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College Survival Secrets

June 11, 2012
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‘I hate studying – Io odio studiare’ by Stefano Pertusati via Flickr.com

Note: The best way to learn how to ride a horse is to ride a horse.  Riding Lessons share what I have learned about college from being in college.

There is one thing college students never seem to have enough of.  No, it’s not beer.  Or sex.  Or even money.  It’s time.  There’s never enough time to go to all your classes, read all your assignments, write all your papers, work two jobs, participate in clubs and activities, hang out with your friends, do your laundry, buy groceries, talk to your family, sleep, and still maintain some semblance of sanity.  How in the world are we expected to be able to do all this and somehow act like functional aduslts?  At least, that’s what it feels like.  But it is possible.  I can testify.  I can’t tell you what other people do it, but here’s how I manage.

Sleep.  No, I’m not kidding.  I ruthlessly enforce a strict anti-all-nighter policy.  Eight hours of sleep each night, ten on the weekends, and leaving rooms for the occassional naps ensure may brain works when I need it to – and works well.  Sleep and a B is preferable to an A any day of the week.  No paper written during your 36th waking hour and eighth cup of coffee will ever be worth an A.  You’ll just have to redo it tomorrow.

Now you’re probably wondering, “But how do I manage to get everything done without staying up late?”  There are secrets to that as well.

Never write a second draft.  Instead, write while you research.  First, compile your research materials. Skim the abstracts and introductions very briefly, but don’t read them until you feel you have enough material to make your argument.  When you do sit down to read, do it in front of your computer.  Open a file and start an outline.  When you find something important, don’t just underline it in the book, write it down – now – in the computer.  Paraphrase (use your own words) as much as possible, quote with quotation marks when necessary, write in complete sentences, and footnote! Like this:

  1. Kriger and Seng’s “meta-contingency theory of leadership” states that four things influence the behavior of leaders:
    1. The leader’s ability to observe changes, often subtle, in her context.
    2. The leader’s ability to observe subtle changes within herself or “her inner world” of thoughts, feelings, intuitions, and imaginations.
    3. The leader’s aspiration “to transcend the duality of ‘self’ and ‘other’ (to ‘self-actualize’…”
    4. The leader’s “deep wish to serve others to eliminate or decrease human suffering.” (Kriger and Seng, p.771-2) , <– [This would be a footnote in a Word document.]

This outline is going to turn into your paper.  When you’ve added all your research from all your sources (in the course of reading, you’ll have inevitably found a few more), save this outline as a different document.  Arrange your facts in the order you need to present them by dragging and dropping.  Your footnotes will move automatically with the text.  Delete what you don’t need. (For me, this is usually around half of the outline.)  Then, highlight everything and turn off the outline.  Viola!  You have two-thirds of your paper already done.  Now all that’s left is to write the introduction, conclusion, and transitions between sections.  Using this process, you will never write drafts again.  You will just write your paper once and call it good.

This doesn’t mean you don’t need to proofread and have your friends proofread.  You do!  Always have as many people proof your paper as possible, and not just for spelling or grammar.  Make sure your thesis is adequately supported and your arguments are sound.  Try to have someone with more subject matter knowledge than yourself read it, such as an older student, teacher’s assistant, or your professor.  (Warning: Sometimes having a different professor read it can be more trouble than it’s worth as professors often have very different opinions as to what constitutes a good paper.  They shouldn’t, but they do.  Try to follow the guidance of this class’s professor and don’t get caught between conflicting academic standards.)

Enjoy alcohol.  Okay, this may seem counterintuitive, but I promise there’s a point in here. Alcohol is a luxury to be properly savored in the company of friends.  Whether you prefer a good beer, a good cocktail, some fine Irish whiskey, or the most snobbish glass of wine, it’s not something to just slam back and forget.  In the words of G.K Chesterton, “Drink because you are happy, but never because you are miserable.”  Alcohol is a celebration, not an escape, and when treated as such becomes much, much more enjoyable!

