5 Habits I’m glad I picked up in College

In so many ways, college is the time of your life when you have the most freedom and independence and the fewest responsibilities. Much of your time is unstructured, so you have ultimate flexibility in how you choose to organize your life. Sleep between classes and work all night? Sure! Hit the gym at 2pm between classes? Why not? Drink large amounts of coffee until midnight? Go for it–you wanted to write that whole paper tonight anyway!

Some of these choices may seem better than others (see going to the gym vs. reversing your days and nights), and that’s probably true. The best part about college is that because you have lots of flexibility, you can use that to help develop good habits that will follow you into the work world, when the daily grind begins, household responsibilities reappear (or get more intense), and you begin to feel like you just need a few more hours in the day.

Here are five habits that I’m really glad I picked up when I was in college. These are the habits that help keep me on track, happy, and healthy during my whirlwind work days.

1.Getting to the Gym (almost) every day

This is #1 on my list because as a desk jockey (i.e. one who works by sitting at a desk day in and day out), I could very easily not take more than 500 steps in a single day–trust me, I’ve tracked it. When I was in college, I started going to the gym everyday–and I was the kid who always hated gym class. But, belonging to my college’s rec center allowed me to figure out that being active didn’t have to mean playing team sports (which is good because I am terrible at team sports). In addition to weight lifting and using the treadmill as an excuse to watch trashy television, college rec centers usually offer any number of interesting classes, from Zumba to Yoga to spin classes. The best part is that these classes are almost always offered at a reduced rate. Where I went to college, you could actually take these classes for credit! (Seriously, I had friends take bowling and get college credit!). Getting in the habit of hitting the gym during the day while in college helps me today by lowering my stress level and keeping me focused while I work.

2. Using a re-usable water bottle

Drinking water as a habit might sound a bit obvious, but hear me out. When I was in college, I bought a water pitcher with a filter and kept it in my dorm room fridge. The original thought was that I didn’t like the taste of the water from the water fountains or the dorm sink, so this was my solution. Every day, I’d fill my water bottle and bring it with me to class–just in case I got thirsty. This turned into a couple really great habits. First, I started to pay attention to hydration. Too much coffee (or soda, or energy drinks, or really anything with caffeine) will dry you out, which can lead to health problems down the road. Plus, water helps you feel more awake and alert without the twitchy side effects of caffeine. Second, I wasn’t spending as much money on disposable water bottles from vending machines. This left me with more cash to spend on things I really wanted.

3. Using a planner

When I was in college, I had a typical course load (usually about 5 classes per semester), but I also worked at the Honors Office and I was in a ton of extra curricular activities, from the student advisory council for my major to volunteering at my church. My senior year, I was on campus for 14 straight hours on Wednesdays. Keeping all of this straight took some serious planning. I’ve always used a planner, but in college it became a big necessity. Over the four years I was there, I bounced around in terms of planner types from weekly spreads to daily ones, from notebook sized planners to pocket sized. But the point was, I had to have my planner or I was basically up a creek without a paddle. This habit has really served me well as I’ve entered the work world. Using my planner every day helps me keep track of not only the classes I teach or the students I’m meeting with, but also when I need to pay bills, or when I have to attend a big event, like a wedding (because you hit your twenties and it seems like someone gets married every weekend for years).

4. The glory that is sleep

Sleep as a habit might seem counterintuitive. Sometimes, you feel invincible: sleep? who needs sleep? I can stay up all night and it’s not a problem! And sometimes, you feel like if you leave your bed, it might never forgive you. The point is that in college, it’s easy to fall into the trap of inconsistent sleep habits: four hours one night, ten the next, and so on. Getting regular amounts of sleep is key for all kinds of important things, including how your brain processes memory (think about that next time you cram in an all night study session before an exam)! When I was in my senior year of college and trying to be and do enough for 2 full time jobs, I started paying attention to how much sleep I was getting. Spoiler alert–it usually wasn’t enough. I’d push through and then collapse on breaks. This kind of sprint to the finish line and collapse isn’t healthy when you’re in college, but it’s impossible once you graduate and breaks disappear. Today, I track my sleep using a fitbit, and I can always see a difference when I haven’t gotten enough sleep.

