Career Advice

Back to School: Advice for Students

6 Sep 2017  

It is back to school time! All around the world, students are organizing school supplies, looking forward to seeing old friends and becoming sleepless with the excitement of a new academic year. It is a universal experience shared by pupils of all ages. My daughter Anna started school yesterday, and my MBA students at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management begin fall classes in a couple weeks—and they are all eager to get underway.

This post is to offer some advice—based on my more than a decade in the classroom—for students of all ages.

Prepare for class

Always be ready for class; do the readings and complete any assigned exercises. When you are prepared, you are ready to learn. Learning is cumulative, and often individual concepts build on each other. If you come to class prepared, the material will make sense and you’ll have a positive experience.

If you don’t prepare, you simply won’t learn as much. More important, you won’t have fun. Nobody likes to sit in a class feeling confused or nervous that the teacher might call on them and discover that they didn’t do the assignment.

Contribute to the class environment

A class is a community that only flourishes when students contribute. A dynamic session comes from an engaging teacher interacting with lively, interested students. If you slouch in late, sigh loudly, tap your pencil and then go get a cup of coffee in the middle of class, you suck the life out of the room. Your instructor knows you have zero interest, and your classmates know you don’t care. The energy falls.

Be a force for good in the classroom. Show up on time, project enthusiasm, look interested, and ask questions. If you do these things, the instructor will respond in a positive way. The time will pass quickly, you will generate energy and that energy will come right back.

Don’t use a computer in class

It is so tempting to open up a computer in class. Typing notes is easy, and you feel productive. There are three problems with this approach.

First, you don’t learn as much. Studies show that students who use a computer retain less information. Something about the act of writing information helps the human mind to hold onto it. If you want to learn, use a pen.

Second, your computer distracts people around you. A bright screen naturally attracts the eye. When you turn on your machine, you reduce how much other people learn.

Third, you will be tempted to check emails and texts. It is almost impossible to resist the pull of communication. So you will inevitably start reading emails, or you will suffer through the class distracted, struggling to resist temptation.

The better approach: only use the computer when your teacher has assigned a specific, computer-based exercise.

Learn how to ask for help

At some point, you will need help. Every student does. Whether you are struggling with a tough concept, seeking guidance and advice on post-graduate career options or asking to reschedule an exam, you will need your teacher’s help. Just remember that your instructors are busy!

If you show up and demand their help, you might not get an enthusiastic response. The instructor will probably think about the long list of projects that aren’t getting done and provide minimal assistance.

Instead, give something back. Approach your instructors with courtesy and understanding, and they will respond in kind. If you are enthusiastic and positive, they will happily help you. Read this article by Lucy Kellaway at the Financial Times (if you have a subscription) or listen to it here.

There is a big difference between this:

“Hey prof! I need to take the exam next Tuesday. Is that okay?”

And this:

“Thank you for meeting with me. I know you are super busy. I wanted to stop by for two reasons. First, you should know that I just love this course. Second, I have a really important family event next week, so I am wondering if I can reschedule the exam.”


Being a good student doesn’t mean you’ll ace every exam. It doesn’t mean you’ll be top of your class. It means you’ll optimize your experience and get all you can from every  course you take, and you’ll be immersed and engaged in the classroom. For instructors and students, that is a positive step.

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