3 Key Tips for STEM Students to Stay on Track

Are you entering college as a declared STEM major?

Based on a national study of STEM achievement conducted at 10 historically black colleges and universities, Marybeth Gasman, Professor of Higher Education and Director of the Center for Minority Serving Institutions, and I identified three helpful strategies that students can employ to ensure their success.

1. Make friends with other STEM majors.

Majoring in STEM is no easy task. It takes long-term dedication, perseverance, and sacrifices—especially in the context of balancing coursework and research with non-academic obligations.

Across the majority of institutions we visited, successful STEM students described their social circle, or group of best friends, as those individuals who not only were in their major, but who shared similar values, work ethics, and goals. In other words, these successful STEM students found it helpful to study and socialize with those who understood the challenges associated with the field. These students didn’t feel alone knowing that those around them were also navigating the same difficulties, and in many instances, these same friends kept each other accountable and motivated.

How to Make It Happen:

To meet students in your field of interest, here are some options you can explore:

  • Form a study group with students in your classes.
  • Join an extracurricular program that brings STEM students together, such as Engineers Without Borders, or write for your college’s science or math journals.
  • Explore national organizations that put you in touch with students in your field, such as the Society of Women Engineers or the National Society of Black Engineers.
  • Subscribe to your department’s newsletter to learn about relevant events on campus.

2. Find a faculty mentor.

At times, the idea of earning a degree in a STEM field can seem very challenging. In addition to developing relationships with peers, it can be helpful to identify a faculty member who may serve as your mentor. When I say mentor, this is normally different from the faculty advisors that colleges and universities assign to students, although they could be one and the same.

A mentor is someone you should actively seek out, whose interest or background appeal to you — there should be a match on some level. This mentor should have a vested interest in your academic and social well-being, providing advice and opportunities to improve your chances for success. Remember, faculty members used to be students, too, and can relate to the challenges of succeeding in a highly competitive field.

How to Make It Happen:

Scour department websites and review faculty profiles and research. Reach out to any faculty members who you may be interested in working with — e-mail them and ask to schedule an appointment.

During the meeting, share a bit of information about your background, interests, and goals. Come prepared with questions for the faculty member. If the conversation is going well, don’t be afraid to ask her if she would be willing to mentor you. In my personal experience, the worst that can happen is that the person can say no. If that is the case, move on and identify another individual you may be interested in working with and learning from.

3. Break a challenge down into smaller, manageable pieces.

You may take a STEM course in which your final grade is dependent upon a single exam. Students tend to have the tendency of waiting until 1-2 weeks before the exam to prepare. This probably won’t work.

How to Make It Happen:

After the first class session, review the course syllabus. Take note of any major deadlines and build them into your calendar (if you don’t have one, now is the time to get one). Allocate dedicated study time for that course every week to avoid a stressful period of cramming a semester’s worth of information into a few days.

Plan ahead and monitor your progress and your mastery of course concepts. Any doubts should be handled with a visit to the instructor’s office hours or an academic tutoring center.

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Final Thoughts

Your success in STEM relies heavily on your ability to be organized. It’s important to cultivate structure and consistency in your schedule and to develop sound and effective relationships that encourage (as opposed to distract you from) your obligation to your academics.

Don’t wait until a course gets harder to employ these strategies; they can improve your overall experience as a STEM major and prepare you for the rigors of graduate studies — medical school, Ph.D. studies — and the demands of the workforce.

Want to learn more about best practices and opportunities for STEM majors? Ask pressing questions and read Expert advice on our STEM page.