The Back-to-School Checklist

As a professor who has taught for over two decades, and with the new school year upon us in a few weeks, I write here about the top things new and returning students can do to be best prepared to hit the ground running.

Source: Tim Gouw/ Unsplash

1. Get familiar with what a course syllabus is, its purpose and how to effectively make use of it. It is the compass for success in a college course and usually provides all the answers you need. You don’t want the professor’s first memory of you to be an e-mail asking questions already addressed in detail in the syllabus.

2. Decide what sort of organizing tool you will use to keep track of appointments, meetings, due dates, exam dates, and other commitments. There are numerous electronic ways of organizing, but a paper calendar still remains a terrific tool. As soon as you see the syllabi for your courses, go ahead and mark in all due dates, exam dates, holidays, cancelled classes, etc. It’s not up to the professors to remind you, and they probably won’t.

3. Some advice about e-mail: Be sure to use your school e-mail when communicating with professors. Do not e-mail them from addresses like chocolatekisses69, strawberryshortcake, or biggolfballs. Your e-mail will likely go to Spam and even if it does go through, you will not be taken seriously. Think of e-mailing your professors the way you would e-mail a boss; after all, that’s what they are. School is your job for the next four years. Be professional and courteous. Include a salutation and not “Hey.” And when e-mailing female faculty, don’t be sexist and type “Mrs. Blank.” They earned doctorates; use Dr. or Professor. Don’t attempt to ask about grades over e-mail and definitely don’t challenge grades on e-mail.

4. Buy the books that are required for the course and consider also purchasing any recommended texts if you can afford them. Don’t e-mail and ask the professor if they are “really necessary”; that’s foolish. And, don’t wait until the last minute to order books: “Amazon delays” is never a good excuse.

5. Invest in some basic office supplies—yes, even staples. After all, when a professor collects assignments on paper from hundreds of students, and gets caught in a wind gust, you don’t want your work to be the loose papers that go flying. It’s good to have your own supply of pencils, pens, tape, paper clips, index cards, paper, legal pads, markers, hi-lighter pens, envelopes, a calculator, etc.

6. Attend all your classes unless you are sick. It’s a strong predictor of success. And if your classes involve participation, get engaged in the discussions. This will enrich your learning. You may also make new friends this way. 

7. Go online and learn about all the various student organizations on campus to see what you might want to get involved in when you arrive. Be sure to attend student organization fairs that usually take place in the first few weeks of the semester. Typically, it’s a great way to meet people, introduce yourself to student leaders, and even get some free stuff.

8. Go online and get acquainted with the myriad resources that the college provides. Know how you can find the counseling service, health service, sexual assault prevention office, office for students who identify as LGBTQ, writing center, tutoring, cultural centers, religious services, etc. Knowing how to access this information ahead of time is tremendously helpful for when you might need it.

9. Attend the social events that have been planned for first-year students. Everyone will be in the same boat and it’s a wonderful way to connect with new people.

10. Your roommates and suitemates may become your close friends. Often, they don’t. That’s okay. They often provide a base and launching pad in the first few weeks to go to events geared for new students and they might provide companionship at mealtime. They can be a nice starting place for your social life.

11. If you are a young woman, remember that all research and statistics sadly show that female students are at greatest risk for sexual assault in their first semester. It is important to remain vigilant when attending parties, fraternity gatherings, Little Sister events at fraternities, etc. This is true regardless of the fact that violence against women is not something women ask for, and it is not women’s fault. 

12. It is normal to want to experiment with your newfound sense of self in a new place, but using your sexuality as the primary way to connect with others usually results in a downward spiral, for both men and women students. Try to cultivate a social life that is not dependent on alcohol, drugs, and sex.

13. Office hours are a unique part of the college experience. It is a time when you can sit down one-on-one with your professors about your classes, your life, your future, your hopes, fears and dreams. Faculty usually post office hours on their doors and on the syllabus. Be sure to only seek out your professors when they are available. If they are open to scheduling appointments outside of those office hours, then you might send an e-mail asking for an appointment, indicating what the meeting is about, and for how long you might need to meet. This reduces the back and forth and lets the professor know you are prepared.

14. Amazing relationships can be cultivated with faculty. They might become mentors from whom you’ll eventually seek reference letters. They might become your thesis advisers, research collaborators, and even your friends for years to come. Hundreds of students have stayed in touch with me over the years. I have attended some former students’ weddings, baby showers, and even a funeral for the daughter of a former student. These are priceless connections. I treasure them. And I trust the students do as well.

15. Professors do so much more than teach. You are well served to be compassionate to this fact. We are faced with intense pressure to “publish or perish.” In fact, writing and publishing are large parts of why we are hired and how we get to keep our jobs. This is a primary distinction between teachers you had in K-12 and college professors. Most of us conduct research, write articles, book chapters, and books, speak at conferences, edit book collections, facilitate workshops related to our work at other campuses and in the community, etc. This is why you might find that many professors are not on campus every day and need advance notice to schedule appointments with you. Try to respect and trust that all these other professorial activities deeply enrich the college experience you receive because the more active and involved your professor, generally, the more he or she has to offer in the classroom.

16. Check the campus events calendar regularly so you know about amazing lectures, performances, concerts, exhibits, and screenings on campus. So much learning and growth happens outside the classroom and outside your dorm.

17. Consider your relationship with technology. Think about how tethered you are to your phone and how you might forge real connections in real time with the people in front of you. Try leaving your phone behind when you go to the dining hall.

18. Get acquainted with your professors’ policies on technology. If they don’t permit laptops and phones, don’t test them. There is no good reason to have your phone out at class unless it is part of a required class activity. As I say to my students, if I am lecturing about crime or racism, and you are smiling into your crotch, I will think you are playing with yourself. Keep the vibrating devices in your bag.

19. If you have an assignment due in class, come to the class with the assignment. Do not miss part or all of the class to finish the assignment. And never e-mail an assignments unless your professor says it is acceptable.

20. At the earliest sign of trouble, seek help. This applies to academic tutoring as well as help for your mental health and well-being. Admitting you need help is a great start. Resources abound on campuses. If you are struggling with self-harm, eating disorders, dating violence, sexual assault and other trauma, you are not alone! 

21. Don’t hole up! Get out of your room. Resist the urge to go on Netflix binges. Your best memories from college are likely to come from the connections you make and the things you get involved in on and off campus. Eat nutritious foods, get adequate rest, exercise, and have fun. It’s an incredible time in your life.


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