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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 November 12, 2020

    5 Reasons Why Being a Perfectionist May Not Be So Perfect

    5 Reasons Why Being a Perfectionist May Not Be So Perfect

    As a perfectionist, do you spend a lot of time “perfecting” your work so that everything comes out the way you want it to?

    I believe many of us are perfectionists in our own right. We set high bars for ourselves and put our best foot forward to achieve them. We dedicate copious amounts of attention and time to our work to maintain our high personal standards. Our passion for excellence drives us to run the extra mile, never stopping, never relenting.

    Dedication towards perfection undoubtedly helps us to achieve great results. Yet, there is a hidden flip side to being perfectionists that we may not be aware of. Sure, being a perfectionist and having a keen eye for details help us improve and reach our goals. 

    However, as ironic as it might sound, a high level of perfectionism prevents us from being our best as we begin to set unrealistic standards and let the fear of failure hold us back.

    Below, we’ll go over some of the reasons why being a perfectionist may not be so perfect and how it can inhibit you from being the best version of yourself.

    Why Perfectionism Isn’t So Perfect?

    1. Less Efficiency

    As a perfectionist, even when you are done with a task, you linger to find new things to improve on. This lingering process starts off as 10 minutes, then extends to 30 minutes, then to an hour, and more. We spend way more time on a task than is actually required.

    In order to be truly efficient, we need to strike a balance between the best we could possibly do and the level of “good” a specific project requires. No one will expect perfection from you because it will ultimately be impossible to attain. Do the best you can in a reasonable time frame, and allow yourself to put it into the world.

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    2. Less Effectiveness

    We do little things because they seem like a “good addition” without consciously thinking about whether they’re really necessary. Sometimes, not only do the additions add no value, but they might even ruin things.

    For example, over-cluttering a presentation with unneeded details can make it confusing for listeners. Jam-packing a blog layout with too many add-ons can make it less user friendly. Sometimes, consistency is key, and if you continuously change things, this will become much more difficult.

    3. More Procrastination

    Our desire to “perfect” everything makes us overcomplicate a project. What’s actually a simple task may get blown out of proportion to the extent that it becomes subconsciously intimidating. This makes us procrastinate on it, waiting for the ever “perfect” moment before we get to it. This “perfect” moment never strikes until it is too late.

    Instead of overthinking it, set small objectives if you have a big project ahead of you. This will help you tackle it step-by-step and complete it before the deadline.

    If you need help tackling procrastination, check out this article.

    4. Missing the Bigger Picture

    As a perfectionist, you get so hung up on details that you forget about the bigger picture and the end vision. It’s not uncommon to see better jobs done in pruning the trees than growing the forest.

    Take a step back and remind yourself of your end goal. Try setting a timeline to help yourself stick to the work that needs to be done without ruminating on things that could be improved.

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    5. Stressing Over Unfounded Problems

    We anticipate problems before they crop up, and come up with solutions to address these problems. It becomes an obsession to pre-empt problems. As it turns out, most of these problems either never surface or don’t matter that much.

    When Perfectionism Becomes a Problem

    The problem isn’t perfectionism specifically. Perfectionism helps us to continuously strive for excellence and become better, so it can really be a good thing.The problem is when setting high standards turns into an obsession, so much so that the perfectionist becomes neurotic over gaining “perfection” and refuses to accept anything less than perfect. In the process, s/he misses the whole point altogether and does damage to their mental health. Such perfectionists can be known as “maladaptive perfectionists.”[1] Maladaptive perfectionists spend so much time setting high expectations and striving for perfection that they increase levels of depression and anxiety. 

    Diagram showing how a healthy perfectionist and a maladaptive perfectionist respond to failure.

      The answer isn’t to stop being a perfectionist or high achiever. It’s to be conscious of our perfectionist tendencies and manage them accordingly. We want to be healthy perfectionists who are truly achieving personal excellence, not maladaptive perfectionists who are sabotaging our own personal growth efforts[2].

      How to Be a Healthy Perfectionist

      1. Draw a Line

      We have the 80/20 rule, where 80% of output can be achieved in 20% of time spent. We can spend all our time getting the 100% in, or we can draw the line where we get majority of the output, and start on a new project.

      Obsessing over details is draining and tedious, and it doesn’t help us accomplish much. I used to review a blog post 3-4 times before I published. All the reviewing only amounted to subtle changes in phrasing and the occasional typos. It was extremely ineffective, so now I scan it once or twice and publish it.

      2. Be Conscious of Trade-offs

      When we spend time and energy on something, we deny ourselves the opportunity to spend the same time and energy on something else. There are tons of things we can do, and we need to be aware of the trade-offs involved, so we can better draw a line.

      For example, if some unimportant blog admin work takes an hour, that’s an hour I could spend on content creation or blog promotion. Being conscious of this helps me make a better choice on how to spend my time.

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      3. Get a View of the Big Picture

      What is the end objective? What is the desired output? Is what you are doing leading you to the overall vision?

      As a perfectionist, to make sure my attention is set on the end point, I have a monthly and weekly goal sheet my blog that keeps me on track. Every day, I refer to it to make sure what I’m doing contributes to the weekly goals, and ultimately the monthly goals to keep me on track.

      4. Focus on Big Rocks

      Big rocks are the important, high impact activities. Ask yourself if what you are doing makes any real impact. If not, stop working on it.

      If it’s a small yes, deprioritize, delegate it to someone else, or get it done quickly. Seek out high impact tasks and spend time on them instead. Knowing the big picture helps you know the big rocks that contribute to the end goal.

      5. Set a Time Limit

      Parkinson’s Law

      tells us work will take however long we want it to take. If you give yourself 4 hours, you will finish it in 4 hours. If you give yourself 3 hours, you will finish within 3 hours. If you don’t give yourself any time limit, you will take forever to do it.

      Set the time limit and finish the task by then. There can be a million things you can do to improve it, but you have to draw the line somewhere.

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      6. Be Okay With Mistakes

      Part of the reason why a perfectionist obsesses over their work is because they want it to be mistake-free. However, trying to achieve 100% perfection is highly ineffective. If we’re busy perfecting this thing, we can’t get to other important things.

      Realize that making mistakes is a trade off we have to embrace. The more we open ourselves to making mistakes, the faster we can get down to learning from them, and the quicker we can grow.

      7. Realize Concerns Usually Amount to Nothing

      It’s good to plan and prepare, but there comes a time when we should let things roll and deal with problems as they crop up. Being overly preemptive makes us live in an imaginary future versus in the present.

      This doesn’t mean you don’t care. What it means that most of the things that do crop up can always be controlled on the spot, without worrying about them beforehand.

      8. Take Breaks

      If your productivity is waning, take a break. Resting and coming back to the same thing later on gives you a renewed perspective and fresh focus.

      The Bottom Line

      Perfectionism doesn’t have to be the enemy. If you’re a perfectionist, you can use it to help you be better at what you love to do. However, there’s a time and a place for it, and it’s important to learn strategies to start overcoming perfectionism when it becomes an obsession.

      Instead of doing work perfectly, do your best and move on. This will help you go farther, faster.

      More on Being Your Best

      Featured photo credit: Elsa T. via unsplash.com

      Reference

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