reality they are only the ebb and flow of the surf at your ankles.  Richard Carlson (1998, p. 87) believes that by thinking of our problems as speed bumps, they begin to look very different and we begin to expect a certain number of them to present themselves at any point in the day.  “Like riding a bike, bumps are simply a part of the experience…..the calmer and more relaxed you remain, the easier it is to maneuver.”  I think of Jill’s approach to problem-solving often, and believe that friends like Jill are the ones that you need along the journey.  Surround yourself with people who refuse to participate in the drama and who focus strategically on what is ahead.  Similarly, I think it’s important to BE that friend and to realize that a loving and supportive friendship spends only a moment acknowledging the existence of a problem and allowing a tear or two.  It really focuses on improving life by remaining calm and looking to the future – seeking a solution and a brighter day ahead. 

9.  Need others and be needed by others.  Every Christmas, my book-collecting father gives me a box of books.  He searches throughout the year to find just the right books that he knows I will enjoy, and often writes anecdotal notes in the margins or on note paper and hides them in books for me to discover.  Long after he is gone, he will still be speaking to me through books.  In Leo Buscaglia’s Loving Each Other, the foreword tells the story of a young girl who releases a butterfly impaled on a thorn and is granted three wishes by the butterfly, who has been miraculously transformed into a good fairy.  The little girl wishes for happiness, and the fairy leans forward and whispers the secret to happiness in her ear.  She grows up to be the happiest person in her village for all her days, but as she ages, the neighbors all want to know the secret before it dies with her.  The aged woman smiles and reveals, “The fairy told me that everyone, no matter how secure they seemed, had need of me” (1984, p. 14). In this passage, Buscaglia emphasizes the point that we all need each other.  In school, in college, and in work beyond school, the collaborative approach to tasks is a key to success.  Working with others who are different from you can sometimes be a challenge, but it can also be a blessing…..which leads to #8.

8.  Keep an open mind.  Always appear to have more questions than answers in class discussions, and more answers than questions only on tests.  In his book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, Robert Fulghum describes a time when he and a Good Samaritan who had jumper cables attempted to jump his car.  After frying an ignition system in one of the cars, welding the cables to another car’s battery, and knocking his baseball cap off his head, Fulghum’s jump mate remarked, “Ignorance and power and pride are a deadly mixture, you know” (1993, p. 130).  Fulghum remarked, “Sure are.  Like matches in the hands of a three-year-old.  Or automobiles in the hands of a sixteen-year-old…..or jumper cables in the hands of fools.”  You’re going to witness some deadly mixtures, but you don’t have to be a part of them.  Know the differences amongst tolerating, accepting, and embracing others and their ideas so that you are best equipped to value the diversity of the college experience and life beyond it.  You will encounter religious differences, political differences, sexual preference differences, and lifestyle choice differences no matter your choice of college institution.  You will encounter differences in work ethics, differences in nutritional habits, all varieties of manners and grooming practices, and differences in family structures and traditions.  None of these differences – let me repeat that:  NONE OF THESE DIFFERENCES – should get in the way of your ability to work on a task with someone who is different from you.  You already know who you are and what you believe.  You can choose to tolerate others and their ideas, you can choose to accept some of those ideas, and you can choose to embrace some of them.  The important thing is that you see every experience in diversity as a way of understanding others who share the same world with you.  Find the common threads, and determine a way to accomplish the task.  Look around and observe, and it won’t take you long to realize that the people who are the unhappiest and most difficult to get along with are those who are so entrenched in their own ideas and beliefs that they feel threatened by the ideas and beliefs of others. 

