The Challenge of Transitioning to College: Professors

Guest Post by Alexander Merrill, Owner of Alliance Tutoring, Greenwich, CT

That face is still burnt into my memory, a photograph that will never fade: Professor Judy Smith, her granite features nestled into the corner of memory cluttered with lessons learned. I had signed up for her Native American Literature class in the fall of my sophomore year at Kenyon, or rather I had attended the class the first day and got her to sign a slip of paper that allowed me entry.

I was not nearly responsible enough to know when the deadline for course sign-ups was, much less grasp its importance or impact. “Native American Literature” sounded interesting to me. I liked Geronimo, the Battle of Little Bighorn and Pocahontas, so this class would do well enough, I figured. I still had no idea what to major in, but English classes were decent for me, so why not? Smith seemed all right to me at first glance, not uninteresting and a reasonable enough person on the surface. Besides, it fit into my schedule during an afternoon Monday/Wednesday/Friday slot, allowing me to retain my sleep-in schedule, by far the biggest consideration in course selection.

Freshman year had been a breeze. I had been crushed at Exeter with 5 hours of homework crippling every night (there was a class of student at Exeter that never left their rooms, only to go to CVS to get crates of water and bags of mini-pretzels, just to get Bs). The days of class had been equally arduous, heckled as much by classmates as teachers, who tended to hang back and watch the carnage with wry smiles behind their folded hands. So I was academic concrete. Besides, I had taken the equivalent of all AP classes my senior year: Bio, English, History, Calc AB. So at Kenyon, to ease the transition, I “cleverly” signed up for all the same classes: Intro Bio, Intro English, Intro History, and Intro Calc AB. I essentially repeated my senior year of highschool, doing about 20 hours of classroom work all year to get a B+ average (Dad, if you’re reading this, which you probably are, I’m so sorry….). So I delayed my reckoning one year, which I suppose actually saved me, ironically, given I had a chance to figure out social dynamics, extra-curriculars, fraternities, and… well, things like where the bathrooms were (underrated!).

Unfortunately, in my late-teenage arrogance, I figured that the same lackadaisical approach would work just fine sophomore year, given I had skirted the system successfully the first year. And so it was that one afternoon in October, I walked into two classes on a Wednesday afternoon that had blue book exams for which I hadn’t studied. Not only had I not studied for them, I hadn’t read a single word of any of the books that the tests covered (or any of the sparknotes!). The first was a Shakespeare class, the second was Smith’s Native American literature class, the hot stove that would leave its singing mark.

Though I BSed my way through, I received a D on both exams, probably generous given that I said basically nothing for several hours but brain vomit. It was a call from the metaphorical front desk. The only grade below a C+ I had gotten before that was the Chem class I took at Exeter (a nightmare for another tale). My current approach was not going to work anymore. The party was officially over…except on Saturdays, nothing could have stopped that.

Following the episode, I turned the volume on my studies. By large decibels. I read every single word of every book from that day forward for both classes, studied the reading guides, attended every class, took notes, dressed snappily. The second test rolled around and I was exceptionally well-prepared. I destroyed the blue book exams, proudly I walked out with the satisfaction of effort winning over adversity. But then I got the grades. Shakespeare: A, excellent work. Native American Literature: D. Not a D+ or D-, a flat D. She didn’t like me. Perhaps she didn’t like how smug I had been. Perhaps she didn’t like the number of classes I had missed early on, my orientation, my gender, how I looked at the clock too much, how I dressed in clothing a little too large, that my eyes were slightly askew. I don’t know. It didn’t matter, not even a little. She was bearing a grudge and that was all.

I went in to meet with her during office hours, my bluster high. I pointed out the argument I had made, the accuracy of my analysis, my knowledge of the details; I also committed Satan’s worst sin: I argued that her red marks, blood on the page, were inaccurate and just downright wrong. This is not the right thing to do…. She was intransigent, unmoved, her iron jaw locked, the steely look of utter distaste for my entire existence dripping from her inert features; her gray locks cut as neatly as a freshly cut lawn, indifferent to the world of such stray grasshoppers.

