Freshmen 101: Academics (Why You’re Here)

For the first few days of your Penn State career, most freshmen will manage to avoid even thinking about class—or the fact that they’re actually at college, presumably, to learn stuff. Those days are crammed with setting up rooms, orientation, tours, making new friends, and a weekend at Penn State—with all the shenanigans that that entails; there’s really not much time to look ahead to that first Monday.

But even with all that under your belt, it’s time for the first day of classes. And while a few particularly unfortunate freshmen are on their way to their early morning courses, others figured out Rule #1 for themselves. But whether you’re up at the crack of dawn for your 8 a.m. or sleeping in until 1:25 p.m., here are some tips on how to succeed in college without really trying.

Early Classes = Bad News

At my high school, first period started at 7:18 a.m. Given that I’d have to be at my locker early to drop bags off, and the 15-minute commute, I’d be out of my house well before 7, which put wake-up time solidly in the 6:15 range. At college, I’d practically roll out of bed and into the classroom—what could possibly go wrong with scheduling a couple early classes?

In a nutshell: everything. I don’t recommend taking anything before 10:10 at the earliest on Mondays, Wednesdays, or Fridays, or 9:45 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The difference between high school and college is that there’s always something going on, especially at a school like Penn State. Even on a Tuesday night, when you might not be going out, you might just as easily be watching a movie or playing video games in your buddy’s room until 2. And without mom and dad there to make sure your ass is out of bed, hitting the snooze button and falling back asleep is a real danger. I went to my 8 AM roughly half the time, and the grade I got it remains the worst one I’ve received—by far—in my 3 years here. Which brings us to rule #2…

Go to Class

This is another mistake I made my freshman year. Once I realized that nobody’s taking attendance in 300-person classrooms, I figured that my time would be better spent playing Super Smash Bros. and/or sleeping. And by the end of the semester, I’d managed to spend less time in the classroom than your average football player at Ohio State. But that was another mistake.

I’m not going to say that you should go to class every time, because a) I’m not your dad, and b) cutting a few classes every now and then won’t kill you. Remember, though, in a smaller class, most professors will have a limit of two or three no-questions-asked absences before it starts to hurt your grades. Even in those large lecture halls, going to class is helpful. You don’t even need to pay full attention—it’s fine to bring your laptop and be on Facebook the whole time, or if you don’t want to lug that around, to waste away the minutes by playing Angry Birds—but going to class ensures that you’ll hear about important announcements, and you’ll learn by osmosis. It’ll help you remember to do readings, and come test time, that thing the teacher might have said that one time is helpful. But if going to classes isn’t your thing…

Nittany Notes Will Save You

A long time ago, somebody had a brilliant idea. College students, they realized, don’t exactly love going to class. But they also don’t like failing tests. So that brilliant individual decided to hire good students to take extremely detailed notes in all their classes, which they’d then sell to the slackers. It’s a win-win-win, really, but the biggest beneficiary will likely be you. You can buy your Nittany Notes in one of three ways—either a semester-long pass, that lets you pick up notes the next day after each class, an exam-pack, which contains all the notes taken between tests, or single-day notes, for specific classes that you might have missed. They’re not that expensive—and the benefit outweighs the cost.

They are a godsend. They’re not a valid substitute for our rule above, but they definitely help fill in the blanks from when you zoned out staring at the hot chick in the third row. Even if you’re a good student, it can’t hurt to get Nittany Notes. You don’t have to bother spending all class with your head in your notebook if you buy the notes the next day–you can actually pay attention to your teacher and classmates, and engage them. If you don’t ever show up to class, they’re not going to get you an A, but they’ll help you pass. And as the great Sam Richards says, “C’s earn degrees.” Hey, speaking of Sam…

Don’t Ever Schedule a Class Without Checking RateMyProfessors.com

Okay, so this one is a little late for you freshmen, but moving forward, it’s going to come in handy. Sure, there are plenty of specific classes that you’ll have to take, taught by only one professor. But you should have plenty of flexibility in scheduling, especially in regards to gen eds, and even, depending on your major, core classes. For instance, a political science major simply needs to take five 400-level classes in that department, out of dozens of options each semester.

RateMyProfessors.com isn’t a perfect indicator of how good a teacher is–the people most likely to grade their teachers fall to either extreme, having either loved the guy enough to rave about him anonymously, or hated him enough to bash him online. But there is collective wisdom in crowds, especially for the teachers that everyone, it would seem, has good words for. The easiness rating isn’t all that matters—teachers who get good scores in the other categories will actually make going to class fun and interesting. When you’re looking to fill a gen-ed, I’d recommend SOC 001 or 119 with Sam Richards, but don’t take my word for it. On the flip-side, if you stay away from the teachers nobody seems to like, you’ll find that you get more out of the college experience. You’ll actually look forward to class, enjoy the readings, and probably even pull a good grade.

All that said, make sure to enjoy your first year. You’ll never have the excuse of being a freshman again, and your GPA will probably rebound from that rough first semester. Or, you could get a 4.0 and ride out the average for the rest of your college career. But keep these tips in mind, and you’re on your way to a fine four years here at Penn State.

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About the Author

Devon Edwards

Devon is a 2012 Penn State graduate and current law student at NYU. Devon joined Onward State in January of 2011, after a lengthy stay in the comment section. His likes include sabermetrics, squirrels, and longs walks on the beach, and his dislikes include spelunking, when you put your clothes in the dryer and they come out still kinda damp but also warm, and the religious right.

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