So you’re going to college, huh? Congratulations! You probably think you are on top of the world don’t you? I remember being there...
I also remember the hopeless feeling that every semester was going to be the last one, about a quarter way through. Maybe you’re on the same road now if you’re reading this.
College is hard. If you picked a hard major, something you don’t know a thing about yet, perhaps you know what you’re getting yourself into. Perhaps you have taken the steps necessary to prepare knowing that you can never really do enough and the sleepless nights and towers of paper everyone tells you about are coming…
College isn’t for everybody, that’s for sure. But you don’t have to beat your head against the wall to survive it. You just have to find what works for you, and do it quickly. This actually entails failing as much as possible. The more new things that you try, the quicker you will learn. It took me four years to figure out how to be a good college student. By year five, I really got the hang of it and could pull a better term GPA with 150% the credit load… and then it was over. Go figure. C’est la vie. A big part of it is also unwavering belief that graduation is coming despite being thrown some of the most seemingly deal-breaker situations i.e. failing several classes in a semester, taking too many W’s, etc. These things happen. I remember hearing about people in my department who were determined enough to retake a single class up to six times! Halfway through, ready to quit, these stories inspired me to keep going. For those of you in difficult majors, the more you talk to people, the more you realize everyone’s going through the same crap you are and that many people fail several classes along the way while figuring out who they are and are really happy just to get C’s.
So what’s it gonna take? It will take more than wit and Red Bulls. You need a strategy. Especially by sophomore year. This is usually where people start getting weeded out.
As you've probably been able to tell so far, this won't be the kind of post to tell you what you want to hear or spark your hopes and dreams. Sorry about that. It could equip you with some real trade secrets though. With graduation right around the corner, I look back at the last five years of treachery I put myself through fondly. There is a lot that I wish somebody had told me way back when that would have made it way easier. So without further nonsense, here are ten secrets I wish somebody told me before starting college.
You Will Make Friends With Those Who Share Your Path
Universities, are big. I like to call them "univercities" but regardless of campus
size, there will always be friendly faces. Some freshmen think they'll get lost in a big crowd but even if you go from a small town to a big school, I think you'll be surprised how consistent your circle of influence stays through the whole four years or five. Remember, everybody in your major has to take the same classes you do. If you go into STEM, it's even better. The friends you make in class on the first day may be the ones you still see by your senior year. You just never know. Yes, some people drop out. Even if not on the first day, you'll probably get to know them at least the first semester or by end of second semester. From dorms and classes to career fairs and clubs, you'll be more connected four years in than you imagine now.
Sometimes Trying Harder Doesn't Work
We're all human, we all have limits. If you pick a hard degree like I did, you are gonna wind up asking yourself how bad you want this. And if you are an average reader, you likely have average intelligence and average access to extra resources. When you find yourself faced with obstacles that challenge your limitations, what will you do? You’re gonna have to be smart and strategic because you will be surrounded by resources and if you don’t realize what they are, you’ll wind up with loads of unnecessary headaches.
The first mistake I made in college was trying harder. What?? Yeah, that’s right. I found myself not being able to quit because my reason for being there was to battle the machine… and it was personal. When my giants mocked my limitations, it got me fired up and less likely to quit. I’d be going to the gym and burning it off quite frequently. This helped, but my arsenal wasn’t complete until much later. My biggest mistake in college was thinking that the harder I study, the more time I spend, the better I would perform. Perhaps this was reinforced by my oldest friend and roommate of junior year who studies harder than anyone I know and whose strategy is to grind to the max doing problem after problem, practically copying the textbook into a giant binder. But quality over quantity. Perhaps what I failed to take away from him was what he was actually doing, which was example problems, not copying. Before I figured out how to study correctly like this, the way I’d study was actually very stupid I now realize. Biggest difference between then and now: I had neglected the loads of resources online and confined myself to class material which I would read and reread until I understand things, which obviously never worked. Which leads me to my next secret.
Don't Worry If You Don't Understand Right Away
Switch it up! Don't do the same thing every day, and when you spend a long time working in one place, get outside and move around or change study locations.
When I started studying the human brain in my free time fall of my fourth year and discovering “how to learn” content from online coaches like John Sonmez, the way I saw the world changed. I started to learn how to learn. You may hear people say that this is what college is all about. Well, they are right, but for me it was even more literal. I took a step back and realized that a scientific understanding of how my own brain physically works and acquires information isn’t so far fetched. You will need to find what works for you. For me, this is what finally did it.
