How To Be Successful at a Large University

Success: “The accomplishment of an aim or purpose” (Merriam-Webster).  Success is what every person should strive to reach every day.  It is the backbone and motivator for all of our wants and needs.  Achieving success in college requires hard work and a little bit of knowledge about how to beat the system.  The university system differs from high school in a plethora of ways.  You don’t have the same classes every day, there are up to 500 students in your classes, there is no mandatory attendance, and your grade can be based on your performance on one or two tests.  If you just graduated from high school and are about to begin college, or are already in college and have a newfound resolve for success, read on to discover how to be successful at a large university.


1. Define your success.  What are you looking to get out of college?  Is this just the next step in your educational journey?  Do you plan on using it as a stepping stone to a particular job or graduate program?  Do you just want to have fun?  Knowing what you want to get out of college before you begin is important.  Perhaps you want to make a difference on campus and run for a position on student government.  If you want a strong sense of fulfillment, giving back to the community and volunteering can get you there.  I was recruited at UCLA to play baseball, so my goal was to be as successful as I could in the classroom and on the field.

2. Plan.  Where are you going after college?  This can have a tremendous impact on your collegiate educational journey.  If you plan on attending some form of post-undergraduate education, you will need to get top marks in order to be accepted into a quality program.  If you have a specific job or career path in mind, apply to a major that will help get you there.  If you aren’t sure what you want to do, sample a wide variety of electives and general education classes.  Communications and English degrees are highly valuable degrees that appeal to employers because they accentuate your written and verbal skills.  I had no idea what I wanted to do after college, so after my freshman year I applied as a communication studies major because of the fascinating classes and competitiveness of the program.

3. Do your research.  Think of the phrase, “work smart, not hard.”  Although you will probably have to do both.  Find classes that interest you.  Read the course descriptions from your school’s registrar.  Talk to other students and use websites such as to discover what your potential professors are like.  If a high GPA is more important to you, sign up for the easy classes.  I always tried to find manageable classes that had stimulating enough subject material to keep me wanting more.

Paying attention4. Show up.  No, attendance is not mandatory at large universities.  You will have huge classes in a giant auditorium and the professor and TA’s will never know if you don’t show up.  But if you care about getting something out of your education and earning a good grade, then spending the couple hours per week in that class is the best way to learn.  It gets you outside and in contact with your friends as well.  Don’t rely on Powerpoints or Podcasts from home.  You’re likely to procrastinate on reviewing them, and they aren’t as affective.  It’s also important to know the classes that you must show up for, and recognize those that you can skip every once in a while when necessary.

5. Make a good first impression.  Be aware of the power of first impressions, and realize that your first interaction with a professor or TA can be impactful in the lasting conclusions they draw about you.  Although professors try to grade tests and assignments “objectively”, there is no doubt that at least sometimes they give preferential treatment to students they like.  Could you really blame them if they were stricter on a student who was constantly late, didn’t participate, and didn’t pay attention?  So dress nicely, sit in the front of class, participate during discussion, know what you’re talking about, and perhaps even visit their office hours to talk about the class and their research.  People like to talk about themselves.

6. Focus.  Don’t go to lecture just to go to lecture.  If you’re going to sleep, talk to friends on Facebook, or play internet games, just stay at home.  You won’t get anything out of class, and you won’t do as well at playing Bloons Tower Defense (my favorite game to play in class) or whatever you’re doing.  When class is over, go home and review your notes for ten minutes.  The material will be fresh on your mind, and looking it over again will solidify your understanding of important concepts.  I always viewed this as time spent studying for midterms and finals way in advance.  If you spent ten minutes reviewing your notes twice a week for ten weeks, you have already studied over three hours for your final, and probably only need to study two or three more hours to be adequately prepared.  This step is the key to academic achievement.

7.  Get the easy credit.  Know the grading rubric for each of your classes.  If attendance is 10% of your grade, you better show up and get all of that 10%.  If easy homework assignments make up any portion of your grade, be organized enough to turn in every one.  Lose points on the hard stuff…midterms, finals, and papers.

impression8. Utilize your TA’s for the hard stuff.  A Teaching Assistant’s primary concern is the academic research he or she is pursuing as a Masters or Ph.D. student.  However, most of them are  open to help their students outside of discussion sections, as long as you are respectful of their time.  For ALL assigned essays, check your topic and thesis with the TA!  This guarantees that you will at least get a B- on the assignment.  As long as you are writing about something that is important, on topic, or interesting and you have an argument that is important, on topic, or interesting then your paper will be at least decent no matter what you write for your supporting details and commentary.  This requires intense periods of deep thinking, but ensures a good start.

9. Build relationships.  If you are worried about academic anonymity, make an effort to expose yourself to your professors.  Go to office hours, participate in class, and offer to volunteer in assisting with their research.  Professors at research universities were hired for one reason: to conduct experiments under the name of that institution.  Any help you give your professors is likely to be reciprocated, whether in the form of a good grade in that class or as a valuable reference down the road.

10. Be comfortable outside of class.  College can be stressful.  It’s easy to get tied up in all of your homework and independence.  A healthy social life and saving some time to unwind with friends takes the load off and helps you acclamate to your new environment.  Working out and staying physically fit can increase your self-confidence and enhance your mood to keep you happy 🙂