Thursday, January 30, 2014

Ask Isa: What to do if you fail a class

From the Ask Isa inbox:

Dear Isa,

I am worried and scared because I think I just failed a class this semester. I know, I shouldn't have failed a class for any reason but I did and it happened. So, I need some advice on what to do now?

I am aware of the impact it will have on my GPA and I know I will have to retake the course. Is there is something I can do to, I guess, not make it look so terrible (when in fact it is) for when I do transfer. This is so strange for me because I've never failed a class.


Class Fail

Dear Class Fail,

Thank so much for reaching out. I'm so sorry about your failed class - that must be so difficult to deal with. But fear not failing a class can be overcome. Below are a few things that I hope will help:

1) Set an appointment to talk with your professor immediately. Take ownership of why you failed and ask the professor for advice on what you can do differently next time. This will only be a failure if you don't take the opportunity to learn from it.

2) Set an appointment with your academic advisor to talk about the failure and ask about your options. As you mentioned, many colleges do offer the opportunity to retake a class. Ask your advisor what your options are and ask for advice on which option will be best for you. 

3) Don't be afraid to explain the situation in your transfer applications. Many applications include an opportunity for you to add commentary regarding anything on your transcript. Use that space to share how you you were able to learn from the failure, overcome it, move forward, and keep it from happening again.

Overcoming adversity can be one of the best ways to explain your character and resilience in applications. Use this to your advantage and don't let it stop you.

The fact that you are reaching out already shows you are the kind of person who is going to bounce back from this, learn all you can, and keep going towards an amazing college career.

Good luck! And remember this oldie but goodie:

"I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed." - 
Michael Jordan

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

What Harvard & Community College Students Have in Common

According to a recent article in The Atlantic, The Harvard "first-year experience unfolds under the supervision of an entire team - a freshman adviser, a resident dean of freshmen, a proctor, and a peer-advising fellow. Residential house tutors and faculty advisers lend support later."

The article goes onto compare that with community colleges, saying "community-college students are largely on their own. Student-adviser ratios in the two-year sector are abysmal in many schools: they can run as high as 1,500-to-1."

What stuck out to me when I read this?

Harvard students need just as much support as you do to be successful.

I see this lack of understanding and support affect low-income students all the time - they come up against an obstacle, feel alone, and assume that they must just not be college material. 

But, as I tell students in my speeches, no one does college successfully alone. 

Every student needs a solid support network. Colleges that are smart enough and/or have the funding know this and try to build it into the system.

But not every college understands how important this is, and some just don't have the funding. 

Which is why I do what I do. The system requires change to meet the needs of 21st century students - and while I hope to affect positive change at scale one day, my main goal is you right now.

You can't wait for the system to figure it out. And the good news is YOU have the power to create your own success network; that's why I wrote my book.  

So even if your college isn't surrounding you with advisors and mentors it's your job to surround yourself with them. They are everywhere. It's up to you to make the most of the opportunity to build that network. It can change your life and is necessary for college success.

Here are some places to start looking:

1) Your college's advising office
2) Your professors' office hours
3) Your college' student life office 
4) Your college's career center
5) Your college's tutoring center

Harvard students have a team and you should too. Build one and watch your potential grow. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

How to adjust to a big university

Note: The message below is from an e-mail exchange. Name has been changed for anonymity, and e-mail is shared with permission from the sender.

Dear Isa,

I am having a difficult time adjusting to the large crowd at the University of Texas (I transferred there recently from community college). I sometimes feel overwhelmed - I never thought this would happen to me because I am very outgoing. Do you have any advice on how not to get lost in the numbers at a big college? I don't want to lose my determination and motivation.

I feel very discouraged sometimes because I don't have my usual friends, professors, and community leaders who I usually reached out to.

Thank you so much for any help Isa!

Hi Jessica, 

This is such a great question. Here are some things you can do right now that I hope help:

1) Look on your college's website or go to the offices necessary to set up a meeting with a career counselor and a student life coordinator right away. Ask the career counselor about internships, and ask the student life coordinator about clubs. Then get going!

2) Look at all the clubs on your college's website and contact the top three clubs that interest you. Go to the meetings, introduce yourself to the president, and ask to get involved in the one that interests you the most. If possible try to get an officer position as soon as possible.

