Back to School


It is late August and school is starting back for many. Having recently graduated from college, I still have years of memories of classes fresh in my mind. I thought that I should share some advice with those still in school. If youíre too old for that, many concepts still apply to life in general.


Always do your homework, and do it well. Homework may not seem importantóit may be as little as 10% of your gradeóbut it is the starting point of your success. In doing homework, you become more familiar with the class material, you donít fall behind in the instruction, you find out what part of the class you need to learn more about, and you get practice for tests and quizzes. Even if you were to learn nothing by doing homework, the difference between a good performance and a mediocre one (at 10-20% of your grade) could make the difference in a letter grade.


Get enough sleep, and take care of your other needs. You canít pay attention in class if youíre tired. You canít work to your potential if youíre hungry. You canít concentrate on a test if you have to use the bathroom. (Always go before you take a test, no matter what. I didnít before I took my first SAT. The test staff doesnít allow many breaks, and I suffered through a section or two.) Sleep is a need often abused in college, and the results often show. I performed the worst during my freshman year, when I usually went to bed around 3 a.m. (and unfortunately had a class at 8 a.m. every day.) I had a friend that would regularly go to sleep even later, and he usually slept through all of his classes the next day. He didnít do very well. You should also eat right and exercise; it will greatly benefit your energy and health.


Take responsibility for yourself. In college (or earlier, depending on your situation), nobody is going to make you do anything. You have to decide for yourself that you will do your homework, go to bed and wake up on time, keep up with test dates and commitments, study, and meet other requirements. You will do better if you understand that you have responsibilities and your failures are your own fault. I knew a guy that often skipped class, didnít try to learn the material, and would then complain that he had a poor professor.


Stay on schedule. You canít fall behind in a class if you do what youíre supposed to do when youíre supposed to do it. Read your assignments for class. Do your homework on time. Begin studying for tests days in advance, not the night before. Prepare for major projects far in advance of the due date. Donít let a weekend pass without making sure that you understand all past and current material in every class. Waiting until the last minute for any project will make you rush and prevent you from doing everything you want to do well. You will also not be able to get help from your instructor and you wonít be able to proofread very well.


Donít just read and memorize, understand. That is, learn the concepts, not just the content, of the material. This is especially necessary for math. I remember students in my high school calculus class that would takes notes of everything the teacher said, memorize every formula, study, and do homework. Yet they often struggled during tests. They could do problems formatted like those done in class or homework, but they couldnít apply that knowledge to questions that were harder or looked different. They could easily solve a problem like ďFind the second derivative of x≤ + 3x + 5,Ē but they had such limited knowledge of what that actually meant that it was useless.


Know your purpose. I donít mean purpose as in ďMy parents want me to get good grades, go to college, and be a doctor.Ē I donít mean purpose as a goal you have because someone told you to have it. I mean purpose as a goal you have because you believe it will have good consequences to you. That is, you have a purpose in school if education makes you happy and/or having a degree will give you a situation (such as a job) that will make you happy. Youíre not going to do much in school if you donít know why youíre in school! Iíve known many people with the mindset that theyíre ďsupposed toĒ study hard, get Aís, go to grad school, get a job, etc. How motivated can they be if they donít know why they should do so?


Get the skills for what you plan to do next. For example, if you are in high school and looking towards college, get the grades, test scores, activities, etc. you need. Most people get an education in order to make good money, and for most of us this involves getting a good job. There are a lot of things you need for this. First, have a field of study that is in demand. Have a major such as Science, Math, or Engineering. Those like History and Art may be interesting, but there are few positions available for them (outside of teaching.) Make connections! You know the clichť ďItís not what you know, itís who you know?Ē Itís true. Job hunting isnít easy if you donít know anybody and nobody knows you. I recommend you have a good relationship with at least three teachers and/or administrators at all times. You will sometimes be in need of a recommendation, a reference, or a favor. Every time you show initiative or solve a problem, make a note. Every interview you have, you will be questioned about your leadership and ability to overcome difficulties. You will do well if you have examples to give. Last but not least, have job-related experience! This is the first thing employers look at. Companies take a risk whenever they hire anyone, and they want proven workers. Search through job listings anywhere and you will find many more employers who want 3+ years experience than a 3+ GPA. Start with an internship, summer program, volunteering, or whatever you can get. Also, all work is not equal; you need experience in your field. If you are in Chemistry, the companies you want will be looking for graduates that have experience as chemists, not lifeguards, waiters, or cashiers.


Be smart with money and other obligations. In college, textbooks are expensive; buy them used if possible. Donít sign up for every credit card you see, even if someone will give you a free t-shirt. Those are not good credit cards, and even signing up for them can hurt your credit. Get one or two without any gimmicks, make sure they have low interest rates and donít charge you for using them, and pay them off quickly if you use them. Obviously, you shouldnít make promises you canít keep or get responsibilities (like kids) that you arenít capable of handling.