Advice for Incoming
College Students:
A Grinnell Planpoll

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Be assertive about getting into classes that are difficult to get into. Visit the professors who teach them an explain your interest (or at least write them an e-mail if you're too afraid of rejection to talk to them in person).

Don't let fear keep you from taking a class. Now that I graduated, I regret being too afraid to take more math/science. In retrospect, even if I definitely would not get an A, that would have been okay. It would not have affected my future career and graduate school opportunities to have another B or C or two, and I would have had more choices.

Use your professors' office hours!

Don't be scared of the independent major. If there is something you want to do but would have a difficult time doing within the confines of an already-existing major, consider making your own.

One thing I wish I had been told/thought about is to be more pragmatic and thoughtful in my course selection. If I had been more thoughtful about my post-Grinnell plans, I think I would have been far more well-rounded and a better candidate for grad school. I ended up wasting a lot of classes my first two years, and I had to take all major requirements my last two years. By the time I was a junior and I had given some thought to the non-major courses that would have been good for me, I didn't have room left to take them.

A lot of the most rewarding classes that I took outside of my major seemed to make no sense when I had to explain why I was taking them at the time. So, what would I tell to incoming students? Follow your gut. There's a lot to consider, and sometimes the only way for it to make sense is to see it as one big beautiful mess.

Listen to KUNI (90.9 FM) as you get ready in the morning. Professors like to incorporate current events into discussion, and what's more current than NPR as you walk out the door?

Writing lab, writing lab, writing lab. It's amazing. My first year, i completely had the impression that the writing lab was only there for "bad writers." So completely untrue. These people are skilled editors, and their advice is essential to improving and challenging your writing style in college. Also, make your appointment for finals week during the very beginning of the semester--even if you have no idea if you'll even be writing a paper. This little painless step accomplishes three things: a) you get your favorite writing lab instructor during the busiest part of the year (essential), b) you have the appointment (trying to get one at the last minute is impossible), and c) you have a deadline for the paper before its due. First drafts during finals week are golden.

Do not hesistate to go to academic advising for help if you need it. Getting and using a tutor well will save you a lot of anguish.

Lean on others for support, particularly upperclassmen. Anyone who has been through with this can help you do the same.

Starting math or science problem sets early is obviously a good idea, and gives you the all-important opportunity to ask your professor questions on particularly tricky problems. But even more important is to have a buddy system. Work with a classmate or a group of classmates. I would not have made it through my physics major without a little help from my friends. That’s not to advocate copying solutions (which is cheating), but discussing problems, trying out different approaches and filling chalkboards with notes are all acceptable and helpful. The further along you get in the courses, the more helpful it is to have a group of colleagues to work with.

I wish I had been encouraged as a first-year to go and talk with other professors about their work, about getting a place in their class, etc.

I would have really liked to know that I could change advisors without declaring a major.

If you don't get straight A's, make sure to have at least one prof who knows you well; doing a MAP is also important.

I wish my Tutorial professor had talked to me about how picking courses in high school is much different than in college. At Grinnell, the best reason to take a course is "I thought it looked interesting." Not necessarily, “I'd taken math every semester in high school, so had to take a math class every semester in college.”

I think a Tutorial advisor should never say, "Don't take this class just because you think it's something you want to study in the future. You're a first year, so you should explore and take only classes you think you'll never get a chance to take again." Because if the student knows that it's a subject they like, and that they'll want to take more classes in later, this is a really stupid piece of advice, because it'll put them behind for the next four years.

Remind them to take all the cool sounding classes now even if they have to beg. I'm sad of all the cool classes I never took because I knew they were next to IMPOSSIBLE to get into, or because I was so focused on being "well-rounded."

Make sure that you take at least one class per semester that you either know will be easy or don't care as much about your grade. You (or at least I) can't take 16 "hard" credits in a semester.

Carry your book with you if you have a chunk of reading to do. Then you can read if you get to your class early, when you're waiting to talk to a professor, or when you grab a cup of coffee in the Forum. I started doing this last year out of pure necessity, and it made my workload so much more bearable.

