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How to Be a Successful College Student

Updated on August 10, 2013

If you are in college, odds are you are a little stressed, to say the least. What you really want is to learn the content and be successful in your courses. Well, you may not even care so much about some of the content of your classes, but you still want a grade and hopefully, a good one. Whether you are a star pupil or someone who just needs to do enough to get by, there are some tools and techniques you can use to be successful in your classes and develop a good relationship with your professors. Some of this may seem intuitive, but I work with college students every day, and I see them doing lots of things that might make a professor frustrated and less likely to go out of his/her way to be extremely helpful. I am not saying college professors are biased, but I am saying they are human. Most of them will want to help you, unless you give them a reason not to.

We can see you texting, and not only is it disrespectful, but it is also a distraction to us.
We can see you texting, and not only is it disrespectful, but it is also a distraction to us. | Source

Traits of a Student: The Good, the Bad, and the Awful

Pay attention in class


  • Make eye contact with the professor when he/she is lecturing.
  • Lean forward in your seat.
  • Take notes.
  • Ask appropriate questions.
  • Sit close to the front. It does not have to be the front row, but close.
  • Raise your hand if you want to comment or otherwise contribute during lecture.
  • Ask if you can record lectures. Some schools have policies regarding this.



  • Text during class.
  • Get up and leave for non-emergencies.
  • Pass notes.
  • Whisper to classmates.
  • Laugh or giggle at inappropriate times.
  • Skip class regularly.
  • Blurt out answers or comments, unless it is during an open discussion time.
  • Cheat, copy, or use material you didn’t cite off the internet.


Never ever:

  • Flirt with your professor or ask them to spend time with you off-campus.
  • Threaten or speak aggressively to your professor or anyone else.
  • Try to friend your professor on Facebook or Twitter. It is uncomfortable for the professor to deny your request, and likely, the professor does not want to share his/her private life with students.
  • Be rude to your classmates. Professors care about each of their students and will take offense to your disrespect of others.
  • Wait until the end of the semester to talk to the professor about your grade if you are failing. Make an appointment as soon as you see you are not doing well.
  • Be rude to other professors or staff on campus, especially at a smaller college. You never know which people are close, and if you are rude in another class or with other staff, the professor may get a negative impression of you.

How often do you do the "Don'ts" or "Never Evers"?

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Be respectful tips

If you have a possible emergency situation going on in your personal life, talk to the professor before class and tell him/her what is going on. Likely, the professor will suggest you keep your phone on vibrate and get up and leave if you get a call. This is far better than not telling the professor, having a ringing phone, and leaving to take a call.

If you must miss class or leave, make an appointment with the professor to discuss ways to make up the class or any missed assignments. If you know you will be absent in advance for a legitimate reason, talk to the professor and ask for suggestions on how to handle this.

On that note, get to know the professor, but in a professional way. Ask questions about the professor’s background in the first class. If the professor says she has taught for 17 years, ask something like this: “That’s a lot of experience. Have you always taught this topic?” This shows genuine interest, and people respond well to this.

  • Don’t overdo it on this one, or your classmates and the professor will think you are being a brown-noser.

If you disagree with something the professor says, respectfully say so. It is okay to express disagreement or a lack of understanding. College professors just want you to treat them with respect.

  • For example, your college professor says something like, “Rabbits are always white.” You would be better off saying, “In my experience, I have seen other colored rabbits. Could you help me understand this better?” rather than saying, “Not all rabbits are white. There are lots of different colored rabbits.” The first statement implies you want to learn from the professor; the second implies you are challenging the professor and it is likely to put the person on the defensive.

If the professor tells you to leave class because of something you did, even if you disagree, respectfully leave class and then make an appointment with the professor to discuss the issue. This demonstrates respect, maturity, and dedication.

Try to avoid “Why?” questions, such as, “I stopped by your office during office hours. Why weren’t you there?” This type of statement implies blame. It is likely your professor was doing some work-related tasks, like making copies or sitting in a meeting.

Be aware that the professor is a busy person and respect this. Many students have the impression that the professor only teaches one class and only has as many students as are in that class. Most professors are extremely busy with additional duties, including meetings, grading papers, committee work, and teaching additional or overload classes. To be respectful of the professor’s time, make appointments rather than just showing up. When you just show up at the professor’s office, he/she may already be with another student or have a million other things to do. It does not mean the professor won’t help you, but the professor could get frustrated and/or be rushed through his/her time with you.

Actually read the syllabus. The professor took the time to create it, and if you are familiar with it, you can make appropriate observations, such as, “According to the syllabus, this assignment is due during the 3rd week of class. I have a doctor’s appointment I can’t miss on that day. May I turn my assignment in early?”

If you have a course schedule for content to be covered on certain class days, don’t ask, “What are we going over today?” If you have looked at the course calendar, you should already know this. Asking the question implies you have not looked at it.

If You Are Struggling

If you are not making the grade you want in the class, make an appointment with the professor during office hours. If the professor’s office hours do not work with your schedule, tell the professor and ask for a suggestion. For the most part, professors are willing to bend over backwards and go out of the way to help students who seem genuinely concerned about the course and their grade.

When you come to a meeting with a professor, be prepared with your questions. It is okay to make a list of the concepts or assignments you are struggling with the most. This demonstrates that you are being proactive.

If the professor gives you a suggestion for improving, do not balk at it. If it does not work for you at all, explain why you think it might be ineffective, and ask for an alternative solution. If you just say, “That won’t work for me,” the professor may think you are not really interested in helping yourself and progress may reach a standstill.

*Note: If you feel your professor is treating you unfairly and you have tried to be respectful and open about the issue, talk to the professor’s supervisor. Students should never be treated unfairly.

© 2013 Leah Wells-Marshburn


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    • nurseleah profile image

      Leah Wells-Marshburn 4 years ago from West Virginia

      Rhonda, thank you so much for your feedback. In my 7 years in higher ed, these are the concerns I have heard over and over from other professors (and thought myself). I thought it might be helpful to share with college students or prospective students.

    • Rhonda_M profile image

      Rhonda Malomet 4 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      Thanks. Your suggestions are respectful and realistic. Most students are pretty good. Talking to the professor, asking questions, making an appointment about individual concerns is the approach to address individual concerns. Yet you'd be surprised how it doesn't occur to some people that if they are rude, disrespectful, or hand in bad or copied work from the Internet or are disruptive in class, that it doesn't engender goodwill on the part of the professor