3) Keep asking for advice. I transferred to a small private school so I don't know what it's like to go to a big school. But I do know it was hard to adjust even at a small school so I imagine it's hard not to feel lost in a big crowd. 

Even with the small school it was vital I made my experience smaller by getting involved right away. (I joined the dance team and became an orientation leader.) I also found it helpful to meet with all of my professors during office hours to ask their advice and build mentorship relationships with the ones I clicked with. 

Stepping outside your comfort zone to get involved right away is the best thing you can do to begin to make the big experience a little bit smaller. Sometimes it may feel odd, and you won't always click with everyone - but putting yourself out there will pay off. 

Please let me know if you have any additional questions and let me know how it goes! Good luck!!



Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Ask Isa: 3 study strategies that helped me get 100's on exams

From the Ask Isa inbox:

Dear Isa,

This semester has started and my classes are pretty hard already. I looked at my syllabus for each class and I notice there are a lot of days where I have two or three tests from each class on the same day. 

How do you manage to study WISELY for tests that are packed on the same day? What type of study habit do I need to go through? I've never been in a situation like this.


Too Many Tests

Dear Too Many Tests,

This is a great question to ask - as exams can often fall in the same day, especially at the end of the semester. 

Below are the three things I did to manage many tests. 

I became a master test taker - me, who did NOT get a good SAT score. But I often got 100's on my tests using the methods below. I really hope they help you as much as they helped me - because one of the best feelings in the world is approaching test day with confidence. 

1) Study every day
There wasn't a day in college that I didn't study. And no, I didn't spend hours and hours in the library. And yes I did have a social life. When I say "study" I don't mean staring at your textbook for hours. That doesn't work. 

Instead, I developed a habit of getting to every class at least 10 minutes early. During that time I would review the notes I'd taken so far in that class, as well as scan the reading.  

During these short reviews if there was something that wasn't easy for me to grasp I'd make a note of it and schedule time during my professor's office hours to ask about the concept.

That kind of studying never took more than one hour each day, and it made studying for the exams the week  before test week almost feel too easy.

2) Meet with a study group
Study groups aren't for everyone, but they were huge for me. The biggest mistake students make with study groups is thinking they will get major "studying" done during that time. 

The best study groups are the ones where you've already done all your studying before meeting with others. I would meet with a study group usually the day before a test. I'd often create flash cards or make up some sort of game we could play.

Then we would test each other and essentially "talk out" the test concepts. I loved it because it gave me an opportunity to reiterate what I knew and boost my confidence. As a social learner it also helped me to talk it out (but again, that depends on your learning style, this is just mine). 

Often others in my study group hadn't studied a lot before the meeting, which gave me the chance to be "teacher" which really helped. One of the best ways to embed the information is to teach it to someone else. 

3) Relax the day of the tests
Cramming for a test does not really work. If you've spread out your studying over the semester you should be set up for a relatively relaxing test day.

Intensify your studying the week before the test and schedule time in the library every day to study. And again, don't just stare at the book. Create practice tests for yourself, use when relevant, and build activities for yourself to test your knowledge so you can check what you know and what you still need to work on. 

Study early enough so that you have time to talk with your professor and/or go to the tutoring center for any concepts you're struggling with. 

It's vital to do all this BEFORE the day of the tests. 

On the day of it's best to let your brain relax so you're not stressed; you've done all the work and test day is just the time to reap the benefits.

Get at least eight hours of sleep. Eat a big, healthy breakfast. Take a walk or do some stretching. Listen to your favorite music as you drive or walk to the class. Arrive a few minutes early. And don't take out your notes that day.

Just sit in class and breathe as you wait for the exam to be passed out. You'll see everyone else frantically scanning their notes, and you'll be able to sit peacefully, knowing you're ready.

It's one of the best feelings in school. 

Good luck!! You can be a test master.

Monday, January 20, 2014

What Martin Luther King Jr. thought about your college dream

Since the beginning of this blog Martin Luther King Jr. has been an inspiration to me. For the past month I've been reading the books he wrote and have been even more astounded by the work that he did. 

