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9 Specific Tips for a Successful Semester

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All across the country, college students are getting re-adjusted to their homes away from their homes -- committed to fulfilling their New Year resolutions to make this upcoming semester their best semester ever. As my fellow Cornell students are braving three-degree weather and the slippery sidewalks to get to class, students at UChicago are doing quite literally the same. They feel our pain, as do many other college students across the nation. But if the weather isn't getting you down, I'm sure something else is (sorry for the pessimism here).

How much money do you have for food? Are you drinking too much? Are your professors overloading you with work already? How many books do you need to buy? Did you order them already? How much did they cost? When will you do your laundry? Is your room clean? Have you been to Career Services yet? Jobs? Internships? GPA? FAFSA? CSS? GRE? LSAT? GMAT? OMG BRB WTF!

I feel your pain.

To help you start your semester off on the right foot, I've compiled a list of specific suggestions from some of my colleagues, friends, and co-workers. These tips are void of the obvious "get your eight hours of sleep" and "do your homework;" you hopefully know those things already. All of these tips come from students who are going through the same, or similar, stresses as you. They know what they're talking about.

# 1: Limit your alcohol intake. This tip is coming directly from yours truly. Yes, excessive drinking leads to liver damage, hangovers, weight gain, and high blood pressure -- but I'm not talking about that. This is not a matter of health (although it can be). This is a matter of opportunity cost. Going out on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday wastes some serious time that could be better used at, let's say, the library. Or cleaning your room, doing your laundry, and/or going grocery shopping. Also -- you'll be hung-over all weekend, which will impede on your ability to do real work. Who has time for all that? Be productive with your weekends.

# 2: Develop SMART goals. Jaron Hite, a student at Cornell University, says that developing SMART goals will help you "stay on top of every class." What is SMART, you ask?

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

Your goals need to fit these five criteria in order to be SMART. You want a specific goal that you can reasonably achieve within a certain timeframe. This goal should be somehow relevant to your long-term academic/career plans and you should develop a method to measure your progress. An example of a really awesome SMART goal is: My goal is to get straight As this semester. In order to achieve that, I will devote 20 hours in the library every week and will meet with my professors at least once a week. I will keep a binder of all of my assignments with notes to highlight the key points in each assignment, and I will use these binders to prepare for my exams. By the end of these 14 weeks, I will have an A in each of my classes.

Write down your SMART goals somewhere in your room and read them aloud every day. It sounds corny but it will help keep you accountable.

# 3: Don't cram for exams. This is important, fellow college students. Just ask Zachary Vargas-Sullivan, a history major at Columbia University. "On campus, it seems that we've gotten into a habit of cram-learning, where we study for an exam and purge the information, almost immediately forgetting the great ideas and concepts that we've spent a semester "learning" about. I by no means am a model citizen on this matter, and I don't go to all of my classes all the time. But when I learn DURING a semester and give a class my (almost) everything, finals week seems to be much smoother and I find myself less stressed about memorizing a mass amount of new information. Learn as you go, go to class, and review constantly."

College students tend to procrastinate and laugh about it as they go. "Oh I baked cookies instead of reading... LOL!" You wont be LOL'ing once finals week comes around. Save those cookies for later and do your work when it's due.

Also, take note of Zach's other suggestion about "review[ing] constantly." This is important. Your professors are some of the world's brightest people who have done years of research in their academic discipline. They've authored books, published papers, been interviewed on the news about their field of expertise. No doubt about it: They know what they're saying. You will be taking a lot of notes and you may remember some interesting points they made. But, let's be real, not everything they say will be interesting; it will, however, still be important (as in, maybe on your exams). So remember to review your notes periodically throughout the semester.

# 4: Do something fun every day. Leah Reiss-Dennis, a senior at Harvard, made a great point about the importance of taking things called "breaks." Hmmm... tell me more, Leah...

Work hard, but plan in at least one fun study break every day, preferably something social. Whether it's sitting in the dining hall after lunch and chatting with friends, or playing an intramural sport, or hosting a watch-party for your favorite TV show, it helps to have something to look forward to to push you through your hard school work.

Good point. You will be absolutely miserable if the only items you have on your agenda are "class, library, sleep" every day for a semester. Nobody wants that. Not only will you be sad and lonely, but it may also affect your school performance. Every now and then, reward yourself with something fun. You will be a better student for it.

# 5: Make connections with professors. Lilith Siegal, a government major at Smith College, suggests that you make connections with your professors this semester. I know Lili to be a smart young woman who is quick to foster warm friendships with everyone she meets, so this might be easier for her than it is for you (and me). But make no mistake: It is important. Your professors know people. They are published individuals with a large network of influential people. Make it a point to form a relationship with at least one of your professors this spring. I guarantee it will help you in extraordinary ways.

