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How to Be a Good Student in America: 3 Dos and Don'ts

Ask professors for helpChase two hares at a time
Speak outStop trying

DO: Persevere

Writing papers has always been a challenge for me. The type of writing that is considered a vital skill in the U.S., being able to construct and defend an argument, is not something I learned in Russia. Yet this fact did not scare me away from taking writing-intensive classes as soon as I started at Mount Holyoke College. I thought that I had to start somewhere, and the sooner I started the better, as I would have more time to hone my skills. So my first semester at MHC I signed up for an advanced 300-level writing intensive seminar.

My grade for that class depended not only on a term paper, but also on a set of smaller writing assignments. The professor told us that everyone would submit five assignments during the semester and that our final grade for the assignments, rather than being a summary of those five grades, would instead reflect the progress we had made over the semester, from the first paper to the last.

Behind the “A” that shows up for this course on my transcript is the story of how I struggled in that class and the lesson I’ve learned.

Toward the end of the semester, I knew my progress wasn’t where I wanted to be. The highest grade I had received for my writing was a B+. But I would not be satisfied with a B+. So I asked the professor if I could submit more assignments. Unexpectedly, she said yes!

Producing more papers gave me an opportunity to better understand my professor’s expectations, as well as to improve the overall quality of my writing. I climbed from a C+/B- to an A- in my assignments and knew very well my professor’s standards by the time my term paper was due. The term paper made up the biggest part of our final grade, and I got an A in that class.

The lesson: Persevere. Don't let a setback cause you to give up or give in - there's usually a way to move forward, if you are willing to work hard for it.

DO: Ask professors for help

The other lesson from my first writing class was that professors are often willing to help you in unexpected ways, if you are willing to ask.

In one of my other writing-focused classes, I had to write a 10-page research paper. When I told the professor that I was having difficulty with the assignment, she agreed to talk to me about my paper. Discussing my paper with her certainly helped me formulate my ideas and understand the assignment. But what I was really hoping was for her to read my drafts, which she wouldn’t do.

In a class the next semester, I, again, had to write a research paper. I again asked the professor to read my drafts, expecting him to refuse. But he did not. In fact, he willingly read my drafts three or four times during the semester. To my big surprise, when I asked him to take a look at my final draft, he agreed to take it only a few days before the paper was due. He returned my final draft with his comments one day before the deadline, enabling me to even make final cosmetic corrections.

The lesson: Professors have different teaching styles and have different ways of helping you learn. Even if one professor refused to help you the way you wanted it, they may be willing to help in other ways, and it does not mean another professor will also refuse.

DO: Speak out

In seminars, participating in class discussions usually constitutes a significant percentage of a student’s grade. I took a few seminars at MHC and got an A in all of them. In all of them, I spoke in every class. In all of them, I spoke either more than anyone else or not less than the most active students in my class.

Being an international student, I understand the fears and concerns about speaking in class. I, too, before coming to MHC, had thoughts like, “What if I make a grammar mistake or choose the wrong word and Americans laugh at me?” and “What if I start a debate in class, but can’t express myself quickly enough to rebut an opponent’s argument?”

I knew that before speaking, I needed a few seconds to construct the sentences in my head, so that I did not stop in the middle of my speech searching for the right word in English. But I also knew that often class discussions move so quickly that I would often not have those few seconds I needed. How did I get out of this? I stopped worrying about these things and started speaking. The only way to learn was to speak off the top of my head and react fast.

Yes, there were many situations when I made grammar mistakes, picked the wrong words, or just stopped in the middle of my sentence unable to find the right word. But no one ever laughed at me. Now, I don’t even think about the concerns I had before. Sometimes I even raise my hand having only a vague idea of what I am going to say.

If this does not convince you to cast off your fears, think about it like this: One day you will need a letter of recommendation from two or three professors. You can choose a professor whose 100-person lecture class you took two years ago, hoping that he or she will recognize you. However, you will probably want your letter-writer to be someone who has had a chance to get to know you better, like one of your seminar professors. But will they have anything to say about you if you never spoke in their class?

The lesson: Don’t let your concerns about the language affect your grades and your career. THIS is your chance to learn to speak English!

DON'T: Cheat

One of my discoveries at MHC was that cheating in classes is not only a matter of honesty but also of culture. What is regarded as cheating in the U.S., such as copying ideas without citing them, would not necessarily be problematic in, say, Russia or China. Similarly, behavior that is encouraged or tacitly approved in the U.S., like reporting students who cheat, may attract censure somewhere else.

It is your responsibility to learn the American understanding of cheating and stay away from it as far as possible. If not for reasons of morality, than at least for the sake of your grades.

One of my Chinese friends did not bother to read the MHC student guide on plagiarism and cheating. When her professor gave her an F for plagiarism, she tried to explain to him how Chinese academic culture is different, but he was unyielding. When she told him,, “I did not know this is plagiarism,” his response was simply, “Well, now you know.”

The lesson: Take 15 minutes to read your school’s guide on plagiarism. It will save you a lot of pain later.

DON'T: Chase two hares at a time

My extracurricular activities have always been as important to me as school. Their value for me is multifaceted: they don’t just contribute to my personal growth, but also expand my knowledge about my career field. Yet I felt that striving for As at MHC and pursuing all the extracurriculars I wanted was not prudent. I was reminded me of the Russian proverb that if you chase two hares you will not catch any. One of my biggest challenges at MHC has been deciding how to allocate my time between school and extracurriculars, as everything seemed important but I couldn’t do it all.

I talked to my professors for advice and took note of their opinions. One of my professors told me, “Your grades are always there [on my transcript],” which stuck with me. She said that if you sacrifice a grade for an activity, everyone looking at your transcript will notice your bad grade and maybe that extra line on your resume. But if you sacrifice your activity for a grade, everyone will notice the good grade on your transcript but not the activity you did not do.

I chose in favor of school and, in hindsight, I am satisfied with my choice. I got good grades and came across other extracurricular opportunities that worked better with my priorities.

The lesson: Know your priorities. Don’t chase two hares at a time, unless you are a superman (or woman).

DON'T: Stop trying

Remember how I suggested being persistent in your classes? Sure, in my first writing class doing extra writing assignments brought my grades and my skills up to where I wanted them. But what happens when persistence is not enough? What if, even after doing all those extra writing assignments, I had climbed up only to a B?

Professors in the U.S. value a student’s effort - they value it much more than professors do in Russia. So extra effort is not wasted. It may be reflected in your final grade and your professor’s impression of you as a student, even if it does not change your grade on a test or assignment.

Last semester I was struggling in one of my math classes. I strived for an A, as usual, but was closer to an A-. I went to almost all of my professor’s office hours. I did all extra problems at the end of each chapter – problems that were not assigned as homework. I borrowed supplemental books from the library and consulted them. By the end of the semester, I was oscillating between an A and an A-. The final exam was expected to determine my grade.

During the final, however, I got so nervous that I got myself confused and did only about half of the problems. I estimated my grade and realized that I could only expect a B+ at best. But I got my A-. What for, if not for my effort?

The lesson: The effort always matters.