Advice on How To Succeed In College from a Homeschool Graduate

A colleague of mine passed on an E-MAIL she received from a homeschool graduate who is now in college. As is typical for homeschooled students, this young man did very well in his first year, receiving a grade point average (GPA) of 3.95 out of a possible 4.00. My first-year GPA was quite a bit lower than that! What I found really fascinating about the E-MAIL, however, was that he gave a list of 14 “tips” on how a person should approach college life. The tips are insightful and full of an enormous amount of wisdom.

For example, his first tip compared home education to college:

College is very similar to homeschooling, in that they expect you to put in a significant amount of effort and will not spoon-feed you material…

This is one of the many reasons homeschoolers are so successful at the college level. They have been forced to develop the ability to learn on their own.

Some of his other tips really pleased the former university professor in me. For example, he says:

Go to office hours ALL THE TIME! You learn a TON in office hours that isn’t taught in class.

I wholeheartedly agree. Even though I was one of the most approachable faculty members in my department, few students attended my office hours. Most of them probably would have received a better grade if they had.

Speaking of grades, read what he has to say about unfair grades:

Unfair grading will probably happen, and it’s up to you to be good enough on tests to compensate for the system.

When I taught at Ball State University, I used to get very annoyed with students who would regularly come in an argue for an extra point here or an extra point there. Now don’t get me wrong – if I graded a test incorrectly, I wanted to fix that. However, many students viewed their grade on a test as a starting point for a negotiation. As this young man correctly says, you will get some unfair grades from time to time. However, if you are good enough, they will not affect you any more than they affect anyone else.

I also found that he took my advice when it comes to AP tests. Obviously, he liked the results, because he says:

Even if you’ve taken all the AP courses, don’t jump straight to your sophomore year of college. There is no real advantage to getting out of college a year early, but there is a HUGE advantage to getting all A’s that first semester. It makes a HUGE impact on both your personal expectations and your self-esteem to have exceptional grades.

Actually, I am a bit less firm on this than the student. I say that if the AP course you took has no relation to your major, go ahead and test out of the course. Just don’t test out of any courses that relate to your major in any way.

All of the tips I have discussed so far are very good, but they are mostly utilitarian, giving you specific strategies for success. Several of his tips go beyond that. They actually impart a lot of wisdom. For example, he says:

There’s nothing special or different about the college experience, because it is what you make it. You can be there to party, hang out, and entertain yourself or you can be there to buckle down and get things done, just like you can in high school or the workforce.

In a similar vein, he says:

Remember: the only reason you are going to college is so you can
be evaluated compared to your peers. Don’t go to college to “find yourself,” to “have fun,” to enjoy the “college experience,” or to learn, although you probably will learn and have fun. There are much better ways to advance your personal knowledge of a career field than the go-to-class, study, and test system our educational process has in place. Go through college with the intent of being more disciplined than the competition, and you’ll be fine.

If you put these two quotes together, you get to something rather profound. College is, indeed, what you make of it, but quite frankly, there are better ways to learn, have fun, and “find yourself.” College is, in fact, more of an initiation ritual than anything else. If you want to be a part of the “club” (those with a degree), then you have to go through the initiation. If you make it through, you get to be in the club. How well you survive the initiation ritual determines your status within that club.

He also has two very wise tips regarding distractions. I can’t tell you how many times I saw a talented college student perform under his or her potential because of distractions. This wise student says:

Don’t buy a laptop, because you don’t need one, and it’s a HUGE distraction. A flashdrive and the campus computer labs should be all the computing resources you need.

That’s very true. Now that files are easily portable, there is no reason to have a time-sucking entertainment device at your fingertips. And speaking of time-sucking entertainment, he says:

If you find yourself having a hard time avoiding Facebook, give your password to a friend and have them lock the account until the semester is over. It may seem like a large sacrifice now, but four years later you’ll be glad you did.

This wasn’t a problem for students in the dark ages when I was teaching at the university level, but I can only imagine how many students are failing these days because they can’t stay off Facebook.

I also must include this very wise tip, which he considers the most important one:

Get an accountability partner who you can confess anything to. This doesn’t have to be a parent or sibling, just a strong Christian who will forgive you seventy times seven.

This is incredibly important advice for any Christian, even if you are going to a Christian college!

