College tips, tricks and hacks

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Going to college is a moment of discontinuity for students.

It's all about change.

There's a new set of rules that everyone must learn.

I've found myself giving advice to several incoming freshman lately, so in the interest of not repeating myself, I'm writing it down.

My advice is distilled from my own experiences as student, but also from the wealth of tricks I've learned while watching students as a professor.

Read on for my tips on everything from dorm room coffee to study habits to saving cash on tuition.

[Disclaimer: This advice is written from the perspective of science and engineering disciplines at research-oriented universities. It still applies, with some modification, to liberal arts or teaching-oriented universities.]

Beware the first semester

When I ask my students about their biggest college regret, it is almost universally, "my first semester."

Graduates often lament that they spent their entire college career trying to recover from the damage inflicted to their GPA in the first semester.

The change in class structure and freedom catches students off guard.

Professors don't coddle like high school teachers.

Most won't even force students to attend class.

For students in dorms, parents can't act like a check on bad habits.

Students without a strong sense of discipline find themselves sleeping through 8 AM classes, failing to study for exams and unable to complete assignments.

Most of these students sober up and gain discipline when they see their grades for the first semester, and live with a sense of regret thereafter.

Those that don't drop out at the end of freshman year.

Here are some tips specific to the first semester:

  • Don't get a TV. It's too easy to sit in a dorm room and watch TV, or to leave it on in the background, distracting you while studying. Once you've confirmed (or established) your discipline, you can handle a TV.
  • Don't play any games. If you're a gamer, try giving it up (or restricting it to weekends) for just the first semester. It's not necessarily common, but I've known students that failed out from spending too much time on games. World of Warcraft is the usual culprit these days.
  • Don't party too much. College is going to take 4-5 years. There is plenty of time for parties later. For socializing in your freshman year, consider joining mutual interest clubs.

Professors are not teachers

Teachers in high school were trained and certified to educate.

Professors spent the best years of their lives extending the boundary of human knowledge, and then won a professorship on their prowess in research.

After that, someone threw them into a classroom and asked them to teach.

But, they're also trying to conduct research, publish papers, write grant proposals, advise students, perform service and manage a lab.

Teaching is rarely, if ever, the top concern for a professor.

To the extent that professors teach well, it's because the subject matter is aligned with their academic interests, and that tends to generate passion and enthusiasm in the classroom.

When professors teach out of their specialty, some regard it as a chore whose effort is to be minimized--to the detriment of students. [To be fair, there are many professors that rise to the challenge and seek excellence in teaching.]

The key to interacting with professors is to realize that they're not teachers.

As researchers, professors have access to the cutting edge.

Few students exploit that access, but it's not hard:

  • Ask professors about their research. Even the crankiest professor is going to brighten when talking about their own research. If it sounds interesting, ask if they need help in their lab. Professors in fields like science and engineering may even be able to pay you!
  • Go to office hours. Few students take advantage of office hours. It's a chance to get one-on-one mentoring from an expert. Plus, when you ask for a letter of recommendation, the professor will know you. Professors use office hours to measure the quality of their lecture material. If several students come by with the same confusion, it's a signal to clear up that material.
  • Sit in the front row. A good professor is going to tune the lecture by reading the facial expressions of students. Unfortunately, it's hard to see all the way in the back, so we're really crafting the lecture to those that sit up front, whose faces we can see.

Get ahead

College classes cover material much faster than high school classes.

When students slip behind in understanding, they get battered.

I've seen panic turn to depression and then incapacitation in weeks.

The best defense against falling behind is to start off ahead.

When possible, buy textbooks in advance, and work through the first couple chapters for each before the semester begins.

Look at web sites and syllabi for the last offering of the course to see which material is relevant.

Try to stay two weeks ahead of the course throughout the semester.

Eat into the cushion for a class when pressure spikes in another class.

If you find yourself slipping behind, it's critical to contact your professor as soon as possible.

If you're a week or two behind on the material, you can probably catch up in office hours very quickly.

