Why Freshmen Fail: A Review

I picked up Professor Carol‘s new book, Why Freshmen Fail, at the Great Homeschool Convention in Fort Worth, thinking it might be a resource I could recommend to parents of high-school and almost-high-school age students. I didn’t expect to find it so interesting that I would read it from start to finish in one sitting. After all, my boys are grown, and my grandchildren are a few years away from the target age, so it’s not as if I can immediately apply the information. However, it was that compelling.

Why Freshmen Fail and How to Avoid It

Professor Carol begins with her own story of freshman failure in two universities — not something most of us would expect from from a longtime tenured professor. She uses her own experience, plus that of the hundreds of students who passed through her classroom and office during her tenure at Southern Methodist University in Dalles to outline reasons why freshmen fail, and how to prepare them for success.

How not to fail

The book is chock-full of good advice, entertainingly delivered (if you’ve ever heard Professor Carol speak, you won’t be surprised at that!). It covers everything from basic student skills to getting along with professors to surviving ever-evolving standards of political correctness. There were several points that stood out to me, possibly because they are things I also advocate. Here are a few highlights.

Have a real reason for going to college

If kids don’t have a grounded reason for being at college — if they are just going because they think everyone else is doing it or because they want to move out — they aren’t likely to be focused on learning, which is the real purpose for being there. Professor Carol offers offers some insightful questions to ask as discussion starters, speaks frankly of the consequences of not having a solid purpose for attending school, and offers suggestions for students who aren’t focused or ready.

Know how to be a good student

One of the first things I remember doing at college was attending an optional all-day Saturday class on how to be a successful student. Topics included time management, advanced note-taking methods, memorization techniques, and test-taking skills, plus general “don’t be stupid” advice on basics such as actually coming to class, reading what you’re supposed to read, not plagiarizing, etc.

I found the time management, memorization, and note-taking advice extremely helpful as I was laser-focused on getting the maximum amount of information out of every single class. I was interested enough that it never occurred to me that people might actually skip class or not read what was assigned, but that is apparently not uncommon, and it’s a big factor in failure. Professor Carol covers all those topics and more, with an emphasis on how small decisions can snowball and dramatically affect grades and graduation.

Have basic life skills and know how to cope with no longer being special

Students who have been cherished and doted on by a loving family and friends can find it disconcerting to find themselves in a place where no one knows them, cares who they are, or will bother to remind them about little things such as deadlines, tests, or classes.Competition is fierce, and students need to be organized and proactive in order to find out what they need to know and get everything done.

Success “comes down to the individual student making choices day by day: both big decisions (e.g., which school, what major, what classes) and small, seemingly innocuous ones (getting out of bed, spending an hour researching a paper rather than texting friends, etc.). You can get the big ones right but mishandle the small decisions and still fail.”

“Fair” is not on the college menu

For many years, I have advised students to keep good records and be ready to advocate for themselves, but Professor Carol’s inside view of “pedagogical chaos and lack of professorial accountability” was eye-opening. Students must understand that no one cares about their education as much as they do (and if they don’t, they shouldn’t be there), and they are ultimately responsible for knowing what is necessary for their degree, doing it, and documenting that it has been completed. The advice to “throw nothing away” is spot on — I’ve heard too many horror stories to discount it. Fortunately, it’s possible to keep digital copies of everything in the cloud (Google Drive, Dropbox, etc.), so there’s no excuse not to. It can save your bacon.

Know how much classes cost per hour

As nerdy as it sounds, students need to have a realistic picture of what they are throwing away when they skip a class or allow themselves to fail. We are long past the time when college is affordable, and when costs are hidden from students, there can be a disconnect from the reality that it’s all adding up somewhere. I wish students of today had as clear a picture of the true cost of college (and cause and effect) as did Dorothy Day did in the early 20th century:

As a result of my early morning hours of study I was able to pass an examination at the end of my high school course, which brought me a three-hundred-dollar scholarship [to be paid in installments, first a hundred dollars followed by ten dollars a week for twenty weeks], enabling me to go to the university . . . Out of my one-hundred-dollar check I was able to pay the matriculation fee of ten dollars and the twelve dollars a semester at the university. There were books to be bought, the cost of board and room and to be considered, and lab fees and gym fees — all manner of expenses that I had not taken into account — but the nest egg I received made me feel rich indeed, and by working for my meals I was able to cover expenses.
From The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of Dorothy Day, p. 39 (published in 1952).

Know what not to ask

There are a two questions that will put you on a professor’s bad side immediately. Professor Carol identifies them, tells why, and suggests alternate ways of finding out what you need to know. The first question would be annoying even to me, but I was completely surprised by the second question. It’s good to know.

College can be fun, but it’s serious business, too

The book wraps up with a discussion of ten positives about going to college, and a serious look at how to determine whether college really is the best next step for your student. Professor Carol takes a look at gap year options and alternative vocations, noting that in an era when “so many graduates are not finding jobs, cannot afford apartments or buy cars, and will have to spend two decades repaying student loans, the decision to go to college has to be undertaken wth unprecedented seriousness.”


Why Freshmen Fail and How to Avoid It by Professor Carol Reynolds. I’d like to see a copy of Why Freshmen Fail in the hands of every homeschooling parent whose student is moving toward graduation. There’s no time like the present to begin developing necessary skills of independent learning, self-advocacy, and studentship, and this book offers a clear look at what is necessary and how to help students work toward a goal that fits. I recommend it.

You may order the print book at ProfessorCarol.com, and the Kindle edition at Amazon (all links are affiliate links, of course).

2 Responses

  1. Paul Bass says:

    I totally agree. I seldom read books in such a speedy manner. Dr. Carol Reynolds’ humor and insight took me back to my own mistakes and failures. While reading, I often found myself speaking “Amen.”

  1. March 26, 2022

    […] Why Freshmen Fail and How to Avoid It by Professor Carol Reynolds is full of good advice for any student (and parent). […]

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