Each fall at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., hordes of freshmen rush to sign up for engineering studies. And each spring, in an equally swift exodus, many retreat to some other - almost any other - discipline.
This mass change of heart has played out so regularly it is almost a joke to some close observers. But it was no joke for Frank Sanni.
As a Tufts freshman he, too, thought he would be an engineer - and so did his father. Then Mr. Sanni discovered that calculus, a basic building block for an engineering degree, was tougher than he was. "I bombed in it," he says, "I was so miserable I didn't want to study."
Each year, academic stumbles like this befall freshmen making the transition from high school to college. Call Sanni's problem Academic Pitfall No. 1: Getting off on the wrong career track.
It's one of many trip-ups that can send inexperienced students into an academic tailspin. A quarter of all freshmen do not return sophomore year at the same four-year college where they were freshmen - often because of personal and academic missteps. But whether the problem is too much partying or having a roommate who doesn't like to study - there are resources available to give students a hand. To avoid being overwhelmed and getting bad grades, students need to seek help from the academic resource office on campus, experts say.
"Students find themselves in academic difficulty for many reasons - but not usually because they are not qualified," says Nadia Medina, director of the Tufts Academic Resource Center. "It's just that they haven't developed college-level study strategies - or maybe they're choosing the wrong career because they want to make money."
To help minimize problems, many colleges now offer semester-long orientation courses on everything from time management to avoiding plagiarism.
To avoid "crashing and burning" in a single intense discipline, for example, Sue Yowell, dean of students at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh advises starting with a range of courses first semester - then narrowing the focus.
Academic counseling from more than one adviser to see how the advice compares is also a good idea. Or take a self-directed test to identify career potential. The key may be persuading parents footing a hefty tuition bill to fund the academic exploration, says Joe Moon, associate dean at Oxford College of Emory University in Oxford, Ga.
"If they get early career counseling, they can discover they have freedom now to explore," he says. "But mom and dad may still have to be convinced. They may say: 'What do you mean you're going to be a sociology major?' "
Fortunately for Sanni, he refused to become mired in self-doubt, and his parents supported him. He began taking other courses, including psychology. It clicked. After graduating in 1996, he landed a job he enjoys with an ad agency in San Francisco. "Our culture puts too much importance on how quickly we decide what we want to do rather than thinking about the 'why' and the 'how,' " he says. "Students need to explore ... to find out what they really love to do."
Even if freshmen have chosen a major they are happy with, they can still fall prey to time-management problems.
Take Paul Dell'Aquila, who reached academic meltdown his junior year at Tufts. He was enrolled in four higher-level courses in one semester. He was also writing three nights a week for the student paper, coordinating evening speakers for his dorm, spending time with his girlfriend - and working as announcer at Tufts basketball games.
With two weeks left in the semester, he had so much course work left that he was forced to withdraw from all four courses and be placed on academic probation. He was given six weeks to finish them the following semester - in addition to maintaining a passing grade in his four other courses.
"I was still using the same study skills I used successfully in high school," he says. "But mostly that involved cramming. And I had a combination of final exams and papers all coming due. I was overwhelmed. And I'm thinking - 'It's all over.' "
At first, even Ms. Medina thought his predicament was "impossible." But together they found a large calendar and scheduled every hour of every day for six weeks. He also gave his television to a friend to keep for him.
Mr. Dell'Aquila followed his new schedule rigidly, allocating just a few minutes to his girlfriend's birthday party. Finally he raced to submit his last paper before 5 p.m. the last day. He made it - and the dean's list that semester and the following two semesters of his senior year.
"I still use the time-management techniques I learned," he says. "I saw it as a military battle - I just kept chipping away until I finished."
Some students are tempted to get around time problems their first year by taking shortcuts, including plagiarism. At Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, history professor Polly Beals tackles that problem head on.
"If you copy a sentence and don't cite it - that's cheating and you could be dismissed," she tells five freshmen slumped in their seats during orientation earlier this month. "It's not enough to just flip a few words around in a sentence," she says. "When in doubt - footnote it."
The availability of documents on the Internet and online databases has made plagiarism a bigger problem, says Robert Harris, a professor of English at Southern California College in Costa Mesa, Calif. "I tell my students that you really have to be on your ethical toes when you sit down at a computer."
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