10 Tips for College Students

May 8th, 2006 by Steve Pavlina

After writing the time management article “Do It Now,” which was based on my experience of graduating college in three semesters with two degrees, I received many follow-up questions from students asking for more advice.  Here are 10 tips to help you create a productive and memorable college experience… and most of all, to deeply enjoy this time in your life.

1. Answer the question, “Why am I going to college?”

Many college students really don’t have a clear reason for being there other than the fact that they don’t know what else to do yet.  They inherit goals from family and peers which aren’t truly their own.  That was how I started college.  Is this you as well?

As I’ve stated previously on this blog, the three-semester deal wasn’t my first time at college.  I had previously gone to college when I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to be there.  In high school I was a straight-A honors student, President of the math club, and captain of the Academic Decathlon team.  That momentum carried me forward, and without really ever deciding if it was what I wanted, I found myself with four more years of school ahead of me.  It seemed like a good idea at the time, but my heart just wasn’t in it.  Consequently, I sabotaged myself in a big way.  I blew off my classes and got an education in parties and alcohol.  Apparently some administrator was biased against students whose GPA starts with a decimal point, so I was soon expelled.

That experience sent me into a bit of a tailspin.  I was in a funk for about six months, mostly just playing video games.  Finally in an attempt to re-ground myself, I got a retail sales job and tried to stay under the radar while taking some time to “find myself.”  That was the time I began developing an interest in personal development, and boy did it pay off.  A year later I was ready to go back to college, and I started over as a freshman.  But this time I knew why I was there.  I wanted to be a programmer, and I wanted to earn my Computer Science degree (I later added the Math degree).  But it was more than that.  I knew I was capable of a lot more, and I wanted to push myself.  I wanted to create the richest experience I could.  For me that meant a really dense schedule.

Your goals for college will likely be different than mine.  What are they?  Why are you there?  If you don’t know — and I mean really know it in your gut — then you have no focal point for your experience.  You may as well not even be there.  What is it about your experience that resonates as true for you?  What are you there to learn?  What do you want to experience?

2. Imagine your ideal college experience.

Once you know why you’re going to college, imagine your ideal outcome.  Let it flow outward from the reason you’re there.  Whether you’ve already started college or not, stop and simply write down some attributes of your ideal experience.  Describe it in as much detail as you can.

Before I returned to school, I spent hours visualizing the kind of experience I wanted to have.  I saw myself being challenged but managing it easily and without stress.  I saw myself making new friends.  I saw myself having a really great time.  Most of all I imagined a very balanced experience — a blend of academics, activities, socialization, and fun.  The keyword I used was “richness.”

This was a really important step.  I didn’t understand the mechanism at the time, but I was pre-programming myself to succeed.  Whenever I encountered obstacles, my ideal vision was so much more compelling that I was always able to find a way to get what I wanted.  I became a co-creator of my experience instead of a passive victim of it.

Visualization allows you to make mistakes in advance.  If you can’t get a clear visualization, your experience is likely to be just as fuzzy.  Debug your visualization until it inspires you.

Real life will of course turn out differently than you visualize.  The point of visualization isn’t to predict the future or to restrict your freedom to decide later.  The point is to give you more clarity for making decisions right now.  Your ideal scene serves as a map that can guide you through the quagmire of options.

3. Take at least one extra class each semester.

Students are taught that 12-15 semester units (3-5 classes) is a “full” schedule.  But a schedule that light is hardly full.  A person with a full-time job will put in a good 40+ hours per week, and students enjoy every possible vacation day plus spring break, winter break, and summer vacation.  If you want to spend four or more years in college, add more degrees or get a job on the side.  Don’t feel you have to go at a snail’s pace just because everyone else does.

Now you might be thinking that 12-15 units are supposed to equate to a 40-hour week with all the outside homework and studying, but that’s only going to happen if you do things very inefficiently (which sadly is what most people do).  If you follow some of the time-saving tips later in this article, then 15 units should only require a few additional hours outside of class to complete assignments.  Obviously I couldn’t have taken 31-39 units per semester if it meant doing double those hours in outside homework.  I didn’t succeed by overworking myself.

If you’re an above average student, you can certainly handle an above average schedule.  Sometimes we don’t know what we can handle until we push ourselves a little.  If you think you can handle 15 units, take 18 or 21.  You can easily shave a year off your schedule.  Or you may be able to add a minor or a double major.