So how does your brain acquire information? When you understand this, you will learn more efficiently and waste less time in college like I did. It is important to realize that your mind is one of the most miraculous, complex things in the observable universe, with 100 billion neurons firing together and trying to connect when you learn a new subject. When you practice, these neurons fire together again but in order for a concept to be complete, you must introduce variation so that connections can happen more fully. Why do you think you are told to immerse yourself when it comes to learning a new language? This is because language acquisition is something our brains do naturally and passively. Even if foreign language was/is one of your worst subjects, this is still true for you. I'm not saying that some people don't learn faster than others. I'm saying that as humans, they are tasks our brains can perform very efficiently, like recognizing language, color, faces, etc. And there are other properties as well, regenerative and chemical to name just a few, that occur continuously and automatically. Your job is to capitalize on these features.
This means one of three things, either 1) taking a break or Studying something else 2) studying somewhere else 3) going to bed and trying again when you wake up. My mistake was getting stuck and staying stuck when I didn’t understand something. I later learned to take a step back and analyze what my mind was doing (all emotions set aside). This helped me learn that it is okay to take a break. It’s perfectly acceptable to pack your stuff and go study somewhere else or something else, even if it seems like that's all you're doing anymore. The second secret is that your brain works on the concepts you learned while you are asleep. This is why I actually described how your brain works. Because it’s important to realize that you’re not just doing nothing while you’re asleep. Your mind is actually working. If you’ve ever worked on a hard concept before bed and then woken up the next morning you might find the concept to be slightly clearer. Many great ideas were spawned by geniuses throughout history either after or during their period in the mysterious world of snooze.
The final secret to acquiring information faster is to realize that your mind absorbs information way, way faster than you think it does. Remember my point about language immersion. The decision to switch gears is a real secret. I made the mistake a lot of thinking something had to get done as soon as I started and maintaining that rigidity. Back then I thought that I’d failed to understand concepts through not reading carefully enough or not understanding an exercise fully when in reality I understood it fully but I was fixating on the wrong thing. If you want to understand a concept more fully you are going to need to see it from another angle. Today I plow through example after example online. I never watch/read something twice. I go read something else because it turns out that who is explaining a concept is far more important than how many times you read or watched something. Overtime you learn the same thing in multiple ways and environments and this is where the magic happens. It almost seems like common sense but when you don’t understand how you learn like I did you’ll find yourself stuck in this loop. Your mind is limitless, so let it do it’s thing.
You’d be surprised how much you learn in a day. There’s no such thing as “my brain is full.” That’s just an excuse that newbs will make. You’d be surprised how much information your brain can acquire passively without you realizing it. In fact, your brain is like a machine. The faster it spins and takes in information, the better. Once it slows down, you aren’t as apt to absorb information. There is actually a sweet spot of “learning” anything at all. You can learn only so much on one subject in a given time, what you need to do is make sure you don’t spend too long on one thing. You’ll find you can actually learn as much as you want in a day. Don’t focus on one example you don’t understand. Get a different angle on the problem.
It Only Gets Tougher, But So Do You
I often had professors who were harsh enough to say things along the lines of ‘well if you can't keep up now, just know it only gets harder.’ And if you are going into STEM you will be subject to courses that try to weed you out. You'll probably get this, and when you do, just know that it's true - it does get worse. But what they fail to tell you is, while it does get harder, you get stronger. You also get smarter. That's the effect of getting exposed to so much in a short amount of time.
How to Study: Think of It As PRACTICE
College is a game. No, I'm serious. You have to learn how to play the game. That being said, every game has to played fairly to work. I believe with my whole being that rule benders will suffer 100% of the time. There is real value in taking charge of your own education. Some days I felt like I was surrounded by rule benders and cheaters. In college you are practicing for the real world in a controlled environment so this is an honor system. There are few things more rewarding than knowing your education is legitimate - that you finished without ever giving in to any corner cutting you see around you. Don't believe me now? Wait until you get into your first job and you'll see that I was right.
If You Hear Good Things About a Certain Professor, Take Their Class!
This one may seem like a no-brainer, but once you get up to speed, you may begin to realize it’s way more complicated than you thought. Even if you do hear good things, there may be various things keeping you from taking their class such as schedule conflicts upon registration (the obvious one) or thoughts like “oh I don’t need their class for my major and I have too many other requirements to fill. Not to mention time and money. I just want to graduate!” In spite of these various circumstances, I implore you to stretch a little, especially as an upperclassman, you are starting to hone your skills and expand your horizons. Certain classes you take may repeat/reinforce concepts from earlier ones. Even if you think you may not use that subject, it makes a whole world of sense to just take a class from a professor who has phenomenal instructional skills because that’s one less slot for a class that might be boring or, worse, is taught by someone who doesn’t give a spit. It can happen.
