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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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    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    No!

    It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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    But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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    What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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    But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

    1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
    2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
    3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
    4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
    5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
    6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
    7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
    8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
    9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
    10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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