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Advice for Students: 11+ Ways to Make this Your Best Semester Yet

Advice for Students: 11+ Ways to Make this Your Best Semester Yet
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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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?).

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    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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    Last Updated on January 13, 2020

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to Make a Reminder Works for You

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

    More on Building Habits

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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