5. Learned how to cook

I moved off campus and into an apartment my senior year. Instead of eating out some (or most) meals, I spent time cooking. That year, on one of those awfully long Wednesdays, I learned that cooking at home was saving me some major cash. In one of my classes, the students were comparing how much they had to budget on food each week. I was shocked. They were spending in one week what I was spending on food for the entire month. Cooking meals at home was a habit that I developed that has been super helpful since starting work. For one thing, I am still saving money, which is fantastic. For another, eating at home is way healthier than eating out. To make cooking at home during busy times something that was feasible, I’d batch cook and freeze individual meals–basically creating my own lean cuisines (except mine had a lot more substance and flavor). Over time, I’ve refined this habit. I still batch cook (or meal prep) all my lunches for the week on Sundays. It takes me about an hour, and costs me pennies compared to what I’d have to pay if I ate out. Plus, the food tastes better and it’s fun to experiment with new recipes.

Do you have any good habits you’ve developed since starting college? Share in the comments below!

Writing Good Exam Responses

It’s nearly midterm season at my university. My students have all gotten their study guides and are busy preparing to sit for exams before they can flee the classroom for a well deserved fall break.

The perennial question that arises this time of year is what is a “good” exam response? What every student really wants to know is how to get that elusive and mysterious A on their test. Here are some basic tips and tricks for how to make sure that your exam answers are A+ material.

  1. Identify what the question is asking you.
  2. Answer the Question–no really!
  3. Prepare well, Write well and Use your time well

Recall Questions

Some questions will ask you to recall information. These types of questions usually start with the words who, what, where, or when. Recall questions are designed to test how well you comprehended the material you’ve been working on all semester. The professor wants to know how well you paid attention during lecture, whether or not you did the readings, and how well you understood what you heard/read.

Answering a recall question is relatively straight forward. Make sure that you provide a full accounting of the information that you are being asked. For example, if you are being asked about the three characteristics of a particular concept, like Democracy, make sure that you cover all three characteristics in your answer. It is also important to define the class vocabulary that you use. If you just use a buzzword from class, you aren’t letting the professor know that you know what it means.

Argument Questions

Another common type of question will ask you to make an argument. These types of questions will typically start with the words why, how, or the phrase under what conditions. Argument questions want you to take a side in a particular debate, and they test to see how well you can defend a particular position within this debate. For these types of questions, the professor wants to know two things. First, they want to know if you understood the two sides of the debate. Second, they want to see how well you can think through the arguments and counterarguments for each side of the debate.

Answering an argument question is pretty easy, once you know the formula to apply, so here it is. (1) Take a side. You MUST pick a side in the debate. If you don’t pick a side, you cannot make an argument. (2) Support your side using evidence. Why is the side you picked a good or reasonable answer to the question? You need to be able to answer this question in order to write a good exam answer for this type of question. (3) Acknowledge the other side of the debate. Here, you want to tell the reader what the other side thinks, and why they think that’s a good answer to the question. (4) Explain why your side is the better answer. In this section, you want to provide a counterargument for the other side, and reaffirm the side of the debate you picked. This really brings your argument home. And there it is: follow these steps and you’ve got yourself a strong “argument” question.

Application Questions

A final common type of question will ask you to apply the information you learned in class to a particular case or scenario. These types of questions will be about a particular event or refer to a specific case. Application questions often seem to be the most “out of left field” questions on tests, usually because students assume that these questions are asking them about an event/case that they didn’t study, so mid-exam panic ensues. The key to answering an application question is to figure out what information you are being asked to apply, and then to analyze the event using that information. For these questions, the professor is looking to see how well you can take the information you learned in class and use it to analyze and interpret it.

