Defining Success


Action is the foundational key to all success. —Pablo Picasso, artist

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Identify specific strategies to achieve college success
  • Explain how grades play a role in shaping success
  • Describe the value of success, particularly in the first year of college
  • Develop a personal definition of success, in college and other areas of life

Personal Responsibility for Success

A college education is aligned with greater success in many areas of life. While enrolled in college, most students are closely focused on making it through the next class or passing the next test. It can be easy to lose sight of the overall role that education plays in life. But sometimes it helps to recall what a truly great step forward you are taking!

It’s also important to recognize, though, that some students do not succeed in college and drop out within the first year. Sometimes this is due to financial problems or a personal or family crisis. But most of the time students drop out because they’re having trouble passing their courses.

In this section, we examine the elements of college success. Are there patterns of success you strive for but aren’t yet reaching? Where might you shore up your support? What strategies can you use to achieve success in your college endeavors?

Defining Success in College

Click here to view the Instructional Support presentation from California Community Colleges. It includes an audio overview of success in college.

How do you define college success? The definition really depends on you. You might think that “success” is earning an associate’s degree or attending classes in a four-year college. Maybe success is a bachelor’s or master’s degree or a PhD. Maybe success means receiving a certificate of completion or finishing skill-based training.

You might be thinking of other measures of college success, too—like grades. For instance, you might be unhappy with anything less than an A in a course, although maybe this depends on the difficulty of the subject. As long as you pass with a C, you might be perfectly content. But no matter how you define success personally, you probably wouldn’t think it means earning a D or lower grade in a class.

So, if most students believe that passing a class is the minimum requirement for “success,” and if most students want to be successful in their courses, why aren’t more college students consistently successful in the classroom?

Perhaps some common misconceptions are at play. For example, we often hear students say, “I just can’t do it!” or “I’m not good at math,” or “I guess college isn’t for me . . . ,” or “I’m not smart enough.” But these explanations for success or failure aren’t necessarily accurate. Considerable research into college success reveals that having difficulty in or failing in college courses usually has nothing to do with intellect. More often success depends on how fully a student embraces and masters the following seven strategies:

  1. Learn how to take effective notes in class.
  2. Review the text and your reading notes prior to class.
  3. Participate in class discussion and maybe even join a study group.
  4. Go to office hours and ask your instructor questions.
  5. Give yourself enough time to research, write, and edit your essays in manageable stages.
  6. Take advantage of online or on-campus academic support resources.
  7. Spend sufficient time studying.

So if you feel you are not smart enough for college, ask yourself if you can implement some of these skills. Can you make more time for learning? One approach is to create a regular study schedule and make sure you allot ample time. Most college success experts agree that students should study two hours outside of class for every hour in class. Only break away from your committed schedule if an extreme situation prevents you from sticking to it.

Another strategy to consider implementing is group study. For example, rather than relying just on your own knowledge, notes, and skills, try studying with other students in your difficult classes. Studying in a group gives every group member a chance to ask questions and talk about concepts.

You can also add a tutor to your study group. You will really be able to notice a positive difference. Tutoring is generally free in college, and the strategies and knowledge you gain will be invaluable. Usually tutors have taken the class you are currently enrolled in, and they are trained to get the best out of you.

Overall, students struggle in college not because of natural intellect or smarts, but because of time management, organization, and lack of quality study time. The good news is that there are ways to combat this, specifically by doing things like creating a regular study schedule, studying in groups, and taking advantage of your school’s academic resources, like a tutoring center, instructor office hours, and any available online help.

How Grades Play a Role in Shaping Success

In a recent online discussion at a student-support Web site, a college freshman posted the following concern about how serious he should be about getting good grades:

As a first semester freshman, I really have taken my education seriously. I’ve studied and done my homework nightly and have read all of the assignments. So far, I have all A’s in my classes, including calculus and programming. Now, with a month left to go in the semester, I feel myself slipping a bit on my studies. I blow off readings and homework more to go out at night during the week and I’ve even skipped a few classes to attend major sporting events. I also travel most weekends with a sports team that I joined. Still, I’ve gotten A’s on the exams even with these less extensive study habits, although not as high as before. So, my question really is this. Should I just be content with low A’s and B’s and enjoy myself during college, or should I strive to achieve all A’s?

How would you answer this student’s question, given what what you know and sense about college life? Grades do matter to your success, right? Or . . . do they? The answer depends on who you ask and what your college and career goals are.

To help you answer, take this quick self-assessment about your college goals and beyond. Put a checkmark in the Yes or No column next to items in the “I Want to Be Able to . . .” column.