What about prerequisites?  For the most part I simply ignored them, and fortunately at my school they weren’t enforced too well.  I found that most of the time a prerequisite is listed, it’s geared towards below average students.  Don’t let pointless bureaucracy slow you down if you want to graduate sooner.  There’s always a way around it — it’s usually just a matter of getting some random form signed by someone who’s too bored to care either way.  A smile and a compliment go a long way.

By the law of forced efficiency, if you put more things on your plate, you’ll find a way to get them done with the time you have available.  So if you don’t challenge yourself a little, that extra time will slip through your fingers.

I think the real benefit to a dense schedule isn’t that you’ll graduate sooner.  The real benefit is that you’ll enjoy a richer experience.  Taking five classes instead of four means more learning, more achievement, and more friends.  And what employer wouldn’t be attracted to a student who graduated more quickly than his/her peers?  This sort of thing sure looks great on a resume.

4. Set clear goals for each class.

Decide what you want out of each specific class.  Is this a subject you’re eager to learn?  Do you want to target this teacher for a letter of recommendation?  Is this a required class you must take but which doesn’t otherwise interest you?

My goals for each class determined how often I would show up, whether I’d sit in the front or the back, how actively I’d participate, and what kind of relationship I’d seek to establish with the teacher.

For some classes I wanted to master the material.  For others I just wanted an A grade.  And for others I wanted to set myself up for glowing letters of recommendations from enthusiastic teachers whose native language was English (so the letters would be highly readable and positive).

My mom has been a college math professor for decades.  At home she’d comment about students she barely knew who’d ask her for letters of recommendation.  Many times she had to turn them down because she just didn’t have anything positive to say in the letter.  On the other hand, she was happy to support those students who put in a serious effort.  Most teachers want to help you, but you have to let them see your strengths.  Even if you don’t get an A in a particular class, you can still give a teacher plenty of material for a great letter of recommendation if you participate actively and show respect toward the teacher.

This is not about manipulating your professors into lying on your behalf.  The simple truth is that the quality of a letter of recommendation ultimately comes down to how much a teacher respects you.  Don’t put yourself in the desperate situation of having to request a letter of recommendation from a teacher who doesn’t even remember you — or worse, one who thinks poorly of you.  Set yourself up for success in advance.

One of my professors learned about my packed academic schedule and expressed interest in learning how I was managing it.  We had a very nice conversation about time management techniques.  I had several programming classes with this professor and aced them all.  I happened to think he was an excellent teacher, I had great respect for him, and I quite enjoyed his classes.  When it came time to ask him for a letter of recommendation, he wrote one of the most glowing letters imaginable (“best student I’ve encountered in my career,” etc.).

On the other hand, I had certain teachers who were downright lousy.  I ditched their classes often and learned the material from the textbook.  Obviously I didn’t seek out their assistance down the road.

Sometimes you’ll achieve your goals; sometimes you won’t.  Even if you do your best, you may still fall short.  You may encounter teachers that are unfair, lazy, sexist, racist, or otherwise incompetent.  My wife had an overtly sexist professor who would never give a female student a grade higher than a B, no matter how well she did.  He would say things like, “If you’re a male, you’ll have to work hard in this class.  If you’re a female, just come by my office after hours.”  Eventually sexual harassment charges were filed against him.  You’ll have to pick your battles.  Some are worth fighting; others are best ignored.  Having clear goals will help you decide which is which.

5. Triage ruthlessly.

You don’t need to put an equal amount of effort into every class.  Inject extra effort when it’s important to you, but feel free to back off a little from classes that are a low priority based on your specific goals.  For me this was an important way to conserve energy.  I couldn’t play full out in every class, or I’d burn out, so I invested my energy where it mattered most.

In every student’s schedule, some classes are critical while others are almost trivial.  In a typical week, I’d usually ditch around 40% of my classes because I just didn’t need to be there.  For some classes attendance was necessary, but for others it didn’t make much difference.  I could simply get the notes from another student if needed, or I could learn the material from the textbook.  If it wasn’t necessary for me to attend a particular class (based on my goals for that class), I usually ditched it.  That saved me a lot of time and kept me from having to sit in class all day long.  Sometimes I’d just grab some food with friends to give myself an extra break.

