Category Archives: Student Success

Letter of Recommendation

Students, when it comes to asking someone to write you a letter of recommendation, there are some key things to think about. Cindi has previously written about this topic (in one of these blogs), today I am sharing thoughts on this subject.
Current first year college students are now applying to get into the all-campus honors program at our university and one of the requirements is to have a letter of recommendation from a professor, not from a lecturer, graduate student or a teaching assistant, but from an Assistant, Associate or full Professor (those are professor rankings/titles). I realize this can be an intimidating request, so here are a few suggestions that might help if you are in a similar situation and possibly feeling uncomfortable.
1. TAKE INITIATIVE: Go to the professor’s office hours to ask for the letter of recommendation face-to-face. However, email the professor before showing up, letting her/him know of your intentions. By emailing in advance, s/he may have a moment to recall who you are. In the email, state which course you took/are taking with her/him, reference an assignment you have done or a point you verbalized in class, or a specific topic you have written about, so s/he can recall you more quickly. You can also inform the professor of the organization you are applying to/scholarship you are applying for, and the reason you have been invited to apply. Conclude with a reminder that you will be coming to office hours on … date and time.
2. TAKE ACTION: Show-up at the office hours you stated you were attending to talk about the recommendation. Share with the professor why you are applying for the program/internship/scholarship. Share specific ways you connect to the mission and goals, and what being part of the organization would mean to you. This way, even if the professor does not know you very well, s/he now has a few details s/he can include in the recommendation. By sharing about yourself and the reason for the recommendation request first, the next parts may be easier and seem more genuine.
3. CREATE AN ALLY: Even if, before this moment, you did not have a personal relationship with the faculty member, establish some common ground by talking about a highlight from her/his course. Share something from class that was challenging for you and what you learned from that experience. Ask the professor about her/his experience teaching your class, or an appropriate question that gives her/him an opportunity to participate in this interaction – just make sure you do so naturally! (You can ask about artwork or diagrams hanging on the walls, a picture on the desk, or award/recognition showcased, if talking about the class is not simple.)
4. CONCLUDE: Tell the professor why you are seeking her/his letter of support. It is okay to be honest: “I realize we do not have a very close relationship, but this application requests a professor’s letter of recommendation, not a lecturer or graduate student, and you are my favorite professor.” Or: the professor I learned the most from, or: the professor who has challenged my thinking, or: the professor who has most inspired me – whichever phrase you choose, be honest! Provide the professor with a few things you would like her/him to consider saying about you, such as: attended every course, participated in discussion, did extra credit, came to office hours, etc., or how you meet, or exceed, the qualities and character traits desired of the applicants. If you are really on top of your game, provide her/him a copy of the application and a draft of your responses to the application questions (if applicable).
This entire interaction will probably take no more than 10 minutes, unless the two of your really get to chatting! This is a great task for confidence building. You can do it – and most of all, please do it without arrogance!

Invitation Options

Last week, the program in which I work, University Honors, 1500+ first year students were sent an invitation to apply to program. That list of 1500 are all students who have a GPA of 3.5 or higher, after their first term at the university. Congrats to these students for having great first-term grades as during that time they were handling the transition to college life and college academics.
On Tuesday, I hosted an information session regarding the invitation. After the session was over, there was a student who asked for a few minutes of my time. She was concerned that although she received the invitation, she was not confident she was really Honors ready as she is struggling with one of he classes this term. What would you do if you were in her situation?
Invitations. How many invitations do you receive on a weekly basis? Think about your email inbox. Do you receive invitations to go to events, to shop with a discount, to join an organization, to make a contribution to a charity, to apply for a credit card? The list of invitations is lengthy. What decision making skills do you employ when deciding which action to take? Some decisions are simple: “I do not have a $100 for that concert ticket.” so that email can be immediately deleted. Others decisions are not as swift. “Do I have time to join this club? I really like the activities they do, and it would look good on my resume.”
When making the ‘big’ decisions, take your time. Make a list of pros and cons, ask your friends, ask people you trust, talk to people in the organization about their experiences, talk to people outside the organization about their opinions. In the case of the student in this story, she was concerned about asking for a letter of recommendation, her upcoming grades, time management and recent family struggles. I reiterated to her, that receiving the invitation was an honor in itself, and for her to be considering those other things also meant she is a proactive thinker! Moving forward with the application process might not be in her best interest, and that is okay. College is one of the best times to engage with your decision making skills.
The next time you look at your inbox, give a brief thought to how you are making decisions: quickly, slowly, thoughtfully, knowingly… and, do delete that credit card application without even opening it!