Like the recall question, to write a good response for an application question, you need to fully outline the information you are being asked to apply. Make sure you define any key terms that you use, fully outline the concepts, characteristics, steps, etc. of the information you are being asked to apply. Second, make sure that how you are applying the question is clear. Don’t make the mistake of trailing off on unimportant details about the case you are applying it to–use those details only as they are pertinent to how you are applying the information.

Prepare Well, Write Well, and Use your Time Well

Like any exam, midterms–especially essay exams, require good preparation. If you were given a study guide, put it to use. Make sure you understand how the test will be structured and graded ahead of time. And, organize your notes and readings so that you have all the information you need to study.

On the exam itself, make sure that you write well. Follow the basics: write in full sentences. Unless your professor explicitly says it’s all right, don’t use bullet points, abbreviations, or other writing short cuts (no “b/c” or “w/r/t”). Make sure that your ideas flow, and if it’s long enough, that you structure your answer into recognizable paragraphs.

Finally, make sure that you use your time well. Figure out how much time you can spend on each question of the exam ahead of time. Don’t waste time dithering about what questions to answer, and if you get stuck, come back to it. Importantly, leave yourself time to come back at the end and reread your answers all the way through. This will help you catch any errors, sentences that weren’t clear, or other mistakes or problems.

Study hard and good luck!

Keeping Up and Keeping Organized

This last week, I had conversations with two of my students who were discussing the problems they were having keeping up and keeping organized. One of them told me how he was struggling with procrastination. The lure of being social in the dorms, at the library, and between classes was keeping him from working on projects, leaving him to pull all nighters at the last minute. The other told me that she was taking extra credit hours and in an attempt to keep everything organized had created what she termed a “master syllabus,” a massive, color coded document a la Hermione Granger.

As we move farther into the semester, the pressure to keep up and keep organized can become more and more stressful. Here’s the advice I gave my students. Hopefully it’ll help you too.

Procrastination Struggles

Often, the problem that you face when you find yourself procrastinating is that you know you have a lot to do, but none of it is due immediately. It’s a catch 22: if you don’t start now, you won’t finish, but the deadline doesn’t seem pressing yet–you feel like you’ve got plenty of time. So, you put it off and put it off, and put it off. And then all of a sudden, you’ve got 24 hours and a 10 page paper due. Not ideal. So what’s the solution? Many students I’ve talked to have told me that it’s not that they don’t want to start. They do. And it’s not that they don’t know they need to start to get done. They do. The issue is getting started and keeping it manageable.

 

The solution is to break down the big projects and assignments into smaller, shorter tasks.  When you break big tasks down, they seem more manageable. You don’t have to write a 10 page paper today, you just have to pick your question. You don’t have to do all the research for your paper, today you just have to find 5 articles.

Tackling a smaller task can help you overcome the psychological challenge of getting started. The project is now a small task that can be done in time to go to the club meeting or to watch the newest episode of Game of Thrones.

When you break down the project into smaller pieces, you can also plot out what you need to get done each day so that between the time you get the assignment and the time it’s due, you’ve gotten it all done and it hasn’t seemed too overwhelming to begin.

Another of the tactics I used to use when I was in school was to plan it out so that I would finish a paper the day before it was due, giving me enough time to read through it one last time. Adding in a buffer also lets gives you time to deal with any last minute emergencies, like the library hours changing without you knowing, or the internet going down.

Keeping Organized

Even if you aren’t prone to procrastination, having a lot on your plate can leave you feeling overwhelmed and burnt out. In semesters where you have a lot on your plate, there are a few things that you can do to keep you on task and feeling like you are conquering the world.

First, invest in a good planner and use it. Whether its digital or paper, having a planner is essential if you have a lot on your plate. Your brain (no matter how brilliant you are) is not good at storing all the information you need in your short term memory. Writing it down allows you to focus more clearly on the really important things on your schedule. It also means you are less likely to forget items on your to do list.

