An embarrassing confession: I failed the final essay exam in Mrs. Franco's twelfth-grade English class. I had studied hard and knew the material, and I had done fine on all of her earlier exams. When I sat down for the final, I knew the basic set-up. We had always been offered a choice of questions to answer on past exams, usually picking three out of five questions to answer. This time, there were ten questions, but I expected the final to be a bit longer. I quickly scanned the directions and saw that we needed to answer five total questions. Since it was a timed exam and I was a slow writer, I began writing immediately, not even hearing Mrs. Franco as she provided additional directions to the class. I felt confident as I turned in the exam; I had even finished a few minutes early, a first for me.

When we got back our final exam grades, I was stunned to learn that I had failed it, having earned no credit for two of my answers. I went to Mrs. Franco's office to discuss what I had done wrong. In my haste to begin the exam, I had missed her additional oral instructions. She explained that she had designed this exam to give to another class as well as ours. Three of the questions on the exam were less demanding and not meant for our section; therefore, she advised us specifically not to choose any of these. I had answered two of these three verboten questions and therefore received no credit for 40 percent of my grade.

Ultimately, my failure was not due to a lack of knowledge nor to a lack of studying. I had simply not paid attention—to her verbal instructions; to the other students in the class who did listen to her; to my own instincts, which told me that some of these questions seemed a little too easy; not even to history, since she had never given us such a free range of choices on past exams. My experience on this exam proved to be a most valuable lesson as I entered college, however. I had truly learned the importance of paying attention at all times, and I had experienced the consequences of not doing so.

Metaphorically, it takes less than a second to step from the safety of the curb into the path of an oncoming bus. Academically, it can take about the same amount of time to misunderstand directions, not notice a deadline, or register in the wrong section of a course. Our office hears appeals from students for exceptions to academic policies: withdrawing from or adding into courses after registration deadlines, returning from suspension, obtaining a course overload, appealing a grade, and so on. One of the reasons most commonly used by students when asking for an exception is one that they could have prevented by paying attention: “I didn't know.” This reason is often accompanied by an attempt to shift responsibility from themselves: “My adviser/professor didn't tell me.”

Working together with a variety of advisers, faculty, and administrators, we came up with a focused academic action list for advisers to share with their students. If students regularly take notice of the following, then perhaps they can empower themselves to become more academically aware, thereby avoiding some frustrating, often avoidable situations.

  1. Your Adviser—Advisers are professionals at giving academic guidance; however, they are not mind-readers. If you do not share your concerns, goals, and needs with them, then they cannot give you the best advice possible. Take the time to meet with your adviser outside of the hectic registration period. Share the good and the bad, listen to their advice, and accept your responsibility for your own progress.
  2. Your Body—Try to eat some healthy food, get some exercise, and sleep regularly. Most importantly, notice when your body is talking to you. If you are falling asleep in class, losing your appetite, not leaving your room, or feeling depressed, then seek help immediately. Your mind cannot perform at its best when your body is being ignored.
  3. Your Catalog—We know that the college catalog will never appear on a best-seller list, but it does have a wealth of important information in it, particularly your degree requirements and prerequisites. For an exception to any policy, you should consult your catalog first and see what the published policies and procedures are and how they could affect you.
  4. Directions—Please learn from my own mistake. Read all directions carefully and slowly before you begin any assignment. If your professor is talking before an exam, do not start writing in a hurry to finish. Listen to any additional directions that might be given. You never want to fail an assignment solely because you did not complete it correctly.
  5. Deadlines and Due Dates—All academic institutions have official add/drop periods. Make certain to write these on your calendar and adjust your schedule as needed within these time frames. Make note of due dates for essays and dates of final exams.
  6. Your Employment—Many students have to work at least part-time while attending school. Talk to your employer about your academic goals and see how much flexibility is available. If you are working full-time, be especially careful not to attempt a full-time courseload. You will likely end up missing a deadline (number 4) and overstressing yourself physically and mentally (number 2).
  7. Your Finances—Try not to get too deeply into debt. There are literally thousands of scholarship opportunities that students do not explore (due to a lack of time, perhaps, or a lack of confidence). Attending school part-time and taking only the courseload you can afford really can help you progress towards your degree. And it can keep your total loans at a minimum.
  8. Your Friends—Look out for each other and stay connected. When the end of the add/drop periods approach, for example, remind your friends to make adjustments and verify their own schedules. If you believe a friend is in trouble physically or emotionally, encourage him/her to get help as soon as possible.
  9. Your Grades—Your grade point average (GPA) can determine your eligibility for certain programs, the Dean's List, financial aid and scholarships. It can also determine your academic progress and actions like warning, probation, suspension, and dismissal. These are all serious actions and should not come as a surprise; nevertheless, students are often shocked to learn that they are ineligible to enroll in classes due to one of these actions. Talk to your adviser (number 1) about your academic progress and review your catalog (number 3) to make certain you understand how your GPA is calculated.
  10. The Internet—E-mail and the Web are valuable tools, but they are easily misused and can lead to misunderstandings. When e-mailing your adviser or professor, review your message for spelling and grammar, and never send an email out of frustration or anger. When conducting research, keep in mind that anyone can publish his or her ideas on the Web, and that does not mean the information is well-written, truthful, or accurate. Think carefully about what you read and make certain to cite anyone else's ideas. If you take an idea from the Web without giving that person credit, you have committed plagiarism.

This action list could be expanded, edited, or amended according to the needs of individual students and schools, and I would encourage advisers to do so. The goal of this kind of list is to encourage the active participation of students in monitoring their own progress. As advisers, we would like to prevent as many students as possible from impulsively stepping off that metaphorical curb without looking both ways to make sure the academic crosswalk is clear.