10 Mistakes All College Students Can Avoid

I’m thrilled to welcome English professor and author B.K. Stevens to the Power of 10 series. Today, B.K. provides valuable advice for all college students and introduces her latest release, Fighting Chance.

Here’s BK!

Picture BKS (2)If you’re reading this post, chances are you’re not starting college this fall. If you know someone who is, please pass on this list. I was a college English professor for over thirty years. Every fall, I greeted many bright, likable new students. By the end of the semester, some of them had failed my class; by the end of the year, some had flunked out of college. At least ninety percent failed not because they couldn’t do the work but because they made one or more of the mistakes on this list. Others passed but didn’t get the grades they could have gotten, didn’t learn as much as they could have learned. It’s a heartbreaking waste of money, time, and opportunity. And it doesn’t have to happen, not if students avoid a few basic mistakes.

1. Don’t cut class.
Many students come to college thinking attendance is optional now: As long as they do the work, they don’t have to come to class. Not true. Many professors have firm attendance policies. If you miss X number of classes, your semester grade starts plummeting. If you miss Y number of classes, you fail. Even if there’s no explicit policy, few students are knowledgeable and self-disciplined enough to learn all they need to learn independently. Besides, college classes can be interesting, even fun. You’ll meet new people, encounter new ideas, develop new interests. Valuable things happen in class. Go.

2. Don’t try to multi-task in class.
Some students show up for class but don’t give it their full attention. They hold their phones in their laps and send text messages; they pretend to take notes on their laptops while really shopping for shoes. But the verdict is still out on multi-tasking: If you try to do many things at once, can you really do anything well? Probably not. Probably, if you do other things during class, you won’t learn much. And especially in smaller classes, your professors can see the phone in your lap, can tell you aren’t actually taking notes. They’ll feel insulted, and they won’t like you much. That has consequences.

3. Don’t slack off in “easy” classes.
I taught many composition classes, many advanced literature classes. I almost never failed students in advanced classes, even though we studied difficult texts. I failed many composition students. Most of these students saw composition as “easy” and didn’t take it seriously. They didn’t pay attention in class, figuring they already knew enough to get by; they didn’t do assignments, figuring they’d catch up later. But in college, you really can reach a point of no return. Many professors don’t give make-up tests, and most don’t accept extra-credit assignments. Too often, I had to tell a student who could have gotten an A that there’s no point in coming to class anymore, that an F is now inevitable. It’s a shame.

4. Don’t use your computer as an excuse.
When I started teaching, the joke was that students who hadn’t done assignments would say, “The dog ate my homework.” Today, the standard excuse is some version of “The computer ate my homework”—I lost my flashdrive, the library printer was out of paper, and so on. If you blame a missing assignment on a computer, your professor probably won’t believe you, even if you’re telling the truth. We’ve heard that excuse too often. Besides, if you plan ahead, you won’t find yourself at the mercy of a computer. If your essay is due Tuesday morning, don’t go to bed Monday until it’s printed. Then it won’t matter if the library’s out of paper, and your professor won’t think you’re a liar.

5. Don’t be too proud to use academic support services.
Almost all colleges offer academic support—writing centers, tutoring centers, counselors who help students develop stronger study skills. People often describe such services as “free.” In fact, you’ve already paid for them, when you paid your tuition. Why not take advantage of something you’ve paid good money for? Sometimes, students worry their professors will think less of them if they get help. Just the opposite. Whenever I got a notice saying a student had gone to the writing center, my opinion of that student shot up. Here’s someone with initiative, I thought, someone who’s willing to put in extra effort. That put me in a positive frame of mind when I graded the student’s essay. That doesn’t hurt.

6. Don’t blame your problems on your professor—especially when you’re talking to your professor.
Sometimes, when students messed up, they tried to convince me it was my fault. “You never said the essay was due Wednesday!” they said, or “I didn’t do the assignment because your directions weren’t clear.” Such complaints are seldom valid. Usually, the professor provided all necessary information—usually, it’s printed on the assignment sheet. And professors expect college students to take responsibility for their own success. If they don’t understand something, it’s up to them to raise their hands and ask for clarification.

7. Don’t get so caught up in sports that you neglect your classes.
College sports can create intense pressure. Your coach expects you to devote many hours to practice, you want to excel, and you don’t want to let your teammates down. And sports are fun and offer more immediate rewards than classes do—that’s why we talk about “playing” sports and “working” in class. Also, many students cherish dreams of winning fame and fortune in professional sports. The odds against that are staggering, even for athletes at Division 1 schools. Enjoy sports, but focus on academic work. In the long run, things you learn in class will mean more to your future than points you score in games.