For fellowship or graduate school applications, you will need to ask your professor(s) for a letter of recommendation. If you're looking for something cool to do over the summer, your professor might know somebody who could help you out. If your professor has an opportunity to nominate one or two students for an excellent new initiative, they might think of your name first. This can only happen if you decide to make connections with your professors.

Now, you might come across a professor who isn't friendly or who is simply more concerned with their research than with interacting with students. If that's the case, don't sweat it. Focus your energy on meeting professors who instruct your favorite classes.

# 6: Use your school's resources. Joshua Lakelin, a senior at Cornell University, encourages you to use your school's resources outside of the classroom. Sure, your school offers some really interesting classes, but they also have a network of powerful and smart alumni. Ask your Career Services office if they can put you in contact with any alumni who currently work at company X (a company that, hey, you want to work for). And while you're there, ask a career counselor to critique your resume for you so that it's freshly polished for your next interview.

Lakelin and I just got back from the Cornell Alumni Leadership Conference (CALC), an annual conference that brings together some of Cornell's alumni for a weekend of learning, fun, and networking. As you might know, neither of us has graduated yet, but our school decided to sponsor a few students to attend this conference so that we can meet and learn from the alumni. I asked the Cornell Alumni-Student Mentoring program if they could sponsor me and they said happily agreed.

Your school has opportunities available for you but you have to seek them out. Make the most out of your school's resources.

# 7: Make your health a priority. It's tough and expensive to eat healthy while you are far from home, but consuming the right nutrients will help you stay focused this semester. We've all been there: leftover pizza for breakfast, M&M's for lunch, and coffee with muffins for dinner. Cut that out, ASAP! It doesn't do anything good for you, besides help to minimize your hunger. Snack on brain foods, like almonds and dark chocolate. Put some avocado in your salad. If you can afford it, consider eating two servings of fish a week. If you can't, buy some Omega-3 pills and take a few each week (as according to the bottle's directions).

If you can really go all out, consider investing in a juicer and do what I do: drink your vegetables. Juice yourself some celery, kale, apple, and parsley. You will feel a boost of energy and you will be able to concentrate on your work. (Disclosure: I am an avid juicer and would be happy to share with you my "brain boosting" recipes.)

Check out this article about other healthy "superfoods."

# 8: Schedule "me" time. Benjamin Lighter, a religious studies major at Bethany College, enjoys "scheduling "me" time. My worst semesters have been the semesters without proper self-care. Scheduling and practicing time for yourself is as essential as studying and attendance. You can't do either of the latter two without a proper amount of the former. A healthy run, a good book, insightful meditation -- even if it's just an hour a week, it's an essential part of successful semesters (and it'll set you up for continuing to do so in your adult life, where it is also essential!)"

If you're like me, you might find yourself answering emails on your iPhone or iPad while running to a meeting or answering text messages while eating dinner at the library. You'll spend a great deal of time attending to other people's requests without paying too much attention to what your body and mind are calling for.

Ben mentioned something really important: "self-care." It's important we focus on our personal growth and development as the semester progresses. Do not let yourself get overworked. Be intentional about scheduling time for yourself.

Don't confuse self-care with tip #3, either. While your "me" time can also be fun, it should be a time for you to breathe and think, or to not think at all. Healthy examples of self-care include yoga, meditation, running, and even going on long walks. This semester, devote a couple hours a week to yourself and to reflection. It will help put things into perspective for you and it will also make you a happier person.

# 9: Count your blessings. Kelly Kim, a communication design major at Parson's The New School for Design, told me to "always thank God" and it's a tip that I am grateful for. Even if you don't subscribe to a religion, it's important to always remember how fortunate you are for your life experiences. Bad things are going to happen, but "get back up no matter what, or how many times you fall," Kelly writes. "Keep pushing through and work on things you are already good at too, we always have room for improvement/growth. Consistency is key!"

Nothing can be truer. Your semester will be full of ups and downs. You might get back an assignment that you did poorly on and it may destroy your mood, but remember to count your blessings. Remember that you are blessed to be enrolled at a higher education institution and that your job prospects are better than they were for college graduates in 2009. I'm sure you've got some other exciting things going on in your life other than your active enrollment in school, too. Maybe you've got yourself a supportive partner or maybe your parents' bond has been getting stronger. Maybe you received an internship offer or you just got paid from your on-campus job. Maybe you've got yourself a best friend who can't wait to go club-hopping with you next weekend. Perhaps your sister just got married and now you have a brother-in-law to talk about anime with. Whatever it is, remember to count your blessings and to keep on going.

Best of luck to you this semester. May the curve be ever in your favor.