How to Succeed in College: Part 1

I recently read a very interesting article by Jeff Beals about how to succeed in college, and what impressed me most about the article is that the advice could be applied to life in general. That means if you learn to do these things during your time in college, then you’ll be setting yourself up for success after college. I’m going to use several posts over the next week or two to summarize what Beals had to say, and, as always, I’ll add a few thoughts of my own.

Beals starts by presenting three key words that every student needs to understand: responsibility, authority, and accountability. What he means by this is that we all need to be responsible for our own actions and decisions, that everyone has the authority to do so, and that each of us is accountable for the decisions we make. The article doesn’t make the distinction among these three very clear, so I’m going to take a minute to describe what I see as the difference.

Responsibility means that it’s up to you to do something or make a decision—you can delegate that task or take it on yourself, but it’s your job to make sure that whatever needs to happens actually happens.

Authority means that you have the right—or the power—to make a decisions or take an action. In the context of this article, I think Beals is telling you that, as an adult, you have the authority to make decisions about your future. I realize that this can be daunting, and in some cases over-protective parents may not recognize your authority (or you may not have been responsible enough to have yet earned that authority), but eventually it will all come down to what you think and what you do.

Accountability means that someone is going to call you on it—you’re going to have to report that the action was taken, even if you delegated the responsibility. You can’t delegate accountability.

Perhaps a concrete example will help clarify the differences: Imagine that a good friend is very sick and has asked if you can drive to the drugstore to pick up some needed medicine. If you say you will do it, you have become responsible for this task—you can ask someone else to do it, or you can go yourself, but by agreeing to pick up the medicine, you have become responsible for making sure that the medicine gets to your friend. There are actually a few types of authority involved here: your friend has given you the authority to act on his behalf at the store, and the state—by granting you a driver’s license—has given you the authority to drive your car to the drugstore. If your friend calls you the next day and says, “Hey, where’s my medicine?,” you can’t get away with saying, “Joe promised to pick it up for you.” You accepted the responsibility, which made you accountable!

There are many ways that these three words apply to the college experience, but primarily: you have the responsibility to choose a major and appropriate courses, register for those courses, go to class, and do your homework; you have the authority to manage your time so that the work gets done or to ask for advice or help at any point along the way; and you will be held accountable by your professors (which will be reflected in your grades) and by your parents or other funding sources.