Now all of these utilitarian tips and all of this wisdom is wonderful, but now it’s time for a bit of shameless promotion. Here is his final tip:

Homeschool textbooks are designed with one goal: for the student to learn. Most college textbooks have other goals besides student learning, including political correctness, making them more “teacher friendly,” being pedagogically “inventive,” etc. This gets in the way of learning the material that really matters. I miss Dr. Wile’s clear, easy prose and excellent examples. Enjoy them while you can, and get through as many as you can while you’re still in high school. It’ll shed volumes of light on the obscurity you’ll find in college classrooms. It will also teach you that most concepts are phenomenally simple and easy to learn, made difficult only by the way they are taught.

I couldn’t agree more!

19 thoughts on “Advice on How To Succeed In College from a Homeschool Graduate”

  1. Dr Jay,

    I couldn’t agree more about getting to know your professors and visiting their office. It has proved itself not only in my college days but my child’s current education at college. She has said it is invaluable.

    I also agree about facebook.

    I also agree that getting great grades in the first year is a real boost for the freshman student whether or not they took AP classes or can test out of a subject. These freshman classes give a student a chance to do well and learn about what college professors are expecting. I found it got harder toward the end of the four years as it should.

    However, computers are not always accessible and the noise level at some colleges make laptops easier to use. The libraries are not what they used to be and talking is definitely allowed. It does take discipline when using a laptop.

    Keep your goals withing sight. Make a chart where you can see your progress and what your goals are. Put it on the wall. You can always change it if needed.

    I really like the idea of accountability partners. Not only does this provide a student with someone to talk and pray with but provides much needed encouragement.

    Thanks for posting this blog.

  2. These all sound like pretty firm ground. I’ll pay special attention to the point that you aren’t there to enjoy yourself, find yourself, or even to learn. If you were, there would be better places to do so.

    What was this mystery student studying by the way? I assume it has something to do with science as he refers back to your books, but I don’t see it mentioned. I think that matters. For example if someone is doing a programming course then yes they probably do need their own computer (not necessarily a laptop). It isn’t merely a question of having the machine physically convenient. It is more a question of having a machine that is customized to your requirements.

    I’m also curious about the issue of unfair grading. It seems to me that if you really wanted your work marked fairly it would include shifting downward as well as upward. Yet there are few people who would call attention to a mistake that had been overlooked.
    On the other hand I do regularly query marks for one basic reason. I write what I understand about a topic, so if there is a fundamental error it means I do not understand something. I can conceive of no better way to reprogram out that error than to actually approach a teacher and say “I don’t know why you marked this as you did. As far as I understand X the answer should be Y.”. It may come across that I’m a miser for my marks, but in truth I’m more interested in working out what is wrong. Of course sometimes the response is that I was correct, and I get the mark put up. Sometimes I was correct but the mark scheme doesn’t allow that answer. That last one is very annoying, but in that case it is even more important to know where things lie.

    1. Josiah, he didn’t say what he was studying, but I expect it wasn’t computer science. You are right, of course. Certain majors probably would need a personal computer. Deanne’s comment is also important – some college computer labs might be so noisy as to be more distracting than a laptop.

      Your point about fair grading is a good one. However, I can tell you that I remember three occasions in which students came in to tell me that I gave them too many points on a test. Interestingly enough, all three of them were homeschool graduates.

      I never had a problem with a student asking me why I marked things the way I did. I only had a problem when the student was focused on points rather than concepts.

  3. As a college junior, I have to say that I agree with most this advice, especially the part about college is not where you go to “find yourself”. You are going to get an education last time I looked.

    However, that being said, don’t be afraid to find out that what you thought you wanted to do with your life isn’t what you really want to do. For example, while I have loved Chemistry since I first took it in high school at 13 years old (I seem to remember crying when I realized that I had the practice problems and test of module 16 left because I did not want it to end- yup I’ve been a weirdo since 9th grade…)I thought that I wanted to go into the medical field and would be happy to leave chem behind as just a prereq to what I saw as bigger and better things. Well, in my sophomore year I had an epiphany and realized that I could not imagine not doing chemistry every day, and I have decided that I now want to get a doctorate in chemistry instead of going into the medical field.

    The point of this story of my career goals, is that just because something seemed like a good idea when you graduated from high school, do not think that you have to keep the same plans/dreams through your four years. If you do, great! However, I will also say that praying and thinking about such a change of plans and discussing it with others you trust and whose judgment you respect is wise before just jumping ship and changing gears.

    Other advice for college:

    A laptop can be quite useful, actually, if you can be disciplined enough to not be distracted.

    Use your resources, and never be afraid to ask a professor a question about the class.I’ve never had a professor who didn’t want to talk to students about the class or answer questions.

