Study tips for procrastinators and the easily distracted.


Aug 6, 2001 (Updated Aug 9, 2001)


The Bottom Line Anticipation of your own habits as well as the classes you are taking can make your life a lot less stressful.

This is another installment in my ďAdvice To Incoming College Freshmen Including But Not Limited To My Little SisterĒ series. Today weíll discuss academicsÖ


Before you even get to college you should consider what your workload is going to be. Going to college is one of the coolest things you have ever done in your young life, so you want to make sure that you can enjoy it. College work is different than highschool in a lot of ways. In some ways it is easier and in some ways it is harder. For one, your classes will meet less often, sometimes only once a week. This means that going to class is a lot more important. You will also have fewer assignments to turn in. In most cases you will have a few papers and a few tests, each making up a significant portion of your grade. You can go for weeks without having to hand in anything, and then have a week where you have three exams, a presentation, and a couple of papers all due at the same time. Thatís why itís important to plan your time and anticipate your workload.

1) Syllabuses Think of these as the answers to all your questions. If you can, email your professors before you even get to school and request copies of the syllabuses. There will be so much stuff to look at and think about and process, when you get there, you will be on information overload. The more you can figure out before hand, the better. If you canít get them before classes start, make sure you nab one the very first day and donít lose it. It will tell you what books you need, when and where the class meets, what you will be studying and in what order, when your tests and major assignments are due, everything you could ever want to know about the class. Put all of the due dates on your academic calendar/assignment pad, even if they change later on, you should at least know approximately when and what. When you have all of them from all of you classes, lay them out and get an idea of when the midterms are, if you will have several assignments due in a short period of time, etc. This may seem a little anal, but think about it. This is a summary of all the work you will have to do for the whole semester. If you can plan out the big stuff, you will have a lot more time to goof off.

2) Going to class. By far the most important thing you can do to get you through freshman year. In highschool you probably had daily homework assignments in all of your classes as well as a school-wide attendance policy. In college attendance and its affect on your grade is mainly up to your professors. Especially your freshman year, you will probably have at least a few large lecture courses where you professor hardly knows you, let alone keeps track of whether you are in class on any given day. Most days you will have nothing to hand in. The only reason you have to show up will be for your own personal edification. You no longer have to make up excuses. Not surprisingly, skipping class is a common occurrence among college students.

Donít be fooled. Working on your own isnít as easy as it sounds. Skipping class makes keeping up with the work a lot harder. Even if you do a half-assed job on all of your assignments, if you go to class every day, you wonít fail. Iím not kidding. Just sitting in class in a semi-conscious state is worth the pain of getting up in the morning. You will absorb more than you think, and it will keep you up to date on what the class is working on. You are going to be held responsible in the end, so you might as well take the easy route and get it straight from the professor, rather than trying to teach it to yourself the night before the exam. Never leave the decision of whether to go to class until the morning. You will invariably choose not to go. If you decide the night before, you can evaluate the issue with a clearer head. Just stick to your decision once youíve made it. If you get to the point where you allow yourself to skip at least three classes a week, you need to get help. Generally only allow yourself to skip one to two of each class per semester. Pick your courses to achieve the highest probability of your making it to every class. If you are not a morning person, do not take classes before 10 am or even 12. If you like to goof off in the afternoon, do not take afternoon classes. Do not be ashamed. Do not try to challenge yourself in this matter. You will regret it. Self-knowledge is the most important anticipatory tool you have.

Of course there are exceptions. If you are a highly motivated student, or you are really smart, donít worry about skipping a few classes when you know you can get away with it. Like I said, in many classes the professors donít care, but you will be held responsible for the material at some point, so if you can get the job done another way, go for it.

3) How to Choose Your Classes. For your first semester you might have a schedule picked for you, depending on your school and course of study. If you do not, you have some pretty daunting decisions to make. My advice here is a little controversial, but I know what I am talking about. Do not challenge yourself freshman year. If you can, only take four courses. Begin with the basics. Even if you got a 5 on the AP Biology exam, donít think that you can skip Intro Bio in college. Keep in mind, especially if you are going to a competitive school, that you are at a different point on the curve than you were in highschool. There wonít be as many people below you anymore; they didnít get into the school you are going to. You may not know as much as you think you know. Even if you are an excellent student, you might be in for culture shock when you get to college. There will be so much to do, and no one to make sure you do your homework. It is very easy to get overwhelmed. It is best to take the easy road, at least for your first semester while you are getting adjusted to college life. Take the freshman writing seminar, an intro course in your major, or a major that you are considering. Look at your schoolís core requirements and pick a course or two that satisfy that. Stay away from courses with high numbers or electives on obscure topics. If you like the title and the description of a class, consider whether you are just passively interested in the topic (youíd like to read a book on it or talk to someone about it) or actually interested in taking a semester long class on it (you have to read multiple books, research and write 10-page papers on a specific aspect of the subject, etc). Donít take a Chinese philosophy class unless you want to think about Chinese philosophy for ten or more hours a week for four months. You will have plenty of time later to take electives. Donít feel like you have to take a ton of classes in your major right away. They may pressure you to load up on major classes, but you will probably end up changing your major several times anyway, so give yourself a little time.

