Starting the Semester: The Syllabus

Each new semester is a new opportunity. That might sound corny, but it’s true. It’s a chance to establish yourself with new professors and fellow students. An opportunity to build yourself a new schedule. And it’s a fresh start with your grades and reading and homework. You start out with a fresh syllabus and a blank notebook, just like everyone around you.

Resist the temptation to zone out during the discussion of the syllabus

The syllabus is your friend. It tells you exactly what you need to do to be prepared for class, learn what’s valuable, and get a good grade. A well-written syllabus leaves no mysteries in course structure or requirements. It’s all there, on a piece of paper, and you will probably go through an exhaustive discussion on that first day. Pay attention.

New semester jitters? No worries! The syllabus will guide your way. (Photo with Dublin street art fall 2012) 

New semester jitters? No worries! The syllabus will guide your way. (Photo with Dublin street art fall 2012) 

Key things to learn about your syllabus the first day:

1. Dates of major assignments

Highlight them, write them down, mark your calendars, don’t mess this up.

2. Grading system

Figure out how to do well in this class. It should be clear from the requirements/grading section on the syllabus. How much is each assignment worth? Do you get points for participation in class? Is attendance part of the grade?

You want to be able to make informed decisions about what you prioritize in this course. Find out what really matters, and what will help you sink or swim in the course. 

3. Late assignments

Everyone gets behind at some point. Figure out how much leeway you have in this particular course. You might get sick, you might get stressed out, and you might (but hopefully not if you follow step one above) forget an assignment. A mistake like this will cost you differently according to each professor’s policies.

4. Key readings

Which texts are the most important? What do you need to prioritize? Do you need to bring the readings to class? (This will matter particularly if it’s a fifteen-pound text book, especially if you commute on foot) If your assigned readings are downloaded from online, do you need to print them out?

Getting information about the assigned material allows you to decide what reading you will do in depth, and what you will skim (Check out my post “What to do if you can’t finish the reading”). Not every assignment is of equal importance. Figure out, that first day, what you need to read.

Final note on this: in the near future I will be writing my guide on how to spend less than $50 a semester on books. Here’s the short version: use the library. Not every major can get away with this, but if you’re in the humanities or social sciences and are willing to go to the extra effort to get library copies of texts when you need them, there is absolutely no reason to buy more than one or two books a semester.

5. Make note of assignments that require early preparation

I wrote a previous post on essay writing strategies that begin early in the semester. If you can determine on that first day of class what you might be focusing on in your final assignments, you can structure the whole term’s work around preparation and adding depth to the subject matter. That will give you additional buy-in to topics and more of a stake in the readings and classroom discussions. It will also make the end of the semester easier by an outrageous degree.

This means making note of essay topics that are provided, or any section labeled “Key Concepts” or “Learning Outcomes.” PAY ATTENTION! Those sections are literally the professor telling you what you should learn in the class. It’s right there, in a couple of paragraphs or bullet points. Take note, check back, and pay attention to these.

6. Group work

If you will have a group assignment, get as much information about the structure, expectations, and grading as soon as possible. Find out if you get to choose your own group, and if so start to build your team early. If a group project will make or break your final grade, you need to be extra-conscious of what this means for your workload and organization this term.

7. Finals

This is a secondary point, but I always take note of when my final exams are scheduled/when my final essays are due. By junior year I basically had no in-class exams, and could usually count on “finals week” ending on Monday or Tuesday, when my essays were due. That meant longer winter and spring breaks (I was on the quarter system at the University of Oregon), and greater flexibility in travel. But this is true if and only if you schedule ahead and make those plans. And if you double-check the schedule with your professor.

8. Professor details

This is the final and critical part of your necessary syllabus scrutiny that first day. Your professor will tell you how the prefer to be contacted. They will communicate about office hours, emails, and how available they will be for questions outside of class time. Pay attention. And now is the time that I join the ranks of all purveyors of college advice: go to the office hours. Especially if you want the professor to someday write you letters of recommendation. But regardless: pay attention to how and where to contact your professor and/or the graduate students running the course. Then contact them accordingly. This will make a world of difference.


I also highly recommend that you take the following steps to set yourself up well for the semester:

  • Get (or save) a digital copy of the syllabus. Back it up. If you are only given a paper copy, scan it and email it to yourself and save it in the class’s folder on your computer.
  • Get a physical copy of your syllabus. You will be more likely to remember details if you’ve got an annotated hard copy with highlighted dates and notes to self.
  • Put tests, assignments, and finals for all of your classes into one central spot: paper calendar, phone/computer schedule, wherever. You need to be able to look at the full scope of the term and know when you’ll be busy and what you’re facing, work-wise. It allows you to assign your focus as needed.
  • Prioritize one or two classes for your semester. You might do this for all kinds of reasons: difficulty, level of interest, the professor, the pertinence to your thesis or career goal; or past performance (good or bad) in a certain area. Whatever the reason, choose a couple of courses to focus on for the semester. This does not mean you let the others fall completely by the wayside. Just give yourself the point of reference that you do have a focus that you have chosen, and that can guide you for the semester.


While this seems like a long list, the reality is that almost everything I have written here will be discussed on that first day. You don't have to hunt for this information: it is provided for you. So pay attention. Take notes, ask questions, do everything you can from Day 1 to make this semester easier on yourself, and more fun.

Good luck with the new semester!


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