How to Be Successful in College: 6 Tips

Alayna Godwin graduated from Troy University in 2019 with a degree in exercise science and a dance minor.

Alayna Godwin graduated from Troy University in 2019 with a degree in exercise science and a dance minor.

For many soon-to-be college students, the anxiety that can accompany waiting for acceptance to the college of their choice is quickly superseded by a new worry: how to be successful once they get there.

“The first half of the first semester really comes at students fast, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed,” says Dr. Jonathan Cellon, Associate Dean of First-Year Studies at Troy University’s John W. Schmidt Center for Student Success (JWS Center).

Dr. Cellon
Dr. Cellon

Dr. Cellon has an inside view of the challenges facing TROY’s first-year students, and the JWS Center offers resources to help them learn how to be successful in college and cross the finish line to graduation.

While challenges can surface during all four years of college, for students, it’s important to get off to a good start because that can set the stage for the rest of their college experience. “If students start poorly, their academic experience is probably going to end poorly,” Dr. Cellon says, “but if they start well, their academic experience is more likely to end well.”

He and the JWS Center are doing their part to support students in starting and finishing well.

Center for Student Success Aims High — Right Alongside the Students

The JWS Center’s mission is clear: achieving student success with integrity.

Dr. Cellon says the center is central to the college experience. “We brand ourselves as the one-stop shop for academic support and engagement. We have 10 different offices within the building that focus on student success, and that ranges from academic advising to adaptive needs and disability support.”

Whether a student is struggling with a subject or simply needs access to copying and printing services, the JWS Center can meet the need. “The Learning Center offers tutoring to students in science, math, and writing, and our Computer Works lab supports students’ technology needs,” says Dr. Cellon.

Support can begin early when students are still in high school, and it continues throughout their TROY education — even beyond graduation when it comes to planning for graduate studies. Wherever a student is in the education journey, TROY is right there alongside them. Dr. Cellon explains, “Our TRIO Student Support Services programs range from Upper Bound, which is the pre-college outreach, to Student Support Services for students who are in college, to the McNair Scholars Program, which is for students who are in college but aiming to go to graduate-level work.” 

Other services in the JWS Center include the Office of Academic Advising, which assists all students with less than 45 credit hours in course and major selection and helps students navigate academic challenges. For students with disabilities, TROY’s Adaptive Needs works with students to coordinate necessary learning accommodations for their classes. TROY also offers several student success courses through the Office of First-Year Studies that are designed to help students transition in their first year.

The support extends as far as the extracurricular activities that link education and civic engagement, both on campus and in the local community. “Our Office of Civic Engagement focuses on academic engagement,” says Dr. Cellon, “connecting what students are learning in the classroom into meaningful ways they can make a difference on our campus and in our local community.” 

Finally, TROY’s JWS Center is the home to the Office of Career Services, which assists students in determining their major and career plans, connecting them to networking opportunities, and enhancing their job search strategies. Dr. Cellon adds, “we are seeing that employers increasingly want college graduates who are well-polished and professional and have participated in experiential learning opportunities like internships, which connect what students are learning in the classroom to the real world. The Office of Career Services assists students with these efforts and is a connecting point to employment options as students approach graduation.”

Common Challenges Facing College Students

Transitioning to college can be a bumpy road, but it doesn’t have to be. Higher education students face common challenges, and TROY helps them navigate the hurdles and learn how to be successful in college. Part of the challenge is learning to be a college student.

“The differences in high school and college are mainly the speed of the game and the level of intensity that’s required,” Dr. Cellon explains. “It’s a transition that can be difficult for a lot of students. Our services are built around that piece. As soon as students make it through IMPACT, our new student orientation program, we’re making an effort to really connect with them and get them up to speed on how the University works, how to navigate in it, and how to be successful in class and beyond.”

TROY student, Tre’Ana Hullum, found time management to be one of her biggest hurdles in transitioning from high school to college. “In high school, I did not have much homework or assignments. In college, it can be a big load. I had to learn how to manage my time and sacrifice certain things to make sure that I was on top of my school work.”

Hullum smartly took advantage of the support TROY offered to get her off to a good start and stay on a successful track. “TROY student support services [SSS] provided me with a lot of support,” she says. “Through TRIO [SSS], there were seminars specifically about time management that helped me start. I also utilized the building’s resources, such as tutoring, computer lab, career services, and academic advisement. Everyone is friendly and accommodating. I always feel as though they are invested in my college success.”

6 College Success Strategies

There is no one secret to college success, but there are tried and true strategies that can factor into the success equation. Whether students are taking classes on campus or studying online, the following college success strategies can guide them on their journey to the finish line.