This secret should not, however, be reworded as “if you don’t like a certain professor, don’t take their class” because eventually you are gonna have to. Due to your requirements you have to fill or the size of your department, there is no avoiding it 100% of the time, but if you can, do it. This may sound bad but even if the subject in question seems valuable enough to justify taking that prof’s class again, I submit to you that you probably shouldn’t do it. The reason I say this is because the fact that you need the knowledge doesn’t make much difference if the instructor is garbage. You are there to learn. If that learning is not happening you need to figure out something else. With the money you are paying, take quality courses. The rest you can learn online if you need it later, which by the end, you better be darn good at doing anyway.
Don't Tell Anybody How Many Credits You're Taking
I'm joking. But not entirely. Letting people judge your capacity to take on more responsibility based on that number can get you into trouble. It's deceptive, either to you or them, depending on which way things sway on the difficulty spectrum.
If you're doing this college thing right, you should know how many hours you spend studying in a week. The thing about credits is, they are super squishy. Last semester I took eighteen credits but it felt like twelve. Things just worked out that way because I joined one class later in the semester and decided to keep the other because it would be easy. The semester before that I took twelve credits but it felt like twenty; I was busy with the hardest, most time demanding class required for my entire major. That's the difference between four and five classes. Last semester I took five classes with a regular work load but technically it was seven classes because of my seminar and directed study but those weren't as hugely time demanding. By the time I sorted out which outcomes were directly affected by my effort from those that weren't, I could go back to thinking in terms of about three or four spheres of responsibility, like I'm used to doing, instead of seven or eight.
Don't Follow Your Passion
I can't finish this post without saying something about this. I'll tell you promptly why I agree with it. If you know what I and my website stand for, then I'm the last person you'd expect to be saying these words but I'll explain.
The flaw with believing that you should follow your passion is belief that the alternative is something you can never become passionate about. It's entirely not true. Without getting too specific, the alternative is basically anything that society really needs and will get you a job pronto-like, whereas your passion is something you do for hours and hours on end every day already, but gives you roughly a one in a million chance of a return on your investment. People forget to consider that spending four or five years learning to be good at something that may give them a headache at first is just that: learning to be good at it! If you repeat the process of fail, get back up, keep going, indefinitely, you have a 100% chance of becoming competent at what you are learning. By that time, you're not going to find yourself sitting and thinking Gee, I wish I wouldn't have become a (insert job title here) whether it is in the STEM field or something else. Why? Because it will be who you are! You'll be proud of your accomplishments, and on top of that, you'll still have time to do what you love after it's all over.
Read Your Textbook on the Treadmill
This one is my new favorite and I wish I thought of it earlier. You should spend most of your time doing real practice, but without simply reading, you may never get the chance to relax while you are learning, and it's important to feed that positive stimulation to your brain and associate it with what you do. You will have classes where you hardly use the textbook, sure, but if you can get used to reading and soaking up information, it will help you in the long run, and the best way to do this is to move your body and pump blood to the brain. At this point, you will find it easy to learn, passively soaking up information while chilling to some tunes. The treadmills at my school's gym even had YouTube on them, plus a headphones jack, and often I'd be watching tutorials while reading my book and learning at twice the speed!
Work Is Not Like School
Finally, remember that work is not like school. Most college graduates often do find it refreshing. Working in the real world is busy and straightforward. To someone who is thrown something completely new that they've never seen before four or five times at once and then given only 5 months to get used to it, only to wipe the slate clean and start it all over again for another 5 months (i.e. most college students), this new paradigm of predictability and regimen is paradise.
Someday, your fantasy of being considered good at something you weren't before and highly valuable at a job, will become reality. So if you're going to college and you expect to be challenged at all, the overall point of these secrets is: just be creative. Understand how the brain works or find what works for you. The question at the end of the day regarding your chosen field is how bad do you want it? If you don't know, do the research, decide once and for all what you want and then do whatever it takes to get there. Once you've done that, the question is what's it going to take? For me, the answer to that question was taking the time to read and watch tons of content on neuroscience after hitting rock bottom and to understand why I couldn't stay sane and learn at the speed I wanted to. Once I learned all the tricks, I realized that my job as a student is to get a mental edge in any way possible, not to waste time overthinking the deeper meaning. Once you learn that speed and efficiency and what doesn't work, it will start to feel more natural and graduation (which is a real thing and not an elusive, magical land you dream about at night) will be here before you know it.