7.  Prepare yourself for a career that you enjoy.  Follow your calling.  Elaine St. James (2001) cites a study by Abraham Maslow that revealed that joyful people do the work that they love.  “Those of you who are waking up to this potential know that when you tap into that part of you that is waiting to emerge, when you’re contributing from your heart and from your own special talents, there’s no fear, there’s no greed, there’s no holding back.  There is so much joy that comes from following the wish of your heart that there’s no time for doubt, no time to worry about money, no time to get distracted by things that don’t matter.  You just know deep down that if you do what you’re meant to do, you’ll move ahead with full confidence and do the right thing” (282). When you have found your sweet spot and know that you are working within the realm of your strengths and the desires of your heart, you know that you have found your calling.  Some of the best advice I ever got from a college professor was, “If you are considering any other career besides teaching, go and rule that out before coming back – because this profession requires people who are doing it as a first choice.”  Of course I didn’t drop the class, but I spent that semester pursuing my interest in mortuary science.  I arranged to work with a funeral director and to be a shadow.  I loved most of the job, but I noticed a difference in my emotional ability to handle the death of a 75 year old man and a 7 year old child.  While I realized that there would be challenges in any career I chose, I felt that my strengths and gifts were better geared to the classroom than the mortuary – although I am sure I have some students who would argue that I am draining the lifeblood out of them even in the classroom.  It’s important to determine your calling – and it is equally important to know what is not your calling. 

6. Don’t fear movement in a new direction or fine-tuning change along the current path.  The famous line that John Steinbeck chose to use in his novel Of Mice and Men came from Robert Burns’s poem “To a Mouse” and reminds us that “The best laid schemes of mice and men go oft awry.”  Some translations from the original line say, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray.”  Steinbeck and Burns both knew that in any great work of literature, change is a theme that transcends time.  It will always exist.  When Spencer Johnson wrote Who Moved My Cheese (2002), the book became an instant bestseller because it gave strategies for dealing with changes that we all experience throughout life.  Happy people know how to adapt to change and accept that it is a reality.  They know how to anticipate it, and they know how to use it to their advantage. As Johnson says, “Move with the Cheese!”

5.  Keep your body healthy.  Eat right, exercise daily, and sleep well.  What is commonly called “The Freshman Fifteen” is a conscious choice that can be avoided.  Every time I have gone to school – whether on a campus or from home – I have gained weight.  I believe that people tend to do this because of the extreme changes in schedule that college life brings.  Most of my weight gain was related to stress, which I found much easier to manage with food instead of exercise.  This can have a domino effect on the whole body in terms of sleep and ability to focus and function – and feel good.  Resist the urge for late-night pizza and junk food as best you can.  These habits, once formed, are hard to undo and come at the expense of other good things.  Try your best to leave a few minutes early and walk the long way to class.  Break out the Fitbit and find ways to challenge friends, family members, and yourself to meet daily goals.  You’ll help others, and others will help you. 

4.  Keep your mind and heart healthy.  Pray and go to church.  Spiritual awareness of your values will keep other areas of your life from unraveling where your good choices are responsible for the outcome.  This also will keep #6 in perspective as well.  A family member and I were talking recently about the ways that college sometimes causes us to raise questions about our beliefs and to feel uncomfortable as a result.  We went two different ways with the conversation.  We discussed the positive points of this (it helps us parse out the subtle differences we have with particular aspects of our beliefs and solidifies the main beliefs even as we grapple for answers to the aspects that seem incongruent, and it helps us realize that even as we might disagree with some parts of a belief system, the tenets are strong enough to get us through the times that we have questions – because we all do from time to time, and it helps us feel assured that while we may have doubts, the only way to resolve them is to stay the course and pray that we find resolution with our struggles).  We also discussed the negative parts of this (sometimes we feel disloyal questioning what we have always known to be true, sometimes we allow our questions to excuse our behavior and then end up feeling guilty when we haven’t held to our beliefs).  These questions that arise and cause us all sorts of inner turmoil are often the times when our greatest points of self-discovery are revealed to us.  It happens to us spiritually, but it also can happen to us politically as well.  I think of it like a scale that has a range on issues, and on some I may fall on one end of the spectrum and on others I’m more in the middle or on the opposite end.  Personal values and spiritual beliefs should provide a rationale for our positions on issues – and it should also be acknowledged that we don’t owe anyone any explanations for these positions, either.  It’s good to get to a point where we are confident enough in ourselves that we don’t feel the need to challenge – or be challenged by – others.  It’s great to get to the point that we can listen to a speech, sermon, or presentation and privately filter what we dispute on our own without having to hash out every one of our disagreements – when we can take what we will, and leave the rest alone. 

