Hi friends! Two weeks ago, I wrote a post dedicated to my college-bound friends, offering some advice on university life. Today, I’ll be sharing with you my second out of three Dear College-Bound Kids post, and I’ll be focusing specifically on tackling studying and assignments.
During my time at university, I studied very hard. But, I learned a little too late (in my last year of undergraduate, in fact) that you shouldn’t endeavour to study hard, but you should study smart. So, in today’s post, I’ll be sharing some advice on how to study smart and effectively, based on years of experimenting and figuring out what works best. Of course, what works best for me may not work best for you! So spend some time figuring out what studying techniques work for you, and if you discover that they aren’t effective, try another method!
Anyway, let’s get straight to the post – and I hope the advice here will be helpful to you!
YOUR NOTES DON’T HAVE TO BE PRETTY BUT THEY HAVE TO BE ORGANIZED.
In my first year of university, I wasted so much time trying to make my notes all perfect and mistake-free. Colour-coded, tabs, nice headers, consistent typography – you name it. This was further compounded by the fact that I am a perfectionist (and I don’t mean this as a good thing), so whenever I made a mistake, I scrapped the whole thing and started again. I cannot tell you how much time I wasted trying to make my notes look nice. But the truth is this (unless bullet journalling is your hobby, which I totally respect!) your notes may be nice, but ‘nice’ makes little to no contribution to the effectiveness of your studying. In university, time is precious, and spending a disproportionate amount of time on making it pretty was not worth it for me. Besides, there’s a high chance you won’t look at your notes after the semester is over. (I have never ever looked at my past notes, planners, or studying material after the course was done.)
Rather than nice, make sure your notes are organized. When I stopped caring about making my notes look nice (heck, I wrote all my notes on scrap paper), I became infinitely more productive and was more focused and engage on the content, and less focused on making things look nice.
- You want to be able to find your notes easily (I recommend using headings or colour-coding the top margin by subject).
- Organize your notes by topics or chronologically; go with what makes sense for you!
- Separate definition, theory, studies, etc. so when it comes to revision, you can find each with ease.
- Develop an organization system that works for you and makes sense to you; don’t follow a friend’s way of organization even though it confuses you.
Look, I’ve been that frustrated university student who got snappish whenever someone suggested I take a break. How can you suggest that I take a break?! I’ve got SO much to do and I’ve got no time!!
I understand. But trust me: take breaks. A little eustress is good for productivity, but too much stress is debilitating.
All through undergrad, I didn’t take a lot of breaks. And though I thought, at the time, I was studying very hard, I wasn’t studying smart. I got sick often because I pushed myself to much, I was utterly miserable because I didn’t have a lot of time for myself, and I procrastinated far more than I should have. Now that I’m in my Honours year, which a kazillion of people have told me is the hardest year for Psychology students in my university, and have taken consistent breaks, my wellbeing has been significantly better and, after my breaks, not only am I more productive, but I end up producing really good work because my brain isn’t exhausted. You can spend 6 hours writing an essay, but if you’ve only written 500 words because you couldn’t think and were exhausted after a breakdown, what difference does it make if you spent two hours and wrote the same 500 words?
- Take breaks, but control your breaks. What I do is use my phone’s app and set myself an hour. You don’t want something as short as ten minutes where you feel anxious counting down the minutes, but you don’t want something too long either where you lose motivation to work.
- Your break should be spent on something that you enjoy doing or something that you find relaxing.
- If you feel like you’re going to break apart if you spent the night writing this essay, then consider taking the night off. It really is okay and a night of purposeful rest (as opposed to guilt-ridden and reluctant) will do you so much good.
NOT PROCRASTINATING REQUIRES MORE THAN JUST SHEER FORCE OF WILL.
Listen, I am the worst procrastinator. Yes, I know I had a spiel about taking breaks, but in undergrad, I worked ‘hard’ but I also spent an inordinate amount of time playing Solitaire (why? C?W? why?) whenever I hit a road bump. So, if you’re a procrastinator, you’re going to need more than just sheer force of will – “okay, okay I’m DEFINITELY going to do work for real now” – to stop. My suggestions:
- Use apps like Forest app. For some reason, this app really works for me. Not that I care about the pixelated trees, but for some reason when I know my phone is not accessible to me, I don’t feel motivated to check it. Make sure you ‘whitelist’ apps that may be important for you to use.
