How to Be Successful in College: 9 Tips

Written by Coursera • Updated on Oct 28, 2021

Recognizing your values, building SMART goals, and knowing your learning style can help put you on the path to success in college.

Group of six students sitting outside on tiered brick stadium seating holding coffees, notebooks, and laptops, all smiling and looking toward a professor off-camera.

The secret to success in college is remembering that success is a relative term. Because we all have different priorities, goals, and values, your success can look quite different from your classmate’s success, and still both of you can be equally successful.

Whether you’re a full-time student on campus, or a nontraditional student balancing coursework with a job, family, or other commitments, being successful in college is within your reach. Here are nine tips to help you achieve your goals.

9 tips for success in college

As you read through these tips, keep in mind that you can take what resonates, leave what doesn’t, and come back to areas that you want to revisit down the line. There’s no “right” path to success—only the right path for you, and you get to decide what that path looks like.

1. Identify your goals and values.

Acknowledging your goals can be one way to visualize your version of success. Recognizing what it is that you are trying to achieve by pursuing an education can help illuminate your values, and you can use those values to motivate yourself as you work toward your idea of success.

For example, if your goal is to secure your bachelor’s degree in order to get a job, then you might note that you value independence and providing for yourself. Ultimately, your version of success might be to achieve independence.

Holding onto your values as you interpret your success might help you stay focused on your individual version of success and avoid falling into comparison traps.

Tip: Using powerful questions to understand your goals

If you’re having trouble figuring out your goals and values, try asking yourself some powerful questions. Powerful questions tap into your curiosity to invite exploration and provoke deeper thought. The key is to be honest with yourself and remove judgement. Some examples of powerful questions you might ask yourself are:

- What do I want to get out of college?

- What am I trying to achieve?

- What does success feel like?

- When have I felt successful in the past?

- When I think about a more-perfect future version of myself, what do I see?

Placeholder

2. Translate long-term goals into short-term plans.

Now that you have an idea of what success looks like for you, you can start translating your vision into an action plan. Action plans divide large goals into smaller, bite-size accomplishments. This helps make those large goals feel more approachable and gives you the opportunity to check in with yourself along the way.

One method to distill long-term goals into short-term plans is to create SMART goals. SMART is an acronym for:

  • Specific: Identify your task.

  • Measurable: Determine how you’ll measure your goal.

  • Achievable: Create realistic goals that you have some control over.

  • Relevant: Focus on goals that will guide you toward your idea of success.

  • Time-bound: Set a deadline for yourself to stay on task.

SMART goals can help you stay focused on achieving your ultimate goal in a manageable way.

So, if your long-term goal is to secure your college degree, consider the individual requirements you’ll need to meet in order to earn your degree. One of those requirements might include maintaining a particular minimum GPA.

Since you can’t have total control over the grades you get (ultimately, your professor has the final say), a SMART goal might sound like:

“My goal is to start each weekday with one hour of additional study for the first three weeks of class.”

This goal can help guide you toward your target GPA by keeping you focused on one thing you can control: the amount of time you put into studying.

3. Go to class and attend office hours.

No matter your measure of success, one key aspect of achieving it is by showing up. In terms of academic success, showing up to class and office hours can impact your overall success in a number of ways.

First, class is often the primary place of learning. If a professor is going to introduce a new topic, they’ll often detail that topic in class and may include information not covered in the textbook. Attendance is your best opportunity to get all of the information presented. At the very least, establishing yourself as a constant presence in the class can demonstrate to the professor that you care about doing well.

Take your relationship with your professors and advisors one step further by attending office hours. Many students use office hours to clarify confusing concepts, find out their grade, get advice on future career objectives, or simply socialize.

Professors and advisors have a wealth of knowledge—use that knowledge to move closer to your goals. And later, as you prepare for life after college, whether that involves grad school or applying for jobs, these are the people you might one day ask for a letter of recommendation.

4. Focus on the specific skills relevant to your coursework.

As you make progress toward your degree, you may notice certain types of assignments coming up repeatedly. An English major may have to write a lot of essays, while a chemistry major may work through countless lab reports, and a math major may take sit-down exams that require memorizing complex equations.

If your measure of success involves academic achievement, you might consider honing those skills that you are most frequently tested on. Take note of how you might leverage your strengths, and try not to judge your perceived shortcomings. To help with your areas of improvement, your school or department might have other peer-review resources available to students, like writing workshops or group study sessions.

The benefit of sharpening your academic skills will likely extend after you acquire your degree: oftentimes, the skills that allow you to become academically successful in your major are also the skills that will show up as you pursue a career in a related field.

5. Analyze your learning style.

Everyone’s brain processes information slightly differently. Figuring out how you learn best and the study habits that suit your learning style can help build confidence in your ability to succeed academically.

