The ESL Commando

Top Secret Tips for English Success

The ESL Commando

Top Secret Tips for English Success

How to Succeed at an American University


American UniversityBeing an ESL teacher at a pre-college Intensive English Program, I have a great many students that really want to go to an American college, and will do whatever they can to get there as soon as is possible.

Therefore, I have seen students that can hardly understand a complete sentence of mine telling me that they are going to take the TOEFL or IELTS and go to an American college as soon as is possible. The truth is that they are nowhere near the ability they need to go to an American college, and will fail miserably if they do happen to be lucky enough to get into one.

I have also had students who have never read (or complain about reading) an English short story for kids or youth novel and expect to take on 500 page textbooks with high-level academic vocabulary. Or, how about students who do not write down any notes for a 3 minute listening assignment, and then expect to succeed in a 90 minute lecture setting?

Get my point? There are certain things that students don’t realize about the American University system. Somehow, these students think that even though they can’t speak, read, write, or listen to English well at all, they will be able to do well in a university. This will NOT happen. Therefore, I have decide to write a few posts on how to succeed at the American university. Since I have taught at the university level and an Intensive English Program, I believe myself to be able to speak knowledgeably on the subject.

TIPS to prepare yourself for the American University/Intensive English Program:

HomeworkPrepare for  homework! – Homework is designed to help ESL students get more out of their lessons, and you will get a lot of it in the US.  Many teachers count it as part of your grade and you will lose credit if you do not do it.  Some students even fail their class for lack of homework.


NotesPrepare to take notes –  Don’t sit and do nothing while the teacher is lecturing, write down what he or she is saying! This may sound like common sense, but many ESL students lack in this area. When asked what is going to be on a test, many teachers reply, “Study your notes.”  No book pages, no websites, just notes. If you haven’t taken any notes, you are in for a big shock during the test. You may want to practice with lectures from  These lectures are similar to some of the material    you may hear in the American college setting.

Typing is essentialLearn to type in English – This  may  seem simple, but it is extremely valuable for ESL students. There are many free programs on the web that you can use to do this. Learning how to do this will help you with notes and also will save you countless hours of handwriting.  Start BEFORE you get to the US!


RecordRecord your lectures – This may depend on  school policies and individual teachers, so check first before doing this. You may want to run this by your teacher, as some are not comfortable with this, many, however, will not mind. In this way, you can go back and hear anything you weren’t sure about during the lecture.


Get better with technology –  I have had many students who take weeks to sign up for a website, do not know how to make a username, password, etc. American colleges are more and more using the internet for choosing classes, doing homework, discussing with classmates, etc. If you have no knowledge in computers, you are already at a disadvantage. Do things before you come to the US to get familiar with different types of web programs (email, social networking,  downloading and uploading files, etc.)

Meet your professors –  In a class of 200 students, you will go unnoticed unless you make yourself noticeable.  Every student should get to know their professor after class at some point. Go to office hours, ask questions, be friendly, pay attention in class. Do NOT, however, try to bribe (give gifts) or beg for a better grade when you have not earned it. This will turn the teacher AGAINST you, and could get you removed from the school.

Sit near the front and with good students – Don’t sit in the back with the Facebook watchers, the texters, and the chatters. You will become like those you hang out with. This is true in the classroom as well.  Also, the teacher might associate you with those students, and thus you are guilty by association.  The teacher will also notice you if you sit up front.

Don’t steal someone else’s work – This is the definition of plagiarism, and it is not tolerated at American colleges. You can be dismissed from the school if you take another person’s paper, article, etc. and claim it as your own. In addition, many colleges have special software that detects if the paper has been copied from someone else.

Read a lot of English books and stories- Reading will be your life in the US university, so prepare now by reading as much as you can in English. is a great site to help translate entire webpages into your home language as you read it.

There are many more things you can do to be successful at an American University. These are just a few. If you can think of more from experience, please place more good ideas in the comment box below!

Leave a Comment

This div height required for enabling the sticky sidebar