Second, make sure that you plan in some fun time and some down time. Working really hard at academics is just like being a hard core athlete: you need recovery time. It’s tempting to think that because we are studying and not working physically we shouldn’t get tired, but that’s definitely not the case. If you’re not careful, you’ll end up burnt out and doing poorly on tasks that should be easy. Get enough sleep, remember to hit the gym (or spend time outdoors) and do something fun at least once a week.

Third, know when you’ve reached your limit. Don’t sink your GPA just because you *should* be able to do this schedule or you *should* be able to pass this class. It’s one thing to push yourself hard and it’s another to end up failing a class.  It’s far better to drop a class you’re going to fail and have a W on your transcript than an F.

Good luck, study hard, and be sure to share your study hacks in the comments below!

How to Have Your Most Successful Semester Yet

I love the beginning of a new semester, and it’s not just because I’m mildly addicted to new office supplies or that fall is my favorite season. The start of a new semester is also a chance to start new habits, accomplish new goals, and be the best version of yourself yet. There’s so much potential at the beginning of the semester. In this post, I’m going to touch on five things that you can do to set yourself up to have your most successful semester yet!

1. Write all of your deadlines on your calendar

One of the best ways to set your semester up for success is to write all of your class assignment deadlines into your calendar. Forgetting to turn in an assignment can tank your grade in a class. Using your syllabi to write down when everything is due at the beginning of the semester decreases the probability that you’ll forget something.  If you chose to use a digital calendar, like Google, you can also set reminders so that you remember to start the assignment on time. While you’re at it, this is probably a good time to make sure that you save all assignment guides, directions, etc. to a single place: a binder, notebook, or on your computer. That way when you go to complete the assignment, you’ll know exactly what you need to do.

2. Get to know your professors outside of class time

As I’ve written in other posts, getting to know your professors outside of class time can set you up well for the rest of the semester. Getting to know your professors can help when it come time to ask for letters of recommendation, or references for an on campus job. Beyond those reasons, having an established relationship with a professor can also be helpful if you run into problems later on in the class. Struggling with a concept? Perhaps something crazy happens to your computer the night before your major paper is due. Having a pre-existing relationship with a professor outside of the classroom can lead to extra help or understanding if you hit a stumbling block later on in the semester. As a final bonus, professors are well connected on campus and are good resources for learning more about extra curricular or other opportunities, honors, and awards–all the things that look good on a resume. In short, professors are your ultimate resource. Make good use of them.

3. Join a new extracurricular or take on a leadership role in one you already participate in

The beginning of the semester is a great time to try out something new. Joining a new extra curricular at college is a good opportunity to explore new interests that you haven’t tried before. Most universities have a wide variety of clubs and teams that cover an extensive array of activities: try horseback riding or waterskiing. Maybe check out the debate team or Model UN. Perhaps you’re interested in running for student government or you’ve always wanted to know more about Asian cultures. Try joining the student senate or explore the cultural centers on campus.  These types of activities are great for getting experience in a field you might want to work in and for getting to know students outside of your dorm floor or major who share your interests. If you’re already a member of a club or activity, try taking on a leadership role in your club or team. Join the executive board or take the lead on a big project or event.

4. Do some service

Spending some time giving back to your campus or city community has many benefits from being a great talking point in interviews to giving you valuable experiences, to helping to improve where you are spending most of your time.  According to Americorps, there is also a growing body of research that shows volunteering to have a beneficial impact on your health! Many colleges and universities have resources for students who are looking to volunteer in the community. Some every plan campus wide volunteer days or offer credit hours for getting involved. If you are interested in learning more about how to get involved in your community, check out Americorp’s tips for college students looking to volunteer: https://www.nationalservice.gov/sites/default/files/documents/VIA_tips_volunteering_college.pdf

5. Plan in something fun to do

All work and no play makes Jack (or Jane) a dull person. Make sure that in trying to have your best semester ever, you leave some time free for fun.  Taking time off and being social are good for your mental and emotional health. Don’t just go on a Netflix binge, however! Not that an evening with pizza, ice cream and your favorite binge worthy show isn’t necessary every once in a while, but the idea here is to get out and get social. If you’re not interested in planning things on your own, check out what your campus activities board has planned. Many colleges offer free or discounted movie nights, cultural nights (that often include free food), and other concerts and events.

