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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 July 8, 2020

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

    This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

    Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

    When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

    This is why setting priorities is so important.

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    3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

    There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

    1. Eat a Frog

    There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

    Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

    When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

    2. Move Big Rocks

    Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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    You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

    If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

    For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

    To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

    In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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    3. Covey Quadrants

    If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

    Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

    1. Important and Urgent
    2. Important and Not Urgent
    3. Not Important but Urgent
    4. Not Important and Not Urgent

      The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

      Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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      You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

      Getting to Know You

      Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

      In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

      These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

      More Tips for Effective Prioritization

      Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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