Tips for Successfully Transitioning to University

How does a fledgling student spend her time within a university to gain a better education?

Andrew Roberts, an assistant professor of Political Science at Northwestern University, addresses this very question in his The Thinking Student’s Guide to College, 75 Tips for Getting a Better Education, He begins by explaining how a university works,  how to best approach professors, and how to work within the university to derive the best education.

If you are about to launch your undergraduate career, read it. The tips surrounding ‘Choosing a Major’ alone are worth the price: sample a lot of departments, choose a major you love, preferably one of the smaller majors, make sure the major is well structured, write a senior thesis, and attend a departmental lecture weekly. Solid advice abounds. Here are a few choice portions warranting review.  

The first question all students need to know is ‘How does a University Work?” I suppose a mission statement is vaguely helpful, but to discover the true mission of anything is to follow the money. At many universities, that money is being spent on research. The reason is research, through awards (such as the Nobel Prize), publications, citations, peer reviews (p.11 Roberts) is easy to track and prestigious. As Professor Roberts makes eminently clear, universities have an insatiable thirst for ‘prestige.’ Teaching is not discounted, but it’s very difficult to measure its efficacy, or assign it prestige.

Teaching undergraduates is something most tenured professors perform, and some make considerable efforts to do it well, yet, most professors aren’t trained in teaching. Professor Roberts cites a survey indicating “only 8% of professors have taken advantage of research on teaching methods.” (P.15 Roberts)

Regardless of how attentive a university might be to undergraduate education, Professor Roberts tips you off on how to gain the most from the class offerings. During the class shopping period (usually the first two weeks of the semester) visit multiple classes and trust your gut on your impressions of the syllabus and professor. Search among the classes by taking a variety of subjects and venturing into areas that initially might not appear of interest. Steer clear of the big lecture classes (they’re often a bad value) and take smaller, seminar like classes with hefty writing requirements. Also, fill your schedule with as many upper division, or graduate level classes as you can handle. That is where most of the high quality teaching and learning takes place. One other piece of information offered by Professor Roberts is to ask some of your professors what classes they recommend: they know where the gems are hidden.

It’s important to get to know at least one or two professors well during your college career. You’ll invariably need a recommendation whether you go on to graduate school or join the workforce. The best way to get to know a professor is to show an interest in the professor’s field of research and study. Visiting each of your professors during office hours is one good way to build credibility among a department. Surprisingly, few undergraduates do this, and even fewer are prepared to chat about the subject material knowledgeably when they do show up. Doing this will show you have initiative and intellectual curiosity, two attributes always in short supply.  

A professor’s existence is her work. If you take an active interest in knowing portions of her research, and show a capable understanding and appreciation of her specialty, that will help you gain credibility and improve your chances for being mentored in independent research projects, getting recommended for internships, or even working with a professor as a research assistant. A lot builds upon getting to know your professors; besides, many are brilliant and intriguing individuals—making their acquaintance that much more appealing.  

Understanding a university, and how it works, and in particular how to develop a working relationship with some of its professors is probably more valuable than most of the courses you’ll attend. In any field of work, knowing the institution and the people is never an easy matter. Learn to do this as an undergraduate, under the tutelage of Andrew Roberts, and you’re likely to gain a better education in university and life.