To help decipher when you work best, think about an exam or a paper you did well on. What did you do to prepare? What type of environment did you complete your work in? How long did you spend on the assignment? Did you study alone or with a group?

Study tips for people with ADD, ADHD, or other neurodiversity

Certain forms of neurodivergence can interrupt commonly suggested study tips. If you experience attention deficit disorder (ADD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or any neurodiversity, you may benefit from additional study techniques. Here are some suggested tips [1]:

- Develop a routine

- Give yourself additional time to study

- Take breaks

- Rewrite notes

- Stay stimulated by writing in margins, highlighting  or reading out loud

- Keep up with a to do list

Placeholder

Learning How to Learn teaches the learning techniques used by experts across disciplines. It goes in depth about the brain, memory, and best practices for mastering tough subjects.

Placeholder

6. Try new things.

Academic success isn’t the only measure of success in college. You might want to use your time in school to learn something entirely new or pick up skills that aren’t fully explored in your other coursework.

If you value adventure and exploration, another measure of success might be experiential. Do you feel fulfilled by your coursework? Are you challenging yourself in exciting ways?

To benefit from the range of courses that your school has to offer, here and there, take classes that sound fun. Use your elective courses to broaden your horizons. Pick up a minor in a passion subject. It might do wonders for your brain, helping you overcome fears, stimulate creativity, and get to know new sides of yourself [2].

7. Maintain a social balance.

Along with academics and experiences, one more way you might measure success in college is according to your social life. One benefit of college is that you are surrounded by similarly minded people, who likely have some similar goals, even if their values and motivations are slightly different.

As you concurrently embark on your similar goals, you may want to consider how you can help each other achieve them. In the short-term, you might trade notes with a classmate or study together for exams.

Meanwhile, the associations you form in college study groups and by participating in clubs and co-curricular activities can evolve into lifelong partnerships. Years after graduating, you might lean on those relationships as you seek new job opportunities or consider other life changes.

Mindshift is a course designed to help boost your career and life in today’s fast-paced world, helping learners seek out mentors and avoid career ruts.

Placeholder

8. Manage your time with intention.

Time management is a daily practice. When it comes to achieving success, use your goals to guide the way you manage your time by prioritizing the tasks that will keep you on your desired path.

Of course, it’s not always realistic to expect your priorities to easily align. Sometimes, life happens, and other days, procrastination can get the best of us. (One US survey of 2,219 people found that 88% of the workforce admitted to procrastinating at least one hour a day [3].) If you can, it might help to build time in your schedule to deal with the unexpected. Some people give themselves earlier due dates on major projects, while others might schedule a few hours a week to sit with their thoughts.

If you find yourself struggling to prioritize your college goals, consider whether your lifestyle and needs allow for you to achieve your goals in the way that you’re currently aiming to. Don’t shy away from a course correct: there are a lot of options when it comes to getting a college degree, and for some lifestyles, learning part-time or earning your degree online may be a more productive fit.

9. Take care of your health.

Above all, you can’t achieve success without taking care of yourself. Maintaining your mental and physical health are crucial to reaching your goals, regardless of what those goals entail. For example, a lack of sleep can disrupt your body’s ability to function [4]. 

If you are taking on responsibilities outside of the classroom, such as work or family obligations, finding balance among your academic and social pursuits can be challenging. Hold space for yourself to notice when you’re feeling off, reprioritize as needed, and seek professional help if necessary.

The Science of Well-Being is a course designed to help learners increase their happiness and build more productive habits.

Placeholder

Achieving success in college

When you align your actions with your values, you can set yourself up for success in college.

Ready to start pursuing your degree? Consider your goals and lifestyle, and take a look at bachelor’s degree programs on Coursera. Learn at your own pace from anywhere, with course options from top universities.

Related articles

Article sources

1. The Division of Disability Resources & Educational Services, College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "Strategies/Techniques for ADHD, https://www.disability.illinois.edu/strategiestechniques-adhd." Accessed October 26, 2021.

2. Huffpost. "A Look at the Incredible Benefits of Trying New Things, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/a-look-at-the-incredible-benefits-of-trying-new-things_b_59196b49e4b02d6199b2f129." Accessed October 26, 2021.

3. Medium. "How Common Is Procrastination? A Study, https://medium.com/darius-foroux/how-common-is-procrastination-a-study-80869467c3f3." Accessed October 26, 2021.

4. Forbes. "New Studies Show What Sleep Loss Does To The Brain And Cognition, https://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2019/11/29/new-studies-show-what-sleep-loss-does-to-the-brain-and-cognition/?sh=f1ee0b968e30." Accessed October 26, 2021.

Written by Coursera • Updated on Oct 28, 2021

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

Learn without limits