3.  Wrap your brain around studying, reading, and writing so that you are always prepared for class.  Know how to study, and make it your priority.  Some good study strategies are outlined in College Survival: A Crash Course for Students by Students (Gottesman and Baer, 1999, p. 47).  One of the most effective time management study strategies, according to the author, is to study for 50 minutes and take breaks of 10 minutes for every hour that you study (71).  Knowing HOW to study is even more important – using mnemonic devices for memorization, typing notes, asking to record lectures so that you can listen again to parts that need clarification, using Post-It notes to mark text discussion points and key findings, and finding good study groups and study buddies that offer more than one way of solving a problem or examining an issue.  Never read without a highlighter and a pen nearby.  Know the format of every test, and match your strategies to that format (i.e. outlining the chapter, being able to summarize it, etc.).   If you have trouble getting started on a writing assignment because you don’t know where to begin, use the recorder on your phone for a minute or two and record yourself discussing everything you know about the writing topic – then, go back and type what you said and begin to organize your paper or essay using your spoken notes.  Studying is labor-intensive and should consume a large percentage of your time.   

2.  Manage your time well.  Elaine St. James (2001, p. 92) suggests using a timer to sustain focus on the tasks at hand.  She cautions that the timer should not be used to create stress associated with the clock, but to use the tool as “a gentle reminder to begin or get back to the task at hand.”  Gottesman and Baer (1999, p. 69) recommend plotting your time with a calendar and, during the first week of classes, sitting down with the calendar and the syllabus for each class to record due dates and test dates on your personal planner.  This will allow you to see when big assignments may overlap so that you can structure your time commitments in advance to balance the time that will be required to complete all the major assignments for each class.  Having daily, weekly, and monthly goals in writing is a way to hold yourself accountable for the ways that you spend your time. 

1.  Text ya mama and them.  She – and the rest of your family – really want to hear your voice, but at a minimum you should text your mother every day to let her know you are okay.  Otherwise, you may find that you have been reported as a missing person.  This can be really embarrassing when they send in troops who find you alive and well, eating bacon, eggs, and toast for breakfast in the cafeteria while everyone around you is struggling intently to hold back their laughter.  You may chuckle at this, but remember – your family members can make this happen.  They know people.  Try to remember that this will be a tough transition for your mother, too, and you need to do your part to assure her that you are capable of living a couple of hours away from home – that your teeth are brushed, you are wearing clean underwear, and you have showered and applied deodorant (all in the same day).  Your success in college AND in life depends on this daily habit of reassuring your mother that all is well in your world because you also must remember who is helping support you while you are getting through school.  I’d say this is the most critical aspect of your success, because #2-10 will become completely irrelevant upon your failure to adhere to #1.  Go ahead and set a timer on your phone right now – before you forget.

                                                            We Love You, Daulton! 


Works Cited

Buscaglia, Leo.  (1984).  Loving Each Other.  Thorofare:  Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 

Carlson, Richard. (1998).  Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff at Work:  Simple Ways to Minimize Stress and

                Conflict While Bringing Out the Best in Yourself and Others. New York: Hyperion.

Fulghum, Robert.  (1993).  All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten: Uncommon Thoughts
                   on Common Things.  New York:  Ballantine Books. 

Gottesman, Greg & Baer, Daniel. (1999). College Survival:  A Crash Course for Students by Students.

                Lawrenceville:  Arco. 

Johnson, Spencer. (1998). Who Moved My Cheese? An A-Mazing Way to Deal With Change in Your
                Work and in Your Life.  New York:  Putnam.

St. James, Elaine. (2001). Simplify Your Work Life:  Ways to Change the Way You Work So You Have
                More Time To Live.  New York:  Hyperion.