Lauri Mattenson
UCLA Writing Programs

1. Think of Yourself as a Young Professional

You are now joining an academic community, and you are an important contributor to classroom conversations, scholarship, and even research. Be attentive to the basics: show up on time, bring your materials to class, complete assigned work, prepare for office hours and examinations, participate in study groups, and ask for help when you need it.

Everyone on campus is now your colleague, and nobody will seek after you to make sure you are working hard. The freedom you now have is a gift and responsibility, and it will help you develop the range of skills your future work will demand.

I’d like you to consider a common scenario. Every quarter, my students are required to submit their essays online to TurnItIn.com (plagiarism detection software), and every quarter, at least a couple of people miss the deadline. Here are two typical responses (excerpts from actual student emails):

    a. OMG I am freaking out! I didn’t turn in my paper on time and I don’t know what to do. I was really tired and I was working on my chemistry homework and I totally forgot and does this mean I’m going to fail?
    b. Dear Professor, I am so sorry for the oversight; I did not submit my work to turnitin.com on time. I did work hard on the essay and would still appreciate hearing your feedback, even if I do not receive full credit. I’ll come by your office this week to chat, and please know this will not happen again. Thanks very much for your time, Michael in English 3, Section 2.

Both students made the same original mistake, but at the end of the quarter, if they ask me for a letter of recommendation for a scholarship, job, or application, I would only say yes to Michael. He took responsibility for his error, and he did it in a mature, forthright manner. He sees himself as a young professional, and accordingly, I see him as a future leader with unlimited professional potential.

2. Get to Know Your Professors

The most successful students attend office hours early in the quarter and regularly after that. They do not show up only to question a grade; rather, they introduce themselves, ask thoughtful questions, share ideas and impressions, and even request future reading recommendations.

When you meet an instructor who resonates with you, follow through on the connection. Tell him he inspired you; ask if she will mentor you. Assert yourself and ask for advice. Perhaps this professor will be willing to share his or her educational and professional history, struggles, successes, and suggestions. Stay in touch with people who offer you guidance, and rather than only thinking about what you will get out of a class, think about what you might contribute to it. This makes you particularly memorable in your professors’ eyes.

3. Practice Empowerment

Some of your classes will be more challenging than others. I needed quite a bit of tutoring to understand my chemistry assignments; some of my students benefit from extra help with the writing process. Similarly, class discussion is fun for some people and stressful for others. Every time a student comes to my office and confesses feeling shy, nervous or insecure about speaking up in class, I thank him or her for being so honest, and then I recommend that they jump into conversation even when it’s uncomfortable. If you wait until something feels easy, it might never happen. Be willing to take risks, challenge yourself, and work at something when it’s difficult. This is how to get to know your own power.

A few more words about discussion: do not leave class with regret. If you have something to say, speak up. If you do not understand the material, ask questions. If another student says something meaningful or confusing to you, say so. If course concepts relate to your work in other classes or books you are reading, share the information. I recommend reading at home with a pen in your hand, not a highlighter. Identifying an author’s main points is a good first step, but it’s just as important to record your specific questions and reactions. Bring your notes to class and office hours, and prepare to be engaged. This will make it much easier to trust your spontaneous contributions, and will build your overall confidence.

4. Back up Goals with Actions

Just about everyone who enters my class says they would like to increase their vocabulary, but only a small percentage of students actually take the time, as they read, to look up unfamiliar words. Everyone’s got a long list of things they want. There’s nothing wrong with that. Make your list and dream big. And then: write down what you are willing to do to get what you want.

Every quarter, someone comes into my office and says something like, “I’m going to medical school in four years and I need to get an A in your class.” My response is this: I admire your ambition. But nobody “gets” an A. You earn an A. So feel free to ask me what it will take to earn an A and succeed in my course, and then work hard to achieve it.

5. Practice Self-Care

Healthy routines are important. Take care of yourself by eating right, exercising, getting enough sleep, and accepting social support. Take advantage of therapeutic, medical, academic, and financial resources. Make appointments to see tutors and plan ahead so you don’t get behind. Time management is particularly important, because the quarter moves quickly, and procrastination will increase your stress level. Pay close attention to how you respond to stress, and find healthy ways to relieve it. Everyone needs help at some point and in some way, so please remember that asking for it is a sign of strength and self-care.

Get to know the pace of the quarter system before you sign up for too many extracurricular activities. You have four years to explore your interests, so don’t try to fit them all into your first quarter!

Faculty and staff are here to support you and challenge you, and we want to see you succeed. Every class teaches more than a specific set of skills; you are learning how to learn. This is why a university education can support and stimulate you for the rest of your life. Work hard, jump in, and enjoy this incredible educational experience!