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Monday, November 26, 2012

Survivors' Guide: How to Succeed in School

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This year, for the first time, I’m not enrolled in any kind of school. I’m done. Or so I say. Those who know me well enough don’t think I can stay away for too long. They claim they see a Ph.D in my future. My mother hopes I’d come back to Nigeria for a year to grab a Nigerian law degree. Right now, I’m working on convincing myself that I’m done…But if I say I’m not going through withdrawal symptoms, I’d be lying because the truth is that I’m really a nerd (I just hide it well ;-)).

So! Co-inspired and co-written by my brother-in-law, who is a final year M.D./M.B.A student at Harvard, this post exists for two reasons (1) to inspire undergraduate and graduate students and (2) to let me live vicariously through you all.

This post is dedicated specifically to graduate school (medical, law, Master’s, and Ph.D) students but will be extremely beneficial to undergraduate students as well.

Until I found myself in law school- from kindergarten to college, I’d always sailed through school. Two weeks into law school, I’d lost confidence in my “ability”; I was suddenly lost in translation…It seemed as if my entire educational life had been a lie- “Aha! I’m not smart after all”- is what I told myself. No matter how many times I contemplated another career path, no matter how many times, I fathomed heaven to be 8hrs of sleep without disturbing thoughts of 40 unread pages of contracts and no matter how many times I became convinced that I would rather work at McDonalds than sit through another lecture, I knew my parents didn’t raise a quitter. 

I say that to say that these tips are my “Get out of your rut and succeed” list. The day I began to actively do these things was the day I began to mark my return to confident sanity. Somehow, I found myself. Somehow, I convinced myself law school didn’t render me “unsmart”. Somehow, I actually began to understand the sounds resonating from my professor’s mouth. Somehow, I graciously made it.

If you’re reading this and you’re an undergraduate student, you have to realize that this isn’t high school. In the same way, if you’re reading this and you’re a graduate student (medical, law, Master’s or Ph.D), you’d have to first realize this isn’t undergrad. I say this to say that the higher you get in education, the bigger the expectations. My brother in law calls it “the pyramid effect of academia”. Which is to say that as you progress further in academia, there will be fewer peers and more expectations. In order to continue to rise up this pyramid and meet increasingly difficult demands, you must continually take several steps above and beyond what you are used to. For example, as an undergrad student, you can’t rely on the same level of output that propelled you to success in high school…unless you want to remain at the same level of high school achievement. “Step your game up”. The same principles apply upon transitioning from undergraduate to graduate school.

So here it goes…

1.  Mind-setting: The first thing you need to do when you start a new task (which is essentially what school is), is to KNOW what and why you are in there. Set goals. Remind yourself of how much you want this education and what you want to do with it. Knowing WHERE you’re going with it, will set your mind and body in mo(tiva)tion to success and will see you through tough times.
2.  Organization: These are the “protocols” that seem too irrelevant at first but boy do they come in handy, more than you know. Get a planner to record your schedule and all your assignments. Set reminders on your phone for all important events. Buy all the relevant books and supplements. If you are in med school, invest in flash cards on which you can write factoids to aid in memorizing. If you’re in law school, invest in supplements. These supplemental books will be your most esteemed school buddies/best friends. After every assignment for each class, you should cross reference the matching chapter in a supplement for a clearer understanding of the subject.

3. Your professors: It can be helpful to get to know your professors. Visit their office hours once or twice and if there is a class or subject your anticipate struggling with then swallow your pride with your saliva and go to office hours often. Professors often explain concepts better to you in person and you may find that it is clearer the second (or third) time around. Also, you can ask them questions, you may have been too ashamed to ask in class. Not only does knowing your professor’s style help but professors will often give you little tid-bits (what they expect/want from you in their exams). And although professors will deny that this happens, they are only human and putting a name to a face may even help when they are grading your papers. Besides, this connection will be an incredible help if/when you need their recommendation/reference letters in the future.

4. Go to class: Apparently this isn't common sense for students these days. But I get it: If anyone knows the boredom of class, it IS me. I always want to touch my phone, look at Facebook/Twitter or count down the time: anything but listen. It killed me my first semester in law school. I thought I could listen and do everything else. This bit me in the behind really bad when I ended up missing the announcement of a due date change for an assignment. The professor moved the date up and I didn’t know. So! I showed up with my assignment on the original due date- two days after the new due date. The points I lost for my tardiness demoted my grade in the class one letter. Lesson learned.

LISTEN in class. Minimize the Gchat window or CLOSE it out. LISTEN. You might hear something that you will never forget, even if your memory attempts to draw a blank on the day of the exam. Take good notes. Write down what the professor is saying. It doesn’t have to make sense now. After you settle down to study, it will make more sense. Also, when you write down things you hear, you have a better chance of it sticking to your memory, even if you never reread the notes. (You should reread your notes!)

If you’re in law school, speaking up “in class” makes a world of difference! Forget the “I’m not a conversational person” excuse. The truth is, speaking up in class is what works in law school! As a lawyer, you will need to speak up at all times. You might as well begin practice early.

