College Hack #10: Hire a Coach, aka Faculty Advisor

The desire to succeed has given rise to a new industry of coaching. Life coaches, business coaches, social media campaign coaches, and so on. The concept is simple; find someone who is an expert at what you want to do and pay them a fee to learn the secrets of their success. Have them review your unique situation and provide guidance on how to get from where you are to where you want to be. If you google “coaching” right now the top hits will not be those who work with sports teams, but rather those who offer to mentor amateurs with ideas. They promise to turn your passion into a product, complete with a book, speaking fees, and paid consulting. As I was surfing through the interwebs related to this topic, I realized that I could be making big money coaching students to get into graduate school. Someone even showed me the site of a former professor who quit to coach full time in the area of aspiring university faculty. Her templates for letters involved in applying for positions have become so widely used that she posted a disclaimer that you should not use her exact wording anymore unless you want your query letter to sound exactly like a dozen others the search committee would receive.

College Hack #9: I’ll pretend to teach and you pretend to learn

Universities are fatally flawed. They are required to neglect half of their core mission, or face elimination. The biggest casualty of this flaw is teaching and student learning. If you understand this basic fact of the university, you will be way ahead of the pack in being equipped to accomplish something during college. Let’s start with a metaphor.

College Hack #8: You didn’t learn anything so you can’t get a job


A few years ago Richard Arum and Jospia Roksa wrote a book arguing that college students don’t learn much in college. Based on assessments (aka testing), in Academically Adrift (2011) they concluded that most undergraduates at the Universities and Colleges of this nation aren’t learning much in the classroom, but are really good at hanging out. After that big splash, they’re back with a new book, Aspiring Adults Adrift (2015). In this book they argue (from data collected by following up the students they had tested), that it’s hard to get a job in the post-2009 recession era. Paradoxically, young adults are incredibly optimistic about their futures. So you’re doing worse, but you feel really good about it.

College Hack #7: Plan for your Student Debt NOW

This one is simple; students rack up too much student debt. Total student debt in this country has rapidly passed the $1 trillion mark and is approaching $1.3 trillion. The average student has about $30,000 in debt by the time they graduate. As an educator I worry that this is not a sustainable system. A lot could be said for starting financial responsibility while still in college (maybe I’ll write more in the future) but for now be inspired by my friends who paid off their debts quickly. Check out  My take-home point; start planning NOW for how you will deal with student loans. Many students live in blissful ignorance, not even knowing how much they owe. Start figuring it out during college so it won’t be a shock and burden when you graduate.


College Hack #6: You’re not a bad test-taker

On A Prairie Home Companion Garrison Keillor reminds us that in Lake Wobegon “all the children are above average.” Apparently the opposite is true in college, where all the students are bad test takers. At least it seems that way from my frequent encounters with students who try to explain their poor exam scores or low aptitude scores with the familiar refrain “I’m a bad standardized test taker” which is often followed by “but I do well on all my homework.” Like the above average intelligence of the children of Lake Wobegon, it is a statistical impossibility that so many college students are bad at taking tests. Even for most individual cases, the person in question is not a bad test-taker. What does that phrase even mean? It’s an argument that the exam cannot reflect their true knowledge, skills, or aptitude because something interferes during the test that makes their score inaccurate. This is not true in most cases. What is really going on?

College Hack #5: Facts or Skills?

I’ve taken social psychology three times. Once as an undergraduate and twice as a graduate student. However, I cannot remember any specific facts from these courses. I got A’s. I must have studied. I’m sure I learned important things. I remember each of the professors, but nothing in particular comes to mind when I reflect on the material. In contrast, I still remember learning grammar during my second year of high school. I remember spending days looking for prepositions at the end of sentences and determining whether parallel constructions in sentences were truly parallel. I also remember how to do math, which I use all the time. Especially statistics. I will never forget how to find the mean, median, or mode. Although I forget some of the details, I still understand even complicated statistics, like the basic differences between factor analysis and principle components analysis. This brings up the issue of skills versus facts. Which is more important to learn during college? What focus makes the better course?

College Hack #4: Understand Grade Inflation

Grade inflation is a permanent feature of the contemporary University landscape. I’m not even going to quote any statistics or facts or figures—you know it’s true. Instructors need good teaching evaluations, and students are happier in the A to B- range than in the C+ and below territory. Standards are lower than ever, partly because there’s so much work to do that spending 30 minutes each grading 100 five page papers seems like a bad idea. Think about it, that’s 3000 minutes or 50 hours. There is no chance that a professor (or graduate student) with a bloated section of a popular course can spend an entire work week (yes, we work more than 40 hours/week) doing nothing but grading the final paper at the end of the semester. So the choices are to not assign a paper, to assign a really short paper, or to grade them in 3 minutes each (that’s still 5 hours). When these conditions prevail, there are a lot more multiple choice tests or lighting fast grading, and eventually A’s and B’s become the norm, not C’s. I’m sure there are other pressures that elevate average GPA’s at college, but what does this mean for you?

College Hack #3: Professors Prefer Professionalism

You may shuffle into class in your sweats, flip-flops, and graphic T but college is not always as casual as you think. That is, I am stunned at how naïve students can be in their dealings with professors and administrators. We all have horror stories of really inappropriate communication ranging from rude and demanding to virtually nonexistent. The cost of unprofessional behavior can be high; we sometimes mock silly students (behind their backs), we won’t respect you, and most importantly we may not help you.

Good news! It’s not that hard. You can up your game with a few tips. It will be worth it.

College Hack #2: Take Professors, not Courses

Classes are like pizzas

Pizza is Pizza. Well, not really. There’s so many levels of pizza, ranging from the cardboard flavored wedge of yellow American cheese-flavored food product atop a ketchup covered “crust” to the artisanal wood-fired delicacies covered with fresh basil and buffalo milk mozzarella. So although you need to take Social Psychology to get your degree, the quality can vary widely. There is a tension between getting the courses and schedule you need to accumulate points toward your academic credential and learning something you can actually use. You might have to cough down something from under the heat lamp, or you might be served an expert’s best recipe prepared fresh each day for a truly memorable experience. I’d eat anything Mario Batali puts in front of me, even if his interpretation of pizza that night was a pasta dish or poached fish. I’d also take any class Dr. Poelstra offers irrespective of the title.

College Hack #1: TAP the Test

One of the biggest barriers to attending Campus Bible Study (i.e., generic for whatever faith group you’re with) is the need to do a little schoolwork. Students often moan about projects and studying for exams, and attendance always dips during finals. Christian college students need to fellowship, evangelize, and serve. Not study. OK, some study is mandatory. Unfortunately, failing out is an even more surefire way to miss Campus Bible Study.

If only there were a way to make the business of A’s more efficient, so Christian students could get back to being “on mission” (that’s what you’re all focused on, right?). Well there is. Time to get savvy. There are tricks to success that are rooted in solid research. Powerful ways to shorten study time while simultaneously raising grades. Here is the first.