At every stage in the college journey, there is a plethora of shifting logistical and practical questions. Early college questions (How do I register for classes? How do I use the gym? How do I use the online homework website?) give way to mid-college questions (How do I prepare to go abroad? How do I decide if this is the right major for me? How do I move off-campus and deal with all the accompanying real-life logistics?) and finally to the questions that plague soon-to-be graduates (How do I turn in my thesis? How do I get transcripts? How am I going to make it in the real world…)
From the detailed/logistical to the existential, “How do I…?” questions are an ever-present, and sometimes overwhelming part of college life. (And of life after college as well, but we’ll leave that be for the present.)
I’ve written previously about some specific “how do I” questions, like “How do I get into a closed class?” “How do I prepare to go abroad?” "How do I pack for college?" and “How do I do my grocery shopping?” There are many other logistical questions I hope to address in the near future—if you have suggestions, please share them below! But for now, I would like to provide some broad ideas on how to get the answers to these “how to” questions.
How do I…
1. Ask at the office
Many, many problems can be solved by asking for help. This seems almost too good to be true, but the fact is that colleges employ people to help students get through their college careers. Take advantage of this resource!
As I said in one of my very first blog posts, get to know the people in your department’s office. Go in when you have questions, and treat the folks there with kindness and respect. When you’re in a panic about turning in a thesis, getting into a required class in your final semester, or that you’ve locked yourself out of your email, these are important people to know. Beyond their own knowledge, they will also be able to advise you on where else to turn for help, or offer insights that will smooth all efforts and anxieties.
Plus they’re often lovely, underappreciated people. Go talk to the administrative staff. Do yourself a favor and go—ask “how do I…” or just say howdy and know that you’ll have questions for them down the road.
2. Read the instructions
It is a frequent complaint by professors, GTFs, and all other university personnel that often students ask questions that have already been answered. Read the instructions. Read your emails. Read the syllabus. It’s possible that the thing that has you totally freaked out has already been explained in clear, step-by-step precision in the second half of that email you got too anxiety-ridden to finish reading. It’s also possible that the assignment that has you completely confused is something that has a simple structure, outlined on page 3 of your syllabus.
You will rarely be asked to do things at college without being given the tools to make it happen. This does not mean that you won’t sometimes be confused and at a loss. Confusion before bureaucracy is natural (in fact, it’s nearly paralyzing for someone like me… forms are my worst nightmare). However, if you read your student handbook, click around on your university’s website, and read your syllabus, you will probably find many answers to whatever obstacle is in front of you. First, read the instructions. Then seek help if you need it.
3. Ask your peers
In most cases, you will be tackling logistics at the same time as almost everyone around you. Registering for class, buying graduation gear, turning in class assignments online… all of these things will be done more or less at the same time as dozens of people around you. The trick is to ask for help without feeling like you’re oozing incompetence. However, I find that a request for “some quick help” often leads to someone proudly demonstrating just how the thing is done, and that they’re glad to lend a hand.
Asking peers for help is particularly effective if you also are able to lend a hand in return with relative frequency. Everyone has different skills and abilities, and something you might find laughably obvious could be causing anxiety to someone who has know-how you desperately need. Make a practice of both asking for help and offering it. The community you’ll build this way can make an enormous difference in how you experience your college years.
4. Ask your professor
This is particularly useful when it comes to questions of advising and mentoring. Do not ask your professor how to register for class. They have hundreds of students and it’s not their job to help with that kind of technical/logistical problem (plus, since they don’t register for classes, it’s entirely possible that they won’t know anyway). But if you have questions or doubts about your major, or your research focus, your career, study abroad, or other broad-based or academically focused questions, then go ask a professor. Ask several, actually. Part of their job is to help you further your education, and not just in passing the class you’re taking from them.
Be organized, and ask for specific advice when you meet with a professor. Do not go in and say, “what should I major in” or “how do I get a job I’ll like?” Instead, give them a bit of background on you (which classes you’ve done well in, what your research focus is—or a couple of ideas of what you would like it to be) and then ask how you take the next step. Take notes on the advice they give you. If you feel good about that advice, you might have found someone to ask for more mentoring and advice in the future.
5. Ask the internet
It is entirely possible that some YouTuber has already created a video walking you through the very process you’re stressed out about. There is an amazing community online of people offering step-by-step advice in written, audio, and video formats. If you’re wondering how you sign a .pdf document, how you add footnotes to your essays, or how you should pack to go abroad, you can probably find the answer on the internet. People like me love telling people how it’s done. So get out there and look.
When you receive help from someone, be sure to offer them a bit of a thank-you. That can mean nothing more than a sincere thanks in the moment. But it can also mean taking some other action (from baked goods to checking back in with progress reports to mailing a thank-you card) that goes above and beyond. Particularly if someone goes out of your way to help you, it often costs nothing but a three sentence email to really make someone glad that they helped you. And doesn’t that really benefit everyone in the end?
Please leave any thoughts/questions/feedback in the comments section below. Where do you turn to for help answering these "how do I...?" questions? Are there any specific questions you'd like me to write about in the near future?
If you liked this post, please also check out "When You Can't Finish the Reading," "Inventing an Internship: My Journalism Case-Study," "Thesis Writing: The Basics," and "7 Coping Strategies While Doing Depressing Research."