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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 9, 2019

    How to Stay Motivated and Reach Your Big Goals in Life

    How to Stay Motivated and Reach Your Big Goals in Life

    It is hardly a secret that the key to successfully accomplishing one goal after another is staying motivated. There are, of course, tasks which successful people may not like at all, yet they find motivation to complete them because they recognize how each particular task serves a greater goal.

    So how to stay motivated most of the time? Here are 5 simple yet effective ways on how to stay motivated and get what you want:

    1. Find the Good Reasons

    Anything you do, no matter how simple, has a number of good reasons behind it.

    You may not be able to find good reasons to do some tasks at first but, if you take just a few moments to analyze them, you will easily spot something good. We also have many tasks which don’t need any reasoning at all – we’ve been doing them for so long that they feel natural.

    If you’re ever stuck with some tasks you hate and there seems to be no motivation to complete it whatsoever, here’s what you need to do: find your good reasons.

    Even when you set goals, there needs to be reasons behind these goals. They may not be obvious, but stay at it until you see some, as this will bring your motivation back and will help you finish the task.

    Some ideas for what a good reason can be:

    • A material reward – quite often, you will get paid for doing something you normally don’t like doing at all.
    • Personal gain – you will learn something new or will perhaps improve yourself in a certain way.
    • A feeling of accomplishment – at least you’ll be able to walk away feeling great about finding the motivation and courage to complete such a tedious task.
    • A step closer to your bigger goal – even the biggest accomplishments in history have started small and relied on simple and far less pleasant tasks than you might be working on. Every task you complete brings you closer to the ultimate goal, and acknowledging this always feels good.

    2. Make It Fun

    When it comes to motivation, attitude is everything. Different people may have completely opposite feelings towards the same task: some will hate it, others will love it.

    Why do you think this happens? It’s simple: some of us find ways to make any task interesting and fun to do!

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    Take sports for example. Visiting your local gym daily for a half-an-hour workout session sounds rather boring to some. Yet many others love the idea!

    They like exercising not only because they recognize the good reasons behind it, but simply because it’s fun! At certain time of their daily schedule, they find going to gym to be the best thing to do, simply because nothing else will fit their time and lifestyle so perfectly.

    Depending on how you look at it, you can have fun doing just about anything! Just look for ways of having fun, and you’ll find them!

    A simple approach is to start working on any task by asking yourself a few questions:

    • How can I enjoy this task?
    • What can I do to make this task fun for myself and possibly for others?
    • How can I make this work the best part of my day?

    As long as you learn to have the definite expectation of any task being potentially enjoyable, you will start to feel motivated.

    Some of you will probably think of a thing or two which are valid exceptions from this statement, like something you always hate doing no matter how hard you try making it fun. You’re probably right, and that’s why I don’t claim everything to be fun.

    However, most tasks have a great potential of being enjoyable, and so looking for ways to have fun while working is definitely a good habit to acquire.

    3. Take a Different Approach

    When something doesn’t feel right, it’s always a good time to take a moment and look for a different approach for the task.

    You may be doing everything correctly and most efficiently, but such approach isn’t necessarily the most motivating one. Quite often, you can find a number of obvious tweaks to your current approach which will both change your experience and open up new possibilities.

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    That’s why saying “one way or another” is so common — if you really want to accomplish your goal, there is always a way; and most likely, there’s more than one way.

    If a certain approach doesn’t work for you, find another one, and keep trying until you find the one which will both keep you motivated and get you the desired results.

    Some people think that trying a different approach means giving up. They take pride in being really stubborn and refusing to try any other options on their way towards the goal.

    My opinion on this is that the power of focus is great, but you should be focusing on your goal, and not limiting your options by focusing on just one way to accomplish it it.

    4. Recognize Your Progress

    Everything you may be working on can be easily split into smaller parts and stages. For most goals, it is quite natural to split the process of accomplishing them into smaller tasks and milestones. There are a few reasons behind doing this, and one of them is tracking your progress.

    We track our progress automatically with most activities. But to stay motivated, you need to recognize your progress, not merely track it.

    Here’s how tracking and recognizing your progress is different:

    Tracking is merely taking a note of having reached a certain stage in your process. Recognizing is taking time to look at a bigger picture and realize where exactly you are, and how much more you have left to do.

    For example, if you’re going to read a book, always start by going through the contents table. Getting familiar with chapter titles and memorizing their total number will make it easier for you to recognize your progress as you read. Confirming how many pages your book has before starting it is also a good idea.

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    You see, reading any book you will be automatically looking at page numbers and chapter titles, but without knowing the total number of pages, this information will have little meaning.

    Somehow, it is human nature to always want things to happen in short term or even at once. Even though we split complex tasks into simpler actions, we don’t quite feel the satisfaction until all is done and the task is fully complete.

    For many scenarios though, the task is so vast that such approach will drain all the motivation out of you long before you have a chance to reach your goal. That’s why it is important to always take small steps and recognize the positive different and progress made. This is how your motivation can sustain in long term.

    5. Reward Yourself

    This is a trick everyone likes: rewarding yourself is always pleasant. This is also one of the easiest and at the same time most powerful ways to stay motivated!

    Feeling down about doing something? Dread the idea of working on some task? Hate the whole idea of working? You’re not alone.

    Right from the beginning, agree on some deliverables which will justify yourself getting rewarded. As soon as you get one of the agreed results, take time to reward yourself in some way.

    For some tasks, just taking a break and relaxing for a few minutes will do.

    For others, you may want to get a fresh cup of coffee and even treat yourself a dessert.

    For even bigger and more demanding tasks, reward yourself by doing something even more enjoyable, like going to a cinema or taking a trip to some place nice, or even buying yourself something.

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    Your progress may not seem to others like anything worth celebrating but, take time and do it anyway! It is your task and your reward, so any ways to stay motivated are good.

    The more you reward yourself for the honestly made progress, the more motivated you will feel about reaching new milestones, thus finally accomplishing your goal.

    Mix and Match

    Now that you have these five ways of staying motivated, it is a good moment to give you the key to them all: mix and match!

    Pick one of the techniques and apply it to your situation. If it doesn’t work, or if you simply want to get more motivated, try another technique right way. Mix different approaches and match them to your task for the best results.

    Just think about it: Finding good reasons to work on your task is bound to helping you feel better; and identifying ways to make it fun will help you enjoy the task even more.

    Or, if you plan a few points for easier tracking of your progress and on top of that, agree on rewarding yourself as you go; this will make you feel most motivated about anything you have to work through.

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    Featured photo credit: Lucas Lenzi via unsplash.com

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