First Time in College Primer

A Primer for First-Time-In-College Students at Lone Star College-University Park

My name is Aaron Alon, and I’m a professor in the music department here at LSC-UP. I started to notice similarities in problems that first-time-in-college students had when they arrived and thought it might be helpful to offer some tips.  I informally surveyed some students and teachers and also included many of their suggestions.


Tip 1. College is a lot of work and can be expensive; plan accordingly. Plan your course load carefully. It’s not like high school; seven classes in a semester will overwhelm you.  While costs at LSC-UP are much lower than most other colleges, textbooks are still a significant cost that you should budget for when you’re planning your course load. It’s okay to politely ask your teacher by email or in class if the textbook is required. If it is, you can also ask if it’s acceptable to purchase an older edition of the text. Note that you might place yourself at a disadvantage by not getting any edition of the textbook, but the library will usually have a copy on reserve. (Need help? Ask one of our terrific librarians!)

Tip 2. You can only drop 6 classes…EVER. In your entire Texas state public education, you can only ever drop six classes. Choose them carefully. Generally, retaking a class you failed will cause the new grade to replace the old one in your GPA calculation. This may not be true at other colleges. Also, note that some drops may not count toward your six. The details of this policy can be confusing; read Lone Star’s FAQ here.

Tip 3. There’s a lot to keep track of. Use a calendar, planner, etc. to help you manage the large number of deadlines and to avoid having large assignments, projects, and exams from sneaking up on you. Watch the academic calendars online too, which will tell you when your finals are and when things like W Day (the last day you can drop a class) are. Teachers may also put up course-specific calendars on D2L (Desire to Learn, our online course management system).

Tip 4. Pay attention to what counts toward the core or your degree. You might suspect that Music Fundamentals, Popular Songwriting, Painting, or Drawing would count toward your Creative Arts core requirements. They don’t. Only a very small number of courses count toward these requirements due to state mandates. You should still check out these classes as potential electives though!

Tip 5. You don’t have to finish in two years. Some students will manage to get through in two years, but the majority will take longer.  Keep at it!

Tip 6. Don’t take too many credits. While these rules periodically change, the current guidelines state that the state will not fund students who exceed the number of credit hours required for their four-year degrees by more than 30 hours (this usually amounts to a total of 150 hours). To make up for this lost income, most four-years will charge you non-resident rates once you exceed this maximum.  There are important exceptions to what counts toward these hours; for instance, workforce courses, remedial courses, and courses taken out of state do not count toward this limit. (Details: Read Sections 54.014 here and 61.0595 here.)


Tip 1. Figure out how to learn from your different teachers. In an ideal world, each teacher’s approach would be customized to your needs, but the reality is that there are many students in the same class with different backgrounds, skill sets, and learning styles.  If we can’t always customize our teaching styles for you, try to customize your learning to get the most out of the class. That doesn’t mean teachers won’t help you there; it just may need to be out of class (office hours or LSC-UP tutoring). Also, while Lone Star tends to have great teachers, you might not think that all of them are, but to quote a Neil deGrasse Tyson January 10, 2015 tweet: “Students who earn straight ‘A’s in school do so not because of good Teachers but in spite of bad Teachers.”

Tip 2. Expect to manage your own learning. Some teachers will give extensive handouts or online resources, while others will not. Do not expect your teachers to post notes for you; take your own notes in class, review them at home, and bring questions to your teacher. Read up on material before class too, so that you already have some grasp of it before class. Also, follow your degree plan carefully. Use the advisers to guide you on general questions, but it’s usually better to bring questions about your major to the department chair or another full time faculty member in that department.

Tip 3. Be prepared for different expectations from your teachers. Oftentimes, learning in high school can focus on test preparation and memorization. In college, teachers may be more interested in how you think and how you support your arguments. You may feel frustrated by not being able to find the “right answer” to your teachers’ questions, but you are learning about how to think, which is ultimately more valuable than being taught what to think. Teachers may also engage in different types of teaching styles, such as a “flipped classroom,” where you learn most of the content outside of the class (from videos, articles, etc.) and then get hands-on experience with the material in class.

Tip 4. Engage with Your Classes. Engage fully while in class! You’ll have more fun, learn more, and may just discover a passion for a new subject that could last a lifetime. Try to focus on learning over grades; we know that can be challenging, but it will help ease the pressure and you’ll probably end up with better grades too. Five years from now, you won’t remember the grades you got in your classes, but what you learned may still make a difference in how you think and live your life.

syllabuscatTip 5. Read the syllabus. This is a contract between you and the instructor. If you want to contest a grade or policy, the syllabus sets the rules. Note that many calendars on syllabi are tentative and subject to change, but assume that all dates for quizzes, projects, etc. are correct unless your teacher tells you otherwise. While some teachers will remind you of upcoming deadlines, ultimately, if it’s on the syllabus, it’s your responsibility. The syllabus also contains information on how you will be graded, how many absences you can have, late homework policies (some teachers do not accept late work at all), etc. While the syllabus may set terms under which teachers may drop you from their classes, it is never the teacher’s responsibility to drop you. If you want to drop the class, you should fill out a schedule change form yourself.