I would also triage individual assignments.  If I felt an assignment was lame, pointless, or unnecessarily tedious, and if it wouldn’t have too negative an impact on my grade, I would actually decline to do it.  One time I was assigned a tedious paper that represented 10% of my grade.  I really didn’t want to do it, and it required a lot more hours than I felt it was worth.  I was headed for an A in the class, and if I didn’t do this assignment, I’d drop to an A-.  So I respectfully told the professor I was declining the assignment and that I thought it was a fair trade to receive an A- in order to reinvest those hours elsewhere.  He already knew me and understood my reasons.  He gave me an A-, and I was fine with that.  It was indeed a fair trade.  In fact, looking back I wish I’d done this sort of thing more often.

Sometimes teachers get a little too homework happy and dole out assignments that really don’t justify the effort.  You’re in charge of your academic experience though, not your teachers.  Don’t feel you must do every assignment just because the teacher feels it’s a good idea.  You be the judge in accordance with your own reasons for being there.  Just be sure to consider the consequences of your decision.

By stealing time from low priority assignments, I was able to invest more time in the real gems.  Some creative assignments taught me a great deal.  I usually hated group projects with a passion, but there was one particular group project where the team really gelled.  I enjoyed it tremendously and learned a lot from it.

A cool triage technique I used was timeboxing.  I would decide how much time an assignment warranted, and then I’d do the best job I could within the allotted time.  So if I had to write a 10-page research page on European history, I might devote 8 hours to it total.  I’d slice up the 8 hours into topic selection, planning, library research, outlining, writing, and editing, and then I’d do my best to stay within those times.  This was a great way to keep me from overengineering an assignment that didn’t need it.

In a way this was my own method of academic load balancing.  Some of your assignments will be unbalanced in the sense that they seem to require an unreasonable amount of effort compared to how much of your grade they represent or how much you expect to benefit from completing them.  Sometimes I would decide that the effort to write an A-paper just wasn’t warranted.  Maybe I’d estimate it would take me 20 hours to do an A job but only 10 hours to do a B job.  And if the assignment was only 10% of my grade, perhaps I could accept a B there.  I often thought in this Machiavellian fashion back then, and often to my surprise I found that my B-quality papers would come back with As anyway.

6. Get an early start to each day.

I’ve written previously about the benefits of becoming an early riser.  I wasn’t getting up at 5am when I was in college, but I’d usually get up around 6-7am.  I found that getting an early start each day helped me get a lot more done, not just in the morning but throughout the day.  I began each day with a 25-minute run followed by a shower and breakfast.  This simple morning routine got me out the door feeling alert and energized.

I’d be lying if I said I got up early because I wanted to.  It was really out of necessity.  I had many morning classes, including 7:30am classes one semester.  But I’m glad I did that because if I didn’t have those morning classes, I just would have slept more than I needed to.  Even if you hate morning classes, you may find as I did that you’re a lot more productive if you schedule them anyway.

7. Reclaim wasted time during your classes.

Let’s face it.  Not every class is going to require your utmost concentration.  Sometimes teachers babble.  Sometimes they reiterate what you already know.  What percentage of class time requires your complete, focused attention?  For some classes it’s 90%.  For others it’s 20%.  If you aren’t actively learning during class, you’re wasting time.  If a class is really challenging, sit in the front and soak up every word.  But if a class isn’t challenging you, then sit in the back, do homework for other classes, and pop your head up every once in a while to see if there’s anything worth jotting down.  Always have a book open, so when your hippie professor goes off on yet another nostalgia trip about the 60s, you’ll have something productive to do.

This was a surprisingly great cure for boredom.  If the professor was droning on and putting everyone to sleep, I’d be working on programming assignments.  I used to write them out on paper and then go to the computer lab between classes and type them up.  That way I didn’t have to spend much time outside class in the lab, sometimes just 10-15 minutes if my program worked the first time.

You’ll be amazed at how much time you can free up using this method.  I was able to complete the bulk of my assignments in class (but usually not in the classes in which the tasks were assigned).  If you’re in school right now, I challenge you to see how much extra homework you can complete during your normal class time today.  Then estimate how many hours you’ll save every week from this practice.  It really adds up.

You can’t concentrate at peak efficiency continuously, so be sure to take breaks.  When you need a break though, take a real break.  I used to meditate or nap on the grass between classes in order to recharge myself.  I’d use my wristwatch alarm to signal when it was time to get up and go again.  Those breaks were very restorative, and I could go to the next class and work full out once again.  I never worked flat out all day long.  I worked in waves between total concentration and total relaxation, cycling many times per day.