Motivation & Organization

Happy New Year students! There are many things going on for you all! Here is a quick run-down of important tasks for the start of the new year – which of them apply to you?

*  All college students for the 2016-2017 academic year: it’s FAFSA time! Do not delay, do it today (or as soon as you have received your and your parent’s 2015 tax information)! Get it done before March 1!

* Returning college students: reflect on successes and challenges of last term and make a plan for success this term. See your advisor(s) immediately for time sensitive questions.

* College seniors who are working on a thesis or capstone project: outline the steps to complete this task. Set deadlines, document the activities you need to do to meet the deadlines. Plan meetings with your faculty sponsor/advisor and make sure they happen – do not let them cancel on you more than once, these final weeks will fly by. Your thesis/capstone is a great opportunity to let your light shine – this is your independent study, your passion – thrive!

* High school seniors: finish up your campus tours of places to which you applied but had not yet visited. Utilize our On the Quad campus tour worksheet to maximize the information you receive on those visits.

* High school juniors: if you haven’t already, begin making your list of colleges you are interested in researching. Utilize our On the Quad self-assessment worksheet to reflect on why you want to go to college and what expectations you have for yourself the school you attend.

* All students: begin your search for a summer internship! Now is the time to research options, polish your resume and write a good cover letter. Bring your second or third drafts to your career center for fine tuning. In this process you will discover there are interesting opportunities you have already missed – plan on them for next year!

Maximize your new year motivation and make it a great term!

Handling Holiday Questions with Ease!

Soon to be college students and those in college, here are a few thoughts on how to handle the questions of “What are you studying/going to study? What kind of job are going to get?” during your holiday gatherings.

If you are unsure of which college you will choose to go to, or the major you plan to select, I suggest turning the question back on the person asking it. “How did you decide to go to the college you went to? What college was it? Where was it? What was your major the first day you were there? What major did you graduate with?” etc. Like in current times, people who were in college 10-30 years ago, often changed their majors, struggled with an academic obstacle, and have a story or two to share. Get these people talking about their college experience! If the person asking the question did not go to college, ask her/him what they would have studied if they had gone, and why they are selecting that major/field of study now.

If you are nearing the end of your college career, of course people are asking you what career or job you are headed toward. In these cases, I again suggest asking this person questions rather than replying right away. “What did you do the day after you graduated? How long did it take you to find a career related position? How long did you stay in that job? When did you realize you were on the path to the position you have now? What advice do you have for me? What are the top two traits you are looking for when you hire an entry-level employee?” It is extremely unlikely the person you are speaking with is doing the same job s/he did when they graduated, and soliciting advice from her/him is wise. You can thank the person for all their insights and never answer the question they asked you!

When you answer questions about your major/field of study, I suggest you speak passionately! Demonstrate your enthusiasm for YOUR choice by talking smartly about your classes, the research you are doing, the faculty you are learning from, and the opportunities you have engaged in on your campus. Share fun-facts about your program and/or college, and be proud of what you are accomplishing.

When answering questions about your intended career, be positive in your responses, showing confidence in YOUR decision to get a Bachelor’s degree in this field. Talk about the career workshops you have attended, the guest lectures you have seen (that have inspired you), and the resume you have already drafted. Ask if s/he would like to see it, and a sample cover letter you have written, and ask for feedback and edits. Also, make sure to ask this person if they know anyone in this field, or a similar field with whom I could do an informational interview. Informational interviews are a great way to learn more about an actual position and a company – take advantage of these connections.

Now you are ready to embrace these loaded question gatherings!