I wish my tutorial professor had told me to make a schedule. And stick to it, at least more or less, for a little while. That way, you have an idea of when you have time to work, as well as when you need to work ahead because you won't have the time later. I think this is something I didn't figure out for a good year or so, and it could really have helped earlier on.

For any class you do a great job in, or professor you get to know well, have them write you a graduate (or possibly job) recommendation letter to keep on file. It is really hard when, years after you graduate, you decide to go to graduate school and you don't have any recommendation letters.

Professors and staff are there to help you and want to see you succeed. They are human beings who can be approached and talked to. In fact, most Grinnell professors actually enjoy helping and teaching students! Many professors care about you - as a person and not just a student and want to help you if they can and/or you need it. Also, there are entire offices at Grinnell, namely Student Affairs, whose purpose is to help students.

This has been echoed throughout many other plans, but it bears repeating: write drafts of your papers! You can turn them into your professors for early review (if they have time and you ask them ahead of time) or you can use the writing lab (if you have an appointment). One student I know thought it was cheating to turn in drafts when she started Grinnell.

I think the most important piece of paper anyone ever handed me in college was the sheet Professor Simpson gave our Brit lit class on how to pick a thesis and write a paper. It's simple, but priceless. Laminate those things.

The writing lab is the coolest thing ever.

Form study groups with classmates. It's a great way to learn, meet people, and it's a great release to crab about a prof/class to people who know exactly what you're talking about!

Save your old papers. Reread them when writing a new one (especially for the same prof/class) to remind yourself of errors or problems you had the last time, so they don't get repeated.

Talk to your profs about anything you don't understand. I once had a prof change my grade on a paper without even having to rewrite it, just because I went in and talked to him about it and further explained some of my arguments.

Rewrite your papers. If you don't get a grade you are happy with, meet with your professor and ask if you can work on it with her/him or in the writing lab. Do it even if the professor won't change your grade. Ideally you would have met with your professor and showed her/him a draft BEFORE it was due, but that's not always possible. In any case, it's more difficult to survive academically at Grinnell if you don't feel confident about your writing ability. In my Tutorial we were required to rewrite every paper no matter what grade we received. I learned a lot about how to write in that class, but more importantly, I learned how to rewrite and to treat the writing process as a true Process.

Procrastination will kill you.

I wish my Tutorial prof had told me: Kids, don't be intimidated by your professors. They really are there to help you learn, so don't be scared to go to them for help. If it helps, just think of how much tuition you're paying. (Don't mention that directly, just think of it.) They may be intimidating, but most of them are really nice people once you get to know them. A simple lesson, yes, but one I didn't figure out until my last semester... which really makes some things seem like a waste.

The best thing my Tutorial prof did was that she was very frank with me about the classes and profs that she thought weren't very good or useful. Though of course these were only her opinions, I appreciated her honesty and based on my own experiences later or those of my friends she proved to be spot on.

I wish my Tutorial prof has not pushed me so hard to take a foreign language. I also wish I'd had an earlier heads up about the many cool interdisciplinary concentrations at Grinnell. I missed out on the one I would have liked (which has turned into my career) because I didn't heard about it until my junior year when I'd already missed the prereqs.

Music lessons are a quick and dirty way to raise your GPA, plus they're fun and low time commitment.

On a similar note, take the placement exams for languages, but don't feel pressured into actually taking language classes.

If you have an idea about what you'd like to major in -- especially if your idea involves science or foreign language -- tell your Tutorial prof about your interests, even if you're not too sure about it. Enlist him/her in finding a specific prof in your intended department to talk to. Try to talk to that faculty member before registration, or at least before the end of add/drop.

I wish my Tutorial professor had encouraged me to get advice from other people when the questions I asked were outside of her realm of experience. She seemed to not have a very clear idea what kinds of classes I would have to take to be a biology major, which is what I wanted to do, and as a result I ended up having to scramble to get in all of my classes in later semesters, and had deficiencies I had to make up in grad school.

If you're at all interested in education, take the intro course by the first semester of your sophomore year, at the very latest.

