4 Success and Your Role

David Evans


What you’ll learn to do: define success in college and identify strategies for achieving success

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Action is the foundational key to all success.

—Pablo Picasso, artist

In this section, you will explore definitions for success and explain how grades play a role in shaping success in college. You will also identify specific strategies to achieve college success during your freshman year.

Personal Responsibility for Success

Learning Outcomes

  • Explore definitions for success and explain how grades play a role in shaping success in college

A college education is aligned with greater success in many areas of life. While enrolled in college, most students are focused on making it through the next class or passing the next test. It can be easy to lose sight of the overall role that education plays in your life. But sometimes it helps to recall what a truly great step forward you are taking!

It’s also important to recognize that some students do not succeed in college and drop out within the first year. Sometimes this departure is due to financial problems or a personal or family crisis. But most of the time students drop out because they’re having trouble passing their courses.

In this section, we examine the elements of college success. Are there patterns of success you strive for but aren’t yet reaching? Where might you shore up your support? What strategies can you use to achieve student success in your college endeavors?

Defining Success in College

How do you define college success? The definition really depends on you. You might think that success means earning an associate’s degree or attending classes in a four-year college. Maybe success means earning a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, or a PhD. Maybe success means receiving a certificate of completion or finishing skill-based training.

Maybe your definition of success also includes making social connections in college or gaining job experience that can apply to your career later on. Maybe you want to establish a balanced health routine that includes enough sleep and time to exercise throughout the week, while also keeping up with your coursework. Maybe success for you means that you spend time working during college to keep your overall debt load smaller or that you balance your student life with your personal life so you can continue pursuing personal interests or spending time with your family.

A student’s definition of success in college can vary widely from student to student, and one student’s definition of college success may even change during their time in school. Understanding your own personal definition of success can go a long way towards ensuring you spend time and energy working towards that vision, and that you’re satisfied and fulfilled with how you spent your time in school.

Getting Good Grades

You might be thinking of other measures of college success, too—like grades. For instance, you might be unhappy with anything less than an A in a course, although maybe this depends on the difficulty of the subject. As long as you pass with a C, you might be perfectly content. So, if most students believe that passing a class is the minimum requirement for success, and if most students want to be successful in their courses, why aren’t more college students consistently successful in the classroom?

Perhaps some common misconceptions are getting in the way. For example, we often hear students say, “I just can’t do it!” or “I’m not good at math,” or “I guess college isn’t for me,” or “I’m not smart enough.” But these explanations for success or failure aren’t necessarily accurate. Having difficulty in or failing in college courses usually has nothing to do with intellect. More often, success depends on how fully a student embraces and masters the following seven strategies:

  1. Learn how to take effective notes in class.
  2. Review the text and your reading notes prior to class.
  3. Participate in class discussion and maybe even join a study group.
  4. Go to office hours and ask your instructor questions.
  5. Give yourself enough time to research, write, and edit your essays in manageable stages.
  6. Take advantage of online or on-campus academic support resources.
  7. Spend sufficient time studying.

So if you feel you are not smart enough for college, ask yourself if you can implement some of these skills. Can you make more time for learning?

Create a Regular Study Schedule

One approach is to create a regular study schedule and make sure you allot ample time. Most college success experts agree that students should study two hours outside of class for every hour in class. Commit to only breaking away from your committed schedule if an extreme situation prevents you from sticking to it.

Join a Study Group

Another strategy to consider implementing is joining a group study. For example, rather than relying just on your own knowledge, notes, and skills, try studying with other students in your difficult classes. Studying in a group gives every group member a chance to ask questions and talk about class concepts.

Connect with a Tutor

You can also add a tutor to your study group. You will really be able to notice a positive difference. Tutoring is generally free in college, and the strategies and knowledge you gain will be invaluable. Usually tutors have taken the class you are currently enrolled in, and they are trained to get the best academic performance out of you.

Overall, students struggle in college not because of natural intellect or smarts, but because of time management, organization, and lack of quality study time. The good news is that there are ways to combat this struggle, specifically by doing things like creating a regular study schedule, studying in groups, and taking advantage of FSW’s academic resources, like a tutoring center, instructor office hours, and any available online help.

online student readiness tutorials

Read an Instructional Support presentation here from California Community Colleges. It includes an audio overview of success in college.

