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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?

    More by this author

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    Last Updated on September 18, 2019

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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    Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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    Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More About Note-Taking

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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