Published Date

March 16, 1998

Resource Type

For the Classroom


Teaching Methods

AHA Topics

Teaching & Learning, Undergraduate Education


United States


To succeed at the university, you must be able to do well at reading, writing, and critical thinking; you must be able to spend a lot of time and energy studying; and you must organize your life extremely well. Ideally, these are also activities that you also enjoy doing and from which you derive a feeling of satisfaction. These are practices and habits, however, that are not sufficiently stressed in high school or even in college. Therefore, many students of all ages are faced with having to make dramatic lifestyle and attitude changes in order to survive and succeed at the university. A successful venture into the university arena will affect all aspects of your life and will often require a great deal of reorganization and the postponement of other life goals. These changes can be very stressful and taxing of one’s energy and resources. If you decide to undertake a career as a university student, you must either already be well-prepared by your past experiences to possess high levels of reading, writing, critical thinking, study, and organizational skills; or you must decide that you want a university education badly enough that you are willing to make the extraordinary effort to acquire those skills and achieve a performance level at which you actually enjoy using and further sharpening those skills.

This tool for academic success is a comprehensive reality checklist of questions on attitude, behavior, and organization that every student at every level of the university should be able to answer in a positive manner as a reflection of their life in college. The questions do not have answers attached to them because one of the purposes of a university education is to create a proactive student mind that seeks the answers to questions rather than waits to receive them passively. The answers to these questions mean much more if you find them yourself. The answers to many of the questions will also change and become more meaningful as you grow as a person, as a student, and as a professional. If you are in your first year at the university, you should answer these questions as soon as possible, and you should know the answer to all of them by the end of the first semester.

If you are already doing any of the affirmative things that these questions suggest, you should be proud of yourself. Pat yourself on the back and continue to work on the questions that suggest you could be doing better in other areas. This will maximize your opportunity to be happy at the university while you work harder than you have ever worked in your life at gaining an education in which you can take pride. On the other hand, if you do not prepare and commit yourself to discovering the rules of the game of higher education and to mastering the skills required to do well in this high-pressure environment, you will be very unhappy doing things you do not like, and the university will feel like an oppressive environment.

The bottom line of this guide is a question that is simple to ask and answer, but very difficult to implement: “Am I ready to empower myself as a college student and make a positive statement about what I am going to do with my future at the university?” If the answer is “yes,” then read on.

Am I Motivated and Self-Empowering?

  • Do I know what I want or expect from a university education? Do I know that an important key to motivation is having clear goals and objectives?
  • Do I realize that I have more control over what I learn and how I succeed at the university than the counselors, teachers, or anyone else will ever have? Do I realize that without a solid hard core of self-motivation, my personal education program is doomed to fail?
  • Do I really want to be here, or am I just killing time until something else shakes out for me?
  • Am I going to the university mostly because my parents expect it, because my friends are going, or because I have nothing else to do?
  • Can I get motivated if I do not understand why I have to take certain classes and why I have to do classwork and homework that I do not like or find difficult?
  • Do I know it is a common mistake to judge a class by the entertainment standards of television programming?
  • How can I get motivated if most classes are boring to me and I enjoy socializing more?
  • How can I change my attitude and goals to get excited about going to class and about learning new subjects and new ways of thinking?
  • Do I know that being a proactive learner rather than a passive recipient or resister is a major part of what it takes for me to become academically motivated and successful?

What Kind of Contract Am I Making?

  • Do I know that when I enroll as a student I make a contract with the university? With my fellow students? With my teachers? With my family? With society in general? Do they know I have a contract with each of them?
  • What is a contract?
  • What is the purpose of a contract?
  • Do all contracts have to be written? Can they also be implied or understood?
  • Do I know and understand my contract with the university? Have I carefully read that part of it that is written down? Where is it written down? What other parts of it are implied?
  • What other contracts have I made in my life?
  • Why is it important to think of my life as a series of contracts?
  • Do I live up to the contracts that I make? To which I sign my name or to which I give my word? Which I understand exist without it being expressed?

Is My Purpose in Harmony with the Purpose of the University?

  • What is a university education? How is it different from a vocational school program? What larger mission in transforming me is the university designed to fulfill?
  • What kind of person am I supposed to be when I finish college?
  • What is my purpose for being at the university? Do I know what I am doing here and what I expect to get out of it? Is it the same or different from the purpose of the university?
  • Can I be serious about what I am doing here?
  • Do I know what requirements I need to fulfill for the university? For my major? Do I know where to get this information?
  • Do I know how many credits it takes to be considered a sophomore? A junior? A senior? To graduate?