6 Quick Tips for Gaining and Maintaining Focus

There is nothing harder than knowing that you have a boat load of studying that needs to get done fast–and you just can’t seem to keep yourself on task. Below, I offer six different tactics and strategies that I find helpful in gaining and maintaining focus.

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  1. Use the Pomodoro Method

I love the Pomodoro Method and I use it almost every day. The Pomodoro Method is a strategy of doing focused sprints of work. Originally developed by Francesco Cirillo in the eighties, the Pomodoro method is based on the hypothesis that focused sprints of work, interrupted by short breaks increases productivity. A typical Pomodoro is twenty-five minutes long, followed by a five minute break. A typically Pomodoro cycle is four Pomodoros–at the end of the forth twenty-five minute sprint session, you take a fifteen minute break. However, your Pomodoros can be as long as you want–I know some individuals who use twenty minute sprints, others who use ninety. Recently, I’ve been using a fifty/ten split, and taking a short brisk walk on my ten minute breaks. The key is the focused sprints–staying totally on task for whatever amount of time works for you, and then taking a short break.

2. Take a Walk

I’ve been using this strategy a lot lately. I’ve found that a minimum of ten minutes of walking is what lets me get that endorphin release–that feel good high you get from working out. Typically, I take a walk during my Pomodoro breaks, but getting up to stretch your legs is also a great lunch time break activity–especially if it gets you outside and soaking up some sunshine. Inside at the library all day, particularly if the lighting isn’t good can cause depression, decreases in productivity, etc. etc. Taking a quick walk is a good way to break up your day, and it allows you to reset mentally for when you sit back down.

 

3. Use a Standing Desk

Everyone is talking about how sitting is the new death trap. But, using a standing desk is good for more than just your health. Using a standing desk increases productivity. According to an article published on Business Insider, standing desks increase overall productivity by ten percent. The article argued that standing provokes a sense of urgency in you that causes you to focus on completing the tasks. It also noted that using a standing desk can lead to higher energy levels, fewer headaches, and increased focus.

 

4. Drink Water

Americans are almost universally dehydrated. Dehydration can cause a feeling of general tiredness and tiredness is almost always tied to lack of focus. It makes sense. Your brain is about seventy-five percent water. Drinking water and staying hydrated while working can improve your overall energy level and thus your level of focus.

 

5. Change Your Location

Sometimes working in the same place for hours or even days at a time can be detrimental to your focus and productivity. Changing your location even for a few hours can serve as an opportunity for a mental reset. So, take your work to a coffee shop, new spot in the library, or if you are gifted with good weather, maybe even outside. The key is to allow yourself to refocus on what it is you’re trying to get done.

 

6. Listen to Focus Music

Finally, if you are an individual who can concentrate with a little bit of background noise, you might want to try putting on focus music or the video game music channel on Pandora. These types of music are written specifically to keep you engaged for hours at a time without being distracting.

Introduce Yourself to Your Professors, They Said.

Introduce yourself to your professors, they said. Ask them about the syllabus, or their office hours, they said.

“Introduce yourself!” is one of the most common pieces of advice given to college students at the beginning of the semester. While it’s good advice, a lot of students can make small mistakes that end up making what should be a positive interaction an awkward one. In this post, I’ll walk you through (1) Why you should absolutely introduce yourself, (2) common mistakes that students make, and (3) some of the best ways to reduce the awkward factor.

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Why you should ABSOLUTELY introduce yourself to your professors.