Tip 6. Understand how finals work. In most cases, you have to take both the final and the midterm (if there is one) to pass a class. In fall and spring semesters, normal classes do not meet during finals week. The finals exam calendar is available as a link from the online academic calendar. Read it carefully, as it can be confusing, particularly for classes that normally only meet once a week. If you’re confused, ask your teacher when the final is (it should also be on your syllabus). It may be different from your normal class time, meaning you have to take time off work, arrange a ride, etc., so mark it down in your calendar right at the start of the semester and plan accordingly.


Tip 1. Watch your attendance and grades. Instructors monitor attendance and grades and you should too. In many classes, there is no quicker route to a failing grade than failing to attend or to submit homework on time. Check the syllabus to see what your instructors’ policies are on attendance and class participation.

Tip 2. Understand what plagiarism is. Plagiarism is using someone else’s work and passing it off as your own. If you use someone else’s work, be sure to use proper quotations and citations. Don’t let quotations take up too much of your paper though; we want to see your ideas. Also, paraphrasing or changing a few words doesn’t keep it from being plagiarism. If you’re presenting someone else’s ideas as your own, it’s still plagiarism. If you paraphrase, you don’t need to use quotation marks, but you must still cite it. Your teachers and librarians can help you learn more about this. When in doubt, ask! Plagiarism is a serious offense and consequences could include failing the class.

Tip 3. Give presentations you’d like to watch. If you have to give in-class presentations, make it into a presentation you’d like to see.  Don’t put too much text on the screen and don’t just read it. Know the material, speak fluidly, and use visuals to help bring the message home. Don’t let the on-screen presentation make you redundant; speak to your audience and let the on-screen portion supplement (not repeat) what you’re saying.

cellcatTip 4. Show good cell phone etiquette. Don’t call, text, or go on your phone during class. At best, you may miss things as you split your attention. At worst, you may frustrate your teacher, violate syllabus policies, or risk accusations of cheating during in-class assignments and exams.

Tip 5. Form good working relationships with your teachers and classmates. Show courtesy toward and respect for your instructors and your peers. These are relationships that can last a long time. You’ll turn to your instructors for letters of recommendation and job references and will likely see your peers again in the professional world.


Tip 1. Check your Lone Star College email or get it forwarded. You are expected to check your LSC and D2L (Desire to Learn, our course management software) email frequently. Often, this is the only way teachers have to contact you. I strongly suggest that you check both several times a week, but if you’re not going to, at least have your messages from both forwarded to an email address you do check. I know students who have missed out on scholarships, nominations for the Honors College (which can mean a free ride), and more because they don’t check their school emails.

Tip 2. Participate in extracurricular activities. Use college to become a more well-rounded person. Explore a new hobby or passion, join a student organization, get involved with a performance on campus, attend voluntary seminars or lectures, volunteer your time, etc. All of these things will help you get the most out of college and develop a community. They also look great on a résumé.


Tip 1. Type, don’t text. Anything you submit to your instructor should have correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling. This includes one-line responses and even emails to your professor. This not only helps create a professional relationship with your instructors, it is also excellent practice for the professional world.

Tip 2. Take responsibility for your choices. Sometimes you can’t keep up with the work and get a poor grade. Sometimes you didn’t read the syllabus and didn’t know there was a quiz or a grading policy that doesn’t work in your favor. If you own up to a mistake early (BEFORE an assignment is due), your teacher MIGHT be willing to grant you an extension or work with you in some way, but never expect special treatment. In most cases, you cannot redo assignments or retake exams. Study hard and do your best every time. Teachers will expect you to take responsibility for your actions and your work.

Tip 3. Professional behavior extends outside the classroom. Don’t expect that your teachers’ and classmates’ impressions of you are restricted to how you behave in the classroom. Behave professionally both in and out of the classroom by always showing the instructors and staff, as well as your classmates kindness, professionalism, and respect.

Tip 4. Call your teachers “Professor…” unless they say otherwise. If you’re unsure what to call your professors, stick with “Professor <last name>” or ask them, “What would you like me to call you?” Some may permit you to call them by their first names, some may favor Mr. or Mrs./Ms./Miss, and some faculty members who hold doctoral degrees may prefer “Dr. <last name>.”

I hope you’ve found these tips helpful. If you have any questions or any tips you’d like to recommend I add to this evolving document, please email me at And congratulations on the start of your college career!

Aaron Alon, DMA
Professor of Music
Lone Star College-University Park

©2014-2017 Aaron Alon. All Rights Reserved.

Advice from other profs online: