I’ve been preparing to head back to school these past few days. Classes start in two weeks and I’m going to have a heavy load. Four anthropology classes, all four hundred level courses; which translate to a lot of reading and a lot of essay writing, and then to top off my schedule, I have a micro-economics course. I’ve realized recently that I only have the one year left before I graduate, granted the last course I absolutely need is offered in the Spring semester. Suddenly, I’m thinking about the future beyond school as fast approaching reality as opposed to a far off fantasy world. I know I need to start making decisions about what I intend to do with myself and my degree. My considerations at the moment are either graduate school or joining the armed forces, most likely Air Force; which is something I’ve only candidly talked about with my best friend, herself looking into joining within the next year or so. Even despite my candor, I’m not entirely sure how serious she took me to be. It isn’t that I’ve never thought about the military as a possible life course, to be honest, a part of me has always wanted to enlist, but I’ve always been afraid, that I’m not good enough, not strong enough, not brave enough, or just not enough. Lately, I’ve been questioning the integrity of my own self-imposed limits, wondering if perhaps, I’ve been underestimating myself all along.
Yet, even as I prepare for my final year of university, one of my younger cousins is readying to ship off for her first year of university in eleven days. I know she’ll do impeccably; she’s an intelligent, self-efficient, stable young woman with strong familial support. Yesterday, however, I took the opportunity to impart on her the knowledge I’d built up from my own experiences. In my first years of college, I’d been wholly unprepared, and it reflects in my transcripts. My mother had never gone to college, and my father only suffered through a semester before dropping out. My elder sister had only a year under her belt when I graduated high school, and by then, she was already floundering at the local university, directionless and overwhelmed by this new world of which she knew nothing and was offered no real guidance. Sadly, we didn’t receive the kind of assistance from our parents that one might expect; emotional, moral, or otherwise. When my younger sister was accepted to Ithaca on scholarship five years later, my father practically told her she would fail and shouldn’t go, then a year later crucified her as the failure he predicted when she decided to drop out. My father, by the way, is the nice parent.
None of this is meant as an excuse for my poor academic record, more so as an explanation of why it felt important to me that I give my younger cousin as much advice as I could. Despite my rocky beginnings and constant swapping of majors, I’ve since straightened my act. I transferred to UNLV three semesters ago, and have made Dean’s List each one, an honorable position I intend to maintain through graduation. I will be making perfect A’s in all my classes next semester, no excuses. I haven’t posted a blog in a while, and I know a lot of people out there are prepping to return to school, same as myself, so I figured, what better thing to write about than the same advice I passed on to my cousin, as well as, a few tidbits on how prepare for the new semester. Most of these tips will seem self-evident, but many first years falter by overlooking the obvious. Furthermore, these tips are not necessarily exclusive to college, but can help a student excel at any academic level.
Bring on the Advice:
Before the Semester Starts – Everyone knows that school always truly begins before the first day of classes. It starts with registration and enrollment. First years may have orientation to attend. Then there’s a lull until those several weeks leading up, as you get your back-to-school shopping done and mentally prepare (or drown in despair) for the coming year. This is a crucial period of time; how you start your semester can define the entire course of your classes and severely impact your overall performance. Use it wisely, and success will be yours.
Schedule/Routine – One of the things I like to do before the semester begins is to organize my weekly routine. Figure out what time to wake up each day, what I need to do before class in the morning, after class, the night before, determine what time I will study for which classes, and most importantly, when to take mental breaks for rejuvenation, and what day and time I can take care of non-school related responsibilities, such as doing laundry. Having a set routine in place before classes start will help you step easily into the new year with less stress than jumping in head-first without a plan. The key, of course, is sticking to your routine, yet making it flexible enough for inevitable adjustment throughout the semester.