I Want to Be Able to . . . YES NO
Change my major during my college years
Have good relationships with my professors
Be eligible for financial aid
Be eligible for scholarships
Get awards
Be a resident assistant (RA) in my dorm
Get reductions on my car insurance
Prove to my employer that I can work hard
Keep my parents happy
Get a free master’s degree

You may be surprised to learn that each reason on this list directly relates to your grades—even changing your major. For example, colleges typically have a minimum GPA requirement to switch majors. Consider these additional factors:

  • Undergraduate grades have been shown to have a positive impact on getting full-time employment in your career in a position appropriate to your degree.
  • Grades also have been shown to have a positive net impact on your occupational status and earnings.
  • Getting good grades, particularly in the first year of college, is important to your academic success throughout your college years.
  • Grades are probably the best predictors of your persistence, your ability to graduate, and your prospects for enrolling in graduate school.

You stand to gain immeasurably when you get good grades.

Your Grade-Point Average (GPA)

Grades may not be the be-all and end-all in college life. But to the degree that you believe they can help you achieve your greatest goals, you will pay close attention to them and to your GPA.

Your GPA is a calculated average of the letter grades you earn correlated on a 0 to 4.0 or 5.0 scale. Each semester you receive a GPA based on the grades you earned in all of your classes during that semester. You also maintain a cumulative GPA—an ongoing average of all your semester grades beginning with freshman year.

Many institutions provide students with an online GPA calculator. Use the calculator to keep track of where you stand. Your college may also publish data on the average GPA of your fellow students. Sometimes it’s nice to know where you stand relative to your peers.

Words of Wisdom

It is important to know that college success is a responsibility shared with your institution. Above all, your college must provide you with stimulating classroom experiences that encourage you to devote more time and effort to your learning. Additional institutional factors in your success include the following:

  • High standards and expectations for your performance
  • Assessment and timely feedback
  • Peer support
  • Encouragement and support for you to explore human differences
  • Emphasis on your first college year
  • Respect for diverse ways of knowing
  • Integrating prior learning and experience
  • Academic support programs tailored to your needs
  • Ongoing application of learned skills
  • Active learning
  • Out-of-class contact with faculty[1]

Ideally, you and your college collaborate to create success in every way possible. The cooperative nature of college life is echoed in the following practical advice from a college graduate, recounted in Foundations of Academic Success: Words of Wisdom:

Professors do care about how you are doing in their class; they genuinely want you to succeed, but they will give you the grade you earn. There are people and resources on campus for you to utilize so you can earn the grade you want. Your professors are one of those resources, and are perhaps the most important. Go see them during office hours, ask them questions about the material and get extra help if you need it . . . Another resource to utilize can be found in the campus learning center . . . The first time I took a paper there, I recall standing outside the door for about ten minutes thinking of an excuse not to go in. Thankfully I saw a classmate walk in and I followed suit . . . Thanks to that first visit, I received an A- on the paper!

Ensuring Success in Your First Year

Why is the first year of college so important? So much happens that year! Shouldn’t there be a grace period for the newest students to get acclimated to college before the pressure sets in?

The fact is that the first year of college is the most crucial time in your college life. So much is happening, but it serves to establish your trajectory to success. Consider the following typical first-year experiences, all of which strategically support students during this critical make-or-break period.


Most first-year students attend an orientation program, which typically leads to the following results:

  • Students participate in more educationally enriching activities
  • Students perceive the campus environment to be more supportive
  • Students have greater developmental gains during their first year of college
  • Students are more satisfied with their overall college experience

First-Year Seminars

First-year seminars may be of the “orientation to college” variety; others may be based on your curriculum. Students who participate in these seminars tend to

  • Be more challenged academically
  • Be more active and collaborative in learning activities
  • Interact more frequently with faculty
  • Think of the campus environment as being more supportive
  • Gain more from their first year of college
  • Make greater use of campus services


The quality of academic advising is the single most powerful predictor of your satisfaction with the campus environment. First-year students who rate their advising as good or excellent

  • Are more likely to interact with faculty in various ways
  • Perceive the institution’s environment to be more supportive
  • Are more satisfied with their overall college experience
  • Gain more from college in most areas

Early Warning Systems

Early warning systems are especially important for students who start college with risk factors or who may be struggling academically. Midterm progress reports, course tests and other assessments, and early alert systems are most effective at helping students cope with difficulties in the first year.

Learning Communities

Learning communities are programs that enroll groups of students in a common set of courses. The effects of learning communities are greatest for first-year students. Students report gains in personal and social development, competence, and satisfaction with the undergraduate college experience.

Student Success Initiatives

Student success courses typically address issues like how to use campus support resources, manage time, study well, develop careers and skills, set goals, take tests, and take notes. The College Success course you are in right now is such an initiative.


About one-third of first-year students take developmental courses to bring their academic skills up to a level that will enable them to perform well in college. Developmental courses can make the difference in a student’s decision to stay in college or drop out.

Grades and Your First-Year Success

  • Your freshman year accounts for a significant portion of grades that can be used in getting an internship.
  • Your freshman year can account for a significant portion of grades that matter to starting your career.
  • Top companies can have early recruitment programs that begin identifying prospective students and looking at grades as early as your sophomore year.
  • Many top clubs and major-specific honoraries on campus look at your grades in the screening process.
  • When you get good grades as a freshman, you tend to keep getting good grades as a sophomore, junior, and senior.
  • Instructors tend to give the benefit of the doubt to students who get good grades.