Am I Aware That I Need to Make Major Changes?

  • What does it take to be a good student?
  • What kind of changes in lifestyle and habits do I need to make?
  • How do I need to reorganize my life and my priorities?
  • Am I willing to make those changes?
  • Do I have a calendar book to help me do it? Do I know that my ability to manage my time will determine whether I swim or sink in my new environment?
  • Do I know that changing habits and lifestyles takes an everyday effort?

Can I Work on My Self-Image and on My Personal and Professional Growth?

  • What is an intellectual? What is a professional? Do I have an image of myself as becoming an intellectual (someone who thinks conceptually) and as a professional? Why is this important?
  • Do I need to see myself in a specific career to think of myself as an intellectual or professional? Or can I see myself as one or both without making the choice right away?
  • Apart from the courses I have to take, do I know what it takes to get a degree in the field or major I have chosen or in which I am interested?
  • Do I actually know what a professional does in that field? Have I talked to practicing professionals in my area(s) of interest? Have I chosen a career only for the glamor or money associated with it?
  • How do I want or need to grow and change as a person to realize my goal?
  • Does becoming an intellectual or professional mean rejecting part of me, my family or environment that I do not want to reject? Or can growing as a person mean that I can have many sides to my personality and relate to many groups and cultures?
  • Even if I choose not to become a “professional,” can a university education still have some value for me?

Am I Ready to Make Hard Choices and Commitments?

  • Can I treat school as a full-time job? How is a university career like a job?
  • Can I make a commitment to study and do homework at least 20 hours a week?
  • Does my family understand what it takes for me to succeed at school? How can I explain it to them? Do I have to go to school in spite of their resistance?
  • If I have friends who do not go to college or who do not take college seriously, can I resist their pull to do the same? Can I take their ribbing because I seem to be growing different? Can I disassociate myself from persons who put me down or hold me back? Can I make new friends who are supportive?
  • Do I know that if I do not make the commitment now and every day that my career at the university will slide by out of my control, and I will create a poor track record and even flunk out?

Have I Evaluated My Economic Situation and Maximized My Economic Resources?

  • Do I know that although a university education is not “free and mandatory” like education was in grammar school and high school that it is still subsidized by taxes and that it costs a lot more than what I am paying in tuition? Do I know that I make a moral contract to deliver my best effort when I sign up for a college education?
  • Have I developed a plan for how I will pay the thousands of dollars it will cost me each year in tuition and additional expenses?
  • Do I discuss my economic situation with a financial aid counselor every semester to evaluate changes in status and assess opportunities and challenges?
  • Have I explored every option for financial aid and scholarships? Do I know that there are hundreds of scholarships available for all types of students with a wide variety of qualifications, even scholarships for bowlers and golfers?
  • Do I keep an updated calendar of financial aid and scholarship deadlines and requirements so that I do not miss out on important opportunities?
  • Am I aware that even if I receive scholarships and financial aid, the university expects me to make a contribution to the cost of my education, particularly when it comes to buying my books? Have I saved $200-300 to buy my books next semester?
  • Can I live frugally and delay buying expensive clothes and cars until after I get my degree?
  • If I need or want to have a paying job, can I give my education the kind of attention it deserves? Where will I get the time to do well in school and also hold a job?

Do I Know That Skills Are Abilities I Can Develop Forever?

  • Do I know why the following skills and personal qualities are important to me as a university student, future professional, and just plain human being: writing, consciousness of ethnic and gender issues, reading, time management, critical thinking, open-mindedness, math , flexibility, oral communications, persistence? Identify other qualities that are important to you.
  • Are these skills just for persons who have jobs I do not want to go into?
  • Are these skills that I can use in other parts of my everyday life?
  • Do I have a realistic sense of what my skill levels are?
  • How do I know what they are?
  • How will my teachers and counselors let me know what they are?
  • Am I willing to be aggressive to take my skills to the highest level possible?
  • Will I commit to using the resources available to me like supplemental instruction, language labs, and tutors?
  • Can I accept the idea that education is a lifetime process and that there is always room for improvement?

Do I Have a Happy Relationship with My Grades?

  • Do I have a vision of myself as an achiever? Do I take pride in doing well in school? Or do I have a negative self-image? Am I afraid to try to get good grades because I might fail? Do I get bad grades because my friends get bad grades or because I do not want to be seen as different or as a nerd or uppity?
  • Will I be satisfied with low grades as long as I do not get hassled by the teachers and counselors?
  • What does it take to get good grades?
  • Is the university just about getting good or bad grades?
  • What are grades supposed to reflect? Do I know that making high grades as an end in itself can distort the purpose for which they were established?