The next exam, D. The final exam, D. The class, D (though I continued in all due diligence). Injustice roiled my stomach all semester, detestation that still lingers in my memories 20 years later– blame and regret. At one point I even petitioned the department over the grade, though I later withdrew the petition when I realized the truth: PROFESSORS HAVE COMPLETE IMMUNITY. Like complete. They’re tenured and untouchable. Not only was brown-nosing appreciated and revered by peers and professors in college. It was necessary. It was survival.

This is not to vilify, most of them were very nice, very understanding, motivating, even empowering and life altering (Professor Klein, looking at you, big guy. You’re a freaking god!). But watch out for the Professor Smith’s of the world. Your relationships with your professors take on a more peer-like feel, and similar to your peer relationships in high school, if you don’t manage them well… it’s down the existential sinkhole.

About the Author:

Alexander has taught English, coached, and dorm-parented for nearly 20 years at Dartmouth College, The King School, Kingswood-Oxford, Philips Andover and The Taft School. He is an expert at the college application process, including college essay writing, standardized test preparation, and the recommendation process. He has tutored hundreds of adolescent teens and young adults from middle school through college level on all spectrums, behaviorally and academically. He attended Philips Exeter Academy and received an undergrad degree from Kenyon College and a Masters Degree from Dartmouth College.  He lives in Middlebury, CT with his three rug rats and wife, Alexa.

The COVID-19 College Experience: What Can You Expect? (Part 2 of 2)

In my last blog post, I began to address how I expect COVID-19 will impact the college experience in the 2020-2021 school year. In this post, I discuss other ways the college experience is likely to be impacted.
Campus Dining–Normally, college dining halls are indoor places where students congregate and socialize while eating. Because of social distancing concerns, I think students will not generally be eating in the dining halls. They may be eating primarily in their dorm rooms or in outdoor locations, when it is warm and dry enough.
In a “normal” semester, many dining halls provide an all-you-can-eat experience with self-service for many foods. I expect that all-you-can-eat and self-service will be eliminated for 2020-2021.
Some colleges are trying new ways to get meals to students. For example: 
  • Rider University allows students to order meals from smartphone apps and delivers the meals to food lockers, where students can pick them up without interacting with others.
  • George Mason University and the University of Houston are piloting robotic delivery fleets that deliver meals to students.

Rider University
Dorms – I think that this year three or four people in a dorm room will disappear. I expect there will still be doubles.
Reducing the density in dorm rooms and putting aside rooms for quarantine, means that there will be less housing available on many campuses.
The cleaning frequency of shared spaces, like hall bathrooms will increase.
Extracurricular Activities – The number of people gathering at any activity will be reduced. For example, the maximum number of people at parties will be reduced based on the venue space.
Many activities may be canceled or altered significantly because of the need for social distancing. For example, some contact sports will be canceled or played without students in the stands.
International Scene– I expect there will be fewer international students on campus, because many international students can’t get visas, especially freshmen. Many study abroad activities will be canceled or postponed due to the inability of US students to get visas to go abroad and/or because of the COVID-19 situation in other countries.
Financial Aid – More families may be looking for need-based financial aid because of loss of jobs, cuts in pay, death of a student’s parent, reduction in asset value and medical bills.
More families may take Federal student loans because the interest rates for 2020-2021 are much lower than in previous years. The Federal student loan interest rate for 2020-2021 is 2.75%, and the Federal Parent PLUS loan interest rate is 5.3%.
College Finances – Many colleges will be struggling financially. As of June 22nd, more than 750 colleges had openings and many expect a bigger than usual summer melt. State funding of public universities is likely to go down in many states because of reduced tax revenues and increased expenses related to COVID-19. The college revenue shortfall may lead to program cuts, pay cuts and layoffs, and even college closure. For example, the University of Alaska will cut 39 academic departments. Elmira College (NY) is eliminating several academic programs and is reducing its staff by 20%.
The Big Picture – The 2020-2021 school year is one in which colleges will need to plan carefully, communicate clearly to students and their families, enforce safety precautions, and be creative and nimble to respond to the changing conditions. There are serious risks for all involved.

