1. Answer the question, “Why am I going to college?”
Many college students really don’t have a clear reason for being there other than the fact that they don’t know what else to do yet. They inherit goals from family and peers which aren’t truly their own. That was how I started college. Is this you as well?
As I’ve stated previously on this blog, the three-semester deal wasn’t my first time at college. I had previously gone to college when I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to be there. In high school I was a straight-A honors student, President of the math club, and captain of the Academic Decathlon team. That momentum carried me forward, and without really ever deciding if it was what I wanted, I found myself with four more years of school ahead of me. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but my heart just wasn’t in it. Consequently, I sabotaged myself in a big way. I blew off my classes and got an education in parties and alcohol. Apparently some administrator was biased against students whose GPA starts with a decimal point, so I was soon expelled.
That experience sent me into a bit of a tailspin. I was in a funk for about six months, mostly just playing video games. Finally in an attempt to re-ground myself, I got a retail sales job and tried to stay under the radar while taking some time to “find myself.” That was the time I began developing an interest in personal development, and boy did it pay off. A year later I was ready to go back to college, and I started over as a freshman. But this time I knew why I was there. I wanted to be a programmer, and I wanted to earn my Computer Science degree (I later added the Math degree). But it was more than that. I knew I was capable of a lot more, and I wanted to push myself. I wanted to create the richest experience I could. For me that meant a really dense schedule.
Your goals for college will likely be different than mine. What are they? Why are you there? If you don’t know — and I mean really know it in your gut — then you have no focal point for your experience. You may as well not even be there. What is it about your experience that resonates as true for you? What are you there to learn? What do you want to experience?
2. Imagine your ideal college experience.
Once you know why you’re going to college, imagine your ideal outcome. Let it flow outward from the reason you’re there. Whether you’ve already started college or not, stop and simply write down some attributes of your ideal experience. Describe it in as much detail as you can.
Before I returned to school, I spent hours visualizing the kind of experience I wanted to have. I saw myself being challenged but managing it easily and without stress. I saw myself making new friends. I saw myself having a really great time. Most of all I imagined a very balanced experience — a blend of academics, activities, socialization, and fun. The keyword I used was “richness.”
This was a really important step. I didn’t understand the mechanism at the time, but I was pre-programming myself to succeed. Whenever I encountered obstacles, my ideal vision was so much more compelling that I was always able to find a way to get what I wanted. I became a co-creator of my experience instead of a passive victim of it.
Visualization allows you to make mistakes in advance. If you can’t get a clear visualization, your experience is likely to be just as fuzzy. Debug your visualization until it inspires you.
Real life will of course turn out differently than you visualize. The point of visualization isn’t to predict the future or to restrict your freedom to decide later. The point is to give you more clarity for making decisions right now. Your ideal scene serves as a map that can guide you through the quagmire of options.
3. Take at least one extra class each semester.
Students are taught that 12-15 semester units (3-5 classes) is a “full” schedule. But a schedule that light is hardly full. A person with a full-time job will put in a good 40+ hours per week, and students enjoy every possible vacation day plus spring break, winter break, and summer vacation. If you want to spend four or more years in college, add more degrees or get a job on the side. Don’t feel you have to go at a snail’s pace just because everyone else does.
Now you might be thinking that 12-15 units are supposed to equate to a 40-hour week with all the outside homework and studying, but that’s only going to happen if you do things very inefficiently (which sadly is what most people do). If you follow some of the time-saving tips later in this article, then 15 units should only require a few additional hours outside of class to complete assignments. Obviously I couldn’t have taken 31-39 units per semester if it meant doing double those hours in outside homework. I didn’t succeed by overworking myself.
If you’re an above average student, you can certainly handle an above average schedule. Sometimes we don’t know what we can handle until we push ourselves a little. If you think you can handle 15 units, take 18 or 21. You can easily shave a year off your schedule. Or you may be able to add a minor or a double major.
What about prerequisites? For the most part I simply ignored them, and fortunately at my school they weren’t enforced too well. I found that most of the time a prerequisite is listed, it’s geared towards below average students. Don’t let pointless bureaucracy slow you down if you want to graduate sooner. There’s always a way around it — it’s usually just a matter of getting some random form signed by someone who’s too bored to care either way. A smile and a compliment go a long way.
By the law of forced efficiency, if you put more things on your plate, you’ll find a way to get them done with the time you have available. So if you don’t challenge yourself a little, that extra time will slip through your fingers.
I think the real benefit to a dense schedule isn’t that you’ll graduate sooner. The real benefit is that you’ll enjoy a richer experience. Taking five classes instead of four means more learning, more achievement, and more friends. And what employer wouldn’t be attracted to a student who graduated more quickly than his/her peers? This sort of thing sure looks great on a resume.
4. Set clear goals for each class.
Decide what you want out of each specific class. Is this a subject you’re eager to learn? Do you want to target this teacher for a letter of recommendation? Is this a required class you must take but which doesn’t otherwise interest you?
My goals for each class determined how often I would show up, whether I’d sit in the front or the back, how actively I’d participate, and what kind of relationship I’d seek to establish with the teacher.
