College 101: Know Yourself to Help Yourself

Last updated Mar 23, 2023 


Dante and Michelle were just settling into their seats in their freshman Microeconomics class when they noticed their professor handing back their recent Game Theory exams. 

Dante studied for a week, making flashcards and rereading his notes, so he was certain he aced it. “I’ve got this,” he reassured himself.

Michelle was a different story. After dinner the night before the test, she started what she believed was a classic college all-nighter. As the tests were being returned, she tapped her pen nervously on her desk and wondered, “Maybe I did okay?”

Turning over their exams at the same time, Dante and Michelle each stared down at identical C’s. 

Michelle was frustrated and stunned. In high school, she easily earned A’s and B’s after studying for a few hours the night before. “Well, it’s not my fault,” she thought to herself. “The test wasn’t fair!” Dante was just confused. “Why didn’t my flashcards help?” Both of them needed to figure out what went wrong to make sure this didn’t happen again.

Know Yourself

One way to handle unpleasant surprises, like Michelle’s and Dante’s, is to become better at self-monitoring, which basically means figuring out and fixing your mistakes. It’s asking yourself questions like “Is this working?” or “What should I do differently?” Easy, right? Not exactly. 

There are a couple of things that can make it hard to get an accurate sense of how you’re doing: you and you. It’s easy to play the blame game and point fingers at other people or circumstances as reasons for your problems. It’s also impossible not to be biased about yourself. Don’t blame, and don’t be biased. Take personal responsibility, and find out what others think about what you do well and what you don’t.

You can tell you’re struggling with poor self-monitoring if you make a lot of misjudgments: 

  • You think you have more or less time to do something than you really do. 
  • You think something will be easier than it ends up being. 
  • You use strategies you assume will work for you either because they always have or because you believe it’s what everyone else does. 
  • You don’t realize you need help. 

Don’t worry if any of this sounds familiar. Help is on the way!

Help Yourself

Moving from high school to college means moving away from parents and teachers who would’ve normally noticed you needed help and gotten it for you. In college, you have to do both on your own, and it’s where the executive function skill of self-monitoring comes in handy. So how do you do it?

Get Feedback. Since it’s harder to get good feedback from parents and professors about your work in college, you’re left with your grades as one of the best and most objective ways to know how you’re doing. Unlike high school, though, you have fewer assignments and no progress reports. Tracking your grades is your responsibility. Either keep your own records (on paper or a phone/computer), or use an app. Colleges will usually offer an online course management system like Blackboard to find course materials and view grades. Use it alone or with other apps (e.g. Gradebook) that allow you to record grades and figure out what you need to do to succeed.

Get Meta. In this case, go metacognitive — a word people use when they mean thinking about thinking. It’s like a mirror for your brain, and there is a simple way to apply it to self-monitoring: Goal, Plan, Do, Review. Set a goal, make a plan to accomplish it, do the plan, and review how the plan worked when you’re done. A lot of times this is done automatically in your head, but if you want to practice, you can write each of the steps down for one or more assignments until you get the hang of it; you can also try an app. Writing things down helps transfer your thinking out of your head so you can get a clearer look at your thought process along with a record of it. It’s sort of similar to how you show your work on a math problem so you can check and fix your work if you get it wrong, except in this case the problem is an assignment, the work is how you completed the assignment, and the wrong answer is a bad grade. Once you’ve written things out it’s also easier to talk things out with someone who can help you.

Get Help. There are people on and off a college campus that can help you determine what is holding you back and how to do better. On campus, you can make an appointment to talk with your professor or advisor and you can visit writing and tutoring centers. Off-campus, you can use a private tutoring service or, if you sense your mental and emotional health is getting in your way, you can visit a therapist. For example, Dante could meet with his Microeconomics professor and show her the notes he used to study for the Game Theory test and learn that his disorganized notes let him down then visit the tutoring center to get help taking better notes.

What’s Next?

As you continue to follow along with our College 101 series, keep a journal to record your thoughts and participate in some helpful exercises, like these!

  • Check it out: Pick a prospective college and find all of their on campus resources.
  • Write it Down: Reflect on a recent assignment. What did you do well? What could you have done differently? 
  • Read a Book: (1) The  Executive Functioning Workbook for Teens by Sharon A. Hansen, Chapters 1-4, 19 (2) On Course: Strategies for Creating Success in College and in Life by Skip Downing 
  • Use an App: Research apps that help with tracking progress and pick one you prefer.

For more help, get an A+ Executive Function Coach or take the complementary Mindprint assessment when you sign up for test prep tutoring.

At A+ Test Prep and Tutoring, our practices are based on the latest developments in educational theory and research. We have an excellent team of tutors who can help you with standardized testing, executive functioning, or achievement in any other school subject. If you want to find out more about our services, our Client Service Directors Susan Ware and Joelle Faucette can be reached at 215-886-9188.


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