There are a lot of benefits from getting to know your professors. But, to do this, you need to introduce yourself. Why? because depending on the size of your school, professors may have anywhere from 60-over 300 students per semester. That’s a lot of names and faces for anyone. If you want the professor to learn your name, your best bet is to initiate.

Having your professor know who you are from go has a lot of benefits. Professors are great people to have you write letters of recommendation Thinking of applying to any scholarships this year? you’ll probably need a professor to write you a letter, and most professors won’t write letters for students just because they sat through one of their classes. Maybe you need a reference for a job? Professors can also be a good sources for this–especially if you’re going for a campus job. Professors are connected. You might be at a school for a few years, professors spend their career there. Professors are also excellent sources of help in a difficult class. Knowing them can make a lot of difference.

There are a lot of benefits to having your professor know who you are.  SO, you want to make a good first impression. BUT, common advice can leave you looking more like an idiot than a great student. Here’s why.

Common Mistakes

Often, students are advised to ask professors about something on the syllabus or about their office hours. This seems like great advice because these are low stakes topics that should be of concern to both students and professors. What’s the problem?

  1. You asked a question about the syllabus, when the answer is IN the syllabus. If there is one major pet peeve that is shared among university professors, it is when students ask endless questions about the class and the answer is in the syllabus. We give you the syllabus so that you have all this excellent information at the beginning of the school year. Don’t just ask a question about the syllabus when the answer is pretty clearly already in there. Doing this says to the professor that you are Lazy, that you didn’t put forth the effort of finding the answer before you asked. Advice: Don’t ask a question about the syllabus JUST to ask a question about the syllabus.
  2. You asked a question about office hours when the professor already told you when they were. Similar to the syllabus pet peeve, professors kind of expect you to know how office hours work–and they’ll usually tell you the first week of class. Professors would prefer not to have to re-explain an administrative thing like office hours individually to every student.
  3. You found an unimportant pretext for talking to them. I really don’t recommend this one, and it comes from personal experience. My freshman year of college, I wanted to introduce myself to my Math professor, I didn’t have any questions about office hours or the syllabus, and I thought I needed to have some pretense for talking to him after class. So, I told him I was concerned about getting out of class late because I had another class across campus that met 10 minutes after this class ended. His response? Mile high eyebrows. Why, you ask? Because in reality it wasn’t HIS problem. It was MY problem. If he ran class over, then it was my responsibility to figure out how to handle the situation gracefully: leave before the end of his lecture or arrive late to my next class. Also, this was the second class, so it was like I was asking him if he was going to do a bad job in class.

Reduce the Awkward Factor

There are easy ways to reduce the awkward factor when introducing yourself to a professor. Below are a couple of examples of students who have done this really well.

  1. Keep it Simple. Last semester, I had a student introduce himself to me on his first day of class. He came up to the front after class, shook my hand, told me his name and said he was excited for the class this semester. This worked. It was straight forward, simple, and to the point. I highly recommend this option.
  2. Ask for a clarification–but only if its needed. Sometimes, syllabi or verbal instructions CAN be confusing. If you have actually read the syllabus through and there is something that is unclear, then you should ask about it. For example, if assignments are due online, but only a date and no time is specified, asking if the professor wants them at the beginning of class or at midnight is a really great question to ask. This shows that you are detail oriented and capable of reading the syllabus through.
  3. Stopping by office hours. If you didn’t manage to introduce yourself after class one of the first few days, this can be a great option. But, professors are busy people, so I don’t recommend just stopping by office hours to chat. Rather, have a specific question or two about the class, assignments, or a previous lecture. Since the semester has started, this should theoretically be a more focused/less random type of question. When in doubt, ask for advice: ask about what makes a successful student in the class, about what clubs/organizations are available for someone interested in this topic, about where you could go to get more information on interesting topic X that you talked about in class.

In short: Introducing yourself to your professors at the beginning of the year is a good strategy for doing well in their class. Don’t come up with a random excuse or ask them questions you should be able to find the answer to. DO be straight forward, professional, and keep it focused. Good luck!