How to Make Your Mark at a Big School
I am a 4’10” undergraduate at UCSD, but I have risen above the swarming population of nearly 15,000 students. No, I’m not a scholar athlete or a prodigy or a young millionaire, but I have made a name for myself. My classmate across the hall may not recognize me (even though we’ve taken most of the same classes for three years), but the faculty do. A handful of my professors and academic counselors remember a name to go along with a face, and don’t just see me as a number. But how does this happen at a university where it’s so easy to become just another face in your 300something-person lecture?
According to collegeboard.com, large universities have many benefits. They offer a bigger selection of classes and majors, a range of academic and social opportunities, well-funded sports programs, and a distinguished faculty. But on the downside, they have large class sizes and less individual attention, courses taught by teaching assistants instead of professors, little student-teacher interaction, and complicated procedures to get into the classes you want – all the makings for a student to get lost in the crowd. So how can students take advantage of school resources to make the most of their college academic experience instead of just being a number? The mere thought of being one out of thousands of students sounds intimidating, but incoming freshman can rest assured! The college system has built-in resources at your fingertips – you just need to know how and where to find them.
The most obvious help universities offer their students is guaranteed academic counseling. Different schools offer different varieties of advisors. Browse your university website under the academics tab and you’re sure to find the right person to answer your pressing questions. Drop by or make an appointment and they’ll answer anything you’ve got – “Am I taking the right classes?” “Should I double major in this?” or even “I’m having a hard time with my roommate.”
Most classes at large universities are attended by teaching assistants, who are meant to help the professor give lectures, grade papers, but most importantly, answer students’ questions. Teaching assistants are current graduate students conducting research and finishing up their studies, and most of the time, this means they’re closer in age to the students. Even though there are concerns that students who are taught by T.As instead of the professors are not given the proper education their money says it will, T.As can are quite valuable. Since most professors are busy publishing research and attending conferences, T.As can give students the attention they need. Assistants explain the professor’s lectures in terms students can understand, give individual help on papers, and most of the time, are the ones grading your exams and papers. Drop by your T.As office, ask a few questions to show you’re engaged with the material, and make yourself known – sometimes your grade depends on it.
One way to get this individual help is to attend office hours held either by your professor or T.A. Even though the idea of walking into your professor’s or T.A’s office to ask a few stupid questions may seem intimidating, it’s valuable in the long run.
Carla Garcia (Berkeley ‘10) says attending office hours has been the most helpful in her college experience.
“The first thing that popped into my head was office hours, which is neither original nor novel, but that's what helped me the most. The thing is that people just say ‘go to office hours’ but not really how to make the most of it. Definitely be sure you have a list of specific questions and also don't be shy to ask for ‘special’ office hours if you can't make the regular times.”
She says the incessant questions paid off. She attended office hours for a writing class and a math class that helped generate a flow of ideas and eased her anxiety of talking in front of students.
Office hours help your professors and T.As recognize you in class or walking around on campus, which is good for your grade in the class and helpful in getting recommendations in the future. Teachers usually write down their hours on the syllabus, but if not, don’t be afraid to ask!
Some schools have special organizations catered for specific majors that offer a variety of useful resources to their members. Berkeley has the Biology Scholars Program that has a test bank with old tests and answers available to students to prep for upcoming exams. If you’re into the Greek scene, universities even have fraternities and sororities for specific majors. Phi Delta Epsilon is an international medical fraternity that prides itself off of community service and helping students with a future in medicine. All services are generally exclusive to members only so students should be on the lookout through emails, flyers, or word of mouth to find out if their schools have these programs and the details of the application process.
Students with more difficult majors find it beneficial to go to additional sections. Courses generally consist of a lecture of 300 or so students and a section portion where the class is split up into smaller discussion groups headed by a T.A. Students sign up for a designated section slot, but some students like attending more than one.
Michael Le (UCSD ‘09) is a biology major and finds it helpful to sit in on additional sections for his upper division classes.
“I like going to multiple sections because I feel that each teaching assistant always emphasizes a different part of the lecture. Each section is like a review session of the week's worth of lectures so by going to multiple sections, I am essentially re-learning the lecture material over and over again.”
He has attended multiple sections for organic chemistry, metabolic biochemistry, and cell biology, but has never gone to additional discussions for lower division courses. He encourages students to seek extra help because since sections are optional, this leaves more open spots for motivated students to attend. Some courses have mandatory sections, so it doesn’t hurt to email a professor ahead of time to ask for permission.
If group study is your thing and you want to a chance to meet new people, never underestimate the intelligence and kindness of your fellow students. Getting together for study groups is a great way to be social and to learn, as long as you stay focused. At UCSD, students in the same college usually take the same general education courses and live in the same dorms, making it easier to study together.
Attitude is Key
Being one out of thousands doesn’t mean you’ll be lost in a sea of students. As a freshman at a large university, you have just as much of a chance of interacting with your professor as you would at a small university – you just have to take the initiative.
Alex Angel (NYU Alum ‘08) was an active participant in student government and a variety of student organizations. She has seen the school from both the student and administrative perspective and encourages students to put themselves out there to discover hidden student resources.
“NYU, like any other big university, has all the resources and help students need, but it is on the students to reach out and ask for it. This shouldn't be mistaken for neglect or indifference. Rather, it teaches students that just because they go to a great and well-known university, they should not feel entitled.”
Persistence plays a role. Angel continues, “The key to being seen and heard in a big university is to be persistent. Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”
Lorrie Ma attended a small university in California (Santa Clara University Alum ’08) and says being persuasive and persistent can get you into the classes you need. As a student at a large university like UCSD, I have managed to do the same thing. Even though there are more restrictions to get into classes you want, I was able to get into a course outside of my major by seeking the help of an academic advisor. Students at big schools can break the academic rules of registration if they have the determination to do so.
Lastly, it’s best to learn tricks of the trade of how to approach faculty to get your voice heard. Even though we live in an age of the Internet, the old-fashioned technique of going in to see a professor or academic counselor in person is better than sending an email because it shows the seriousness and dedication of the student. In addition, never leave questions or changes before deadlines or exams because last minute inquiries generally are answered with angry or delayed responses.