Fight procrastination

Procrastination slays GPAs of bright students.

Modern life floods us with avenues for procrastination.

Coupled with the high degree of freedom afforded to students to craft their own schedule, students may find themselves in a procrastinative rut several times throughout their college career.

[If you find yourself unable to break out of a rut, you may be depressed, and you should go to the student counseling service on campus.]

The best defense against procrastination is to acknowledge it and install safeguards to prevent it.

Mold your environment so that the path of least resistance is the path of maximum productivity:

  • If you're prone to wasting time online, block your time-wasting sites with tools like LeechBlock, WasteNoTime and StayFocusd.
  • Cripple your technology.
  • Go to the library to study or work. (If you need a little more ambient activity, try a coffee shop.)
  • Ditch TV.
  • Never study in bed.

For computer science majors, I advocate spending your first semester entirely under linux.

In particular, spend as much time as possible at the console, the most distraction-free environment that you will ever find.

Learn to do as much as you can without a GUI, and you will reap the productivity benefits for years.

Pay attention

Pay attention in lecture.

Don't have your phone, laptop or tablet out where it can distract you.

If you want to take notes on your laptop, disable wi-fi.

Watch your health

It's easy to neglect both physical and mental health in college.

An irregular diet of ramen, pizza, coffee and beer for four years is not ideal.

All-nighters and late nights take their toll.

Cloistering oneself for days on end with little fresh air and activity steadily chips away at well-being.

The brain is an organ: a healthy body supports a healthy mind.

To stay balanced, eat well, sleep well and exercise in moderation.


If you find yourself consistently staying up late, set an alarm for when to go to bed.

I had a friend in grad school that took this to the extreme: she ditched her alarm clock entirely, which forced her to be in bed early enough to wake up on time.


At some point, every college student hits a phase where they subsist mostly on coffee, ramen and free pizza.

Don't stay in that phase for long.

Many college students also find themselves packing on weight for the first time in their lives.

If you find yourself gaining weight, survey your caloric input and expenditure for a week.

If necessary, adjust to lose weight.


Exercise is a stimulant for the creative thinking critical to success in college.

By exercise, I refer to anything other than sedentary inactivity.

Moreover, the years between 18 and 22 are a prime time to exercise.

Your body will never produce the same results for so little effort ever again.

Your high metabolism makes it easy to manipulate your weight.

Your elevated hormones allow you to build muscle and cut fat with ease.

Your ability to rapidly (and fully) recover from minor injury allows you to exercise with an intensity that will not be possible even a decade later.

The (usually free) gym on campus gives you access to lots of equipment, but you can also make your dorm room into a mini-gym for day-round intermittent exercise:

  • Install a pull-up bar in your dorm room door:
    or, get a removable bar:
    Do a pull-up each time you enter or leave.
  • Keep a set of compact, adjustable dummbells next to your desk:
  • Keep a pair of comfortable running shoes by the door. [You will be surprised by how many building on campus have showers. Bring a change of clothes and try jogging to class a couple days a week!]

Save time; save money

The pricing structure for credit hours is not linear.

At the University of Utah, where I teach, taking one class (3 credit hours) would cost an in-state freshman $1,377.

But, that same freshman would pay only $694 per class if they took seven classes in a semester!

When I was an undergrad, the price for more than 12 credit hours in a semester was exactly the same as 12 credit hours: every class I took past 12 credit hours had no additional cost.

By taking the maximum allowable 21 credit hours (about 7 classes) per semester, each semester, I cut my total tuition bill by 42%!

Your university almost certainly has a similar non-linear pricing structure.

Warning: A reader wrote to warn against attempting this approach until one has sufficiently adapted to the rigors of collegiate instruction. Attempting to take a heavy courseload before one is adequately prepared may lead to burnout, and should be attempted only with caution. It is certainly not advised to take this approach in the first semester.

Get residency

Most state schools also have steep discounts for residents, and every state has a set of guidelines for establishing residency.

Some states, like Utah, make it easy for non-resident students to establish residency during their freshman year.