- When it’s exam or assessment time, give someone you trust (and someone who will not abuse that trust) your social media passwords. Sure, you might slap ‘hiatus’ on your username and be ‘absent’ (i.e. not posting), but what’s stopping you from scrolling and watching those autoplays? 🤷
- I just took two days off from social media. I undownloaded the Facebook messenger app from my phone and logged off Facebook. It’s amazing how much I concentrated uninterrupted and how much work I got done. Because I measure my productivity by word count, I wrote three times as much in one day because I wasn’t logged into social media.
SET REALISTIC GOALS AND USE A PLANNER.
One of the worst things I did to myself was set unrealistic work/study goals. ‘Read this WHOLE chapter by tonight!’ What a load of horse poop, and it was no wonder I didn’t feel motivated to work.
Productivity isn’t just about chugging out a ton of work. Productivity is partly attributed to planning. Set yourself realistic and achievable goals and you’ll be far more productive. I tend to look at when assignments are due, and, knowing that I am a very slower writer, I plan my time accordingly. I usually give myself one full day to do comprehensive research, and then set myself 500 words a day, allowing myself at least a full day to edit, and then, if I can (which, let’s be real, is seldom the case), give myself three days leeway before the due date in case things don’t go according to plan. Moreover, if you reach your goal for the day, why not reward yourself the rest of the night off?
As for the planner, I make a table on Microsoft Word. I used to plan my things in a planner book, but I felt like it didn’t work very well for me. Also, I spent a lot of time trying to make it look neat and pretty (which is just how I am), and whenever I made a mistake, I hated crossing things out. With Microsoft Word though, it works for me because I can edit it easily, I can colour things and change the colour as well, and I have infinite amount of room. My planner looks a little bit like this:
And though that planner is certainly not pretty or underwhelming, it works really well. The columns correspond to my classes (the far right being dissertation work), and my goals for each. For me, I’ve coded it so that green means that I’ve accomplished that goal, whereas red means I didn’t quite get there, and blue means that’s my goal. Orange, as you can see, is a due date.
- Productivity is producing work and good planning.
- Set yourself realistic and achievable goals where you can trust yourself to complete. Plan ahead!
- If it’s important for you to have a pretty and neat planner, great! It just doesn’t work for me, so I use one on Microsoft Word. It gets the job done and takes up less time, which is what I want from a planner.
START YOUR ASSIGNMENTS EARLY.
When people say ‘my best work is done the night before!’, take that with a grain of salt. Because, honestly, that is, 95% of the time, a load of bullpoop.
Let me teach you a thing called cognitive dissonance, and this is a really important and useful thing to learn about. (Because, honestly, it explains a lot of behaviour.) Cognitive dissonance is a psychological phenomena where we hold two contradictory beliefs or ideas. Now, having two contradictory ideas is actually really uncomfortable! We like having the world make sense, that is consistent with our ideas and beliefs about the world. When people experience cognitive dissonance, they will actually feel motivated to reduce that mental discomfort.
In the context of doing your assignments last minute, we can understand the cognitive dissonance caused by the contradictory beliefs of ‘I am doing this last minute and it’s not as good as it could be’ and ‘If I started earlier, this would have been way better and I would be less stressed’. An outcome of cognitive dissonance is when people end up justifying their actions, especially when they invest a great deal of perceived effort into the task. Therefore, in this context, to resolve or reduce the dissonance they feel, people who do their essays last minute (and experience a great deal of stressed and put in a lot of perceived effort) will end up justifying or show a greater positive evaluation of the essay.
So the moral of my ramble: starting early will give you more time to become an expert on what you’re writing about so you know what you’re talking about in your essay, spread out your workload across a few days rather than writing it all in one day, and give yourself enough time for road bumps and editing.
Though university can be a lot of fun, studying and assignments is arguably the worst part. But, with some solid planning and smart studying, it can be less miserable, even if it’s just a little bit. And if you’re struggling, I promise you’re not alone.
Moreover, working hard and university stress can be very overwhelming, so make sure you also give yourself days where you can take a breather, spend time with loved ones, or do something for yourself too. University is important, but your mental health is important too. If things get too overwhelming, check out the university counselors – usually there are mental health staff on campus and they are, more often than not, fantastic. Look after yourself and your friends. 💛
- Do you have any advice for fellow college-bound/university-bound students?
- How do you study, and what works best for you?
- Do you use a planner? Does having a bullet journal work for you?