For my children.
Much to my chagrin, I noticed my bank accounts are nearly empty. Initially, I could not recall what happened to all of that money, but I then remembered, I have multiple children in college and one in Travel athletics.
Since many of you (or your children) are settling into the first semester, some with disturbing grades from your initial round of tests or projects, I figured the timing was appropriate to disseminate thoughts, drawn from my own experience, on how to best compete in a college classroom — how to develop systems that will contribute to your success. I discussed the necessary planning to achieve athletic success in a 2017 article, “Keys to Revisiting and Achieving Goals;” the classroom path is no different, and a student can achieve success by following the same principles.
For some of you, these will serve as valuable and welcome tips. For others, ignorance will remain bliss — continue to enjoy skipping class, sleeping till noon, and the inevitable terrors that await when enlightenment brutally sashays into your life.
So, Constant Reader, if you want to avoid a grade point average rivaling Bluto Blutarsky’s zero-point-zero, please read onward.
My College Experience — Phase I
I graduated from the University of Connecticut in 1992 with a BS in Finance. To succinctly summarize my early collegiate experience from an academic execution standpoint, consider the following highlights:
- Poor time management and focus
- Insufficient understanding of the downstream impact of my actions
- Lack of a competitive mindset
- A dearth of consistent effort
- No specific goals or systems to attain my full potential
- High achievement in darts, ping-pong, and billiards
My College Experience — Phase II
Following graduation, my initial foray into finance was more driven by chance, than driven by a specific goal or plan. Initially, I considered becoming a stockbroker. In the former Bear Stern’s vernacular, I was a PSD — poor, smart, and had a deep desire to be rich (rightly or wrongly, I still take pride in this characterization). Based on early advice, I sold insurance to gain sales experience but drifted like a wayfarer for too long.
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In my early 20s, I decided to shift gears and consider a career in physical therapy. Resistance training was a constant companion, and the thought of working with athletes was appealing, though certainly a far cry from the business world. I met with the appropriate student counselors at the University of Connecticut. They summarized the curriculum to qualify for their physical therapy program. Because of my weak GPA, I would need to get As in nearly all the science courses to gain admittance: chemistry, biology, and physics.
At the same time, I coincidently learned the prerequisites for medical school admission were substantively similar. I decided to work toward medical school admission. I set the goal and began actively believing I was going to be an orthopedic surgeon.
For the sake of brevity, my quest for medical school admission, while full of blood, sweat, and tears, did not turn out as I had hoped. Multiple times, I earned my way onto the University of Connecticut’s medical school waiting list, but that was as far as it got. I could write a book on this quest alone, as it was complex and challenging, but concerning blame for the ultimate failure, I can only look at the man in the mirror. If you can avoid them, don’t make the mistakes I made during early college endeavors — you may not be able to dig out.
I did achieve nearly all As in the science curriculum (including biochemistry — proud), but the weak grades from my early collegiate career, in arguably much easier courses, were the albatross I was never able to shed.
The Paradigm Shift
Although I never obtained medical school admission, I learned something invaluable along the way. When I give my best effort, I can compete with anyone — inside the classroom and outside to the classroom; the value of this lesson still powers me today.
During what I characterize as the second phase of my college career, I began to see the classroom as a competitive field. I had to outperform my opponents (i.e., my classmates), or at least keep pace with the upper-echelon students, which meant I needed to have systems in place to maximize my productivity, coupled with grit, and the appropriate tools to get the job done.
Fortunately, these tools and lessons have significant carry-over into my career (in finance) and life in general (including the gym).
The Tools, Systems, and General Color
Consider the Processes for Learning
I was recently listening to a podcast on learning, during which Adam Robinson, co-founder of The Princeton Review and author of What Smart Students Know, detailed that one of the shortfalls of our current system of education is that no one teaches students how to learn. 1
Robinson suggests that secret is in rehearsing (i.e., taking tests and getting better at taking tests) — continually doing what you need to do to perform well on the test. 1
- Most people re-read notes; re-reading notes is not rehearsing a skill
- Practice with questions you have never seen before
- Complete all the available questions (attempt it without looking at your notes)
- Find additional questions outside of your text and the class materials (e.g., other classes on the same subject; collegiate test banks (i.e., tests from previous years and semesters)
- Try to answer some without reading the chapter (that primes you for reading the chapter)
- Translate notes into your own words
Begin Learning the Material the Same Day It’s Taught
Based on my experience, to keep pace with the material, particularly with more challenging classes, the key is to learn what the professor covered on the same day they covered the material in class. As a competitive student, you must review the class material each day.
If you wait and attempt to cram in all the material in one or even a few nights of study, unless you are a prodigy, you will be hard-pressed to achieve a good grade.
There are a few ways to accomplish the required learning. Below are a couple of methods that worked for me.
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Copy Over Your Notes Each Day
I kept two notebooks. I used one for taking notes in class and kept a second notebook that I used to copy over all the notes each day. As I copied the notes, I made sure that I understood the professor’s material. If I didn’t understand something, I immediately looked it up in the textbook and made my own notes. If I still didn’t understand, I had questions ready to ask the professor before or during the next class.
Immediately reviewing notes after class is my top recommendation. It takes a lot of time and a lot of discipline to recopy your notes, but the system worked well for me. This method also makes the subsequent class more valuable, as you will be more in sync with the professor.
Read Your Notes into iPhone’s Voice Memo
This is challenging because you need to find a private location to speak out loud into the phone, but this really works well. Not only do you have a recording that you can repeatedly play, especially when your too tired to read anymore, but the act of saying the information out loud assists with retention.
Visit Your Professor’s Office Hours
I swear this works, but no one wants to believe it. If the professor is aware you want to do well in the class and you are working hard to do well, they will also want you to succeed.
One of the best ways to let a professor know you really care about their course is to show up during their office hours and ask some questions. Give the teacher a reason to feel guilt or regret over giving you a low grade; they are human, too, and subject to emotional and subjective scoring.
Above all, make sure your professor knows who you are. Sit near the front, participate in class, and be seen.
Other Things to Consider
- Persistence pays off
- Never miss a class (you are paying to be taught — make them earn what you are paying for)
- Read textbooks early and actively with pen in hand
- Study until you know it, not until time is up
- Always do the extra credit
- Make up your own exam questions while reading
- Make questions out of chapter and section headings and make sure you can answer them
- Study under very bright lights and wear pleasant perfume or cologne
- The first and last minutes of the class may contain the test points
- Volume pays off in essay exams and short paragraphs
- Answer every question
- Use the whole period to complete your exam — instructors tend to give hints at the end because they love to teach
- First papers turned in are usually poor
- Fifth answers (E) in a multiple-choice test in which most of the questions only have four choices (A, B, C, and D) are usually correct
- Go with initial hunches
- Use the same lucky pen (if you are superstitious)
In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear differentiates between systems and goals. While goals are best for setting direction, systems are best for making progress. Both winners and losers have goals, but the purpose of having good systems in place (study systems) provides the roadmap for success.2
Learn from my early mistakes and learn early what I learned late — that when you give your true best effort, you can compete with anyone at anything.
- The Knowledge Project Podcast | Winning at the Great Game (Pt 2) w/ Adam Robinson, Author of What Smart Students Know.
- Clear, James. Atomic Habits. Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.