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6 Academic Skills Every Successful Student Needs

It’s the time of year when many people, both those who are young and those who are perhaps a little more worldly, are going to college for the first time or know someone who is going to college for the first time.

Stepping into the unknown and feeling the doubts, fears, insecurities that live there.

For the past 20 years, I have helped first-year students transition into academia.

Every year I see far too many of these students struggling, trying to cope with systems they don’t really understand, a culture and language that is hopelessly unfamiliar. In fact, most students who don’t do very well in college struggle, not because they can’t do the work (all college students are very smart), but because they’re not unaware of the specific academic skills they need to excel.

Once struggling students know where to focus and how to concentrate, they usually end up doing much better with much less effort.

So what are these magical academic skills? Well, for starters, there’s:

1) Time management. There are only 168 hours in a week. Full-time students should devote approximately 40-60 hours per week to their studies, not including travel time. Assuming the average student spends an hour a day traveling, that’s about 67 hours a week studying. Then there is the time needed to eat, sleep, shower, work (most students now work about 20 hours a week part-time), which leaves about 10 hours a week to do other things like shopping, spending time with friends and family. For full-time students, effective time management contributes enormously to their success.

2) Read for information and understanding. Most people read quickly, they don’t take the time to read articles and understand what they are reading. Reading at the college level requires the student to understand the context of what they have read and how what they have read relates to the topic they are reading about. Information such as where the material was written, when the material was written, who wrote the material, all have an impact on the relevance of the material to the subject being studied.

3) Essay writing. One of the biggest challenges new college students face is understanding what an academic essay is. The 5-paragraph essay taught in high school or the report writing techniques taught for business purposes don’t make for good academic work. Also, not all college essays are the same. You might be asked to critique, analyze, describe, defend, compare, define, and each type of essay is looking for something different. To do well with essays, you need to know what the specific difference is for each type of essay.

4) Note taking. Most lectures follow a specific pattern – one major point is made, then examples and other ways of stating the main point follow, until another major point is made. When students come to class prepared, when they have done the required readings for the class before class, it is quite easy to pick up the main points and only take notes on those main points as needed. When students come to lectures unprepared, everything the speaker says is new and seems important, so these students are the ones who are busy doodling or typing throughout the lecture and often miss the really important information.

5) Research. Freshmen are often unaware of the difference between an academic journal and a mainstream magazine. Not knowing the difference can result in a significant grade loss. Even using Wikipedia as the main source of research for a major article is not acceptable in most cases. Students should familiarize themselves with their university’s online library and draw most of their research resources there. Most people I know who proofread essays are suitably impressed when a student uses relevant, high-quality academic research material for their essays.

6) Examinations. There are two important exam skills. The first is preparing for exams (studying). Most of the prep work for successful exams is done throughout the semester, essentially learning the material as you go. Constantly reviewing lecture and course notes, summarizing those notes, understanding how the courses relate to the subject of the course and to other courses all help to increase your chances of getting good grades. Exams themselves often expect students to contextualize learned material or apply material in ways not covered in coursework or readings. Even nursing course exams often catch students off guard by asking them to apply the material they have learned in new ways, not just repeat memorized material.

In my experience, I have found that students who know and use these 6 academic skills are usually the same students who consistently receive top grades in college.

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