Am I Mature Enough to Be a Class Act?

  • How mature am I? Am I ready to take responsibility for my words, actions, and commitments? Do I keep the contracts that I make?
  • Do I act like an adult or do I act in a manner that tells the teachers, counselors, family, and other students that I do not take my life seriously? Do I have an attitude or cause trouble because even negative attention is better than no attention?
  • Do I give in easily to peer pressure to do things that hurt me as a person, hurt my education, or hurt other people?
  • Do I know the basic rules of good social behavior in the classroom? Am I considerate of the teacher and my fellow students, and do I maximize my own learning experience by doing the following?

showing up all the time
being on time
paying attention and being quiet except to participate
taking good notes
trying to understand what the teacher is trying to teach
asking questions when I do not understand
being prepared to participate by doing my homework
sitting in a respectful position at the front or in the middle of the class, rather than sitting in the back and slouching or being inattentive
socializing or eating before or after class, not during class
reserving my clowning around for outside the classroom

  • If I think I already know the material in a class, can I take a leadership role and make it more interesting for myself by helping other students to learn it better? Do I know that teaching others–in class, on an individual basis, or in study groups–helps me to sharpen my thinking and understand the subject better?
  • Do I know it will help me to learn if I go see the teacher personally even when I do not have a problem?
  • Do I know that teachers and counselors are people too, and that they are affected by my behavior in class and in their offices?
  • Do I think that it is their job only to serve me? Or do I understand that I have obligations to them too?
  • Do I know that it is important to keep appointments with teachers, counselors, tutors, and others? That they have set aside valuable time for me? That I should call if I cannot keep the appointment?
  • Do I know that doing the right things (listed above) is part of the contract I make with the university and the other institutions that fund my education?

Why Are Gender Issues Important to Me?

  • Do I know what the issues are in today’s society about growing up as a male?
  • Do I know what the issues are in today’s society about growing up as a female?
  • What are my responsibilities as a male or female?
  • How do the gender issues relate to my education at the university and my future life?

Have I Given Attention to the Practical Basics?

  • Have I taken care of my transportation needs? Do I know the parking situation is going to be chaotic in the first week of classes? If I do not have a car or if my car breaks down, have I tested the bus system as an effective way to get to campus? Have I looked for other students in my classes with whom I can carpool?
  • Do I know where my classes are? Do I know what rooms they are in and where the buildings are located?
  • Do I know exactly what time they begin? Do I know what day classes start and the important dates in the semester?
  • Do I know how to takes notes? If I do not, how can I learn?
  • Identify other practical questions or issues.

Do I Know What to Do When Things Get Rough?

  • If my personal life, family, or academic life is under real stress, can I still focus on my education? Can circumstances become so emotionally stressful that it is better for me not to be in school?
  • How do I make that decision?
  • Do I know where to go for help on campus and off campus?

Do I Know That a University Education Will Not Necessarily Make Me a Better Person?

  • Do I know that any area of human activity has its share of imperfect and bad persons as well as good ones and that the university is no exception?
  • Do I know that a university education is only one of many ways to test and improve my character? That becoming conceptual and highly skilled will not necessarily make me a better person if I do not make a conscious personal effort to shape my own character for the better?
  • Do I know that there are many individuals with university degrees who are doing more damage to society than persons without a higher degree?
  • Do I know that some of the shining lights of moral leadership in human history never went to college?
  • Do I know that whatever I do in life, with or without a university education, that I will find challenges and opportunities that will test the moral core values that I adopt for dealing with other people? Do I do unto others as I would have them do unto me? Or am I a part of the “me generation” that thinks the world owes me?
  • Do I know that if there is anything the university will do for me in this area it is that it will teach me to think about problems systematically and expose me to nonfiction and fiction works of literature that grapple with the great moral issues of humankind? That this quality is what makes great literature that transcends the ages?
  • Do I know that the advantage of a university education is that it sets time aside for reading and discussing this great literature as opposed to what I may have to be doing on a regular job? Am I ready to take advantage of this opportunity? Or will I think it has nothing to do with getting me a good-paying job?

What Other Questions Are Important to Me?

Identify and share with your fellow students, with faculty and counselors, and with your family other questions that are important to you or that you think should be included in this set of questions for survival and success.