I started university in 1993 at the age of 17. I was away from home and living on my own for the first time.
I was not fully engaged in my education.
I started out in engineering and drifted into business, earning an accounting degree in the process.
My average was in the low 70s, I barely made it to class, and in my fourth year of accounting, I suffered from clinical depression.
After convocating, I worked in the accounting field and unsurprisingly found it unsatisfying.
I knew I needed a change, and when I was 30, I went back to school.
This was a gigantic shift and hugely challenging for me and my husband (possibly more so for my husband). I had two kids, a two-year old and a 7-month old, and my husband traveled for work, plus I needed to excel in pre-dentistry to have a shot at getting into dental school.
Based on my previous university experience, I wasn’t sure I could achieve the high-80s average that I needed to get into dentistry.
I took the leap, and in my two years of pre-dentistry, I wrangled myself a 90+ average, made the dean’s list every term, won scholarships, and got myself an interview for dental college. Basically, I rocked it. I’m still super proud of my achievements because it wasn’t easy.
I wasn’t ready at 17 to kick ass and get good grades in university, but I was absolutely ready my second go around. Let me tell you how you can do it, too.
1. Choose your classes with care.
If you know you’ll have trouble with 8:30am classes, look for a later time to ensure you’ll be there. Attendance matters.
Use ratemyprofessors.com to identify any classes you want to avoid. I tended to look for profs who were rated as engaging, reasonable, and fair (or even easy) markers.
I liked to book my classes back-to-back starting in the morning, which freed up big chunks of time for me to study in the afternoons. I work better that way.
If you have the ability to see when the course final exams will be, try not to schedule classes that have exams on consecutive days. This gives you some breathing room when you study.
Know yourself. You often have choices in the classes you take, so choose subjects that you have an interest in. This makes it much more enjoyable when you have to read and learn about a topic. If you hate history, don’t take it as an elective. Dread writing papers? Then look for classes with more regular assignments or labs instead.
2. Go to class.
You can read a textbook and learn a subject, but if you miss lectures, you are unlikely to know what the instructor considers important. In fact, I’ve had classes where the instructors flat out told us questions that would be on the exam, as a sort of bonus for being in class. Knowing what’s important is key to doing well in exams. Make it easy on yourself and get your butt to lectures.
While you’re in class, pay attention. Put away your phone and don’t get sucked into the internet. Be present. You have the opportunity to study right now. You (or your parents) are paying a lot of money for you to go to school. Might as well make the most of it.
3. Take good notes.
Take notes by hand. You will remember the information better. I type at about 70 wpm and I can still take notes faster by hand than on my laptop. Plus, if you’re on a computer, there’s always the temptation to go online instead of paying attention.
I used the Cornell method of note-taking and found it effective.
Review notes when you have a chance, preferably while you can still remember the lecture. This gives you the opportunity to add in points that you might not have fully recorded or to tie in material from the assigned readings. In addition, if you are continually reviewing your notes, you’re going to keep the information fresh in your mind and make it more familiar. This makes studying for exams way easier and allows you to contextualize future lectures.
4. Sit at the front of the class.
Your face will become familiar to the instructor, you’ll hear better, you’ll pay closer attention because the prof will be looking at you more, and you’ll be blocking out what everyone behind you is doing. Trust me, it’s distracting knowing that half of the class is surfing the internet or texting their friends.
5. Get to know your instructors.
When my grandma died in the first term of my second year of pre-dentistry, I had a really hard time in the weeks right after her death. I was scheduled to write a history exam within a week of her death and knew I couldn’t do it. I went to my professor and asked to write the exam another day. This was the second course I’d taken with her. I was always near the front of the room, consistently asked questions in class, responded to questions in class, and had good grades in her courses. She did not hesitate to let me write another day.
Shit can happen. Your grandma can die, you can get sick, you can get into an accident on the way to school. If you have established a relationship with your instructor, I believe they are more likely to give you some slack when you have extenuating circumstances. Skip classes, hand in assignments late, and zone out in class? I doubt you’ll get the benefit of the doubt that much.
Participate in class discussions, approach your instructor after class and ask for clarification, and visit your prof during her office hours. Instructors are human and like people who are interested in what they’re interested in, just like everybody else.
6. Set aside time to study and don’t blow it off.
This is not high school. You will have to study to do well.
I work better when I spend a significant amount of time on a subject rather than jumping between topics every half hour, and I waste less time when I have a longer chunk of time than if it’s broken up into smaller chucks in between classes, because I have a hard time switching gears between activities.
Find what works for you, both schedule-wise and time-wise. I work best in the afternoon and evening but am happy to sit in lecture in the morning. I find it harder to study or write first thing, but you might have a different experience.
7. Use a calendar.
Decide if you’re going to use a good old-fashioned paper planner or an electronic version (on your phone, Google calendar, etc.) and be consistent with its use.
At the beginning of the term, fill in your calendar with your class schedule, assignment due dates, and exam dates.
Review your schedule and note your crunch times. These are weeks (or days) when you have multiple assignments and exams. Now plan ahead so that you leave yourself enough time to do everything well. For example, if you know you have three papers due in one week, plus a midterm, block out times in the three weeks or so leading up to those due dates to work on your papers and study for your test.
It’s helpful to have stages you’re aiming for when you’re writing a paper. I liked writing a paper into into finding sources, reading the reference materials, creating an outline for my paper based on the reference materials, drafting the first version and identifying the quotes I wanted to use (referencing as I went along), reviewing the first draft and editing, finalizing the references, rereading and final edit, handing off to my sister to review and suggest revisions, and then the final editing and printing. Go ahead and pencil in interrim due dates based on these stages to make sure you’re staying on track.
8. Have papers written 3 days before they’re due.
Write your paper (see the steps in 7 above) and then sleep on it for a night. That gives you the next day to review grammar, spelling, and references and edit once more. Then, pass it on to someone you know is a good writer and have them make editing suggestions. On the third day, make the final changes based on the feedback you got from your buddy. Print it off and hand it in on time!
9. Do the assigned readings.
Read before you go to lecture. Lectures will become a review for you, rather than an initial exposure to the topic. This means that you can focus on what the instructor is focusing on, which will often give you clues to what will be on the exams. This is more efficient, meaning higher grades for you.
Set out three to four hour time blocks for studying. In each block, study one subject. I liked to stagger subjects to maximize my interest. I also liked to start studying well in advance of an exam so that the information had time to percolate. I would start studying for the exams that came first, of course, and add in subjects as I completed an exam.
In dentistry, we pretty much always had exams on consecutive days, so what worked in pre-dent didn’t work as well, but I still maintained my staggered time block approach. I think in my heaviest year, we had twelve exams in a two-week period, so time was of the essence during finals.
Want some more pointers? I’ve got 13 more lined up for you.