Study the professor as well as the subject.
Let's begin with two simple, but important truths: First, people are different; and, second, professors are people. Try never to forget these two truths as you go through your first year of college.
Take the first truth: People are different. You know intuitively that this is accurate if you've ever had a family, friends, or more to the point, roommates. I'll use roommates as an example. In August prior to the start of your first year, seemingly normal people suddenly invade your life and turn into monsters within a month, a week, and in some cases, a day.
Let's examine just a few ways that people are different. Some people are shy and quiet. They like being alone or only with one or two good friends. They enjoy, even revel, in their privacy. They actually recharge their personal energy when alone. On the other hand, other people are gregarious and enjoy being with people. They hate quiet and dislike being alone. Being around people recharges their energy level, and the more people the better. But, put a gregarious sort with a privacy lover as roommates, and sparks may fly.
Next, let me talk about people who are what I call get-it-done-now people. They love making to-do lists and scratching things off them. They were born to organize the world. While you're out at the library, they rearrange the room. They're human alarm clocks and must be early by an hour for everything. On the other hand, there is the hey-what's-the-rush people. Time is for them a relative measure. They use a sundial for a watch if they even own a watch. They don't mind being late as long as they're having fun. Surprise, fun, chill-out are their favorite words-words that can drive the more workaholic get-it-done crowd bananas.
So far we have not even talked about all the other variables like ethnic backgrounds, multicultural differences, socio-economics, you name it . Actually, it's a wonder that any two people get along. In fact, the people we like the best are people who think and act like us. I call this falling in love with the mirror. This is not healthy because you close yourself off from a wide world of options and limit your ability to understand others and effectively operate in our diverse world. Treating people as if they were all the same, by ignoring their differences and approaching life and school based on only your preferences, can lead to real personality clashes, and ultimately disaster.
In short, people are different. Respect it and deal with it.
The second truth: Professors are people. When I was in college, I had no idea where my professors lived or if they had families or lives outside of school. For all I knew, they were all locked in a vault each evening and then unleashed on Monday to feed on us poor students during the day. Not so.
They too have personalities as well as ethnic, social, economic and political differences-just like you. Some are shy, others gregarious; some are serious, others more fun-loving; some are old, others young. The list is very long.
Your task is to adjust to them - not for them to adjust to you. This is not easy. You are responsible for learning their styles and accommodating to them, not the reverse.
Above all, remember that people are different and that professors are people.
Find out your own personality. Sit down and take an inventory of yourself. You may not have ever done this before. Figure out your preferences: Things you like. By inference, the opposite of what you like will likely give you fits. Consciously knowing your likes and dislikes is a strong start in getting to know and understand others. Remember that you will tend to like people almost immediately who share your preferences and values-people just like you. Be careful that you don't ignore the rest of the world in the process.
Read the syllabus closely for hints. See if there are any significant hints like: "strong class participation is a must" or "10 points off per day for a late paper" or "all work must be accompanied by an outline." Each instruction gives you insight into the person. For example, "strong participation" indicates a gregarious teacher who values strong social interaction. The teacher who takes off 10 points per day for late work is likely a get-it-done-now person.
Talk to other students who have had the professor before. Nothing beats experience. Interview former students and ask them about the professors, their likes and dislikes. Become a bit of a researcher. See if their answers are consistent. For example, if they all tell you the teacher likes documentation in term papers to be exact, then you know where to place emphasis when you prepare a paper. If you get consistent information, it's likely to be true.
Ask questions in class. Better to ask up front than have a big surprise down the line at your expense. Ask if there is a late penalty, how important documentation is, and similar questions. Teachers would rather you ask than assume. If the class is huge and you're a bit embarrassed, then schedule time for office hours and have your questions ready to go.
Assume all professors are human. It may seem ridiculous and redundant to have to say this, but so many students see professors as aloof and not of this world. Like you, they have families, likes, dislikes, good and bad days. They too pay rent, buy groceries and lose loved ones. In short, they have the same daily pressures and issues going on in their lives as you do. Don't expect that they won't act and react like humans.