Make this Your Best Semester Yet

Right about now, America’s students are heading back to school for the Fall semester. Last week, I gave some very specific advice about using a wiki to store and organize notes, but keeping good notes is just part of being a successful student. Over the weekend, I decided to offer up some more general, all-purpose advice for students. Whether you’re just starting college or returning, the tips below will help you make the most out of the coming school year.

  1. Get organized! Pretty self-explanatory, that one. But here’s a few things you an do to make that vague advice a little more practical:
    • Write everything down. Get a Moleskine notebook and a packet of Post-It “Durable Tabs”. Divide the notebook into sections for your todo list, projects (stuff that takes more than a step or two to finish, e.g. research papers, club activities, etc.), and notes. Stick that and a nice pen or mechanical pencil in your pocket, purse, or backpack. Carry it everywhere. Use it. Religiously. Write down assignments, appointments, trips to the library, shopping lists, phone numbers, classroom numbers, everything and anything that crosses your mind. I keep todos on the right-hand page and notes on the back of the left-hand page. Or figure out some other system — use index cards, a DayPlanner, a PDA, whatever works, but use it.
    • Review your lists regularly. Weekly, if you can. Bring your todo list up to date. Write down your upcoming deadlines. Copy your notes into a OneNote or EverNote file on your computer. Transfer email addresses and phone numbers into whatever software you use for contacts. Make sure you haven’t forgotten anything important, and brainstorm your ideas for the coming week.
    • Have an inbox. Pick a place in your dorm room or apartment or wherever you end up living and put all your new stuff (assignments, papers, books, things you bought at the store) there. Go through it every day and put everything where it belongs — into your todo list, in a desktop file box, into whatever drawer or closet it belongs in.

    Organized doesn’t necessarily mean “clean”, just keep a general system so you know that what you need is somewhere you can fin it. Remember that you need ideas, too — write them down and keep them safe!

  2. Know your professor. Check out your professors’ bios on their departments’ websites. Google their names. (Use “firstname lastname” in quotes, then try “lastname, firstname”, also in quotes. Try with and without their middle initial, if you know it.) Look them up in whatever research databases your school’s library makes available to you. Look them up on Amazon. Pop in for a chat during their office hours. You don’t have to get creepy — don’t go through their garbage or anything like that. Just find out something about their work, what their research interests are, what sort of stuff they’ve written, what their teaching philosophy is (many profs post that kind of stuff). Find out where your interests intersect with theirs, and what they have to offer you that might be outside the scope of whatever class you’re taking.
  3. Find a mentor. Seek out someone (or more than one, if you can) whose success as an academic, researcher, administrator, business person, artist, or writer inspires you. This may be a professor, but may well be someone outside the university altogether, too. Contact them. Tell them who you are and ask if you can meet with them some time. Offer to buy them a cup of coffee. Tell them why you admire them or their work, and ask if they have any advice for you. Offer our services as an intern or employee. Build a lasting relationship. You may well find a lot of jerks this way — stop admiring those people so much. Move on.
  4. Visit the writing center. Or whatever other tutoring resources your school offers. Sign up for a writing workshop or study group. Take some flyers. Regardless of how well you think you write, you can always write better. Skilled writers are rare and in high demand — become one. Use whatever resources are at your disposal, including your school’s writing center. They’ll be more than glad to see you!
  5. Join something. Join a club or sports team, a gaming group or a knitting circle. Join the theater group, or sign up to hand out environmental flyers in the student union. Nominate yourself (or ask someone to nominate you) for class president, or treasurer of whatever student group interests you. Check if your school offers a service learning program, and sign up. Volunteer. Develop leadership qualities by leading. Connect with as many people as you can, both because it’s smart networking and because it’s damn good fun. And you might change the world.
  6. Speak up. Maybe you were shy in high school. I was. Stop that. When the professor asks a question, raise your hand — regardless of whether you know the answer or not. Give speeches in the student union or on the quad during lunch time. Step forward whenever the opportunity arises. Give presentations in class, even if there’s an alternate assignment. Join Toastmasters. Become a self-confident and able speaker.
  7. Read for pleasure. No, seriously. This means two things: 1) learn to find pleasure in the reading you’re assigned, and 2) read stuff that isn’t assigned. Pick a topic that interests you and check out a book a week from the library. Read 10 novels this semester. Read literary magazines. Subscribe to RSS feeds, print out stories, and stuff them in your backpack for the random quiet moments that happen between classes, during meals, standing on line, or waiting for an appointment with a professor. Cultivate a thirst for knowledge above and beyond the subject matter of your classes.
  8. Set goals. What do you hope to accomplish this semester? Forget about grades — grades are bunk. What is it that would satisfy you, as a person, if you achieve it this semester? What do you hope to get out of your classes? Make a list of goals, both short-term (this month, this semester, this class, before Thanksgiving, etc.) and long-term (during college, over the next year, within the next five years, etc.). Look at what you’re doing with your time; is it helping you reach those goals? Is it detracting from them? Of course, not everything has to contribute to helping you reach your goals for your life at 50, but if too much of what you do today seems to be at odds with where you want to be tomorrow, it’s time to re-examine either your goals or your actions.
  9. Start something. Write a play or a novel. Organize a theater group or a weekly movie night. Curate an exhibition of your friends’ art work in the library’s lobby, or start a musical group and hit open-mike nights. If your school doesn’t have one, start a humor magazine; if it does have one, start a better one. Put together a rally at the book store opposing the use of sweatshop labor in school logo sweatshirts. Start a business delivering late-night snacks during study weeks.
  10. Fail. While I realize you are firmly under the thumb of the tyranny of grades, and would not advise jeopardizing your GPA if you can help it, a little failure is often the best lesson you can learn, at school or elsewhere. Go out for activities you have no talent for, or that frighten you. Undertake Quixotic missions of protest against the administration, the school’s catering contractor, or the city government. Rally behind an unpopular candidate, whether for class secretary or for US Senator. Ask out a student that’s way out of your league. Apply for a job you have no qualifications for — without irony. Push yourself to do things that are well beyond your comfort level, if for no other reason than to assess the distance you’d have to cover to succeed at them.
  11. Find balance. When mid-terms are done, have a drink (assuming that’s legal). Call home. Hang out. Play guitar. Schedule goofing off time, if you have to — you’re not only earning the right to waste time, but you need to if you’re to be at all successful. Remember, you’re here to grow as a person, and that means doing things that are personally satisfying even if they don’t come with a grade, paycheck, or certificate attached. Figure out now how to balance work and play, because it’s going to be easier now than when you’ve got bills up to your backside, screaming kids, and a micro-managing boss looking over your shoulder.

Bonus tip: Keep reading lifehack.org for advice and tips throughout the school year.

Bonus tip two: Know yourself. Learn your strengths and apply them. Learn your weaknesses and overcome them. College offers a unique time in your life when you can focus exclusively on self-improvement and personal development. Take advantage of it.

Obviously you won’t want to do every single thing I’ve mentioned here, but use these tips as a guide to build relationships, skills, and self-awareness, ostensibly the things you’re in school for (well, that and the beer, but I think you know where to find that already, right?).

What advice do you have for the students of 2007-8? If you’re in school, what have you figured out that works for you? If you’re out of school, what did you come up with to make your college years as productive as possible? And what are the problems and challenges facing today’s students? What secret do you wish someone would just come out and say, already?

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