Newsroom experts

How to excel at journalism school

Welcome to J-school

August is drawing to an end. The weather is beginning to subtly change, everyone is getting back home from vacation, and if you live in a “college town” like I do, you will probably notice a dramatic shortage of extra-long twin bedding at Bed, Bath & Beyond, which can only mean one thing: school is back in session.

It’s been more than a few years since my first (and last) day of university classes, but despite all of the summer reading and campus map memorization I did beforehand, my feelings of unpreparedness will probably never be totally forgotten.

To help the future practitioners of our industry avoid nervousness surrounding their first steps into the j-school journey, we reached out to veteran journalism educators from across the country for their best advice to new students.

Move-in day

It’s the week before classes, everyone’s getting moved into the dorms and preparing themselves for the beginning of their university careers: What are the most important things a new journalism student can do to prepare herself for her first day of j-school?

Wanda Garner Cash, University of Texas School of Journalism: Read the news online or in print.

C.A. Tuggle, University of North Carolina School of Media and Journalism: It’s not just the first day, it’s the whole semester. Critical that students understand that we want them to work hard, play hard and know when to do which one.

Tim P. VosUniversity of Missouri School of Journalism: The main thing is clarify your own goals as a student. So, get yourself in the frame of mind that you’re going to take responsibility for your own education. Movies tell us that college is a fun time. Well, college is fun; but college is about becoming the best person you can be. It’s about exposing yourself to a new ideas. It’s about questioning your assumptions. J-school isn’t just about learning reporting skills — it’s about cultivating a curiosity for the world. That just happens to also be the attitude and approach that will also make you a good journalist.

First day

It’s the first day of class and everyone is equal parts nervous and excited: What’s the most major thing a new student can do to make a good impression on you that will last for the rest of the course and beyond?

WGC: Stay after class and introduce yourself. Better yet, stop by your professor’s office BEFORE the first day of class and introduce yourself.

CAT: Express enthusiasm for the subject. Show willingness to do what it takes to excel in the classroom.

TPV: I often teach courses in large lecture halls — often with 200 or 300 students. It’s actually a pretty small percentage of students who come up after class to introduce themselves. Even fewer come to my office hours. But, students who do make those sorts of effort often end up becoming the students I know best. They’re students I then help later on and even write letters of recommendation for when the job hunt begins. It all starts with making an effort to create a professional relationship with your professor.

Midway through

It’s a little past the course’s midway point and you’re just handing the first large assignment back to your students: What is setting apart the students who are doing very well in your course from those?

WGC: Following instructions and starting on an assignment as soon as it’s posted. Also, students who read good journalism tend to do better with story structure. 

CAT: That almost always comes down to level of effort.

TPV: It usually comes back to the students who have taken the responsibility for their own education who are doing well. That means they’ve formed study groups; they’ve made an additional effort to understand — not just read — the assigned readings; they’ve come to office hours to discuss class material. On the other hand, students who sit in class and wait to be educated are the ones who typically are falling behind.

End of semester

The first semester is almost complete, everyone is finishing their final assignments and getting ready for the first long break since starting university: What is one thing you wish you had seen more of from your students in their first-ever journalism course?

WGC: Tenacity and long-range planning to snag the best interview sources.

CAT: An understanding that we don’t give participation trophies. You have to work hard and show that you’re willing to put in the time and the effort.

TPV: So many students ask me at the end of the semester if there’s anything they can do to improve their grade. The end of the semester is not the time to do that — that’s something you have to work at each day. If you were training for a marathon, you’d need to put in the work everyday. There’s no cramming for a marathon. Well, it turns out there’s no cramming for academic success either. Just put in the work each and every day.


Our CliffsNotes takeaways for new students?

  1. Read, read and read some more. It’s hard to think about reporting on the news if you aren’t reading it yourself.
  2. Make an effort to get to know your professors. Simply showing up to class isn’t enough to make an impression.
  3. Make an effort and be enthusiastic. No one is responsible for your education except you, and you will gain as much from it as you put into it.
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