The best advice is to commit to making your freshman year count. Make it the absolute best. The earlier you can establish good habits during this time, the easier your future years will be—not just in college, but in your work environment, at home, and beyond.

Tips for First-Year Students Embarking on Academic Success

The following is a list of tips from a college educator for college students embarking on their journey to academic success:

  • Early is on time, on time is late, and late is unacceptable!
  • Get the book(s) and read the book(s).
  • Take notes in class and when reading for class.
  • Know your professors (email, office location, office hours, etc.) and be familiar with what is in the course syllabus.
  • Put away your phone during class.
  • Emails need a salutation, a body, and a close.
  • Don’t write the way you might text—using abbreviations and clipped sentences.
  • Never academically advise yourself!
  • Apply for scholarships—all of them!
  • Speak it into existence and keep your eyes on the prize.
  • Enjoy the ride! Cheers!

Activity: Develop Your Personal Definition of Success

For this activity, create your own definition of success. defines success as “the favorable outcome of something attempted.” For many students in college, success means passing a class, earning an A, or learning something new. Beyond college, some people define success in terms of financial wealth; others measure it by the quality of their relationships with family and friends.

Here is an example of a brief, philosophical definition of success:

To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded. –Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ultimately, before we can know if we are successful, we must first define what success means for ourselves.


  • Develop a 750-word essay defining what success means to you in college and beyond. To help you develop this essay, you might want to consider the following:
  • Find a quote (or make one up) that best summarizes your definition of success (be sure to cite the author and the source, such as the URL).
  • Why does this quote best represent your personal definition success?
  • What people do you consider to be successful and why?
  • What is your definition of success?
  • What will you do to achieve success?
  • What is the biggest change you need to make in order to be successful in college?
  • How will you know you’ve achieved success?

Success and Pride

Almost every successful person begins with two beliefs: the future can be better than the present, and I have the power to make it so. –David Brooks, columnist and political commentator

If the prospect of committing to the path of higher education still feels daunting, you might find inspiration in thinking about the many potential gains you can experience. Talk with friends, family members, and others who have been to college and to people who have succeeded—in whatever ways they define success. Listen for clues about what they feel worked and what didn’t and what they would change. Do you hear threads of topics broached so far in this course?

College success is an attainable goal, so be encouraged that you are on a path of great potential. Below is the success story of a college graduate. Might your story be similar to this one someday?

Something Was Different

I have earned both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree and I have nearly twenty years of teaching experience. Would you ever guess that I contemplated not going to college at all? I originally thought about going to beauty school and becoming a cosmetologist. It was to me, honestly the easy way out since I was sick of all the drama after high school. The thought of college seemed overwhelming. Why did I really need to have a college degree when all I ever wanted was to get married and be a stay-at-home mom? My friends weren’t going to college either, so I often wondered if going would complicate our friendship.

I decided to go anyway, and it did separate us a bit. While I was writing a ten-page paper for my summer class in Genetics and Heredity, my friends were swimming in my pool. They also had the chance to buy new cars and new clothes and to go on vacations. I just went to school, driving my used Nissan Sentra, without much more than gas money and a few extra bucks. Again, why was I doing this? It would have been easier to just do what my friends were doing.

Little by little, semesters went by and I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in Education. I started substitute teaching immediately and within six months I was offered a full-time job. Just like that, I had more money and all kinds of new opportunities and I could now consider a new car or going on vacation just like my friends. At that point, I decided to continue my education and get my master’s degree. Yes, it was a lot of hard work again, and yes, my friends wondered why I wanted to go back again, but I knew then that this was the best choice for me. The challenge wasn’t knowing where I wanted my career to go, but rather overcoming the pull to settle into a lifestyle or career because it was easy, not because it was what I wanted.

By the time I graduated with my master’s degree I realized that something was different. For all the years that I felt behind or unable to keep up with what my friends had, I was suddenly leaps and bounds ahead of them career-wise. I now had two degrees, a full-time teaching job, and a plan to keep my career moving forward. I was able to do all of the things that they had done all those years and more. None of them had careers, just jobs. None of them had long-term plans. None of them were as satisfied with their choices any longer and a few of them even mentioned that they were jealous of my opportunity to attend college.

Don’t be fooled. Being a college student is a lot of work and, like me, most students have questioned what they are doing and why they are doing it. However, the rewards certainly outweigh all of the obstacles. I used to hear, “Attending college will make you a well-rounded person” or “It sets you apart from those that do not attend,” yet it never felt true at the time. Eventually though, you will come to a point where you realize those quotes are true and you will be on your way to earning that degree!”

—Jacqueline Tiermini, Foundations of Academic Success: Words of Wisdom

  1. What Matters to Student Success: A Review of the Literature; National Postsecondary Education Cooperative