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Tips for starting a new college semester

Updated on November 28, 2012

Back to school


Whether you are a freshman or a senior, if you are going back to school you are probably greeting your new semester back at school with a mixture of excitement and anxiety; it's a clean slate, tabula rasa, a time to reset yourself, create new goals, and start anew. Here are some tips for a new semester that can help you make the best of the coming academic year. Some of these I learned from my students, some of these I learned from my own experience as a student (and especially as a mid-age adult student), some of it is just common sense, and some of it I've gleaned from other wise writers on the subject.

Tip 1 - Be clear why are you are going to school.

One of the most important tips on your new semester I can give you as and instructor is to be clear why you are there. I see so many people lost people on the campuses. They are just marking time before they are really forced to make a decision. Maybe their parents told them to get a job or go to school, so they chose to go to school. Maybe they were recently laid off and needed somewhere to go, or maybe they got a student loan of some sort, so they could stay gainfully occupied.

Then there are those who know why they are there. Often these are students who have returned to school after being in dead-ended careers of jobs. They have very clear goals and tend to do well in their studies.

Having a purpose will prevent you from scattering your energies and wandering aimlessly through your semester. Even if you don't have a major or a career choice, decide why it is you are there, whether it's just to learn new things, gain new skills, meet new people or experiment.

I was not a great student in my first undergrad degree. I felt aimless and lost on a large urban campus and hadn't found my "metier". After a year off working in an office (is this all there is?) some travel and reflection, I decided that words were my passion, so I returned to school and pursued a degree in Journalism. Then, I knew why I was at school. I had found a focus. When I left school, I decided I would never return unless I had very clear goals. You will be a lot happier at school if you take the time to reflect on why you are there.

Tip 2 - Visualize your ideal college experience.

How would you like your college experience to be? It should stem from the reason you are going. Do you imagine yourself having a lot of friends? Participating in campus organizations activities? Holed up in the library until you achieve an A+? Remember, the "U" in university (also for college). It is about you and what you want. Write down your ideal scenario--great professors, wonderful friends, interesting activities--and imagine it to be so. Then let the law of attraction take over.

Tip 3 - Consider taking an extra course

What? Isn't university hard enough as it is you say? You'd be surprised how easy work expands into the time allotted (and how partying and socializing expands into the gaps in one's schedule). I can also tell you that a lot of course content is interconnected and you can leverage your efforts. And then there's that age old adage, the busier you are, the better you will use your time.

I learned what was actually possible when going back to school in mid life. I taught full time and took graduate courses. I didn't have time to fool around, and found I used my time much better than I ever had when I was an undergrad. Sometimes the busier you are, the more efficient you become. Finishing early or accelerating your progress can buy you time to do other things or take additional training or degrees. It could even make you stand out to your potential employers as someone who finished early, or who juggled many priorities well.

Tip 4 - Set your goals for each class you take

Among the useful tips for your new semester that I learned this one from my students is to set goals for each class that I take. My students are very pragmatic. Some of them will decide they are going to get a respectable B, take three other classes and do their full time job. They know when they can cut class, and when it's essential to attend, and how much work to put in. They zero in on the work that needs to be done for the assignments and tests, manage their time well, communicate with me when they are absent, and never cease to impress me. I think those students are smarter than someone who's just good at book-learning to get good grades on a course. These students are working smarter not harder.

Tip 5- Be rutheless with your time

Here are some more new semester tips. Some students are very clear with themselves and with me about what their priorities are. I have students in the trade professions who decide they only want and need a C in their English course. They are working. They don't want to put that much effort in. English is not their top priority or interest. They would tell me: "I have so many hours in the week for work, so many for class, this is how much time I will put into the homework". That's it. If you make these choices, live with them. They are yours.

If the class is low priority, be clear with yourself and even with your professor or teacher. Communicate with your prof when you are absent and do your best. It doesn't hurt also to make friends from whom you can borrow notes.

Some of my students have been quite up front about the fact that they will not be completing certain assignments. They might tell me, for instance, that the effort for that 5% presentation simply isn't worth it. I am not condoning this, but I respect their choices.

Don't beat yourself up if you make that decision to not hand in an assignment. I've seen very intelligent capable students do fairly well in a course, by not handing in assignments worth a few points. Some just don't think it's worth the time. On the other hand, my college has certain policies for those who want to try to play the numbers game that they need to hand in the major assignments and attend the final.


Tip 6- More on time management

Start each day early. It is only too easy to stay up late and wake late. Just because classes start at 11 a.m. doesn't mean you should get up at 10:30. I am more productive in the morning and if I rise early can get more self maintenance tasks and house cleaning done before I have to move on to other writing or academic tasks.

Use your class time. I was bored in the class I took this summer. There was only so much browsing on the internet I could do before I realized that reading the text, and working on the assignments during class was a better use of my time.I had already learned much of the course material in other courses. So I sat at the back and worked on assignments without being disruptive, and checked in every so often (I got an A+ in the course) with the discussions.

Some classes really are passive. If you can take the course online, so much the better, because you will save the travel and the classroom time, and you can better leverage your e available time. If the class is run more like a workshop where there are more interactive activities, then sit at the front, participate, learn while you are there, take in every word. It will save you reading later.

Tip 7 - Learn efficiently

Try to learn things when they are presented. Even if you are smart, it can be quite daunting to face dozens of chapters of material a week before the exam if you have never put any work in. Learn how to zero in on the main points, and put them in your own words and summarize them as soon as possible during the course. Then review your notes. By the time you get to the final, you won`t have to cram and you will save a lot of time agonizing and essentially redoing the course.

Falling behind even a little is an enormous stressor and time waster. Eventually you’ll have to pay up, and it will cost you a lot more time in the long run.

Tip 8 - Enjoy yourself

Try to find activities that will increase your energy level and that you seriously enjoy. Sometimes doing something that is not cerebral such as hiking can be a good balance. The most important thing is that they interest you can make you happy. Pencil in fixed time to offset the rigors of study; your studying will be less efficient. I always worked much more efficiently when I knew I had only so many hours to do a school activity before my fun activity started.

Some of these tips for the new semester may seem a bit unconventional, such as not to hand in work, or come to class, or even to take more courses. However, it is never too late to learn how to creatively and effectively use your time, and to tap into to your own motivation to make your school year a pleasant, joyful, productive experience.

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