Syllabus Shock


How can you avoid making these same mistakes? Know what a syllabus is and why it's important.

How to overcome this common affliction among college freshmen.

One of the first surprises of college gets distributed during the very first meeting of every class: a syllabus. Students who know what's on the syllabus usually earn higher grades than those who don't. And they always make a better impression on their professors. I know this is true because I'm a professor at California Baptist University in Riverside, California. But I was once a college freshman too. "Please read the syllabus carefully before Wednesday, along with chapter one," Dr. Fisher said as he dismissed us after our first lecture in Chemistry 101. After briefly laying out what he planned to cover during the semester, he'd jumped right into talking about atoms and molecules. I knew I'd better read the textbook, but the syllabus? I never looked at it. I stuffed that piece of paper inside my folder and wandered off to my next class. I did that in all of my classes. Since I didn't pay attention to the syllabi, I didn't know how to find my professors outside of class or which assignments were coming up. And because I didn't know how much the assignments were worth, I stressed over minor things. How can you avoid making these same mistakes? Know what a syllabus is and why it's important.

What's a Syllabus?

A syllabus is a professor's contract with his or her students, and it's filled with clues about how to succeed in the course. It lists:

  • The topics you'll be responsible to learn and a schedule of what will be covered each week or even each class period. Use it to plan ahead or catch up after you miss a class.
  • What percent of your grade each quiz and exam will be worth, plus any homework, papers, projects, and so on. If the final exam is worth 40 percent, you should spend more time studying for that than writing a five-page paper worth only 10 percent.
  • The professor's office location, phone number, e-mail address, and office hours (days/times he or she is available to help students). No rsvp required unless it says "by appointment only." When you're confused, meeting with a professor really helps.

Syllabus Shock

Now that you know how much work will be required, enter Syllabus Shock—a virus that spreads among freshmen during the first two weeks of the term. Symptoms include a lump in the throat, a pit in the stomach, and an intense desire for more hours in the day. The cure? Accurate expectations.

Time Management Is Crucial

Your time spent in class will be three to four hours a day, max (Monday through Friday). But time spent on homework should be double that amount. No joke.

Make a schedule: Put every waking hour on your weekly schedule. Now fill in, hour by hour, what you need to do each day. Start with classes, labs, rehearsals, and so on. Add mealtimes. If you'll be working 10 hours per week, block out those times too. Fill in any blank spaces with the word "Study"—two hours for every hour you spend in class. Any spots left open are your free times. 

When it's time to work, work: Between texting, social media sites, and the excitement of a new place, distractions are an ever-present danger. Turn off everything and focus. You can accomplish more during an hour of focused studying than in two hours of interrupted study.

Work smart: Start working on your assignments while things are fresh in your mind and you still have time to meet with the professor if you get stuck. Tackle the tough assignments first. It's tempting to put off doing assignments for the classes you don't like. But that's a good way to fall behind—and then you really won't like those classes. Do the hard stuff first. You'll feel less stressed, and then the easier work will provide a relaxing change of pace.

Syllabus Shock is real. Fortunately, it's a condition you can overcome with the help of accurate expectations and a game plan to stay on top of your workload. Form the right work habits early on, and you'll soon be on your way to thriving at college.

Written by Alex Chediak

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