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Students who learn to write well are more likely to succeed in any field. Getty Images

Having a Hard Time in College? Take Some Advice From 2 Million Students

More than 20 million college students are deep into a new semester. For new students, the transition may have been a challenge. The rigorous coursework, increased freedom (and fewer restraints), and unfamiliar social structures and norms can trip up any undergrad. For other students, trying to balance academics, jobs, family, and health can be the biggest challenge.

In our work with more than 100 colleges and universities, we have analyzed the experiences of more than 2 million students. And while no two journeys are exactly the same, today's students can learn a lot from those who came just before them.

Here are five key findings from our data that might help you or the student in your life make the grade in college.

1. It's time to ignore your score. It can be easy to wonder if you’re in over your head at college when you meet other students with higher standardized test scores or who went to more prestigious high schools. However, colleges and universities know what it takes to be successful at their institution and they wouldn't have admitted you if you didn't think you could cut it. If their data suggest that students like you have done well in the past, you should have confidence that you can too.

More important, however, the data from millions of college and university students indicate that your behavior and performance over time—both in high school and in college, is a much better predictor of success than a single test score. So, don’t sweat your SAT or ACT score anymore. Focus instead on the taking the right steps going forward—all the way to the commencement stage.

2. Success (or failure) isn't just about academics. Don’t get us wrong, academics are important. However, our data indicate that 75% of students who leave their institution without a degree were doing well academically prior to dropping out.

Financial problems, life events, daily logistics, and personal well-being are often the culprits when students drop out. Other times it’s a difficult work or living situation. The fact that “life happens” can be as much, or more, of a challenge as the course work.

While you can’t plan for every eventuality, make sure you understand your financial situation and any financial aid package you're receiving.

Talk to professors or other campus support staff if you have an unexpected illness or family issue; they may be able to work with you to make up missed lectures or coursework.

Take time to connect with other students—particularly those with similar backgrounds who are maybe a few steps ahead. These “near peers” can be a vital lifeline, helping you navigate tricky academic/life balancing acts. Student athletes can help other student athletes; working students, other working students. Ask often, and also be willing to share what you've learned with students who are a few steps behind you.

3. Writing skills matter, no matter what you major in. Students studying to be engineers or accountants may feel the urge to blow off their freshman composition course, believing it isn’t relevant to their course of study or future employment. That’s a really bad idea.

Our data show that students who receive an "A" or "B" in their freshman writing course are significantly more likely to do well in their junior or senior years than students who receive a "C" or lower. Take your introductory writing course seriously, and you’ll build a solid foundation for the future, including your career. Blow off writing, and you are setting yourself up for challenges down the road.

4. The best students ask for help. Most colleges invest heavily in campus resources to support students academically, physically, and emotionally. Perhaps surprisingly, our data indicate that the students who use these resources are often the highest performers. "A" students typically take advantage of them, while "C"or "D"students, who might benefit most, often don’t.

So don’t think that asking for help, going to tutoring, or reaching out for counseling is a sign of weakness. It’s exactly the opposite.

5. Planning clears the path to success. While people may associate college with all-nighters and last-minute cram sessions, procrastination isn’t your friend. Engage fully in your coursework, beginning with the first week. If your school uses a learning management system (LMS) for coursework, readings, or discussions, make sure to log in early and use it.

At one institution we studied, students who were least active on their LMS in the first two weeks of classes were significantly less likely to continue to the next term. Some 90% of students who used the LMS consistently continued on, compared to just 25% who were less active.

Even more important, take the time to plan your pathway to a degree. Having a well thought-out degree plan from the first semester to the last matters. Even if your plan changes, having one is better than not. It can guide your course selection and better prepare you to deal with any financial or work/life balance issues that may come up. Best of all, having a plan can tell you whether you’re on course or off course—when to self-correct and when to celebrate!

Mark D. Milliron, Ph.D., is co-founder and chief learning officer at Civitas Learning. He was previously deputy director for postsecondary improvement with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the founding chancellor of Western Governors University Texas. A former high school teacher, Laura Malcolm, M.A.Ed., serves as senior vice president of outcomes at Civitas Learning.

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