Work Space – Most students who go away for college and live on campus typically take up permanent residence at the library when it comes to school work. For those of us that live at home or off-campus, depending on how far away school is, the library may not be a viable option. Regardless, the only way to succeed in your coming school year is to have a place set aside, free of distraction and temptation, where you can focus entirely on your school work. If you have a high tolerance for background static, coffee shops can make great work spaces. They usually have free WiFi, and offer a steady stream of caffeine, sugar, and carbs. But if you’re anything like me, the minutest movements, the softest whisper, sometimes the mere presence of another human being is enough to tear you straight out of the mental work zone. In which case, setting up a ‘home office’ might be the best option for you. Make sure it has everything you need within reach (pens, pencils, paper, books, computer, etc.), it’s a comfortable place to get your work done – but not too comfortable, it needs to exude a ‘work’ atmosphere to create and maintain a ‘doing school work’ mood, and most importantly, that your family/roommates/whoever are aware that when you’re there, you are off limits.
Note-taking Methods – Hopefully throughout middle and high school you’ve learned a few methods for note-taking, and if you’re really lucky, identified which one works best for you. Don’t believe the hype, no one has a sure-fire method for successful note-taking, there are several to choose from and ultimately, it boils down to whatever works for you, yet, I can’t tell you how many people I’ve encountered struggle with proper note-taking. Unless you have perfect memory, an inability to take good notes can make or break your grade. There is only one idea, one concept behind notes, that you need to grasp in order to take great notes: no matter when you look back on them, be it the next day, a week, month, or year later, the notes should recall the lesson their based on and jar into memory everything you were meant to understand or take away from that lecture (ie. They should make sense). If you can’t understand what the notes mean the next day, you need to rethink how you’re taking notes. Beyond that, nothing else matters. You can take your notes digitally on a laptop during class, or write them in a notebook, loose leaf paper kept in a binder, be as detailed or ambiguous as you want, color-code, decorative alternating rainbow, or monochrome, indent, bullet point, or rambling paragraphs. Don’t let someone convince you to do something that works best for them, realize what works best for you. Trial and error is the only way to figure out what works, don’t be afraid to try something new with your note-taking if your grade is slipping. Also, what works for one class may not work for another. Different teachers expect you to take away different messages from their lectures. Some are very straight forward, they’ll tell you exactly what you need to know to pass their tests, they may even spell it out for you on a slide: “Take Home Message”. Others require strong listening skills, you have to dig through what they’re saying to read between the lines. Getting a feel for your teacher’s lecture style will help you figure out what note-taking method is best, which you can’t do until the year starts obviously, but it helps to have a few methods ready beforehand. If your note-taking skills are shoddy, practice before the year starts. Watch a television show or movie, doesn’t matter which one, could be a documentary or a reality show, and take notes on it. The next day, review your notes. If you have no clue what you were trying to say, correct the syntax so that it makes sense, and repeat until you get something comprehensible.
** My own method: I always take written notes. I absorb the material better if I’m writing it, and I pay attention better because hand-writing takes a longer amount of time than, say, typing, which forces me to focus on the teacher’s every word. Some people may find handwriting while the teacher lectures distracting and miss something said, if you’re one of those people, consider a laptop and/or recording the lecture (note: some professors don’t allow either of these devices in class, check your syllabus). For instance, some people need to look at the person talking to understand what they’re saying; most of the time I cannot look at a person when they’re talking because the movement of their face and body distracts me. I try to write down everything the teacher says, but instead of putting it down verbatim, I rephrase in my own wording to ensure I fully comprehend what’s being said. If I can’t rephrase, I know I need to ask the professor for further clarification. After class, this semester, I plan to make digital copies of my notes. The lectures should still be fresh in my mind, which will allow me to make any needed corrections, it’ll also make it easier for me to create study aids from my notes, such as, digital flashcards.