8. Learn material the very first time it’s presented.

One of the biggest time wasters in school is having to relearn something you didn’t learn properly the first time.  When students say they’re studying, most of the time they’re making up for a previous failure to learn the material.

In software development it’s well known that bugs should be fixed as soon as possible after they’re introduced.  Waiting to fix a bug near the end of a project can take 50x as much effort as it would take to fix the bug the first time it was noticed.  Failing to learn what you’re supposedly taught each day is a serious bug.  Don’t try to pile new material on top of an unstable foundation, since it will take even more time to rebuild it later.

If you don’t understand something you were taught in class today, treat it as a bug that must be fixed ASAP.  Do not put it off.  Do not pile new material on top of it.  If you don’t understand a word, a concept, or a lesson, then drop everything and do whatever it takes to learn it before you continue on.  Ask questions in class, get a fellow student to explain it to you, read and re-read the textbook, and/or visit the professor during office hours, but learn it no matter what.

I was normally an ace in math, perhaps because my mother is a college math professor who was taking calculus classes while I was in the womb.  Plus my father was an aerospace engineer, so I’ve certainly got the genes for it.  But there were a couple topics I found incomprehensible when they were first introduced:  eigenvalues and eigenvectors.  I’m a highly visual learner, which is normally a strength academically, but I found these abstract concepts difficult to visualize.  Many of my classmates found them confusing too.  I invested the extra effort required to grasp these concepts and earned an A in the class because I treated my confusion as a bug that had to be fixed immediately.  Those students who allowed their confusion to linger found themselves becoming more and more lost as the course progressed, and cramming at the end couldn’t bestow complete comprehension.  Just like programming bugs, confusion multiplies if left untreated, so stamp it out as early as possible.  If you’re confused about anything you’re being taught, you’ve got a bug that needs fixing.  Don’t move on until you can honestly say to yourself, “Yes, I understand that… what’s next?”

Ideally there should be no need to study outside of class, at least in the sense of relearning material you didn’t learn the first time.  You can review old material to refresh your memory, but you shouldn’t have to devote a minute of your time to learning something that was taught a month or two earlier.

During finals I was probably the least-stressed student of all.  I didn’t have to study because by the time the final exam came up, in my mind the course was already over.  The test was just a formality.  While everyone else was cramming, I’d be at the arcade playing video games.  I’d already learned the material and completed all the assignments (at least the ones I was going to complete).  At most I’d just spend some time reviewing my notes to refresh the material the night before the test.  Isn’t this how academic learning is supposed to work?  Otherwise what’s the point of showing up to class for an entire semester?

During each semester ask yourself this question:  Am I ready to be tested right now on everything that has been taught up to this point?  If your answer is ever “no,” then you know you’re falling behind, and you need to catch up immediately.  Ideally you should be able to answer “yes” to this question at least once a week for every subject.

Falling behind even a little is an enormous stressor and time waster.  First, you have to go back and re-learn the old material when the rest of the class has already moved on.  Secondly, you may not learn the new material as well if it builds on the old material because you lack a solid foundation, so you just end up falling further and further behind.  Then when you come to the end of the semester, you end up having to re-learn everything you were supposed to learn.  But because you cram at the last minute, after finals you forget everything anyway.  What’s the point of that silliness?  It’s like overspending on a credit card that charges you 25% interest.  Eventually you’ll have to pay up, and it will cost you a lot more time in the long run.

Put in the effort to learn your material well enough to get As in all your classes.  It will pay off.  Much of the material you learn will build on earlier material.  If you get As in your freshman courses, you’ll be well prepared to pile on new material in your sophomore year.  But if you get Cs that first year, you’re already going into your second year with an unstable foundation, making it that much harder to bring your grades up and really master the material.  Make straight As your goal every semester.  In the long run, it’s much easier.  I found that C students tended to work a lot harder than I did, especially in their junior and senior years, because they were always playing catch up.  Despite my packed schedule, it wasn’t stressful for me because I kept on top of every subject.  Consequently, I had plenty of time for fun while other students experienced lots of stress because they constantly felt unprepared.

9. Master advanced memory techniques.

One of the keys to learning material the first time it’s taught is to train yourself in advanced memory techniques.  I used them often in classes that required rote memorization of certain facts, including names, dates, and mathematical formulas.  If a teacher wrote something on the board that had to be memorized verbatim for an upcoming exam, I’d memorize it then and there.  Then I wouldn’t have to go back and study it later.

