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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 March 31, 2020

    Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

    Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

    Procrastination is very literally the opposite of productivity. To produce something is to pull it forward, while to procrastinate is to push it forward — to tomorrow, to next week, or ultimately to never.

    Procrastination fills us with shame — we curse ourselves for our laziness, our inability to focus on the task at hand, our tendency to be easily led into easier and more immediate gratifications. And with good reason: for the most part, time spent procrastinating is time spent not doing things that are, in some way or other, important to us.

    There is a positive side to procrastination, but it’s important not to confuse procrastination at its best with everyday garden-variety procrastination.

    Sometimes — sometimes! — procrastination gives us the time we need to sort through a thorny issue or to generate ideas. In those rare instances, we should embrace procrastination — even as we push it away the rest of the time.

    Why We Procrastinate After All?

    We procrastinate for a number of reasons, some better than others. One reason we procrastinate is that, while we know what we want to do, we need time to let the ideas “ferment” before we are ready to sit down and put them into action.

    Some might call this “creative faffing”; I call it, following copywriter Ray Del Savio’s lead, “concepting”.[1]

    Whatever you choose to call it, it’s the time spent dreaming up what you want to say or do, weighing ideas in your mind, following false leads and tearing off on mental wild goose chases, and generally thinking things through.

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    To the outside observer, concepting looks like… well, like nothing much at all. Maybe you’re leaning back in your chair, feet up, staring at the wall or ceiling, or laying in bed apparently dozing, or looking out over the skyline or feeding pigeons in the park or fiddling with the Japanese vinyl toys that stand watch over your desk.

    If ideas are the lifeblood of your work, you have to make time for concepting, and you have to overcome the sensation— often overpowering in our work-obsessed culture — that faffing, however creative, is not work.

    Is Procrastination Bad?

    Yes it is.

    Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’re “concepting” when in fact you’re just not sure what you’re supposed to be doing.

    Spending an hour staring at the wall while thinking up the perfect tagline for a marketing campaign is creative faffing; staring at the wall for an hour because you don’t know how to come up with a tagline, or don’t know the product you’re marketing well enough to come up with one, is just wasting time.

    Lack of definition is perhaps the biggest friend of your procrastination demons. When we’re not sure what to do — whether because we haven’t planned thoroughly enough, we haven’t specified the scope of what we hope to accomplish in the immediate present, or we lack important information, skills, or resources to get the job done.

    It’s easy to get distracted or to trick ourselves into spinning our wheels doing nothing. It takes our mind off the uncomfortable sensation of failing to make progress on something important.

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    The answer to this is in planning and scheduling. Rather than giving yourself an unspecified length of time to perform an unspecified task (“Let’s see, I guess I’ll work on that spreadsheet for a while”) give yourself a limited amount of time to work on a clearly defined task (“Now I’ll enter the figures from last months sales report into the spreadsheet for an hour”).

    Giving yourself a deadline, even an artificial one, helps build a sense of urgency and also offers the promise of time to “screw around” later, once more important things are done.

    For larger projects, planning plays a huge role in whether or not you’ll spend too much time procrastinating to reach the end reasonably quickly.

    A good plan not only lists the steps you have to take to reach the end, but takes into account the resources, knowledge and inputs from other people you’re going to need to perform those steps.

    Instead of futzing around doing nothing because you don’t have last month’s sales report, getting the report should be a step in the project.

    Otherwise, you’ll spend time cooling your heels, justifying your lack of action as necessary: you aren’t wasting time because you want to, but because you have to.

    How Bad Procrastination Can Be

    Our mind can often trick us into procrastinating, often to the point that we don’t realize we’re procrastinating at all.

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    After all, we have lots and lots of things to do; if we’re working on something, aren’t we being productive – even if the one big thing we need to work on doesn’t get done?

    One way this plays out is that we scan our to-do list, skipping over the big challenging projects in favor of the short, easy projects. At the end of the day, we feel very productive: we’ve crossed twelve things off our list!

    That big project we didn’t work on gets put onto the next day’s list, and when the same thing happens, it gets moved forward again. And again.

    Big tasks often present us with the problem above – we aren’t sure what to do exactly, so we look for other ways to occupy ourselves.

    In many cases too, big tasks aren’t really tasks at all; they’re aggregates of many smaller tasks. If something’s sitting on your list for a long time, each day getting skipped over in favor of more immediately doable tasks, it’s probably not very well thought out.

    You’re actively resisting it because you don’t really know what it is. Try to break it down into a set of small tasks, something more like the tasks you are doing in place of the one big task you aren’t doing.

    More consequences of procrastination can be found in this article: 8 Dreadful Effects of Procrastination That Can Destroy Your Life

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    Procrastination, a Technical Failure

    Procrastination is, more often than not, a sign of a technical failure, not a moral failure.

    It’s not because we’re bad people that we procrastinate. Most times, procrastination serves as a symptom of something more fundamentally wrong with the tasks we’ve set ourselves.

    It’s important to keep an eye on our procrastinating tendencies, to ask ourselves whenever we notice ourselves pushing things forward what it is about the task we’ve set ourselves that simply isn’t working for us.

    Learn more about how to fix your procrastination problem here: What Is Procrastination and How to Stop It (The Complete Guide)

    Featured photo credit: chuttersnap via unsplash.com

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