1.   Start well by doing the basics well — all four years.

“Start well as you’re coming in as a freshman and at the beginning of each new semester,” says Dr. Cellon. “Starting well is important because once the foundation is set, one way or the other, it dictates what the rest of the college experience looks like. It’s tough for students to course-correct if they don’t start well, and it certainly limits their options.”

Dr. Cellon explains what starting well means in practical terms. “The first is showing up for classes,” he says. “This may seem like something so obvious that we can easily overlook it, but attending class is critically important.”

Being prepared for classes by following the work and doing the required reading is also critical. “A lot of the materials are now on Canvas, our learning management system,” says Dr. Cellon. “Reading and learning the classwork is going to look different than it did in high school, so become familiar with those things as quickly as possible. And manage the out-of-class experience as well as what’s happening in class — then show up for class prepared.”

2.   Start with (and keep) the end in mind – stay committed.

The end goal is graduation. Keeping it in focus from the first day is a key to student success.

“I think we’re more apt to stay on track when we look holistically across the four years. On a micro level, week by week, semester by semester, students have to figure out what works for them,” Dr. Cellon explains. “When I was transitioning to college, there was a big adjustment because mom and dad were no longer making sure I was where I needed to be when I needed to be there. Students have to figure that transition out.”

Success depends on students finding ways to navigate the day-to-day while continuing to press forward toward the end goal. “What works in terms of time management? What works in terms of how to learn?” Dr. Cellon says answering these questions is key, and the answers are unique to each student.

“At the college level, there will be less formal guidance and contact than in the high school environment,” he explains. “Students should establish good routines. Get connected to resources. Take advantage of the supplemental services that we offer here.”

Hullum agrees, adding that the JWS Center helped her get the college experience off to a good start. “The advisement I received my first year at TROY gave me a sense of establishment. By the end of my freshmen year, I had strong confidence in my TROY experience.”

3.   Don’t be afraid to use available resources for overall well-being.

Feeling good about your education extends to feeling good about yourself and the other things going on in your life. But often, a negative connotation around asking for help can keep students from taking advantage of available resources. In fact, taking care of emotional health is just as important as succeeding academically.

Dr. Cellon encourages students to ignore any negative preconceptions and reach out if they’re unsure how to handle a situation or challenge. “Maybe you think there’s some stigma associated with receiving help,” he says. “But we serve all students. We’re the ‘Center for Student Success’ not the ‘Center for Students with Problems.’ Students need to hear a message that says, ‘Don’t let the fear of being helped get in the way of your success.’”

Hullum says maintaining emotional well-being is very important in college, and she advises students to invest in self-care. “Regardless of what is going on, it is essential to maintain your mental and physical health. College is challenging, but it is even more difficult if you are not healthy,” she says. “I would also advise leaning on a friend when life becomes too much.”

Dr. Cellon says asking for help may be difficult, but it’s an important first step. He adds, “We can only help students if we know they need support, so we try to meet students wherever they are, whether that’s in the classroom or at the JWS Center.”

The Student Counseling Center is available for those who’d like to visit a counselor to work through any challenges they’re facing. And TROY’s academic advisors take a holistic approach to understanding how students are doing with academics and beyond.

Dr. Cellon says, “The staff of the JWS Center care about students’ well-being and want to connect them with the resources of the University. I often say, ‘We may not have all the answers, but we can help you find the answers.’ I encourage students to come to us with their questions and concerns. Having the courage to do so is critically important for all students.”

4.   Stay engaged with advisors.

Keeping in touch with advisors throughout the college experience is another critical aspect of student success. Advisors are there to ensure that students’ dreams come true for their personal and professional goals.

“To stay on their graduation track, students need to make sure they’re engaging with their advisor and checking the appropriate boxes,” says Dr. Cellon. “Advisors know the degree plan that leads to graduation, and they know how to progressively keep students moving the ball down the field toward it. Staying engaged with them will help students be sure they graduate on time without enrolling in extraneous classes and missing opportunities.”

5.   Take advantage of this time to explore.

The college years are a valuable time for students to learn more about themselves and their career potential. While we all remember that one childhood schoolmate who seemed to know they wanted to be a pilot or a doctor or a scientist from early on — and stuck to that goal — that’s usually not the case for most people. Dr. Cellon says it’s important to remember that not every student arrives in college knowing what they want to do for the next four years or the rest of their lives.

“We want to work intently with students to answer two key questions: ‘How well do I know myself?’ and ‘How well do I know my options?’ We want to engage in this conversation with students as early as possible to help them explore their interests, values, and goals and to help them find themselves.”