Keeping Agenda – You need an agenda. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. In middle school and high school, we were required to keep an agenda. They even gave us one every year at my old middle school. Nice ones too. Problem was, majority of the student body didn’t know how to properly utilize an agenda, and teachers were not exactly lining up to help them figure it out, as they were too preoccupied with the pressures of getting their material taught in order to ensure their students passed those ridiculous standardized tests and they had a job next year. Education System politics aside, agendas are incredibly handy, if you know how to use it. You don’t need a fancy agenda, I use a spiral bound, 4”x9” inch Steno notebook as my agenda. Professors, at least at my college, are required to give you a detailed schedule of their plans for the entire course, indicating which days homework, reading and major projects are due, and when tests will be given; these tend to be attached to the syllabus, with the appendum that the schedule may change at the professor’s discretion, I use them to build my agenda. Agendas should be used to break down your school work into manageable daily tasks. In the past I kept my agenda loose, I wouldn’t go by day but week; date the week at the top of my page, create a section on the page for each class, and write in that section what homework, reading, studying I needed to do for that class for the week, then cross off each task as I completed it during the week. You should also use your agenda to further break down major projects into manageable tasks. Plan the project one week (for example, picking out a thesis and doing preliminary research for a term paper would fall under ‘planning’), do the bulk of your research another week, write the rough draft the next, edit and write the first and second draft next , put together the final the next. You should not use your agenda to write down Due Dates, but instead, Do Dates. This year I intend to use three types of agendas. I’ll still use my Steno book, but I have two apps that can be used on both Google Chrome and my phone: Week Plan and Producteev. I recommend looking into them both, or finding one that you like. There are several good task management apps available, free of charge, which you can set up to track your tasks, and even send you email reminders. The beauty of online agendas is that you can use it to synch your progress on a group project with other team members. Decide on an agenda early, so you can test it to make sure you actually like and will use it.
Class Materials – Depending on your major, it may be a good idea to hold off on doing the bulk of your school supply shopping until after the first day, when you have accurate supply lists from your teachers, but there are some staple materials you should already have on hand: an agenda, notebook(s), at least one binder to hold any hand-outs (especially your syllabi), good pens (choose a brand you know you like and a style your comfortable writing with for long periods of time. I like Sharpie pens personally, ink comes out smooth and they’re slightly thicker than typical pens, better grip), pencils (sharpener if you use old fashioned pencils, extra lead for mechanical, don’t forget a couple extra erasers), index cards for making flashcards, stapler and staples, some kind of book bag, pencil box or pouch to keep your pens and pencils organized and easily accessible, water bottle (I have a BPA free one purchased from the school bookstore, showing off school spirit, important if you have a lot of classes spread over campus or back-to-back), and of course, your text books. Clothes can also be considered a part of ‘class materials’. Put together a wardrobe of clothes that you feel comfortable in, sure you can express yourself, but don’t try to impress the other students with your fashion. College is expensive, don’t waste your time stressing over how you look and how others see you, wear something that puts you at ease and keeps you focused on what really matters: school work. What you wear helps set your mood. Last, get comfortable walking shoes. Campuses are always large, and parking is never close.
Bring a notebook and pen to class on the first day. Chances are you won’t need it, but you will definitely want it there if you do. Always be prepared to take notes even if you think you won’t.
** Note on text books: I purchase all my anthropology books, because it’s my major and, hopefully, my future career path. I can reference previous texts in future classes. A lot of schools are now offering book rentals. I recommend, to save on money and valuable space, renting only the textbooks that you know you won’t need in later years. If your bookstore doesn’t offer this option, you can always sell back later, or sell online. Another great method for saving is ordering your texts used through online sellers, but if you go this route, make sure you purchase your books early enough that they arrive before classes start. Some professors are sympathetic and may even provide class with the first weeks reading, others will feel you should’ve planned better, and in all honesty, they’d be right.
Mapping Campus – Print out a map of the campus if you need to, visit it a few times to get the lay of the land before classes start. Figure out which buildings your classes are in, and what routes will get you to them from whatever starting point. Also, find the Student Union, Cafeteria, Library, and any other landmarks of note. If you’re spending all day on campus, or at least through a meal time, knowing where the food is can be the most important piece of information in your day. It’s hard to focus when you’re hungry.