How Grades Play a Role in Shaping Success

In a recent online discussion at a student-support website, a college freshman posted the following concern about how serious he should be about getting good grades:

“As a first semester freshman, I really have taken my education seriously. I’ve studied and done my homework nightly and have read all of the assignments. So far, I have all A’s in my classes, including calculus and programming. Now, with a month left to go in the semester, I feel myself slipping a bit on my studies. I blow off readings and homework more to go out at night during the week and I’ve even skipped a few classes to attend major sporting events. I also travel most weekends with a sports team that I joined. Still, I’ve gotten A’s on the exams even with these less extensive study habits, although not as high as before. So, my question really is this. Should I just be content with low A’s and B’s and enjoy myself during college, or should I strive to achieve all A’s?”

How would you answer this student’s question, given what you know and sense about college life? Grades do matter to your success, right? Or . . . do they? The answer depends on who you ask and what your college and career goals are.

To help you answer, take this quick self-assessment about your college goals and beyond. Think about your answer, yes or no, to the following questions. Copy them down in your notebook or planner so you can return to them if needed.

I Want to Be able to . . .

  • Change my major during my college years (Yes/No)
  • Have good relationships with my professors (Yes/No)
  • Be eligible for financial aid (Yes/No)
  • Be eligible for scholarships (Yes/No)
  • Get awards (Yes/No)
  • Be a resident assistant (RA) in my dorm (Yes/No)
  • Get reductions on my car insurance (Yes/No)
  • Prove to my employer that I can work hard (Yes/No)
  • Keep my parents happy (Yes/No)
  • Get a free master’s degree (Yes/No)

You may be surprised to learn that each reason on this list directly relates to your grades—even changing your major. For example, colleges typically have a minimum GPA requirement to switch majors. Consider these additional factors:

  • Undergraduate grades have been shown to have a positive impact on getting full-time employment in your career in a position appropriate to your degree.
  • Grades also have been shown to have a positive net impact on your occupational status and earnings.
  • Getting good grades, particularly in the first year of college, is important to your academic success throughout your college years.
  • Grades are probably the best predictors of your persistence, your ability to graduate, and your prospects for enrolling in graduate school.

You stand to gain immeasurably when you get good grades.

Your Grade Point Average (GPA)

Grades may not be the be-all and end-all in college life. But, as discussed above, they can have an impact on many areas of your academic life, so you will probably pay close attention to them and to your GPA.

Your GPA is a calculated average of the letter grades you earn correlated on a 0 to 4.0 or 5.0 scale. Each semester you receive a GPA based on the grades you earned in all your classes during that semester. You also maintain a cumulative GPA—an ongoing average of all your semester grades beginning with freshman year.

Many institutions provide students with an online GPA calculator. Use the calculator to keep track of where you stand. Your college may also publish data on the average GPA of your fellow students. Sometimes it’s nice to know where you stand relative to your peers.

Words of Wisdom

It is important to know that college success is a responsibility shared with your institution. Above all, your college must provide you with stimulating classroom experiences that encourage you to devote more time and effort to your learning. Additional institutional factors in your success include the following:

  • high standards and expectations for your performance
  • assessment and timely feedback
  • peer support
  • encouragement and support for you to explore human differences
  • emphasis on your first college year
  • respect for diverse ways of knowing
  • integrating prior learning and experience
  • academic support programs tailored to your needs
  • ongoing application of learned skills
  • active learning
  • out-of-class contact with faculty[1]

Ideally, you and your college will collaborate to create success in every way possible. College life is cooperative by nature, as demonstrated in the following practical advice from a college graduate, recounted in Foundations of Academic Success: Words of Wisdom:

Professors do care about how you are doing in their class; they genuinely want you to succeed, but they will give you the grade you earn. There are people and resources on campus for you to utilize so you can earn the grade you want. Your professors are one of those resources, and are perhaps the most important. Go see them during office hours, ask them questions about the material and get extra help if you need it. . . . Another resource to utilize can be found in the campus learning center. . . . The first time I took a paper there, I recall standing outside the door for about ten minutes thinking of an excuse not to go in. Thankfully I saw a classmate walk in and I followed suit. . . . Thanks to that first visit, I received an A- on the paper!

