Read the Syllabus

When my son started college this fall I gave him two pieces of advice. These were not offered through some soul-searching recollection of my undergraduate experience but rather from my current role as a lecturer at Cal State San Marcos.

I told him that in the three years that I have been teaching at the college level these two things stand out as the easiest way to delineate between highly successful students and those who just get by.

The first is to read the syllabus. A syllabus is an extraordinary document. It is a 15 week roadmap (in the semester system) that provides a precise description of how to achieve success in a given class. Reading the syllabus and making plans according to what is learned there is so helpful, so advantageous, that it’s almost like cheating. In a well crafted syllabus there is no mystery, no secrets, no hidden trap doors. Yes, you have to do the work but you are equipped with the information you need to figure out how to do exactly that. And, if for some reason that is not the case, I told my son, you can apply the second piece advice, as follows:

Meet your professors. Find the spot on the syllabus that tells you their office hours, set up an appointment and meet with them. You don’t even need a reason, though most of my students who do so have a question about an assignment or are looking for some degree/career advice. In each of these encounters I make sure to spend some time simply getting to know them. And as a result, I remember their names, call on them in class more often and otherwise cultivate a connection born of a 15 minute conversation. This is where students seem to get tripped up, not believing that such a small event could have such a big impact. But it does, it absolutely does.

Nearing the end of his first college quarter, it seems that my son has taken me up on the first piece of advice but not the second.  I will continue to encourage him to do so, knowing how valuable it is, what a difference it can make. And I will encourage you to do so as well. This advice – taking full advantage of resources that are freely given and spending some time to make a personal connection – is just as valuable in the “real” world as it is in the collegiate one.

Surely there is information available to you in your field of endeavor that you have overlooked or set aside in favor of assumptions based on prior knowledge and personal biases. A little bit of humility and curiosity properly applied can be the key that unlocks that material and the confidence and capability that come with it.

Certainly there’s a connection to be made through a networking opportunity, a social media connection, comment or mention, an email inquiry, a handwritten note (!), that may open the door to a piece advice, a referral or even just a seed planted for some unknown future benefit. A little bit of initiative and openness properly applied can become the key to cultivating relationships whose benefits we cannot possibly estimate or appreciate.

Read the syllabus. Meet your professors. That’s not the whole list but it sure is a good place to start.


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.

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