When Hullum arrived at TROY, she wasn’t sure what her major would be. Her advisors worked with her to focus her interests and help her decide. “I had an idea of what I would like to do but was not sure,” she says. “My advisor helped me talk through my options, listened, and gave me insight into what classes would be beneficial to me regardless of major. My advisor also showed me what career opportunities might be presented to me based on the major I chose. That act alone helped me tremendously.”

It’s important to remember that starting college doesn’t mean you have to have it all figured out. “A lot of students come in undeclared, which is okay early on because when they’re in college, that is the time to explore,” says Dr. Cellon.

6.   Make informed choices about career plans.

College is the time to explore, but it’s also important to make a decision about a career path and start moving toward it as soon as possible.

“It’s important for students to take time to decide about a major and not jump into something too early,” explains Dr. Cellon. “Being undeclared is certainly okay, but from a curriculum standpoint, we also want students to move toward some pathway with some certainty as quickly as they can.”

It’s a tricky balance — waiting just enough time to know what to choose but not waiting too long. “A lot of students come in and feel like they have to be declared for a variety of reasons and then ultimately change their major. And that’s fine, but we want to make sure students find the right fit for them,” says Dr. Cellon. “And that takes some time; it takes some research, and it also might take some formal experiences for students to apply what they’re learning in the class.”

The goal is for students to make the most informed choices possible when they’re making career plans. Hullum agrees that Career Services at TROY can play a very important role in decision-making. “I have found Career Services to be the most helpful to me. They have many resources and events that prepare you for life after college. Career Services offers interview training, resume help, career exploration, and so much more.”

Dr. Cellon explains, “We want students to be able to make that choice with a degree of confidence and then start to build experience that leads toward a successful career launch after they graduate. Work experience — internships or unpaid volunteer experiences, other civic engagement experiences, part-time work — all those things are going to add to students’ resumes and better position them for success after they walk across the stage.”

Tips for Online Learning

Although online students can succeed in college by following the same tips as students studying on campus — for instance, starting well, staying focused on the end goal, remaining engaged — they may feel their college experience is challenging in different ways. For starters, online students typically have more to balance as they learn to manage their time and resources.

“A lot of online students are juggling a fuller array of life realities,” says Dr. Cellon. “Frequently, they’re working full time while attending classes. They may be parents as well. Having more going on that they’re managing in their lives certainly affects how they learn.”

Learning to manage time well, developing good study habits, and staying focused are especially important for these students. Setting aside a specific time of day for studying, for example, and having a designated space in their home for learning can help.

Another important college success tip for online students is to make the most of their life experiences, applying them to their classroom learning. TROY looks for ways to leverage online students’ current professional and personal experiences with their educational and professional goals; if they’re making a career transition, TROY helps them connect to opportunities within the industry they’re aiming to enter.

“We have a career counselor who is dedicated specifically to working with online students to identify the transferable skills they can take with them from one job experience or career field into another. The career counselor helps with everything from writing a resume and applying for a new position to preparing for a professional interview and professional networking,” says Dr. Cellon.

Online students at TROY have access to the same level of support offered to on-campus students, and it’s an important advantage. “We have an arm of the University that’s connected to the JWS Center, and we have an online center for student success as well that’s really focused on the academic advising and academic support pieces,” says Dr. Cellon. “Most of our learning support for online students is virtual, but we do cross over from time to time. More and more students are on a blended track. They’re taking classes both in-person and online, and TROY is making an effort to meet students wherever they are.”

JWS Center Champions Student Success

The road to college success may feel long when students are first getting started, but with the support of resources that genuinely champion student success, the journey can be a lot smoother.

The staff at TROY’s JWS Center not only offers advice to students about how to be successful in college, but they also help lead the way toward success. And then — if students take advantage of available resources — they walk alongside them throughout the college experience.

“While you’re in the middle of it, four years feels a lot longer than it really is; but retrospectively, it goes very quickly,” says Dr. Cellon. “Make the most of the experience. Take it seriously and recognize it’s an investment that only pays off if you walk across the stage at graduation. And remember: How you start often influences how you finish, so start well from day one.”

Hullum, who is currently working on her bachelor’s in social work, also has some advice for her fellow Trojans. “Use your resources and connect with others. I have found college to be a lot more manageable due to the number of offered resources here at TROY.” She adds, “Along with that, when you connect with friends, peers, instructors, and staff here at TROY, you will find a helping hand around every corner. Those connections can help you after your college journey has ended.”

To learn more about how TROY can help you to be successful in college, visit the John W. Schmidt Center for Student Success page on our website.