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ClassTracker’s Guide to Starting the School Year Strong and Staying on Track

Start your semester off strong

It’s back to school time again! I know, I know. You were just getting used to being on vacation. While you were going to the beach and soaking up the sun, the team at ClassTracker interviewed current students and recent graduates about academic success. (We just really want you to succeed, you know!) Everyone we talked to emphasized the importance of starting your first week, month, and year off strong. From our interviews, it became clear that whether you’re heading off to college for the first time or you’re an upperclassman, skating by during your first week or so is something no one can afford to do. If you start off poorly it’s so difficult to dig yourself out of the proverbial hole and get a decent grade by the end of the semester. If you start strong, even if you have a couple of missteps in a class, you’ll likely be able to redeem yourself by doing better on other tests or assignments.

So how do you do it? How do you set yourself up for academic success, early in the semester?

Armed with our new found knowledge, ClassTracker is here with some key tips and good advice to help you start off strong, stay on track, and make a good impression on your professors.

Stay Organized

Organization is really the first step to starting yourself off right. If you begin the school year chaotically, you’re going to be sorry later on in the semester. Use dividers to keep different class materials separate and to prevent your papers from getting jumbled. Keep an ample supply of sticky notes, pens, paper clips, pencils, and highlighters in either a pen case or specific part of your school bag, at all times. Make sure to replenish, when you need. Bring an academic planner with you to school the first day (of course we recommend the Ultimate Student Planner by ClassTracker), and every day. This will be an invaluable tool to keep you focused and on track. Not only that, but use the tools your professors are going to give you, like their syllabi. (Check out our school supply shopping list!) 

I cannot stress this enough. Usually, a class’s syllabus will be available online before the first meeting. Read your syllabus before the first day of class. Highlight assignments and test dates in the syllabus and write them all down in your planner for future reference, and to keep yourself accountable. This way you will never be caught by surprised like,  “oh my gosh I have a test on Friday!!” No, you’ve known since January that you were going to have a test that day in May.  It isn’t a surprise! Prepping your academic planner like this takes two minutes to do and it’s so worth the time.

Check out next week's blog on organizing your time!

Be Prepared

You can also use your syllabus to gauge how quickly a class is going to go. You can mentally prepare for each class differently this way. Knowing ahead of time how the class is laid out is a great way to get yourself mentally organized and can really help you strategically plan your study schedule.

Stay on top of your reading and coursework the first few weeks, especially. The first week of classes, every semester, feels manageable. People call it “syllabus week” because the assumption is is that you’ll be going over the syllabus in all of your classes. That’s really not true. Especially in your upper level courses. By the time you’re a senior, you may be expected to have already reviewed the syllabus and to have read the first three chapters of the course work by the first meeting. Then, by the next lecture you’ll be expected to have already read the next three chapters, and so on. It can become really overwhelming really quickly.

During the first week, create a binder and agenda before your first class meeting. Print out your schedule and put it in the cover of your binder. Keep it there the entire semester. Even though you’ll probably memorize it by the end of your first month, it will always be a good reference guide.

Read Ahead

I know everyone says to do it and no one ever does, but it is so helpful. If you don’t read ahead, at least read on pace. The last thing you want is to fall behind in the reading. Before you know it, you’ll be too far behind to catch up and you won’t be prepared for tests.

Do Some Recon

Getting to know your professors well and asking around about their testing style is so helpful. Some professors only draw from lecture for their tests, others only use the book. You can really start figuring out your professors’ testing style within the first week. Listen for phrases like “start reading this chapter in your book”. If they say to read a chapter, they’re probably going to be using the book for their exams. Most professors want you to succeed so they’ll give you little verbal hints. Listen for them and highlight, circle, underline… do whatever you need to do to make sure you keep track of what you’re going to be tested on.

Make a Good Impression

The first semester of your first year you usually take large lecture classes. So, you’re in a class taught by a professor who’s been teaching the same class for years and they’ve seen literally thousands of faces come and go. In this class you may be one face in a sea of a hundred. It’s so important to make a good impression. After all, you may need their help later on in the semester and you want them to remember you.

A lot of people sit in the back because they want to fly under the radar but that really doesn’t do you any favors. The first week of class, sit in the first three rows and figured out where the professor would usually stand or sit while speaking. By the second week, position yourself in their line of sight. This is helpful for a few reasons. For one, sitting that close to the professor basically forces you to stay awake in class. If you have an 8am class and you’re tired… sitting in the back can make napping or talking to your friends way too tempting. Sitting in their line of sight works sort of like the law of repetition. The more they see you, the more likely they are to recognize you if you show up at office hours. You’re not going to have to go to office hours and introduce yourself for the first time like, “Oh I’m Alex, I’m in your class but I sit in the back but you don’t know me… and now I need your help”. Also, by putting yourself in the front, you give the impression that their class matters to you.

The first week of class, take a moment to introduce yourself. When possible, read some of their research prior to the first class so that when you went to introduce yourself you can say “Oh I’m really interested in your work in such and such” and you can speak intelligently to that topic. Professors love to talk about their own research and honestly, reading their research before meeting them gives you a leg up in so many ways. First, they’ll really remember you and be impressed. Second, if you do your research far enough in advance, you’ll be able to figure out if you really even want to take their class in the first place. Plus, this is a good, positive first impression. You really don’t want your first impression to be when you go to office hours and beg them to raise your grade from a 79.9 to an 80.

Lastly, how you present yourself is so important. Students who take the time to dress professionally make a strong, positive impression on their professors. As tempting as it might be, don’t wear pajamas or sweatpants to class. If you wouldn’t wear it to a job interview or to work, don’t wear it to class. Of course, you can wear jeans now and then… the point is, look put together. It’s just respectful to your professor and it will go a long way. Plus, studies show that if you’re wearing clothes that make you feel more put together, you’re more likely to pay attention in class.

Ask for Help

If you’re ever lost, don’t stay lost. Go to office hours. If you’re in a class that has optional TA sections, go to section and get extra help. Staying lost is possibly the number one mistake people make. That, and giving up on themselves. If you hang in there and get help, you may be surprised by how well you end up doing in some of your hardest classes. Some really hard classes are referred to as “weed out classes” because professors and department heads know that students will give up, won’t ask for help, and won’t go that extra mile. Prove them wrong. Don’t stay lost. And, if you’ve introduced yourself and made yourself known to the professor, this won’t be quite so intimidating.

So you there you have it, ClassTrackers. Now, go out there and make your first week of class the strong foundation the rest of your school year can be built on!


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