Allow me to prelude this by stating that I am not an expert, nor do I know about any of the personal barriers others may face during the course of their education. But I did graduate at the top of my class with the highest honor granted to graduates at my university. So, I do believe I’ve acquired at least some degree of knowledge on how to successfully navigate the college experience. My hopes are that you can apply at least part of my advice to your journey ahead, whether it be starting college or transitioning into a career. So, here we go!
10) Reward Yourself
Did you study hard for an exam? Get that iced coffee! Finally finished that seemingly endless paper? Give yourself the night off from schoolwork. The balance between work and pleasure must be maintained, or the power of stress and anxiety is going to manifest resentment. Been there. Don’t allow the constant work to diminish your college experience.
9) Don’t Pull All-Nighters – Plan Ahead
Unfortunately, there will be many times you’re going to have to skip things you want to do. Three papers, but all your friends want to go drinking? Should you? It depends. Again, it goes back to balance: will you resent yourself in the future, if you don’t work on these papers? Will it cause an all-nighter? Don’t go. Or, are you fairly caught-up with the coursework and will only be a little unconvinced tomorrow? Give yourself the time off!
Also, get a planner or use the calendar on your phone. I cannot function or plan without one. As soon as you get an assignment, record the deadline, then breakdown the assignment into manageable daily chunks. DO THIS. You will save yourself so much stress. From time-to-time you’ll wake-up, go to class, go to work, come home, do homework, then sleep. Yes, these days suck – they’re awful. But, I promise you won’t be as tired as you would be otherwise. And if you’re massively tired, you’re not going to maintain as much information during class, which may feed an ugly cycle.
8) Express Gratitude
It is impossible to get a degree without a support system, whether it be friends, your grandma, significant other, peers, professors, or your boss. Give thanks to these people, from time to time. Write them a nice note. Invite them out to coffee. Or, simply, tell them! Say, “Hey, I just want you to know that I appreciate when you let me vent to you.” Or, “Thank you so much for always accommodating my schooling in the work schedule.” Or, “I can’t imagine getting through this semester without you.” They will hear it. Be sincere. Plus, research suggests expressing gratitude enhances our sense of well-being.
7) Remember that It’s Not a Race
Life gets in the way. Sometimes we can’t afford to go full-time. Sometimes keeping the lights on takes priority over studying. Sometimes we have kids at home than need us to be parents before students. It’s okay. You’re not falling behind. You’re doing the best you can do, considering the circumstances; and, if others dare judge you because of that, politely tell them where to stick it.
6) Stay Connected with Friends and Family
If we don’t regularly see our close friends and family, that social disconnection begins to take a toll. School is stressful, and it is awful when you feel stressed AND alone. Personally, I manage this by scheduling (remember that planner?) time to spend with friends and family. Sometimes it’s only a meal, an hour, or a 15-minute Skype date. No matter the circumstance, it’s always rejuvenating. Sometimes it’s only once every month or two, but these instances reinforce your support system. Your time together is helping them, too!
5) Don’t Settle – Stay Open to Alternatives
Refrain from staying dead-set on a specific career, major, or school. I have a degree in Research Psychology, but my experiences during school taught me that I’m actually more concerned with social welfare, meaning a degree in Social Work (which I’ll be pursing in graduate school) may have been more appropriate. If I would have been inflexible, which I initially was, I would not have given myself the opportunities to explore different avenues. I have a friend who left her initial university because a career-college better suited her needs. This is good. Remain flexible when learning new information or different perspectives, because it could be key to figuring out a path tailored to your personal ambitions.
4) Leave Your Comfort Zone
When you don’t allow yourself to get uncomfortable, you don’t learn much. Take that internship. Study abroad. Attend dialogues with diverse people. Challenge your dearly held beliefs. You’ll learn more about other and yourself. Empathy is what we need in this world, and there is no better way of being more empathic than genuinely listening to people who have beliefs and experiences that don’t match yours.
3) Be Passionate about Your Field
If you don’t like what you’re studying, why are you doing this? Life is too short to invest this much time, money, and energy into something you don’t really care about. You’ll be significantly more engaged when you actually have an interest in your field of study. Don’t pick a major just because the career prospects suggest you’ll make a lot of money.
I’ve been told many times that my psychology degree is useless and that I’ll never find a job. But, my love of the field led me to pursing an internship, conducting my own research projects, joining a research lab, connecting with faculty, and taking on field-related leadership positions – all of which built a strong resume of experiences that eventually equated to acceptance to my graduate program and leaving my undergraduate career at the very top. So, tell me who has low career prospects now! Ha!
2) Focus on Learning, rather than Grades
When we stop fixating on getting a good grade, points, and rubrics, and shift focus to genuinely trying to learn the content, those good grades “magically” follow. Be mindful of your mindset. If you think “I’m never go to use this” – Hi, algebra peeps – chances are that you’re not going to retain much information, meaning you’ll probably do more poorly than you would have otherwise.
Rather, ask yourself, “How can I apply this class/topic to my skillset as a future professional?” I’ll give an example: I took “Introduction to Logic,” which is basically math with statements. Though I won’t directly use the course content in the future, I decided that the course would allow me to think more dynamically, since I had to think about “absolutes” and “what-ifs” much differently. As a future clinician, these skills will help me navigate some clients through their own thought patterns, helping them recognize inconsistencies or contradictions in their thinking, which then aids in the CBT process.
1) Breathe – Appreciate the Moment
Here’s something I’m personally working on, daily. I have yet to master living in the moment. I’m always worried about what I have to get done when I get home, where I plan to be a year from now, what I have to get done this weekend, that I still have another 2 pages to write on an assignment before I can blah, blah, blah… This is such a dangerous way to live life, as it doesn’t allow you to actually live.
So, I suppose this point makes everything come full-circle: it’s not a race, enjoy the journey. Believe me: it will be done before you know it. Some of these things are not easy, and some of our external obligations make these unrealistic at times. Sometimes you’ll come home with zero motivation to do anything, pour a glass of wine, lay on the floor, stare at the ceiling, and contemplate why the hell you decided to invest your entire life into going to school for several years, with the end seeming so far away… Then you’ll graduate, with the entire journey seeming to have flown by in the blink of an eye. You will make it. But you MUST make changes in your life, if you want to do it well.