Ensuring Success in Your First Year

Learning Outcomes

  • Identify specific strategies to achieve college success during your freshman year

Support Structures for First-Year Students

Why is the first year of college so important? So much happens that year! Shouldn’t there be a grace period for the newest students to get acclimated to college before the pressure sets in?

The first year of college is the most crucial time in your college life. So much is happening, and it serves to establish your trajectory to success. Consider the following typical first-year experiences, all of which strategically support students during this critical make-or-break period.

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Most first-year students attend an orientation program, which typically leads to

  • students participating in more educationally enriching activities.
  • students perceiving the campus environment to be more supportive.
  • students having greater developmental gains during their first year of college.
  • students being more satisfied with their overall college experience.

First-Year Seminars

First-year seminars may be focused on “orientation to college”; others may be based on your curriculum. Students who participate in these seminars tend to

  • be more challenged academically.
  • be more active and collaborative in learning activities.
  • interact more frequently with faculty.
  • think of the campus environment as being more supportive.
  • gain more from their first year of college.
  • make greater use of campus services.


The quality of academic advising is the single most powerful predictor of your satisfaction with the campus environment. First-year students who rate their advising as good or excellent

  • are more likely to interact with faculty in various ways.
  • perceive the institution’s environment to be more supportive.
  • are more satisfied with their overall college experience.
  • gain more from college in most areas.

Early Warning Systems

Early warning systems are especially important for students who start college with risk factors or who may be struggling academically. Midterm progress reports, course tests and other assessments, and early alert systems are most effective at helping students cope with difficulties in the first year.

Learning Communities

Learning communities are programs that enroll groups of students in a common set of courses. The effects of learning communities are greatest for first-year students. Students report gains in personal and social development, competence, and satisfaction with the undergraduate college experience.

Student Success Initiatives

Student success courses typically address issues like how to use campus support resources, manage time, study well, develop careers and skills, set goals, take tests, and take notes. The College Success course you are in right now is one such initiative.


About one-third of first-year students take developmental courses to bring their academic skills up to a level that will enable them to perform well in college. Developmental courses can make the difference in a student’s decision to stay in college or drop out.

Decorative imageGrades and Your First-Year Success

The best advice is to commit to making your freshman year count. Make it the absolute best. The earlier you can establish good habits during this time, the easier your future years will be—not just in college, but in your work environment, at home, and beyond.

  • Your freshman year accounts for a significant portion of grades that can be used in getting an internship and that matter to starting your career.
  • Top companies can have early recruitment programs that begin identifying prospective students and looking at grades as early as your sophomore year.
  • Many top clubs and major-specific honoraries on campus look at your grades in the screening process.
  • When you get good grades as a freshman, you tend to keep getting good grades as a sophomore, junior, and senior.
  • Instructors tend to give the benefit of the doubt to students who get good grades.

Tips for First-Year Students Embarking on Academic Success

The following is a list of tips from a college educator for college students embarking on their journey to academic success:

  • Get the book(s) and read the book(s).
  • Take notes in class and when reading for class.
  • Know your professors (email, office location, office hours, etc.) and be familiar with what is in the course syllabus.
  • Put away your phone during class.
  • Emails need a salutation, a body, and a close.
  • Don’t write the way you might text— don’t use abbreviations and clipped sentences.
  • Never academically advise yourself!
  • Apply for scholarships—all of them!
  • Set goals and keep your eyes on the prize.
  • Enjoy the ride!


student success: the standards we set for ourselves to assess whether or not we are meeting our academic and broader life goals, a question that can be usefully informed by metrics such as individual course grades and GPA (grade point average)

first-year experiences: the range of orientations, introductory seminars, remedial coaching, and other forms of outreach intended to help new college students establish a solid foundation for success in their future work

  1. "What Matters to Student Success: A Review of the Literature." National Postsecondary Education Cooperative, https://nces.ed.gov/npec/pdf/kuh_team_report.pdf.


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Success and Your Role Copyright © 2023 by David Evans is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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