Repeating a Course

College students: the end of the term is upon you! Maybe you are already enjoying winter break, the students at the university I work at vacated campus last weekend, or maybe your only motivation through finals right now is your excitement for the upcoming Star Wars premier. If you are in the midst of finals, stay focused, committed, and give your best to these exams, projects and papers.

As you are anticipating and checking your grades, some of you may find yourself in an unhappy place. There are students who are satisfied with the ‘C-‘ they earned in a difficult course, but another student may be in agony over a ‘B-‘ in a course they really enjoyed and thought they were doing well. Another student might be solely focused on her/his GPA as they are planning on professional school, and have a desire to repeat a class in which they received an ‘A-.’ Should you find yourself in a situation where you want to repeat a course, you need to look up your campus’ course repeat policy.

Many institutions, especially ones with a large number of students, have very clear guidelines on repeating courses. Often, if a student received a ‘C’ or ‘C-‘ the course cannot be retaken. Generally the reason for this is: seats in the course need to be available for students taking it for the first time, sometimes it is so students stay on track for a four year graduation plan. At other institutions, a student may be able to repeat a course s/he received a passing grade, but the second grade will not be calculate into the student’s GPA. (The course and grade are on the official transcript, but not in the overall GPA calculation.)

Whatever the reason for considering a course repeat, know the repeat policy. So, for those of you heading into a final – you now have some extra motivation to put the time and energy into your studies! Give 100%, you will not be disappointed with yourself!

Registration Blues

College students, are you preparing to register for your next term of courses? If so, how many course schedules are you going to create? Of course you have your ideal schedule in mind, but what if you aren’t able to get one of those courses, or aren’t able to get the courses at the exact times you have identified? If you only create one course schedule, and it doesn’t come to fruition, how are you planning to handle the disappointment?

In the program I am associated, our students have priority registration and they almost always get their ideal schedule. However, these students must also enroll in a course within the program, and there are only 25 seats in each course. This is where registration stress comes in for them. This past registration cycle, more than 70 students, of our 380, wanted the same course, and another 50 wanted one other. These students had 18 course options, any many had to choose their second or third option. In our program, all the courses cover general education requirements, are taught by research faculty, and are a ratio of 1 to 25 or less, so in my opinion, there aren’t any bad options! But I can recall being 18 years old and stressed about registration. (Plus I live it with students all year long!)

The best way to lessen registration anxiety is to create at least three course schedules (or maybe five if you happen to register near the the last day of the registration cycle) the day/night before your registration time. The best way to do this is by knowing what courses you need in your major, or what courses overlap between majors and minors you are exploring. Doing this well requires time and effort with the course catalog and an academic advisor many days before (weeks before) registration. Why? Because outlining college courses is like a puzzle. Research your major(s), create a spreadsheet of course requirements, know which courses have prerequisites, and start planning, the more course plans the better! Create a lot of plans that will work. Unlike a 1000 piece puzzle, college is very expensive, so it is necessary to create multiple viable schedule options. Don’t let your parents or a friend do this for you – you need to take ownership of your education!

If (when) you do not get your first choice schedule during the first round of registration, figure out what adjustments you can make during the second round and during the first week of the term. Monitor wait lists, consult with advisors (again), email professors and most importantly, keep an open mind. You may have the ideal schedule, but you just don’t realize it yet! Whatever you do, do not have your parents calling or emailing your advisors, you are an adult, you are in college, you can handle this!

Elevator Pitch

Transfer students, at new bachelor’s granting institutions, this blog is especially for you. It has value for all readers, but I write it with you in mind.

Since you started at your new college have you been referring to yourself as a transfer student? For example, when introducing yourself in class, or to others, have you been including the statement “I’m a transfer?” Or, when you are asked a question about the current college, do you find yourself saying “I just transferred here.” Or might you be including a transfer disclaimer in comments you make? I noticed this habit with the class of transfer students I am co-teaching. After the third week of the term, I reminded them they all are transfer students and they do not need to identify as such, in our class or other places.

Identifying as a transfer student is not bad, but it does not need to be used in all settings. I suggest students use it as an advantage, strategically. Here is an example.