8. If you fall behind in a class, don’t go dark.
Too often, when students start messing up in a class, they disappear. They stop coming to class, stop handing in assignments. When I tried to get in touch with such students, some wouldn’t take my phone calls, didn’t respond to voice-mail or e-mail messages. If I finally tracked them down, they often admitted they’d been too embarrassed to face me. They didn’t want me to lecture them, so they decided to wait until they’d finished all missing assignments. But once you fall behind in college classes, catching up on your own is hard. As soon as you realize you’re in trouble, go to your professor and endure the lecture. Your professor will almost certainly try to help. Don’t wait until it’s too late.

9. Don’t plagiarize.
The Internet makes plagiarism seem easy–students figure they can copy and paste something, neaten it up, and turn it in. Sometimes, they get away with it. But many professors use software that detects plagiarism, and others get good at spotting it. When students who plagiarize get caught, consequences can be severe—failure, suspension, expulsion. The academic community regards plagiarism as a serious sin. It’s a betrayal of trust, a perversion of everything education should be. Even if they never get caught, plagiarists damage their intellectual and moral character. If it’s 3:00 in the morning and you’re too exhausted to go on, you still have options. You can ask for an extension—you may not get one, but you can ask. Or you can hand the essay in late and take the reduction in grade. Those are honest, respectable choices. They won’t keep you from passing the class, and they’ll leave your soul intact. Just don’t plagiarize.

10. If you don’t really want to be in college, don’t stay in college.
After a semester or so, some students feel frustrated and restless. The whole thing seems pointless, and their motivation is sagging. If you find yourself in this situation, you could force down your doubts and push ahead. Or you could leave. College isn’t right for everyone. It definitely isn’t right for everyone at eighteen. Lots of people drop out and do fine. Others leave, work for two years or ten or twenty, and go back when they’re ready. Think carefully about what you really want. Don’t stay in college just for parties, for sports, or because of social pressure. Don’t stay and make a half-hearted effort. Stay only if you’re truly committed to succeeding in college, and you’re willing to give it everything you’ve got.


Fighting Chance Cover (2)When seventeen-year-old Matt Foley’s coach and mentor is killed in a sparring match at a tae kwon do tournament, the police decide it was a tragic accident. Matt’s not so sure. With help from a few friends, including the attractive but puzzling Graciana Cortez, Matt learns the coach’s opponent, Bobby Davis, is a brutal, highly skilled martial artist, the central attraction at an illegal fight club. Now, Matt’s convinced someone hired Davis to murder the coach. But who would want to harm the coach, and why do it at a tournament? Matt’s efforts to find the truth pull him into some dangerous conflicts. To improve his self-defense skills, he joins a krav maga class taught by a man who becomes his new mentor. Matt suspects that he’s going to need those skills, that some day he’ll have to face Bobby Davis himself. (Poisoned Pen Press)

Read the first chapter here.

Awards and Reviews

Anthony and Agatha Award Finalist

Best Young Adult Mystery

“A smartly crafted mystery filled with suspense and intrigue.”–Kirkus Reviews

“Stevens’ portrait of Matt, Graciana, and their town is a compelling one, full of convincingly real dangers.”–Booklist

Buy Links

Amazon | Kobo | Barnes & Noble


B.K. (Bonnie) Stevens has published over fifty short stories, most of them in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Her stories have won a Derringer and have been nominated for Agatha and Macavity awards. She is also the author of Interpretation of Murder, a traditional whodunit that offers readers insights into Deaf culture, and Her Infinite Variety: Tales of Women and Crime, a short story collection. An English professor for many years, B.K. lives in a central Virginia town similar to the one in Fighting Chance. Her husband, a fifth-degree black belt, choreographed all the martial arts scenes in the novel.

Where to find B.K.

Website | Amazon | Facebook


8 responses to “10 Mistakes All College Students Can Avoid

    • I’m glad you like the list–I hope he finds it helpful. I remember dropping our oldest daughter off at college the first time. Turning away from her was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. Our younger daughter and I wept for about half an hour as we drove away–my poor husband! But it does get easier eventually (if never exactly easy).

    • Hi, Jeannie–I enjoyed meeting you at the Suffolk festival! It’s such a great event–I’m already looking forward to next year. And thanks for reblogging the post. I hope lots of new students see it, hope it starts some conversations with parents. When I was teaching, it always made me so sad when students who could have done well were pulled down by these mistakes.

    • That’s a good addition–thanks. College activities can be enjoyable and worthwhile, but students have to be careful not to overdo it. Especially when they’re just starting college, students should take things slowly and see how many activities they can handle.

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