Parking/Transportation – If you don’t live on campus, make sure you have reliable transportation. I have to get my car to the shop for a checkup within the next two weeks to make sure it survives the semester. Know your parking, also, where you can park and what’s closest to your classes. If you need one, be sure to purchase a permit early – sometimes you can get them at a discounted price that way. Know how long it takes to get to campus, find parking, and get to class. My campus is roughly half-an-hour away from my home, but I usually end up leaving an hour to an hour and a half early, depending on what time my classes start. Less people take early morning classes, so I know if I get there half an hour early that I can easily find good parking. Classes later in the day are more popular, so parking is harder to find, if I leave earlier, I may not find good parking but I’ll have plenty of time to get to class.
Skipping Class – Don’t do it. The temptation is there, I know, because you’re an adult now and allegedly free to do whatever you want. However, there is a direct correlation between your grade and your attendance, and real adults know to prioritize what they need to do over what they want to do. I know better than most that getting to class can be difficult, and that finding motivation day one is not the same as finding motivation day ten. Having a good routine can help suppress the mid-semester blues, and also, a rest day in the week, but there are always going to be days when staying home in your pajamas eating ice cream and watching movies sounds so much more appealing than listening to Professor Monotone drone on about blah-blah-blah for an hour. You have to figure out how to keep yourself going to class. Maybe assign someone as your task master, let mom or dad, a sibling, significant other, child or good friend know your schedule and ask them to put a fire under your bum on those lazy days. For my sister, it was her boyfriend that never let her slip up. I don’t really have someone I can assign that task, so I have to motivate myself. Reminding yourself what your end goal is, either by daily mantra or with little notes can help keep you on track, but what I found that really works is to give myself little rewards throughout the semester. If I get an ‘A’ on a test, I can watch an episode of my favorite TV show, which I’m otherwise banned from until the semester’s end. If I get my homework done by a certain time, I can have a sweet, which I’m on probation from due to my getting fat. And if I go to classes, then I get an hour break later in the day, free from thinking. If I skip a class, I have to punish myself, that ‘free time’ I get by skipping, I force myself to spend on school work – there is no escape, bwahahahah.
Before the school year starts, swallow this pill: Adulthood sucks, anyone who told you different, lied.
Online Classes – Are not easier. Do not fall for that trap. If you have trouble motivating yourself to show up for class, you will not be able to find the motivation necessary to hold yourself accountable in an online class. Often times, online classes require more time studying than regular classes. If your reasoning for taking an online class is that it’ll be easier, it’ll save you time, and you’ll be less tempted to ‘ditch class’ – these are all wrong, and you will be setting yourself up for failure, and should not take an online class. If you are a good self-motivator, know how to structure a schedule and stick to it, and your reason for taking an online class is because you need the class and it’s the only one that fits your schedule, then, and only then, should you consider taking one. Otherwise, bear in mind, online classes cost more money than a regular class and are much, much harder.
Last piece of advice,
Participate in School Activities – I was never much of a joiner, I’m still not. I repelled school spirit just by looking at it. Yet in college, I learned that by only going to classes, I was inadvertently shafting school to a periphery part of my life. It became less important than work and socializing. I wasn’t a college student, I was a person who took college classes. This hurt me in ways I’ll never be able to fully heal. When that happens, grades become periphery also. A good way to keep yourself fully focused as a student and not lose yourself to being a person who takes college classes, is to participate in the student life on campus. Attend school activities, be it a lecture on campus, a college football/basketball/whatever game, joining a club or campus society, or anything else on the community schedule that catches your fancy. Maybe even buy a school t-shirt, and wear it on those days when you’re feeling less like a student.
Anyhow, I got more planning to do before the school year begins, so I better get to work. Hopefully some of these tips were helpful to someone out there. Good luck to any students looking forward (or not) to the new semester, and that goes double for freshmen.