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The Importance of Initiative and Follow-through

As a college professor for nearly three decades, two qualities and skills that are crucial for college success and far beyond appear to be MIA in too many students.

These are the ability to take initiative and to demonstrate follow-through. I so rarely interact with students who exhibit the capacity for these two critical pieces of academic life, social life, and professional life that when I do, it strikes me as exceptional.

But the good news is that since no one is born with these abilities, students and their parents can do things to help cultivate them until they feel more like second nature.

Taking initiative and showing follow-through are key factors that distinguish the strongest young people I work with and are predictive of which students are likely to have a smoother time adjusting to college and then launching into a successful transition after graduation. Initiative and follow-through are indeed cornerstones of emotional intelligence.

The importance of taking the initiative

Just recently, I was texting with a dear friend whose daughter will be a senior in high school, and they are starting to visit campuses to see what she gravitates to most. I offered to talk to her daughter, and my friend responded with her daughter’s contact information.

I replied that I would not be reaching out to her but that the door was open for her to reach out to me. I pointed out that this would be great practice for speaking with a professor, especially since her mom and I have been friends for well over half our lives; the stakes are lower with me, and I would likely be less intimidating than someone she would be approaching about a class, an internship, a research experience, etc.

My friend said that her daughter was unlikely to call or text me. I can understand and empathize that it might be out of her comfort zone, but it seems to me that if a student is ready to look at colleges across the country and apply this fall, it only makes sense to at least try to engage in conversations with those adults who are already the most used to working with young people in these situations.

I was surprised that my friend didn’t seem more concerned about this, especially since she and I met in college, and I’m aware of the initiative she took and the opportunities she managed to create for herself.

In this case, my friend sending me her daughter’s information revealed the extent to which she likely is making it far too easy for her daughter in key situations that are fertile ground for her to strengthen these muscles. And these really are muscles, as it is through practice, trial and error, and repetition that students will gain the necessary confidence to make things happen in their lives.

Those who possess the desire to take initiative or are at least willing to take the risk of doing so even when it’s uncomfortable are more likely to be leaders in group work and team building, and they may be more apt to do what is necessary to forge and sustain friendships and relationships.

The importance of follow-through

Follow-through is about doing what one says they will do, and it also means communicating if and when things change, especially when others depend on you. It is about emotional reliability, and thus, it is an important quality to hone for professional, personal, and relational success.

There are countless times I have offered to help my students network, to connect them to people with whom they could have informational interviews, and perhaps a chance to visit people at their workplace to learn more about what is involved in a given profession.

And I am always astounded at the lack of follow-through from these students, either at the stage of taking me up on my offer to talk or at the stage where we have spoken, and they wind up never reaching out to the people I suggested who are expecting their calls and emails, or the stage of following up with the person I suggested via a detailed and thoughtful thank-you email. These are all such lost opportunities.

Furthermore, whenever I see students who have done poorly on an assignment, I recommend in my feedback to them that they make an appointment with me. I also back that up by sending an email expressing my concerns about their performance in the class with an invitation to meet with me to help them improve.

If I see students who have not shown up at class for numerous days in a row or who neglected to submit the required work, I send them this same sort of email. My message to every student is, in essence, “I want you to succeed, and you must do your part.”

There are also the email exchanges, phone calls, and in-person conversations I have with students in which their answers to questions are monosyllabic, and they fail to elaborate, especially when doing so would reveal more rich layers of themselves and their experiences, and they fail to reciprocate with follow-up questions that would deepen and enrich the conversation.

Another great example of this is when I assign students a project for which they must conduct an interview with someone in the community and analyze it for major themes connected to class concepts and course materials. Increasingly, students email me in a panic, wondering where I posted the list of questions, and when I tell them that part of the point of the assignment is to come up with compelling questions to ask, they claim to be at a loss for what to ask.

I constantly reiterate that formulating thoughtful questions is part of critical and creative thinking. And it is also the case that creating good questions from which a stimulating conversation is likely to emerge involves showing initiative and follow-through.

Successful cultivation of initiative and follow-through

Overall, students who are motivated to take initiative and who are reliable about good follow-through understand the importance of the following practices:

  • Willing to seek out peer mentors and adult mentors to help them bolster these skills
  • Interested in feedback that is not just about grades but that is focused on doing better in the future
  • Seek help before things spin into a much larger and unwieldy problem; this is true for class performance and emotional and social issues
  • Possess the courage to try, regardless of the outcome
  • Try to find answers on their own first and then ask
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  • Strive to become more effective communicators, both orally and in written communication, including formal papers, informal writing assignments, e-mails, video calls, phone calls, and class presentations
  • Are able to talk with others face-to-face and over the telephone without simultaneously being lost on social media on their phones
  • Are experience seekers who take advantage of internships, invitations to build networks, opportunities to shadow people in an industry, and informational interviews
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