    Have a positive attitude about every class. In other words, don’t go into a class thinking ” I’ll hate this.” ” This’ll be too hard for me.” ” What a boring subject” etc. If you have a poor attitude about a class, it makes it that much harder. (Not to say that haveing a good attitude makes every class a breeze, but it helps!)

    Similarly, try to find something to interest you about the subject matter. Really, it helps make the class easier if you find something positive about it.

    If you don’t go to a Christian college (I go to a public univ.) you can fully expect to have your faith challenged. Be prepared.

    Wow, I didn’t mean to write such a book!


    P.S. Josiah- I actually have questioned professors over points to try to get them to take back points (as in lower my grade). So far they never have. I’m assuming that they rarely get students who try to return points to them because they always look really surprised and confused.

    1. Excellent advice, Vivielle. I am actually glad that you wrote a book! I have to say that my favorite part was where you say, you “realized that I could not imagine not doing chemistry every day.” That’s truly awesome! I can’t tell you how much it means that you took my chemistry course (I assume from your description) and think that way about chemistry!

  4. Oh, I meant to ask if you (Dr. Wile) have read “Deadly Choices: How the Anti Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All”? I was reading some of your posts about vaccines (I am personally pro-vaccine) last night, wondered if you’d heard of this book. It’s quite good.

    1. Vivielle, I have not read that book. I get my real medical information from the medical literature, so I typically only read anti-vaccination books. That way I can see how the anti-vaccination movement lies about the medical literature.

  5. Great article, full of a lot of wisdom!
    I’ll (hopefully) be attending a local university in two years to get my bachelor’s degree and I keep hearing about the increasingly secular textbooks and professors. I know I’m going to miss Dr. Wile’s “Exploring Creation” textbooks, but at least I know it’s preparing me for the several years I’ll be spending in college.

    Fortunately I have the advantage of a strong Christian family and a God-centered high school curriculum to reinforce my faith while I’m in college.

    1. Thanks so much, Kody. Get plugged into a solid campus fellowship group like Intervarsity, Navigators, or Campus Crusade for Christ, and you’ll do great!

  6. As a science teacher at a Christian school, I have used your science curriculum exclusively for the last 8 years. Your Exploring Creation textbooks have helped inspire a significant percentage of my students to go into science related fields in their post-high school education. Our school is non-tradtional in its approach to education. We teach under an educational philosophy of individualized education so basically we look like a giant home school. Your curriculum fits in perfectly with our system. So my burning question is, do you plan to write more high school level science textbooks and/or update and revise the ones you have already written? i have followed your situation this past year and am sure there are many factors that would affect this. I pray that you will be able to utilize your gift of writing so that my future students can reap the benefits from your textbooks. In the meantime, I would be interested in hearing recommendations from you regarding science textbooks for Christian high schools.

    1. Hello Beth. Thanks for your comment and your kind words. I am glad my courses work so well for your school. In answer to your question, I will not be doing anything more with the science courses I have already written. They belong to the publisher now, and I have nothing to do with that publisher. I am working on an elementary science series that will start in 2nd grade. It will be a while before it is available in the US, assuming the Lord wants it used at all.

  7. This is pretty good list, but I have to disagree with the concept of giving a friend you facebook password. If you are having that many problems with staying off facebook, give your parents your password and have them block it. Whether attending a Christian college or not trusting a friend with your facebook password is just not a good plan.

    1. Wow! Black sheep is back, at least for the moment! Good point about trusting a friend with passwords. Too much chance for mischief!

  8. Dr. Wile,
    I did use your books in high school. If I recall correctly, I did 6 of the books (both Chemistry books, both Physics books, Biology and Anatomy) in my 4 years of high school. There are definitely some very vivid memories of doing Chem II and Physics I simultaneously- it was a test every week the whole year between the two books! I really enjoyed all the books, I used, so thank you!

    Also, thanks for not minding that I wrote such a long comment earlier!

  9. While there is a lot of potential for mischief if you give someone your password to anything, surely there’s still room for trust. If you know someone sensible to admit everything to, then clearly you know people who won’t avail themselves of such an opportunity for mischief.

    Perhaps I don’t consider facebook as seriously as some do, but I would be very disappointed if I considered it more significant that friendship.

    1. Josiah, perhaps it’s a question of maturity. My friend could be totally trustworthy, but he might think it would be “funny” to go in an post something on my account. In his mind, it is harmless fun, but my mother is also a Facebook “friend,” and it might not be so “fun” to someone like her.

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