Make use of the writing lab! Even (or especially?) if you're already a good writer. I didn't discover the wonder that is Judy Hunter until the second semester of my senior year. What a loss. TALK to your professors. Do not be afraid to ask for help, or admit that you're confused/lost/terrified. Many Grinnell freshmen have never encountered real academic challenge, and I think many are afraid to admit just how confused they are. Remember that you are not alone, that every single freshman is freaking out on some level, and that it will be much, much easier if you simply ask for help.

Take a fine arts class your first year even if you don't think your arts are particularly fine.

Don't be afraid to take three classes in your first semester.

I have to second the statement about dropping classes. It wasn't something that occurred to me and it meant that I wasted a lot of time not learning and feeling oppressed by learning instead of inspired. Other than that, I wish someone had told me the first day at Grinnell that the topics of classes don't matter half so much as the professors. I wish someone had told me to start right away taking classes with the professors that people really love. Those are the only classes that ever made any difference in my life. I had many fantastic profs, and there should be a database where students can find out about profs. At Sarah Lawrence you have to interview your profs before you sign up for classes ... not a bad idea. I was wasteful with my time and money by staying in uninspired classes and letting them stifle my learning, and now there are so many classes I wish I had taken instead, so many people I wish I had learned from while I had the time there.

You deserve to be at Grinnell. The people who sound really intelligent in your classes probably don't know what they're talking about, especially if they're upperclassmen. I spent my first semester wondering why I didn't go to UW, because I was obviously an admissions fluke. Then I got to know some of the people who I thought were really intelligent. They weren't any smarter than I am. A few years at Grinnell just makes you really pretentious.

Don't be afraid to drop a class!! if you don't like the feel of it or the professor or the classroom, DROP THE CLASS! My first two years, I thought dropping a class meant giving up or quitting. It took me a while to realize that the first week or so of classes is about shopping around and finding the right fit for you. Believe me, getting out of a bad situation early can save a lot of pain, and maybe your GPA.

I think it's important for first years to know that getting their first choices of classes is not that important first semester. I know they have a new system this year but people with crummy draw numbers probably will be more stressed then they should be. There is always an alternative class!

I wish my Tutorial professor had made it clear to me that undergraduate education is about learning things that you find intriguing and not about following any sort of career track or getting good grades or anything.

I do wish my Tutorial professor had encouraged me to broaden my horizons a bit and explore all the options that Grinnell had to offer. Hindsight says I should have taken a wider variety of courses, for fun as well as for practical reasons, but I was very set on my English/French major path from Day One and my Tutorial prof let me have my own way (as well she should have, but, you know, little entering first-years sometimes need a bit of tough love).

I wish my Tutorial professor had emphasized that pretty much every kid coming into college starts off at the same point. When classes first start it seems like every kid has something to prove to their peers. So for the first few weeks of school I hopped on the bandwagon just to cover how inadequate I felt.

Form a(n academic) relationship with a professor or two. - Actually getting to know professors reminds you that we're all human beings and can make Grinnell seem more manageable.

Grades aren't the be-all-and-end-all of the world. Sleep and happiness are important. However, grades are extremely important when looking to apply to PhD programs. - I haven't run into this problem because I'm not looking to get my PhD, but I've heard from several people that they didn't even know that they basically needed straight A's to even be considered for elite (or not so elite) PhD programs. These points are completely contradictory, but that's OK.

Small town public schools' teachers and guidance counselors often try to “prepare” students for the “shock” of college. I wish my tutorial professor had told us point blank that where we went to high school would not necessarily have any effect whatsoever on our success at Grinnell. I got so many “big fish small pond” comments my senior year of high school that I came into Grinnell with a ton of entirely unnecessary/unjustified academic anxiety. I got over it, of course, but it made my first semester much more stressful than it needed to be.

Start early to try and tackle those habits of procrastination. It was a bitter battle between me and my term papers and tests, but finally I learned to manage my time, work ahead, and not not not to put things off to the last minute. That was the only way I discovered the wondrous Writing Lab and the wonders of peer editing. You actually have to have something already written to make use of them.

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