The COVID-19 College Experience: What Can You Expect? (Part 1 of 2)



The fall semester will be unique because of COVID-19. While every college will be a little different, here is what I expect you may find.

COVID-Safety – Colleges will try and make sure that students arrive on campus COVID-free by doing some or all of the following:

  • Testing for the virus,
  • Taking temperatures,
  • Asking about COVID-19 symptoms and travel.
To prevent the spread of the virus on campus, colleges will enforce social distancing, the wearing of masks, reduce physical interactions, and have additional cleaning. Social distancing will often require fewer student in a classroom or in a dorm room. To reduce physical interactions, colleges may use doors that open automatically or assign a single person to open doors in a particular building. Colleges will have plans for quarantining students that come down with the virus and will have contact tracing in order to know who the infected person has come in contact with. Colleges will also make special arrangements for high-risk students and employees; this may mean online classes for those students or faculty. The biggest unknown regarding COVID-safety is whether students will follow the college’s guidelines.
Academics – Colleges have taken different approaches regarding delivery of course material in the fall semester. Plans include on-line synchronous, on-line asynchronous, in-person and hybrid course delivery. Many schools, not teaching on-line, will need to spread out classes across more hours of the day, more days of the week, and/or more months of the year to teach in person, while social distancing.
According to a Chronicle of Higher Education survey of 960 colleges published on June 14, the college plans for course delivery are as follows:
  • Planning for in-person – 65%
  • Proposing a Hybrid Model – 11%
  • Considering a Range of Scenarios – 9%
  • Planning for Online – 8%
  • Waiting to Decide – 6%
Here are plans announced by four colleges that reflect a variety of different approaches:
  • Beloit College plans to break the semester into 2 modules, in which students take 2 courses in each module. “The aspiration is to have a residential learning experience next year, but if COVID rages, this flexibility allows us to have it only affect half a semester, possibly.”
  • Stanford University plans to spread instruction over four quarters, including the summer. Half of undergrads will be allowed on campus in fall. Students who are permitted on campus will switch with their peers each subsequent quarter. The four quarter year would allow Stanford undergrads to complete two quarters in residence, and at least one quarter remotely.
  • The University of Notre Dame will resume in-person classes on August 10. Classes will begin two weeks earlier than usual so students can complete a full semester by Thanksgiving. They hope that by skipping a traditional fall break they will reduce the likelihood that students will bring the virus back to campus.
  • The 23-campus California State University system is planning for on-line classes, with limited exceptions for essential lab courses and clinical classes for nursing students.

Tips for College Freshmen

I hope these tips will help your children or students get through the first semester of college with good grades, good health, new friends, not too much homesickness, and no regrets.
Academic Tips:
1.      Attend class regularly.
2.      Do your homework. Plan on doing two hours of school work out of class for every hour in class.
3.      When you don’t understand something in class, get help from the school’s tutoring center and/or visit the professor during office hours with your questions right away.
4.      Find a good place to study on campus, like the library.
5.      Don’t leave big projects until the last minute.
Social Tips:
1.      Find and join some clubs, as soon as possible. Take advantage of the activity fair during orientation or early in the first semester to learn what clubs are available.
2.      Keep your dorm room door open when you are in. This makes it easier for you and your hallmates to get to know each other.
3.      Eat your meals with other students. Make mealtime a social event.
4.      If you are a residential student, don’t go home on the weekends.
5.      Set up groundrules with your roommate.
6.      Talk with your Residential Advisor about problems you are having.
Other tips:
1.      Get at least seven hours of sleep a night.
2.      Eat a healthy breakfast, lunch and supper.
3.      Know and use the services the school has to offer, as needed. These may include health services, job placement services, recreation facilities, tutoring service, disability services, and more.
4.      Exercise regularly.
5.      Manage your time and your money.
6.      Do things in moderation.
7.      Be true to yourself and your values.
8.      Don’t do things that are illegal, immoral or unethical.
9.      And last but not least, communicate with your family.
What other tips would you give?