Whether you love school or see it only as a means to an end, you want to succeed. As my old friend Kathy (now a professor) once said, "There really is nothing like kicking a*s in school, is there?"
Here are 10 tips to help you manage your workload, make the best use of your time and get the greatest return on your educational investment:
1. Get your sleep. This will be hard, especially if you're a night owl (as I am). But without sufficient sleep, everything else in your day -- from getting to class to getting along with that annoying classmate -- will be harder than it has to be. And as much as I would like to have believed otherwise, sleeping from 4 a.m. to noon is not the same as sleeping from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.
2. Get organized. This may sound obvious, but how many of us actually make it a priority? Figure out what tools you'll need to do your best work, and treat yourself. As an example, when I went back to school for my master's degree, I determined that I needed (or wanted) a separate binder for each course. I also figured out if I liked the pens I was using, I would probably take better notes and write better blue-book essays -- which turned out to be true. To this day, I still rely on Pilot G2 gel pens.
3. Upgrade your study skills. With every educational advancement comes a new level of challenge. Yet how often do we muddle along with our same study habits?
Just before going back to grad school, I read Adam Robinson's excellent book, What Smart Students Know. I learned not just how to study for tests, but how to rehearse. I also learned better strategies for note-taking (key: use loose-leaf paper, which allows for greater flexibility when reviewing your notes).
Read Robinson's book, and you will also learn better strategies for studying itself (hint: don't just glaze over your notes and textbooks as though all of it has equal importance -- hone in on what counts).
Incidentally, grad school was the first time in my life I earned straight As. I attribute much of that to Robinson's book. And no, this is not a paid endorsement.
4. Let your career interests drive your college major (not the other way around). As a career counselor, I would often get the question, "What can I do with this major?" I would always respond with, "What would you like to do?" Sometimes students had an answer, other times you could hear crickets.
When you've taken time to discern what you would like to do, using every means possible (reading, career assessments, face-to-face visits with people in careers that interest you, internships and the like), you can then select the ideal major. For example, as an undergrad, I chose to major in advertising, not because I wanted to work on Madison Avenue, but because I loved to write and wanted to learn how to write persuasively. And I wanted to graduate in four years, which I did.
5. Embrace "seasonal imbalance." If you're going to school full time, this has to be your main focus (unless, of course, you're married and/or have kids). The point is, if you want to succeed in school, you can't be on 24-hour call for your friends, family, church and local soup kitchen. Balance, yes. But not at the expense of your education. For this season of life, you're a student. As much as you can, let that role take center stage.
6. Choose your companions wisely. If you want to do well in school and life, you've got to seek out friends who bring out your best, not your worst. And of course, you must be that kind of friend. As my mother told me all while I was growing up, "If you're going to grow, you're going to have to leave some people behind." This is not to be done casually. Yet doing so, when necessary, will make new friendships possible.
7. Don't expect your degree to be enough. What will make your education fun, memorable and "marketable" are the experiences you create outside the classroom. Examples: volunteering in a field that interests you, studying overseas, working an internship. I could (and probably should) do a whole post on meaningful internships, but suffice it to say, they're the ultimate try-before-you-buy for both you and the employer. Even my worst internship ever was extremely helpful -- in three short months, it taught me what I didn't want to do with my life, and the type of organization I didn't want to work for.
8. Use high school or college as a springboard to the real world -- not as a shelter. If you graduate from high school or college, having never interacted meaningfully with people who think different from you or look different from you, you will have wasted some of the best parts of your education. Along those lines, don't confuse geographic diversity with socioeconomic diversity -- if you can have only one, choose the latter. You'll learn more and have a more interesting circle of friends.
9. Figure out how and when you learn best. Are you primarily a book learner, or a hands-on learner? As much as you can, bend your studying to fit the conditions under which you learn most readily.
As an example, remember how I mentioned being a night owl? I've only recently discovered that I do some of my best work early in the morning. Go figure. What about you? If you're not sure when you're at your mental peak, keep experimenting until you figure it out. When you do, succeeding in school will become that much easier and more rewarding.
10. Sit near the front of the classroom. This advice is both literal and figurative. By sitting up front, you'll be less distracted, more alert, and more accountable. Figuratively speaking, sitting near the front is code for my father's more universal advice, "Set yourself up for success." You're the only one who can make this happen, and ultimately the only one who can keep it from happening.
A month from now, I'll be putting most or all of these tips to the test -- not as a student, but as an instructor. I'll be teaching a three-credit required course for all graduate counseling students at the University of San Diego: Career Development Across the Lifespan. It's a tall order, because I haven't taught the course in two years, and I've agreed to teach a double section. Still, with enough sleep, enough preparation, a smile and a steady supply of Pilot G2 pens, my students and I are in for a wonderful adventure -- one that promises to take us outside our classroom.