Drop/Add is the one or two week period in the beginning of the semester when you can drop out of a class without penalty. This is nice because it allows you to meet the professors, see the syllabus, and get a feel for the class. Iíll let you in on a little trick that I didnít learn until later. You can sign up for a whole bunch of classes, then test them out during drop/add. You then choose the four or five that you like best and drop the rest. That way you havenít missed anything. You want to actually sign up for the classes because the one you want might close out while you are making up your mind. This is a good way to find out about the different professors who teach the same class. Just because two courses have the same name does not make them the same. The teaching style of a professor can greatly affect the quality of the class and your likelihood of attending on a regular basis. Use drop/add to evaluate your options.

4) How to get out of classes you donít want to be in. You have more options than you might think when it comes to bailing. Donít be ashamed to use them. One of the biggest mistakes I made freshman year was not making use of the options that I had available to me. Under bad advisement, I took a calculus class that was over my head. Still thinking I could do anything I set my mind to, I tried to keep up amidst all the other freshmany things that were going on at the same time. Most schools give you an option called ďWithdrawalĒ it means that you can drop out of a class after the drop/add period and not receive a grade. I ended up getting a very bad grade in that calculus class. Had I exercised my right to withdrawal, my GPA wouldnít have suffered so. In most cases the withdrawn class still stays on your records, but it doesnít look nearly as bad as a D or an F. In addition, if you are on a scholarship that requires that you keep a certain GPA, you should consider this. Always talk to your professor about it before you decide. He or she will give you a better idea of where you stand.

5) Professors Iíll give you a little insight into the mind of the scary beast that is a college professor. Theyíre human! They donít want to give you a bad mark. In fact, they want you to do well. They are also specialists in theyíre fields. This is where they differ from highschool teachers. They have an intense interest in a certain obscure subject. They have spent upwards of ten years becoming qualified to teach you. If you were to take an interest in their field and more specifically their class, it would make their day. Take advantage of this. Find out what your professorís specialty is and ask them about their research; theyíll be thrilled. Developing relationships with your professors will also come in handy when you have to apply for jobs or grad school right out of college.

Every professor has office hours. This is time when you can sit down with your professor and he or she will tell you the answers. I, again, am not kidding. If you go to office hours with a half done assignment, your professor will most likely tell you how to finish it. Now, professors vary on how much they are willing to straight out tell you, and how much they want you to figure out for yourself. But most of the time if you have spent a little time on the assignment and have specific questions, you will get specific answers. Itís that easy. The worst thing you can do is avoid your professor. If you have overdue assignments or you missed a few classes. Donít hide. It will only make it worse. Even though it might be difficult, go to your professor, tell them that you got off track, but that you would like to make it up if you can. Most of the time your professor will be understanding. Get to know your professor. You know how in grammar school you got one grade for your work and another grade for Effort? Itís the same thing in college, except the effort grade is sort of factored in by your professor at the end. If a professor sees you truly trying and coming to see him or her and really interested in learning the material, you can get an extra boost if you are on the edge, in some cases a whole letter grade, depending on how loosely your professor grades. This is why, even though you are a procrastinator it is in your best interest to at least start your work before it is due, you will end up doing less work for a better grade in the long run. (Easier said than done, I know, but at least try with the big stuff, trust me.)

6) Study groups can be lifesavers. If you have a group that you can get together with and study for test or work on problem sets, you have automatic motivation to study. I also find that I learn better cooperatively. Part of the reason it works so well is that you teach the things you know and you learn the things you donít get from your group. Teaching is the best way to reinforce material because it forces you to put it in logical order and give reasons behind your knowledge. Study groups also provide great motivation for those classes you just can't seem to get into. The best way to start a study group is by asking one or two people and then get them to ask around. The ideal size is around five or six. That way if a few people canít make it, you can still study together.

