Every year I ask the students in my upper-level psychology class how many of them find college to be easier than high school. Two-thirds to three-quarters of the class usually raise their hands. Sometimes they all raise their hands. Surprised?

My students tell me it’s because they have more control and more choice. Think about it. In high school, it doesn’t matter if you don’t function before noon. You still have to be in school at 7:30 a.m. In college, you can schedule most of your classes around your own inner clock. In high school you have to change classes every hour whether you are ready or not. In college, you can arrange it so that you have a break between classes. Most high schools have few electives while college gives you lots of chances to balance harder courses with electives you enjoy.

But — and here’s the big “but” — those same advantages can be your downfall. More control and more choice only help if you take the control and make the choices. High grades and a successful college career are within the reach of anyone who takes that responsibility seriously. A poll of my senior honors students last spring resulted in the following list of ways that taking charge of their educations resulted in summa- and magna cum laude ribbons on their graduation gowns.

Taking Charge of Your College Education

  1. Make your academic advisor one of your new best friends. Check in at least once a semester. Advisors know what you need to do to graduate and can help you balance harder courses with less challenging ones. If your advisor gets to know you, he or she will also be able to steer you to classes and teachers who are a good match for you.
  2. Shop for classes. If you’re in a school where it’s hard to get into popular classes, sign up for more than you can take. Go to every class during that first couple of weeks of the semester to see what they are like. During the drop period, drop those that turn out not to be what you expected and those that you clearly are not ready to handle.
  3. Schedule classes so you have study time in between. Don’t let yourself use those hours for hanging out or for long leisurely lunches. Go to the library or resource center and get some work done. You will be doing assignments when material is still fresh in your mind. A bonus is that you will have more of your evenings and weekends free for social time.
  4. Do assignments as they are given, even if the deadline isn’t for weeks. If you let things pile up, you’ll find yourself compromising quality just to get things done. If you do each day’s work as it comes, you are more likely to give it your best.
  5. For major papers: Do a rough draft. Then go see your professor to make sure it is what is being asked for. Not only are you likely to get some good guidance, but you will also be developing your relationship with your teacher. Often this expands to more interactions between you in class. Teachers remember those students who are engaged; that pays off when it comes time to look for grad school recommendations.
  6. Use the resources available to you on campus. Use your school’s writing center or resource center to help you edit papers. Go to professors’ office hours to clarify anything that confuses you. If you find the professor hard to understand or unavailable, seek out the TA (teaching assistant). Often TAs are more understanding. After all, they are students too. If a class is a struggle, get a peer tutor early.
  7. Don’t lose points by turning in assignments late. It’s not at all unusual for teachers to dock students as much as a grade per day received beyond the due date. An A paper drops to a C if it is only two days overdue. What a waste of points! See #3.
  8. Look for and do the extras that earn you extra points. One French prof at a local campus, for example, will raise a student’s final grade by a full half for attending and submitting a short critique of the 6 French films he shows every other Wednesday night. Students in another class can earn a half grade boost for perfect attendance. Half a grade just for showing up! Half a grade can mean the difference between a B- and a B+. Perhaps more important, it can push you from a C+ to a B- or a B+ to an A. Bs look better than Cs on a transcript. As look better than Bs.
  9. Keep your eye on the goal. When you sign up for classes you think might be extra interesting or fun, make sure they also help you progress toward graduation. Otherwise, you may find that you inadvertently created the necessity for another semester that you can’t afford.

High grade point averages reflect more than one kind of smarts. Intelligence helps, of course. But you also need to be smart enough to use the choices available to maximize your own success. Good luck this year!