If you’re in medical school some of this advice might not apply to you. Many medical schools have audiovisual recordings of their 1st and 2nd year lectures and because so much of the learning involves digesting text-books on your own time some students will forego lectures choosing instead to read in their rooms and watch lectures. I have to caution that this is a dangerous game. “To thine ownself be true”. If you will not watch the lecture on your own time, or you will spend the time in your room distracted on HULU or twitter then you should head over to the lecture hall because you will learn more from sitting in the lecture half paying attention than sitting in your room fully distracted. If you however do work quite well by watching lectures on your own time then make sure that you watch ALL the lectures. You will often find that professors will re-package their class slides into questions come tests at the end of each block. 

5. Time Management- KILL THE PROCRASTINATION. Seriously. Procrastination will be your death sentence, especially if you’re a graduate student. From two or three weeks into each semester, based on your schedule, you should make a study plan for at least 5 out of 7 days of the week. Stay on top of your assignments. Make a schedule that you will stick to. Write down what days you will study for each class and stick to it! With effective time management, you can avoid constantly feeling overwhelmed with material. The proverbial "drinking water from a fire-hose" phenomenon will not apply to you if you plan appropriately.

6. Good study hygiene: Unless you have a photographic memory (God Bless you if you do...but you probably do not), the secret here is REVIEW! REVIEW! REVIEW! Study periodically to refresh your memory! Don’t wait till the last minute to learn a semester’s worth of material. This can ONLY hurt you on exam day!

My brother-in-law is a strong believer in the power of repetition for learning in medical school. For example, prior to a block (let’s say Physiology) he would do his best to try and get through the assigned readings ahead of time. He finds that this at least helps him familiarize himself with the general gist of the topic and when profs would teach the subject for the first time, he could give better than an educated guess when a question came up. He would then re-read the same material as it was being taught along with supplemental material and this would give him a deeper understanding. Then he would review 1-2 times before test day. Now depending on how voluminous the block, this aggressive type of reviewing (i.e. 4 exposures to the same material) may not be possible but at a MINIMUM you should have reviewed a subject two times before being tested on it.

Unless you're sure you learn better by yourself, get in a study group consisting of people who ACTUALLY study. There, you can bounce ideas off each other, do practice exams together and quiz each other afterwards. Trust me, your study group member probably knows something you don’t know and you probably know something he/she doesn’t know. Basically, being able to talk about the class material with your colleagues is a great strategy to embed the material into your brain. Realistically, many of us remember more clearly conversations we had with our colleagues, than lectures we heard in class.

Be wary however of the inefficient study group members. Find serious-minded individuals like yourself. A study group should do exactly that….study. [This is not to say that you should be the study group Grinch that shushes everyone per second per second]

One of the most important study secrets is “past exams”. To prepare for exams, research and do past exams from your professor. This will give you an idea of how your professor tests. Also, write out your answers like you will do in an actual exam and submit to your professors for review. Many professors are kind enough to sit and review these exams with you. Trust me, this is a learning experience. One time, I wrote out what I believed to be a flawless answer to a practice exam. I took it to my Professor for review. I don’t think I would’ve passed that class, had my “perfect” answer been on my exam sheet.

7. School/Life Balance: Take calculated breaks. Schedule a day off for resting, hanging out with friends, watching movies or doing whatever it is you love. My brother-in-law views study breaks as a nice reward for sticking to his study schedule. He does something that he likes during those study breaks (watch HULU, work-out etc). As he explains, the rewards reinforce his work:  “Work hard to Play hard”.

8. Network: The art of “knowing people” and as Igbo’s call “Imma mmadu” begins in school. To you, the boy sitting at the front of the class is just a nerd- you never know, he might be the person who you’ll need to sign off on that job twenty years after you graduate. The students who sit beside you in class are more than your classmates- they may very well be future big shots. Be nice to everyone because you never know. But be cautious- Only attach yourself to those who’ll bring you up and not push you down…. Those whose goals align with you. Remember, you need company that will positively influence your success.

Perhaps just as important as networking with your classmates is networking with Alums. What undergraduates often do not realize is the immense pride that alums take in their alma mater. A lot of alums see themselves in the current generation (you) and are itching to help and mentor you. To this day my brother-in-law raves about his undergraduate alumni mentors who have steered him in the right direction. If you are in graduate school the same applies and it is even more tangible because alumni of your graduate school will likely help place you in your job.

Get involved in on-campus activities that interest you. Although people play the game of doing things that will look good on their resume, do things you are passionate about. You will invariably excel at this and capture a leadership position. Also when asked to talk about it at an interview your passion will shine through.

Through undergraduate, law school and my Master’s program, I realized success post high school is less about being smart and more about strategy, application and dedication. Post high school studies is about YOU paying attention and applying yourself.

What is success without challenge? What is endurance without pain? What is feat without defeat?


Stay Inspired…
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Anonymous said...

thanks for dis Ralu, was having a bad day at uni and reading this has given me 'fuel'to go back to the essay I have been procastinating.

Anonymous said...

I'm inspired! Very nice points.

Anonymous said...

Good Job Rola! ... Umu Aje

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much >>>>>
this is what I need to hear >>>>>
I am seeking PHD degree and these days I can not
manage my self at all >>>>>>>>

Princess R said...

Thanks for reading guys :-)

Adannaya said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Akunna said...

Wow! Thanks so much! Exactly what i needed

Princess R said...

You're most welcome. I'm glad I could help & thanks for reading :-)