I’m sure you’ve encountered simple mnemonic techniques such as using the phrase “Every good boy does fine” to memorize the musical notes E, G, B, D, and F.  Those kinds of tricks work well in certain situations, but they’re so grammar school.  There are far more efficient visual techniques.  The two I relied on most in school were chaining and pegging.

It’s beyond the scope of this article to explain these techniques in detail, but you can find plenty of books on memory improvement, such as The Memory Book by Harry Lorayne.  I recommend learning from a book because then you’ll build a solid foundation step by step.

These techniques will allow you to memorize information very rapidly.  For example, with pegging I could usually memorize a list of 20 items in about 90 seconds with perfect recall even weeks later.  Experts at this are faster.  Anyone can do it — it’s just a matter of training yourself.

I still use these techniques today.  Chaining allows me to memorize my speeches visually.  When I give a speech, my imagination runs through the visual movie I’ve created while I select words on the fly to fit the images.  It’s like narrating a movie.  My speech isn’t memorized word for word, so it sounds natural and spontaneous and can be adapted on the fly to fit the situation.  Memorizing visually is much faster and more robust than trying to memorize words.  If you memorize a speech word for word and forget a line, it can really throw you off.  But with a series of images, it’s easier to jump ahead to the next frame if you make a mistake.  Our brains are better suited to visualize memorization than phonetic memorization.

I don’t recommend memorizing by repetition because it’s way too slow.  Pegging and chaining do not require repetition — they allow you to embed strong memories on a single pass, usually in seconds.  The downside is that pegging and chaining require a lot of up-front practice to master, but once you learn them, these are valuable skills you’ll have for life.  I also found that learning these techniques seemed to improve my memory as a whole, even when I’m not actively trying to memorize.  I think this practice trained my subconscious to store and recall information more effectively.

It’s a shame these techniques aren’t normally taught in school.  They would save students an enormous amount of time.  Do yourself a favor and learn them while you’re young.  They have a lot of practical applications, including remembering people’s names.

10. Have some serious fun!

Challenge yourself academically, but give yourself plenty of time for fun as well.  Don’t squander your leisure time hanging around doing nothing.  Go out and do something active that will blow off steam and increase your energy.

One of my favorite college leisure activities was frisbee golf (also called disc golf).  I used to play for hours at night with a couple friends, sometimes until my fingers became blistered… or until campus security gave us the boot for hitting one too many non-player students.  :)

While playing frisbee golf, we would often have to scavenge through bushes, wade through fountains, and climb over various hazards trying to recover errant frisbees.  It was always lots of fun, and we’d usually “play through” these obstacles.  Several hours of frisbee golf served as a delightful reward at the end of a challenging week.  I still remember an incredible “hole in one” shot I made from a second-story balcony to hit a light post at the edge of a soccer field.

My biggest regret about college is that I didn’t have a girlfriend during that time.  If I had it to do all over again, I probably would have added an extra semester and taken fewer classes to make time for that someone special.  I had the opportunity, but I had to pass it up because my schedule was too packed.  Girlfriends can be a lot of fun, but most aren’t very efficient.  ;)

This article’s advice centers on making your college experience as rich and memorable as possible.  Get your school work done quickly and efficiently, so you have plenty of time for the variety of activities college can offer.  Join clubs.  Play frisbee golf.  Get a boyfriend or girlfriend.  The worst thing you can do is spend your time falling behind academically due to poor habits, feeling stressed and unprepared all the time, and then playing catch up.  Squeeze as much juice out of college as you can, and let it serve as a springboard to a lifetime of fulfillment.

People often assume my aggressive schedule must have been stressful and exhausting, but the irony is that it was just the opposite.  I seemed to have an easier, more enjoyable experience than my peers.  Students with lighter schedules slacked off and fell behind because they convinced themselves they could make up for it later.  But I couldn’t afford to do that because it would have been impossible for me to catch up on a dozen different classes… and way too stressful to even think about it.  If I fell even a week behind, I’d be in serious trouble.  So I was compelled to develop good habits that kept me perpetually relaxed, focused, and energized.  Many of the habits discussed above were simply the result of setting the goal to graduate in three semesters.  That goal dictated the process.  I’m very grateful for the experience because it showed me just how much more effective we can be when we push ourselves beyond our comfort zones.  It taught me to keep setting goals beyond what I feel certain I can accomplish.  Many times what we assume to be impossible just isn’t.  We only think it is.



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