Most students read Hamlet in a college prep class. Professors who specialize in “the freshman year experience” strongly recommend you read Polonius’ advice to his son as a college prep course.
At major universities across the country, approximately half of each freshman class does not return for a second year. Many failed freshmen leave their four-year colleges with a less than 2.00 grade-point average and sometimes carry up to $30,000 in student loans. When university officials cite these statistics in freshman orientation, they stress that nine of the top ten causes of freshman attrition have nothing to do with students’ academic preparation for college. Instead, because college demands that students think and act as adults, students cannot afford to grow up at college; they must be mature and responsible when they arrive.
When you study Hamlet in your Introduction to Literature class, you can and should read Polonius’ advice more literally, because ivy-covered four-year colleges still follow traditions established in Hamlet’s epoch. Here is a quick guide to what Polonius said, what he meant, and how it applies today.
Give no unproportioned thought thy act
You know you’re guilty of “unproportioned thoughts” when some cool-headed, calm and rational person challenges, “What in the world were you thinking?” Your thoughts fall out of proportion when you fail to consider the consequences of your choices and actions. Contrary to widespread freshman belief, you are neither bullet-proof nor Teflon covered, nor are you still a juvenile in the law’s eyes. Campus crime statistics bear witness to the prevalence of “unproportioned thoughts”: every weekend on every major American campus, police arrest nearly 100 students for alcohol-related crimes, at least 10 women report date or acquaintance rapes, 50 students are cited for serious traffic violations, and 50 more are arrested for assault and battery. One professor notes, “It does not take a degree in criminology to see all of these crimes are preventable.” Bottom line: enter college with moderation and self-control.
“Bear’t” that the opposed beware of thee
This refers to where, when and how to jump into spirited classroom debates. The bigger the class, the more you want to distinguish yourself as a member of the classroom elite, speaking up both often and brilliantly. “The opposed” include all your classmates and sometimes your teaching assistant or professor. The College Board calls prestigious colleges “highly competitive,” implying that they have very high admissions standards; however, the competition does not end when you get accepted. In fact, after admission the real competition. "A"s are scarce, therefore, you must prepare by reading all the material assigned for your class; don't think that you can skimp on reading and just learn through osmosis in the lectures. When you prepare well, you will learn more and command your professors’ respect.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be
Feel free to accept grants and scholarships wherever you can find them; try with all your might not to take out student loans because they can slow down your progress toward home-ownership, starting a family, and further educational opportunities. Work is a good thing and on-campus jobs are best. Studies show that students who work 20 hours per week get better grades than those who do not work at all. Part-time employment forces students to use all they know about time management and strategic study.
To thine own self be true
Make choices in accord with your identity and values. In the last few weeks before you depart for college, devote time to quiet reflection; figure out exactly who you are, precisely what you want, and realistically what it will take to fulfill your goals. Being true to yourself is considerably easier when you know yourself. College still serves as a time for “youthful experimentation,” and you have not experienced peer pressure until you have survived your first semester in a dorm or frat house. Do not, however, violate your own values and standards. If you are not the kind of person who behaves dangerously or recklessly, then don’t. By acting true to yourself, you will treat college as a great opportunity to become completely and intrepidly your very best self.
Your middle school and high school instructors probably did their best to terrify you with tales of college’s overwhelming difficulty. Because professors seldom take attendance, check your homework, or regularly hold you accountable for assignments, you may at first imagine all those hometown horror-mongers deceived you. Nevertheless, when you read the first question on your first midterm, you will discover that the professor really did expect you to do all the work. In fact, your professor expected you to know the material as if you have written it yourself. Once you realize that your college success is entirely up to you, you will master the difficult art of proportioning your thoughts and remaining true to yourself.
Anthony Philpot blogs about higher education, including advice to help new college freshmen adjust to university life. If you are interested in this and similar topics, you might consider a degree in school counseling, such as those offered by Wake Forest University and Seton Hall University.