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College 401: Tips for Advanced Students

College 401: Tips for Advanced Students

College 401: Tips for Advanced Students

    It’s hard to believe, but the Spring semester is upon many of us already – I have colleagues who are already 3 days into the semester, and my own classes start back in just a few days. Outside the US, students are still working on their Fall terms, but they’ll be starting Spring soon enough, too.

    At the beginning of the school year, I posted a list of tips for first-year students; with the new semester getting underway, I want to turn my attention to upper-division students, the third- and fourth-year students who have gotten their “sea legs” and begun the advanced coursework that will make up their majors.

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    If you’re a junior or senior, by now you should have mastered basic stuff like citing references correctly, using evidence to support a thesis, and taking effective notes in class. That was “general education”; the work you’ll be doing over the next year or two is intended to immerse you intensely in the ideas, findings, and ways of looking at the world that make up a particular academic discipline.

    Success in upper-division courses depends not so much on your mastery of basic skills or even of the material in your courses, but on what you can make of that material using those skills. While you’re not expected to make significant contributions to the disciplinary body of knowledge – that’s what graduate school, and graduate research, is for – you are expected to be able to apply what is already understood in the discipline to the world you live in.

    While to some degree your approach to these years will be dictated by your plans after graduation – do you plan to continue studying in grad school? Or maybe you want to get into the workforce right away? Or teach? – the following tips should apply regardless of your future plans. Even if, as many others in your place are, you don’t have a clue what your future plans are.

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    1. Reuse research.

    You CANNOT reuse papers. Period. That’s plagiarism, even though you’re plagiarizing yourself. What you CAN do, though, is reuse the research you did last semester for your Psychology of Marriage and Family course in this semester’s Sociology of Social Change course. When thinking about term paper topics, consider work you’ve already done in other courses and how that research might be useful. By building papers each semester on research you did previously, you’ll develop a strong expertise on that topic (useful should you decide to go to graduate school) while also making your research more efficient – you’ll most likely still have to hit the library each semester, but you’ll know where to go, what to look for, and what you can ignore when you do.

    This applies within courses as well. Use smaller assignments early in the semester to lay the groundwork for your big assignments due at the end of the semester. Ideally, you can develop big chunks of your term paper well before you sit down to actually write the thing.

    2. Subscribe to disciplinary lists.

    Every academic discipline has at least two or three established email lists or discussion boards where professionals in that field discuss the latest research, current events from their disciplinary perspectives, and theoretical disputes. While some are closed to non-professionals, most will accept students in the discipline, and many are open to anyone. Google “[YOUR MAJOR] discussion list” to find a few in your major and join them to get an idea of how people ion your field talk about things, the language they use, and the topics that are being worked on at the moment.

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    3. Build relationships with professors.

    If you haven’t already, now is the time to really focus on getting to know your professors – and on getting them to know you. You’ll be asking for references, recommendation letters, and graduate school advice pretty soon – don’t make the time you ask the first time you’ve ever spoken with a professor outside of class.

    4. Write for publication.

    I don’t mean you should publish what you write – you probably shouldn’t. But now’s the time to start thinking about communicating with an audience wider than your professors. And an effective way to do that is to write as if you were writing something you expected to be published in either an academic journal (which is also a good way to get used to writing in the style of work in your discipline) or a serious mainstream magazine like Atlantic Monthly (which is a good way to start thinking about how to keep a reader engaged).

    5. Get critical.

    Now is the time to unleash the critical thinking skills your under-class professors worked so hard to instill in you. It no longer matters that you simply understand what a piece means, you need to understand how it works – and how it doesn’t work. This isn’t about uncovering biases in the work (which is the poor person’s critique) but about uncovering flaws – and strengths – in the thinking that informs the work. You need to crawl up inside the material you’re reading and see how it works, and what the greater implications of the piece are.

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    6. Learn to skim.

    The more advanced the class, the heavier the reading load. Learn to identify and focus on the most relevant parts of a book or essay, so you can quickly get the most out of your reading. Try the tips in my post How to Read Like a Scholar or, if you’re ambitious, teach yourself to speed read.

    7. Feed your passion.

    Hopefully, you settled on your current major because it excites you in some way. You probably looked for courses that seemed exciting too. Build on that passion by developing term paper topics that excite you – and if the professor’s assignments don’t seem to leave open the possibility of feeding your passion, go see the professor and see if you can’t develop an assignment that does. Many professors are surprisingly open to suggestions from students who are clearly passionate about their subject – if nothing else, it shows initiative. And read up on the things that excite you outside of class.

    8. Be a good writer.

    If you graduate knowing NOTHING ELSE besides how to write well, you’ll be ahead of the game. If you aren’t, now’s the time to – as Gary Vaynerchuk might say – crush it! Hit your college’s writing center, check out books on writing from the library, enroll in advanced writing classes, take writing workshops in your school’s adult extension, join or form a writing circle in your department, do whatever it takes to become a strong writer. If you already are a good writer… become a better one.

    This is your time, students – make good use of it! Unless you continue to graduate school, chances are you’ll never again be able to immerse yourself so fully and so exclusively in the topics that interest you the most.

    Got any other tips for our upper-division college readers? Share your advice in the comments.

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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.

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    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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