The Professors Guide to Starting College – Works for High School Too

By Sam Rosensohn

Recognizing that moms and dads are quick to give their children advice from the heart when they start college, The Chronicle of Higher Education sought answers from parents who double as professors and college administrators.

William E. Cooper, president of the University of Richmond, told his daughter who just started college at George Washington University: “Aim high.” (Same holds true for high school students, says me.)

Jean A. Berger, associate director of athletics at Drake University, told her kid to get involved in activities from the start. Her daughter, a freshman at Drake, apparently listened. She joined the advertising club. (Same holds true for high school students.)

Patrick W. Keef, dean of faculty at Whitman College, who accompanied his twin daughters to Scripps and Knox Colleges, suggested they repay society if they were grateful for the gifts they had been given. (Same holds true for high school students.)

Robert W. Turner, a professor of economics and environmental studies at Colgate University, told his daughter who just started at Haverford College, to relax and not worry about things. (While they may be good advice for some college students, I wouldn’t sell this to high school students.)

Turner’s remarks reminded me of what a former Harvard Dean of Students, Harry Lewis, encouraged a group of incoming freshmen in the fall of 2001. He told them to identify what they loved most and to spend more time on fewer things.

“You may balance your life better if you participate in some activities purely for fun rather than to achieve a leadership role that you hope might be a distinctive credential for post graduate employment,” Ellis wrote in a Harvard newsletter.

Lewis offered a series of refreshing suggestions (too many to list here), including, “The most important thing you need to master is the capacity to make choices that are appropriate to you, recognizing that flexibility in your schedule, unstructured time in your day, and evenings spent with your friends rather than your books are all, in a large sense, essential for your education.”  If you want to read what Lewis wrote go Harvard’s website or give me a call and I’ll make you a copy of his remarks.

Four years ago, with her daughter poised to head off to college, Kerry S. Kilburn, a senior lecturer in biology at Old Dominion University, set out to spare her daughter the pitfalls that await unsavvy freshmen.

Kilburn started to keep track of the mistakes that new students made in her biology course for nonscience majors, and thus was born, Dr. Mom’s Guide to College (, a Website chock-full of useful tips, including: Maintain eye contact in class. Back up assignments on disk. Don’t wander alone in deserted places. Don’t ask, “Do I need to read the textbook?” Take advantage of office hours, arguably the most underused tool available to students.

“This website is a distillation (believe it or not) of the most important advice I can give from the perspective of faculty member, advisor, and parent,” Kilburn wrote. “I don’t know if she’ll ever read it; maybe y’all will find it useful.”

I did.

This is some of what Kilburn addresses: Before classes start: Getting ready to go; In the Classroom: Strategies for success (or at least the appearance thereof); Office Hour Etiquette: Good manners and good results; Documents your life depends upon: Believe it; Questions you should never ask: Trust me on this one; Computers are our friends except when they’re not: electronic pitfalls & perils; Expand your horizons, not your belt size: Sound body, sound mind. (Same holds true for high school students.)

In the category Final Words, Kilburn has five terrific suggestions that will work for high school students as well:

1) Be good. Have fun. Work hard. Play well. Make friends. Learn new things.

2) Every once in a while, remember to thank the folks who help make your college experience enjoyable (or at least survivable) – that includes secretaries, maintenance staff, and the pizza delivery person as well as the usual professors, fellow students, and parents.

3) Write your parents once in a while even when you don’t need money (who knows – they may be so shocked they forget to complain about the bill for this semester’s books).

4) Maintain your beginner’s mind. Leave the expectations behind, make every moment a learning opportunity, and take advantage of as many of them as possible.

5) I envy you – have enough fun for me, too!

Sam Rosensohn is the founder of College Planning Partnerships, which offers prep classes for the SAT and helps students to prepare for college and write college essays. He can be reached in Clinton at 860-664-9857 or at