For some classes I wanted to master the material. For others I just wanted an A grade. And for others I wanted to set myself up for glowing letters of recommendations from enthusiastic teachers whose native language was English (so the letters would be highly readable and positive).
My mom has been a college math professor for decades. At home she’d comment about students she barely knew who’d ask her for letters of recommendation. Many times she had to turn them down because she just didn’t have anything positive to say in the letter. On the other hand, she was happy to support those students who put in a serious effort. Most teachers want to help you, but you have to let them see your strengths. Even if you don’t get an A in a particular class, you can still give a teacher plenty of material for a great letter of recommendation if you participate actively and show respect toward the teacher.
This is not about manipulating your professors into lying on your behalf. The simple truth is that the quality of a letter of recommendation ultimately comes down to how much a teacher respects you. Don’t put yourself in the desperate situation of having to request a letter of recommendation from a teacher who doesn’t even remember you — or worse, one who thinks poorly of you. Set yourself up for success in advance.
One of my professors learned about my packed academic schedule and expressed interest in learning how I was managing it. We had a very nice conversation about time management techniques. I had several programming classes with this professor and aced them all. I happened to think he was an excellent teacher, I had great respect for him, and I quite enjoyed his classes. When it came time to ask him for a letter of recommendation, he wrote one of the most glowing letters imaginable (“best student I’ve encountered in my career,” etc.).
On the other hand, I had certain teachers who were downright lousy. I ditched their classes often and learned the material from the textbook. Obviously I didn’t seek out their assistance down the road.
Sometimes you’ll achieve your goals; sometimes you won’t. Even if you do your best, you may still fall short. You may encounter teachers that are unfair, lazy, sexist, racist, or otherwise incompetent. My wife had an overtly sexist professor who would never give a female student a grade higher than a B, no matter how well she did. He would say things like, “If you’re a male, you’ll have to work hard in this class. If you’re a female, just come by my office after hours.” Eventually sexual harrassment charges were filed against him. You’ll have to pick your battles. Some are worth fighting; others are best ignored. Having clear goals will help you decide which is which.
5. Triage ruthlessly.
You don’t need to put an equal amount of effort into every class. Inject extra effort when it’s important to you, but feel free to back off a little from classes that are a low priority based on your specific goals. For me this was an important way to conserve energy. I couldn’t play full out in every class, or I’d burn out, so I invested my energy where it mattered most.
In every student’s schedule, some classes are critical while others are almost trivial. In a typical week, I’d usually ditch around 40% of my classes because I just didn’t need to be there. For some classes attendance was necessary, but for others it didn’t make much difference. I could simply get the notes from another student if needed, or I could learn the material from the textbook. If it wasn’t necessary for me to attend a particular class (based on my goals for that class), I usually ditched it. That saved me a lot of time and kept me from having to sit in class all day long. Sometimes I’d just grab some food with friends to give myself an extra break.
I would also triage individual assignments. If I felt an assignment was lame, pointless, or unnecessarily tedious, and if it wouldn’t have too negative an impact on my grade, I would actually decline to do it. One time I was assigned a tedious paper that represented 10% of my grade. I really didn’t want to do it, and it required a lot more hours than I felt it was worth. I was headed for an A in the class, and if I didn’t do this assignment, I’d drop to an A-. So I respectfully told the professor I was declining the assignment and that I thought it was a fair trade to receive an A- in order to reinvest those hours elsewhere. He already knew me and understood my reasons. He gave me an A-, and I was fine with that. It was indeed a fair trade. In fact, looking back I wish I’d done this sort of thing more often.
Sometimes teachers get a little too homework happy and dole out assignments that really don’t justify the effort. You’re in charge of your academic experience though, not your teachers. Don’t feel you must do every assignment just because the teacher feels it’s a good idea. You be the judge in accordance with your own reasons for being there. Just be sure to consider the consequences of your decision.
By stealing time from low priority assignments, I was able to invest more time in the real gems. Some creative assignments taught me a great deal. I usually hated group projects with a passion, but there was one particular group project where the team really gelled. I enjoyed it tremendously and learned a lot from it.
A cool triage technique I used was timeboxing. I would decide how much time an assignment warranted, and then I’d do the best job I could within the allotted time. So if I had to write a 10-page research page on European history, I might devote 8 hours to it total. I’d slice up the 8 hours into topic selection, planning, library research, outlining, writing, and editing, and then I’d do my best to stay within those times. This was a great way to keep me from overengineering an assignment that didn’t need it.
In a way this was my own method of academic load balancing. Some of your assignments will be unbalanced in the sense that they seem to require an unreasonable amount of effort compared to how much of your grade they represent or how much you expect to benefit from completing them. Sometimes I would decide that the effort to write an A-paper just wasn’t warranted. Maybe I’d estimate it would take me 20 hours to do an A job but only 10 hours to do a B job. And if the assignment was only 10% of my grade, perhaps I could accept a B there. I often thought in this Machiavellian fashion back then, and often to my surprise I found that my B-quality papers would come back with As anyway.
. . .