If you are in university, this is probably right around the time you feel like hell, with exams, papers and a million readings that you put off, even though you swore this was the year you would keep up. Don’t fear, you are not alone.
My younger sister came home for the weekend, in a rather perplexed about her current university experience. She is travelling through her first year and, like some foreign visitors, was marred by an experience of unexpected surprises. Rather than brave the university world alone, she got smart and decided not to re-invent the wheel; instead, she opted to talk to her older siblings. It was a rather rousing debate – there are four of us, all at different universities and programs, and it seemed post-worthy for any university student who needs a little guidance to the elixir of good grades. I’ll confess – none of us are geniuses – but I maintain that because we each have averages above 3.5/4.0 GPA, we feel qualified to give a few tips on improving.
This post is a tough-love post: it is for those students who have been cruising through university, and have suddenly realized their grades are not high enough – whether it is for professional school or grad school, for graduation, for your parents, or just for yourself. One thing my sister mentioned is that university students (including herself) feel lost in their student experience, and that a little tough love from some older siblings might have helped. So we’ve decided to play “older sibling” to all of our readers and dish it out, cold (ice-cream!) style.
1. Stop Skipping Class: I make it a rule never to skip class unless it is an emergency. Sometimes, you have a big midterm or paper due, and you’ve fallen behind and every minute counts – and then it is an emergency. But skipping because you feel too lazy to walk to class, or because your relaxing day was so wonderful that you can’t seem to muster enough brains to attend, or because the commute is just too damn long – those are not excuses that will increase your grades. It isn’t rocket science: class is important; and your perception that missing a class or two is not a big deal is just plain stupid.
2. Adjust your Attitude: Can I confess something to you? The majority of university students go through university with the perception that fun and freedom are as equal in the “university” experience as studying. I believe the collective sibling response to my sister’s comment about this was ” Get your head out of your ass, Leah!” (Haha, sorry – it is a family catchphrase!). But in essence – that’s basically it: if you intend to get good grades, or to improve the ones you have, get your head out of you ass and realize that study and fun are not a 50-50 concept. Sorry to disappoint you!
3. Never Hand Something In Late: It is one of the biggest mistakes students can make – you lose marks for absolutely no reason other than you can’t afford a calendar to mark a correct due date.
Get an agenda! And at the beginning of the term, write in all of your important due dates. When you see a week where there four papers due, you don’t go out clubbing the night before you paper is due and decide to miss class the next day to hand in your paper late. Even if that is an incredibly stupid example (I know people who have done it!), there are still other common mistakes students make. For example: It is not enough to start working on four papers the week before week they are due. Part of having an agenda is that it allows you to look ahead into the future (yup, it’s a crystal ball) to due dates weeks in advance. When you see four papers coming up, or a very heavy week, start a few weeks early so you aren’t swamped with work the week or night before.
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4. Get the Readings Done on Time: this one is an obvious one – despite the fact that doing readings in advance will assist you in class and make life easier, when it comes to exam crunch time, you won’t be cursing yourself for leaving it all to the last minute.
5. Talk to the T.A.s: If I could give a person one piece of advice to succeed in university, it would be to talk in advance to the person who marks your work. It is so important – its like guessing what kind of present someone wants as opposed to just asking them!
Always schedule an appointment with your T.A., come prepared with some ideas/questions, and you will find them to be a resource of great help. Consider your meeting with your T.A. a permanent appointment rather than something you can cancel, otherwise it will be easy to change your mind because you couldn’t come up with anything to discuss. The purpose of the appointment is to force you to think about the paper in advance.
6. Consider a Study Group: Although planning/putting a study group together can be work, they can be incredibly beneficial. Working with like-minded, hardworking people can help you connect with the readings and lectures better, and can ensure you don’t miss any concepts – or better, learn a new way to approach the concepts – so that everything is clear at the end. If you know someone who can help you in a study group, really use that time effectively: students often comment that they retain more from the study group than memorizing on their own, and that when it comes to discussion/essay questions (rather than multiple choice or short answer), the study group helps to better critically analyze ideas.
7. Use your Weekends More Effectively: Students often let their weekends dwindle away – particularly a day off like Friday or Monday. Your weekend should always be a catch-up time rather than a party time. While you may have commitments you can’t avoid, remember that if your fun time adds up to more than 15% of your weekend time, then you can mentally decrease your paper or exam mark by 25%. I know it sounds harsh (you would think I would say 40% fun time is too much), but it isn’t. Unless you are a genius – or even naturally smart and school comes easily for you, expect to work hard if you want 80+ in all your courses. In a three-day weekend (with Friday or Monday off), I would say an evening off would be fine, but any more than that, and I think it becomes easy to let the whole weekend slip away.
8. Stop Fooling Around: We thought we ought to hammer it home a little more than tip two of getting an attitude facelift:
STOP FOOLING AROUND!!!
These are NOT the best years of your life, so please, celebrating these years like the next 50 will be a disaster. University is prepping you for life – and doing poorly in school, or being on academic probation/dropping out isn’t going to help. If you want to be treated like a grown-up, you have to act like one. It is hard for people to take you seriously when you spend a lot of time fooling around. When you have a busy week ahead, do not waste your time going on dates or lounging about – put a clamp on your libido, and recognize that your brain should always take precedence over your nether-regions. In the end, a little sacrificed fun time can make up big during crunch-time.
8. Hang Out with the Right Crowd and Learn From Others: Ask yourself – how many of my friends are partying it up, and how many are working hard? Am I surrounding myself with people I want to be like, or people I have a good time with but who don’t motivate me to study?
It is so fabulous to have friends from all walks of life and I encourage that highly; but when you are in school, you need to be around people who are working hard. It rubs off on you a little easier, and you can learn from others. If you have a friend who seems to be doing well in school, ask them for some tips, and emulate their example. Think of it this way: Studying can be a bit like dieting – it is a little hard to commit to initially, but having a buddy makes it 100 times easier. If you really want to change your ways, it is about making a commitment, and being around others who make it easier, rather than harder, to keep that commitment.
9. Remember it is never too late: Somehow, when people get close to graduating, they kind of give up in frustration. Never give up: learning proper study skills will not only help you this year – still 25% of your university career left! – but it will provide you with skills for graduate school, and life.
Well, that’s some tough love from Surviving Studenthood (it comes from a good place!). We welcome all your other suggestions on helping people do better in school!