(Some states make it almost impossible to gain residency as a student.)

Check the requirements for your school: residency may be easier than you think.

Go TuThu (or MWF)

If possible, schedule all of your classes for Tuesday-Thursday.

(Failing that, aim for all Monday-Wednesday-Friday classes.)

A schedule that concentrates all classes on a few days makes it possible to devote entire days to either lecture or to study/work.

Eliminating context-switching between these modes improves efficiency.

(And, a four-day break between classes every week lets you refresh.)

Register early

Precious slots in some courses fill up quickly.

Get access to priority registration if at all possible.

Some schools offer early registration as a perk for participating in certain programs on campus, or for having "honors" standing.

If you're an incoming freshman, you may be able to register using your student ID and password during other summer orientation sessions: try to register online during the first orientation session.

Regardless of priority, register for classes on the earliest possible date.

If a class you want is full, check for drops weekly until the first week. In the first week itself, check several times each day. Most classes will churn 5-10% of their enrollment in the first week, and you can usually sneak in.

Take courses from the best teachers

Don't take your major classes from the "easy" professors.

Take your major classes from the good professors.

Professor rating sites may grant a relative sense of quality between two professors. They are not necessarily indicators of absolute quality.

Ask around among fellow students to figure out the best professors to take.

Avoid professors that are difficult out of cruelty.

If a professor teaches a difficult course as a byproduct of a sincere desire to impart deep knowledge, take that class!

Don't pay full price for textbooks

Textbook pricing is morally bankrupt.

Never pay full price for a textbook.

Check online for cheap prices on used textbooks.

Sometimes, a professor orders a textbook for only a couple of its chapters.

In this case, borrowing the book from the school library is the best option.

If you become a teaching assistant, you will probably gain access to a TA library, which will have several copies of every textbook used within the department.

Don't take courses you don't have to

If you acquired a significant body of knowledge in a subject in high school but couldn't get credit for it at your university, check on the policies for challenge by exam.

Some departments have a policy of granting credit (or a prerequisite waiver) if you can pass the final exam of a class.

For popular introductory courses, there are often prescheduled sessions for attempting these exams before the start of the semester.

Get a surplus computer

Many universities have a "surplus and salvage" department.

For less than $100, you can walk out with 3-4 year-old desktop computer that was once "high-end," yet missing only a hard drive.

Because clockspeeds haven't increased recently, the computer will likely have comparable sequential performance to a high-end machine.

Stay safe

Most colleges have a campus police number to call to request an escort.

Label the emergency, dispatch and escort numbers (if different) in your phone, and keep them in favorites/speed dial.

If you're out on campus late, don't even hesitate to call for an escort back to your room.

Technical majors: Learn LaTeX

LaTeX is a free, commonly used program for writing technical documents in mathematics, engineering and science.

(There's a good chance some of your textbooks are written in LaTeX too.)

LaTeX allows you to quickly create elegantly rendered technical documents with equations like this:

LaTeX documents render directly to PDF (among other formats).

LaTeX documents have crisp, distinctive feel.

Your professors will recognize it.

As a bonus, LaTeX will automatically generate your bibliography in any required format.

Make excellent dorm room coffee

You can make excellent dorm room coffee (quickly).

To do this, you'll want an AeroPress:

And, a quick-boiling electric kettle with temperature control:

I use a brewing techinque adapted from The 4-Hour Chef:

Tim Ferriss illustrates the peculiar (but excellent) technique here:

To make the perfect cup of coffee, adjust the following variables to taste:

  • Bean type;
  • Grind size;
  • Water temperature;
  • Stirring time; and
  • Pressing time.

Confront your weaknesses

The material you learn in class matters.

The character you develop outside of class matters a lot more.

College is a chance to systematically confront your personal weaknesses in the safety of a four-year sandbox.

When you start college, make a list of the axes along which you want to see personal growth over the next four years.

Find the environments that foster that growth.

Join the organizations that support it.

Make the friends that reflect it.

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