Below are three particular things that struck me recently that are poignantly relevant to your educational journey. I share them in hopes that they fuel your dreams as much as they have mine: 

1) MLK Jr. saw poverty as a big problem
Before he died MLK Jr. was leading what was called The Poor People's Campaign to help eradicate the more subtle injustices that result in poverty. Before he died he also held a meeting with people from all races and ethnicities to express their concerns about poverty and begin a plan of action.

He began to shift his efforts to creating more economic justice for all. And a core part of that plan, in addition to fair housing and jobs, was education. 

When you achieve your education you don't just do it for yourself. You are making strides for your family and for people like you. Keep going. 

2) MLK Jr. had a PhD
Martin Luther King Jr. did not stumble upon the Lincoln Memorial one day to make his iconic speech. He had been learning and studying and developing and working for years until that moment. 

MLK Jr.'s education allowed him to focus his energies above just surviving day to day, as those who are burdened by poverty must do. That is why I think it's vital for people from low-income backgrounds to achieve a great education:

So that they can break the cycles of poverty and become leaders for change, leaders for those who are still stuck.  

Your degree can help you accomplish great things. Not magically, but with hard work and dedication. It does matter and it is worth it. 

3) MLK Jr. believed in education
I want to let MLK Jr. have the final word. Below is an excerpt from a speech he gave to high school students in 1967, from the book A Time to Break Silence:

"Don't allow anybody to make you feel that you are nobody. Always feel that you count...

"Doors of opportunity are opening to each of you that were not open to your mothers and to your fathers. And the great challenge facing you is to be ready to enter these doors as they open...

"...And so our slogan must not be 'Burn, baby burn.' It must be, 'Build, baby, build.' 'Organize, baby, organize.' Yes, our slogan  must be 'Learn, baby, learn,' so that we can earn, baby earn." ("What Is Your Life's Blueprint," p. 223)

Learn, baby, learn. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Ask Isa: The simplest way to get good grades

From the Ask Isa inbox:

Dear Isa,

I'm having a rough time getting good grades; how do you do it? What are the easy classes you took so far? Thank you.


Struggling Student

Dear Struggling Student,

Getting good grades is hard. Really hard. But I'm glad you're asking about this because it is possible.

People tend to think getting good grades is about being 'naturally' smart. It's not. 

I've known very smart people who get mediocre grades, and people who may not be as naturally academically inclined but who work for their A's and become the top stars on their campuses. 

The first thing I want to address is the question of what "easy classes" I took. 

I think a lot of my classes were easy but not in the way you might expect. I consider them "easy" not because they weren't very hard work, but because they were in subjects I liked so much that I enjoyed the learning process. It was challenging, but it was fun. 

When possible I did avoid classes that seemed uninteresting and unrelated to my primary goals. 

In your first two years you have less choice, but if you think back to high school it's usually pretty easy to decide whether you prefer biology or chemistry (I chose chemistry).

Choosing a class because it's supposedly "easy" is not a good strategy. Choose classes that interest you and that you think you have some natural strengths in.  

Then, the simplest way to get good grades in the classes you choose?

Schedule daily time to study.

Duh, right? But seriously. Students underestimate this, especially busy ones. 

They feel good enough that they are able to fit class into their schedule that they can't imagine making much more time to study (aside from late nights after work when they're exhausted)

I have tremendous respect for students who have to balance work and other responsibilities with college, which today is the majority. 

However, it's a huge obstacle. And the only way to overcome it personally is to make studying a priority. Not just the week of exams, but every single day. 

I spent at least two hours in the library every weekday without fail. It was scheduled into my calendar and I treated the time like any other class.

I showed up every day. And on the days I didn't have any homework I'd get ahead on a class project or essay. The result?

A stress-free 4.0 and weekends to work and relax. (I also worked weeknights as a nanny and was able to study when the kids went to sleep - while in college do everything you can to find a job that works with your college goals and not against them). 

(Note: to make the most of that time it's vital to be organized, have a planner with due dates, and seek out constant tutoring and feedback from professors when you're struggling). 

Having the commitment required to get good grades requires an understanding of how your sacrifices now will pay off in the long run. 

Making college a priority will require sacrifices. But if you're dedicated to your college education, those sacrifices will pay off big time. 