Recently, the students I work with listened to, and asked questions of a faculty panel who were addressing how undergraduates get involved with research. Notice I used the word ‘undergraduates’ – this can be a useful identifier at a large research institution that has thousands of graduate students on campus. At the conclusion of this class session, I asked these students to write an elevator pitch they could potentially use during faculty office hours (or a meeting over coffee – *cough, last week’s blog) in which they would be asking for advice on how to get involved in research. This assignment was met with looks of stress. What will I write about? a few asked, to which I replied, “write about your greatness.” Greatness? Yes, what is special, unique, interesting and great about you? What are your skills, experiences and talents? Here is a place were you can emphasize all the benefits of being a transfer student.

Transfer students often arrive to the bachelor granting institution….
* having done significant research on their major and the faculty teaching in the discipline.
* with a clear vision of their future career and its pathway.
* with more advanced life experiences.
* with a unique perspective on higher education and its value.
* with research topics in mind, or somewhat developed research ambitions.
* having done research on the campus and its resources, and a plan to take advantage of them.

Many transfer students have moments of feeling like they are at a disadvantage, but honestly, all students have those feelings. There are plenty of third and fourth year students who started at this school still wandering around a bit lost. The quickest way to find your place is by developing a relationship with faculty in your major, and the best way to do that is through face-to-face conversations and confidence in yourself. Utilize your transfer student benefits and develop your elevator pitch; articulate your greatness clearly and be proud of who you are!

Two Coffees

A student just passed me, walking from a parking lot toward campus, with a coffee cup in each hand, a textbook squished to her chest, and bag dangling from of the crook of her elbow. I am hoping one of those drinks is for her professor. Yes, you read correctly: for her professor! Are you shocked by that statement?

Students, how much do you know about the professors teaching you this term? Have you looked at their faculty webpage? Have you read their CV (a CV is an education resume and if often on their website)? Do you know what type of research they specialize in? How many publications they have contributed to, or books they have written/co-authored?

Frequently students tell me, ‘I emailed my professor but s/he hasn’t gotten back to me.’ In the case of the students I work with, the comment often pertains to the signing of a form which has a looming deadline, so the meeting/signing is important. Bringing this back to the student with the coffees, I ask my students this “when you emailed the professor, did you offer to take her/him to coffee or tea?” If you are willing to spend $2-5 on a friend’s beverage, why not make the same investment on a professor who you want to solicit ideas from, ask to oversee a special project, participate in research in their lab, write a letter of recommendation, etc. Oh, and do NOT FORGET these are the people grading your academic work!

A cup of coffee could go a long way in establishing a positive relationship. I think the value of the student-professor relationship is way more precious than the cup of coffee, and the conversation you have in the java line is worth a lot more than $2!

Summer Homework: College Lingo

New first year college students – are you ready for the term to begin?! I know a few of you…
• have already started your first year (Summer over, school year is here – crazy!)
• are doing special Summer preparation/transition courses – great idea!
• enrolled in the college’s non-preparatory summer session courses – you are the over achievers!
Some of you are anxiously waiting for the year to begin, and others of you are loving freedom from academics so much, you wish summer would never end!

No matter where you are, in the above sequence, I am checking-in to find out if you have completed a little summer homework. If you attended your college’s orientation, hopefully you know the answers to the following questions:
1. What are the difference between the following types of courses (please define): lecture, discussion, lab and seminar.
2. Which term does your college use, unit or credit, to describe time in class?
3. Which term does your college use, semester or quarter, to describe your academic year?
4. How many units/credits, do you need to pass each semester/quarter, to graduate in four years?

If any of the above sound like a strange language – open your ‘On The Quad’ and refresh yourself on how to ‘Arrive, Survive and Thrive at College!’

For Students, By Students – Advice

New and continuing college students – are you tired of getting advice from  your parents, professors, advisors, and other authorities, who like to share from their experiences (or maybe just hear themselves talk)?

This week I will refrain from giving advice and recommend you read what your college peers are saying about college life. This articleAdvice for New Students From Those Who Know (Old Students)was recently published in the New York Times. More than 20 students, each from a different college/university, shared their thoughts on a variety of useful topics.

My favorite section is ‘Understand the System and Work It.’ (Read it!)