This perspective means alcohol is something to respect.  When you respect it and truly enjoy it, moderation becomes the key to enjoyment.  Because the truth is this – alcohol is expensive!  Both in terms of money and time.  [Insert parental lecture about thrift and avoiding stupidity here.]  This theory applies to almost any other “vice” you care to name: shopping, gaming, soap operas, etc.  Learn to want little and you’ll be satisfied much.

Say Yes.  Having a life and interests outside of class will keep you sane.  Become involved in student groups, activities, and events.  You don’t have to be an organizer or club president.  Whatever you’re involved in doesn’t even have to be formal.  It could be a loose group of friends who like to play pool on Saturdays or part of a national organization advocating anti-human trafficking laws.  Either way, find something and then just commit to show up.

For me, the best parts of college is not the time I spend in class or the projects I work on.  It’s being part of student government and the student newspaper.  What I learned during those experiences was more useful than an entire year of regular classes.  And now, those are the skills I use most in both my life and work.  When it comes right down to it, social skills will do more for you in the long run than structural trigonometry or formational theology.  Whatever you’re doing, you’re doing it for and with other people.

Learning is about more than cognition, more than thinking and knowledge.  The affective, or emotional, side of the learning environment is equally important.  The time spent on “extra” curricular activities made me happy and because I was happy, I was able to show up to class and get more out of it.  The stress and uncertainty of my academic life was balanced by something that made me feel worthwhile and fullfilled.  Don’t let yourself be fooled into thinking stress is all there is to college.  Go out there and find what makes you happy, then do it.  Who knows, it might even lead your college career into an entirely different and much more satisfying direction.  Mine did.

Say No.  Now, if you’re at all like me, you may find there are many interesting things to become involved with at college, few of which actually contribute to your ability to graduate and ever leave college (though they will have something to do with your success afterward).  That’s why you must learn to say “No, I can’t help you trap and spay feral cats.  I need to focus on my studies right now.”  When you can help, don’t give a vague “Yes, maybe a little,” say specifically, “I can be there from one to four, but than I have to leave for class.”  Don’t let people expect more than you can give or guilt trip you into giving more than you can afford.

My classmates came up with a little saying: N.O. means “Nirvana Opportunity.”  Sometime we fall into the trap of saying yes because we want to feel good about ourselves.  We’ve built our identity around being helpful.  When we start to say yes because maintaining that identity is more important than actually helping someone else, its time to start saying no.  We’re not turning down someone else – we’re turning down ourselves and our own ego’s demands for gratification.  Learn how to say no early and when to say yes – it will save you from a lot of grief in work and in relationships, even with those you most cherish.

Ask for help.  This is my last bit of advice.  When you feel overwhelmed (not if), ask for help.  Seek our your classmates, professors, upperclassmen, staff, tutors, family, and friends.  Asking for help is something we should do regularly, not as a tactic of last resort.  It’s good to be able to rely on ourselves and act independently, but humans are social creatures evolved to live in mutually supportive groups.  Find your group.  Build it if you have to.

After years of near-isolation I have finally found my group.  It has enhanced my life in areas I didn’t even know it was deficient.  We lend each other books, buy each other lunch, run each other’s errands, share each others stresses and cares.  It creates stability and security in my life emotionally, mentally, and physically.  The generosity of those who help creates a reciprocal feeling of wealth and gratitude in me.  If feels good to receive and good to give back.  The social network is enhanced.  Trust me on this one: don’t be shy and don’t feel guilty for an inability to do it all on your own.  We’re not actually supposed to.

So that’s all.  That’s how I’ve survived fourteen years of college and (almost) four degree programs.  This is what will keep me healthy through my doctoral studies and into my future teaching career.  Six simple things: sleep, never write a second draft, enjoy alcohol, say yes, say no, and ask for help.  C’mon, even a freshman could remember that!

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