7) Writing Papers. Do your research. Use all the resources available to you. If you are having trouble, talk to your professor or the librarian. Both can help you focus in on the things that will help you and filter out the extra information. Writing an adequate college paper is really pretty simple. First you have to start with a thesis, that is the core thing you want to say. Come up with one sentence that sums up your thought on the subject. It shouldnít be something obvious like ďHamlet was a prince.Ē It shouldnít be anything you canít back up either. If you are having trouble coming up with a thesis go to your professor, they will talk you through it. Then pick three reasons why you said what you said, and use examples from the text or journal articles or books to back it up. Use at least one quotation for each point and from each source. Then conclude by restating your thesis and summarizing your argument. You can write your basic three to five page paper in no time using this formula. What ever you do, do not play with the font size. You can cheat a little on the margins and the spacing, but take it easy, a good paper will be docked if you pull cheap stunts like that. Schedule yourself enough time to get it done. It is always best to try and finish the paper a day or two before it's done so you can edit it with fresh eyes. But if you are a procrastinator like me, you just need to sit down with enough time to get it done. If you have to write for ten minutes and then get up and play for a half hour, that's ok, just take that into account when you calculate how long it's going to take you. Don't feel guilty about using the method that suits you best.

8) How to get any studying done at all. Freshmen dorms and studying do not mix. My freshman year I couldnít even start to study or do homework until 12am and then I had to do it out in the hall. In the hopes of sparing you the pain of a cold floor at 3am, I will tell you the system that it took me a year to work out. You need to start with the basic set up of your day. Schedule your classes so that you have a convenient break of a few hours in the afternoon or the morning (never at lunch) between classes. Find a place, be it a library or a dining hall or wherever. Make sure there is not a bed present. Beds spell death for studying. Work out a schedule so that you always do the work for a particular class at a particular time. If you have a statistics class Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 10 and you have a study time set right after, consider doing your reading or your exercises right after, while the lesson is still fresh in you head. I have found that staying on campus between classes maximizes the work I get done while studying as well as makes it easier to attend class. There is less temptation to take a nap or start watching TV or any of those time-eating activities. I know this can be difficult to get used to, but it is the only thing that ended up working for me. You have to make it so that it is easier to stay on campus and study than go back to your room and goof off.

9) When pulling all-nighters, or other long-term study or paper-writing sessions, take care of yourself. Do not consume excessive amounts of caffeine or no doze, you will be jittery and unable to think straight. Instead, balance protein and carbohydrates with calming beverages like chamomile or mint tea. I know this sounds crazy, but it will keep you sane when you get to 4 and 5 am, plus you donít have the risk of crashing as you do with lots of sugar or coffee. DO NOT take naps. To keep from falling asleep, get up and walk around a little every hour or so. If you cannot get more than three hours of sleep, donít get any. You can sleep after class. When studying for exams, try to get a good night sleep. I know you have heard this before, but really, a clear head will help you a lot more than a few extra facts.

10) Finally, a word on reading. College reading is different from any other reading you have ever done. You will be assigned too much reading for any human to do. The key is that you are not supposed to actually read every word of every page in order. You have to learn to pick out the important pieces of information and let the other stuff go. You need to read with a goal in mind, such as picking out quotes for you paper, or relating the text to the lecture. Read with a highlighter or a pen in hand, that way you wonít have to reread the whole thing when it comes to the test. Some professors will tell you that you are responsible for everything in the text even if it wasnít covered in class, but most likely if it wasnít important enough to be covered in class, it isnít going to be important enough to be on the test. If you find you have trouble keeping up with the reading, go to your professor or to a tutoring center. Your professor will tell you what to focus on, and the tutoring center can help you develop your technique. If worse comes to worst you can skim the readings. Even for English classes, skim before class, then go back to it for your paper. When you have a paper due, read with your thesis in mind. Know what you want before you start looking for it.

In conclusion, college doesnít have to be hard. In fact, once I got myself organized, the work in college was actually easier in some cases than high school. The key is anticipating your own tendencies and balancing them with your workload. Using your professors and classmates as resources will also minimize useless struggling. Once you have mastered the ability to keep your head above water, you will find that you have more free time to use either having fun or going that extra mile on your papers and projects. Although I never am one to pass up a trip to IHOP, I would highly recommend that you try the latter a few times. Really get into a topic that you are researching and become an expert on it. It will be these projects that you remember after your college years are over, and they will be something that you can be proud of when you are done.

As always, if you have any questions or comments or need help, email me or leave me a comment. I read them all.

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