Note: My favorite book on getting good grades is How to Become a Straight-A Student by Cal Newport. 

There are no shortcuts to getting good grades; there are no short cuts to become successful in anything. 

The effort you put in today and consistently every day is what makes all the difference. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

What to remember when you feel like you don't belong

I'm sitting in a hotel restaurant eating breakfast with a few dozen strangers. All in business attire. And all about 20+ years older than me. To be honest, I o
ften I feel like I can relate more with the hotel staff than the patrons.

I've experienced this many times as a young author and speaker, but this morning this feeling of not belonging has reminded of something important that I think is so relevant to where you are today:

When you don't fit in it usually means you're a trailblazer. 

I watched a documentary on Civil Rights on the airplane ride here and I was struck by the first-hand account of one woman's experience as the first black woman to walk across her high school's stage a few years after segregation was ruled unlawful. 

She was the only young black woman in her classes. She was ostracized and she hated school. Even when she graduated, she reports simply being happy she'd never have to go back. 

Whether she realized it or not, she was a trailblazer; but no one ever tells you being a trailblazer can be a lonely path. In fact, it's easy to fit in when you're doing things just like everyone else. 

It's much harder when you're trying to do something new, something different, something to change things.

I was thinking about this phenomenon and you yesterday when I read a great article in The Atlantic about a young Latino man who is the first in his family to go to college; it explains how he struggled to fit into a college where it seemed everyone else but him came from the upper classes. 

I had this same experience when I received a scholarship to finish my education at a private liberal arts college, and I've heard a similar story countless times from the trailblazing community college students who go on to some of the best colleges in the country, as well as those community college students who are trailblazing college for the first time in their family.

Being first is hard. Being first can be lonely. 

But I want to remind you today that being first is also beautiful. 

It's one of the best gifts you can give those who have sacrificed before you and those whose hopes you will fulfill who come after you - those for whom it will be easier because of you

So on behalf of everyone who's been lonely before you and all those whose lives will be changed because of you I want to say thank you. 

Keep going. Make friends with the strangers who aren't like you and teach them about you. Help them understand where you come from, and try to learn where they're coming from.

Continue to improve yourself through your education, and when you graduate and gain the power that comes with that, do your best to inspire more trailblazers so that being low-income, a minority, or the first in your family to attend college will no longer feel like a foreign experience. 

My dream, is for that to be the new normal. 

Monday, January 13, 2014

College To-Do List Week 8: A place to visit

The College To-Do list is here to see you through until the end of your Spring 2014 semester! It's the small things you do consistently that make the biggest difference. 

Thursday, January 9, 2014

How to set goals when you don't know what you want to do with your life

The new year is always my favorite time to set goals. While I don't ascribe to the general "resolutions" trend, I do think it's a great time to re-evaluate your vision, set goals, and create a plan for the year.

That's what I do each January, and it's one of my favorite parts of the year. While I always set goals to some extent throughout my life, I didn't get serious about it until a few years ago.

And the year I got serious about it is the year my life drastically changed - I published a book, started a blog, traveled more than I ever had in my life, and was able to live my dream and work from home. 

Taking goal setting seriously can drastically change your life. But not because it's magic. And not because writing something down means it will happen. 

But when you take goal setting seriously by setting goals that motivate you, reading them every day, and turning them into actionable, daily habits, it really can help you achieve your wildest dreams. 

But what do you do when you're not sure where you want to go? What if you don't know what do to with your life yet? What if you're not exactly sure what kind of job you want in the future? What if you don't entirely know where you want to be in the next few years?

That's okay!

And I'm writing this post just for you.

Because while I've always been a super planner, there have been so many times in my life when I've felt so unsure about where I want to go next. It's not always a good experience, and can leave you feeling lost and purposeless.

The good news is that a willingness to be flexible and have an open mind is vital as your career changes and progresses. You'll want to be open to new opportunities and adventures - some you may not even be able to dream about because you don't even know they exist yet!

But you won't be ready for those things if you aren't prepared. So how do you prepare and set goals for things you're not even aware of yet?

Set growth goals. The best goals you can set any time, but especially when you are unsure about what is next in your life, are the ones that will help you learn and grow. 
"If you want to have more you have to become more. Success is not a doing process; it is a becoming process. What you do, what you pursue, will elude you - it can be like chasing butterflies. Success is something you attract by the person you become." - Jim Rohn
Consider goals like this:

*Read 10 non-fiction books on ____________ [insert topic you're interested in]
*Meet with at least 3 people who work as____________[insert professions that interest you]
*Apply for an internship doing___________[the best thing to do when you don't know what you want to do is explore, up-close-and-personal]

And of course, when you're in college, it's always helpful to set goals that motivate you get good grades. 

But just wanting A's isn't enough - be sure to set a development plan to become the kind of student who gets A's (such as scheduling daily study time, meeting with professors, and reading books about how to succeed in college.)

Remember that planning doesn't mean you won't be going on an adventure; in fact I think planning is what makes an adventurous life that much more probable. 

Note: My favorite book on how to set goals and turn them into daily action is The Compound Effect by Darren Hardy. 

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The one question you must be able to answer to graduate college

How to succeed in college is why I write this blog and why I wrote my book. I teach how to build the relationships that are integral to college and career success. 

And you read this blog (and my book I hope) because you want to succeed. You want to do more with your life. You want to know how.

And I applaud you for that. You're way ahead of most people, and the fact that you're even reading this sentence shows you are a pretty dedicated person. Kudos to you. 

There is a question, however, whose answer can make or break the "how to succeed" in anything, especially something as demanding as college. 

It starts with one word - why.

Why do you want to graduate college?

Before you answer, consider the following:

1. WHY do you want to graduate college

How to succeed in college will mean nothing if you don't have a good reason why. I firmly believe that the large number of students who drop out of community college aren't doing it because they aren't smart or capable. 

While there are many external reasons, I think the primary internal problem is that they don't have a strong enough 'why' to push them to find the resources, time, and support they need to complete. 

2. Why do YOU want to graduate college

Your reason should be for you. It should be deeply personal and motivating. If money motivates you, then maybe it's the salary benefits. If you're motivated by the difference you can make in the world, maybe it's a certain community you want to help. 

Maybe there's a dream job you want that requires a college degree. Or maybe you have no idea what you want to do after college but you know you want to have options to choose and not get stuck in a job you hate (that was my why). 

Going to college for anyone else or for any reason other than your own won't work, especially if you have the kind of obstacles that come with being a low-income or first generation student. 

Your personal why may seem selfish, but it's not. It's the best thing you can do for your family and your community. 

Dream big.

3. Why do you want to GRADUATE college:

Going to college is the first step, and it's a difficult one so congratulations if you've made it that far! However, sadly too many students in community college do not graduate. 

Your reason for going to college should be rooted in your reason for graduating. What is your end goal and why? Once you graduate from community college do you want to go on to get a Bachelor's, a Master's, a J.D., an M.BA., an M.D. or a Ph.D? What degrees do you want and why? 

Again, make it personal, and think about the end goal. What would walking down that aisle to receive that diploma really mean to you? 


I got my Master's diploma in the mail in the summer of 2012, on the day my grandma Isabel died. In that moment I knew that my degree was so much more than a piece of paper. It was more than projected lifetime earnings. It was hope. And it was opportunity to do more than my grandma ever had the opportunity to do. 

Why are you in college? Why do you want to graduate college? If you don't have a reason that makes your heart beat faster and your motivation swell then schedule a meeting with a professor or mentor and start talking about it.

Slugging along through classes without a good "why" is dangerous.

But once you do have that "why," write it down and read it every morning. And if you're willing, please e-mail it to me at with your first name and name of your college (or you can request to be anonymous) as I'd love to share some of your whys in an upcoming blog post. 

How to succeed in college requires a lot of diligence and hard work. Our brains are hardwired to give up when something is too difficult - unless the 'why' is strong enough. 

Find your why and get your degree. You deserve it. 

“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

Monday, January 6, 2014

College To Do List: Week 7 - Where to sit in every class

The College To-Do list is here to see you through until the end of your Spring 2014 semester! Because it's the small things you do consistently that make the biggest difference. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Happy New Year!!!

Happy New Year!!! Don't make resolutions, but instead, write goals. Read them every morning. And then go make 2014 amazing.