Adrienne Shumlich/the Gauntlet

Surviving midterm season

10 study tips to succeed at university

Publication YearIssue Date 

The first month of university has come and gone, and the schoolwork and late nights are starting to catch up to those who live by the “YOLO” mantra. If transitioning from summer to fall is like waking up on a cold, dreary Monday, transitioning from September to midterm season is like getting your nose punched into your brain while being electrocuted. October is when dreams of rainbows, stars and a 4.0 grow faint, when cheerful laughter turns into pitiful sobs and healthy food gets passed over for a DQ Blizzard. 

These symptoms of October can be alleviated by 10 simple tips from Cal Newport’s book How to Win at College and reviewed by University of Calgary students and professors. Just like an iPhone 5, these tips are guaranteed to work if you don’t run them over with your car — they are under warranty as long as they’re not broken. 

Tip 1: Don’t do all of your reading 

Most professors prefer teaching literate students, and to ensure that students don’t lose their ability to read and write in the age of emoticons, lols, ttyls and lmfaos, a fair amount of readings are assigned. 

Robert Wong, fourth-year engineering student and past president of the on-campus performance art club Act to Inspire, says, “if you did all your reading you would be so behind.” 

Instead, when reading a textbook, focus on the introduction and conclusion of a chapter, and skim everything in the middle, making tick marks beside key points. Even if you miss a few significant bits of information, your professor won’t, so make sure you take meticulous notes in class. 

For courses like mathematics, there is another reason to follow this tip. “It’s good to familiarize yourself with the material beforehand, but if you had to choose between pre-reading and doing exercises afterwards, you would be better off doing exercises,” says Matthew Greenberg, U of C mathematics professor. However, the point of English classes is to actually read the assigned novels, so for some classes you will have to decide how much this tip should influence your reading habits. 

Also, skip optional readings. These are merely suggestions of purchases you should put on your bookshelf to impress guests at the party you will host after finishing all your assigned readings. 

Tip 2: Start long-term projects the day they are assigned 

Most university students hone skills in procrastination. You know you have repeatedly vowed to start working on a project, researching for an essay or studying for linear algebra. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Starting a project can be the hardest part and avoiding it often leads to cramming the night before to get your assignment done. The end result is almost always unsatisfying. U of C mathematics professor Kristine Bauer explains, “the way profs assign homework and the way students perceive the assignment is often misunderstood. A due date tells students that they don’t have to worry about the assignment until then, but my advice is to work on the assigned work every day.” 

First-year neuroscience student Bruce Gao, who is a Schulich Scholar and president of SimplySolar, a startup programming company, says, “I start thinking about the project immediately. I always want to think of a way to make my project stand out.” 

By starting on the first day, you not only put yourself ahead of your classmates, you will also encourage yourself to carry that initial enthusiasm through to an A.

Tip 3: Read a newspaper every day

If you are reading this, you can already check this tip off. The newspaper offers all sorts of conversation starters, and it will increase your chances of sounding sophisticated. Reading a newspaper in the morning is the perfect way to prepare your brain for a day of mental exercise, not to mention the extra benefits of improving your own writing through imitation. Bauer brings up another significant reason for this tip: “don’t forget the world outside of university. Think about success as a student, but keep in mind you have to get a job in the world.” 

If your employability was based on your knowledge of the American economy, would you be hired?

Tip 4: Do one thing better than anyone else you know

Being well-liked and successful at the same time is like making just the right amount of coffee for your tumbler — hard to manage but enormously satisfying. The secret to managing these two traits comes down to self-confidence. There are many people in university who want to prove themselves. Sometimes you will feel like Simba in a stampede — trampled and lost. 

“It makes you feel good. It individualizes you. Like in dance, you always have that special move,” says Wong. 

Similarly, Gao also values what he can do. “I think of really innovative ideas and bring them to reality through computer programs,” he says. 

This one skill that you carry with you is the cornerstone upon which you build your identity — so find it, keep it and run with it.

Tip 5: Take a breadth of courses

Although degree programs range in how specific your courses will be, the vast majority of degrees offer electives. Use these to vastly broaden your knowledge and interests. Although you might have one career path in mind, taking unrelated courses will alter your perspective. You should take courses outside of your major and department, for example, astronomy and art history. If you can distinguish the works of Monet and Manet in the same day that you tackle advanced calculus, you will have found a source of confidence and intellectual progress. Being an engineer who can write, or an English major who can do math will make you more intellectually rounded. 

“Take a breadth of courses, and find what you like,” says Bauer. After all, university is a time of exploration.

Tip 6: Ask one question every lecture

Four sleep-inducing factors of a lecture are a hot room, an after lunch class time, a monotonous professor and a boring subject. One moment you’re pumped up and ready to listen to an hour and a half of organic chemistry, the next you wonder where all the drool came from. To avoid falling asleep in lectures, you can drink a gallon of Red Bull or you can actively participate.

“Professors don’t have monopoly on insight. You should ask questions and you should answer questions,” says Greenberg. In a discussion or seminar, the more you participate, the more you will get out of the lecture. If you’re prepared, you should be able to make an intelligent comment about the work being discussed. 

However, you should restrain yourself from asking too many questions. 

“If it’s a smart question, then ask [during] lecture. But if you have a lot of questions, ask on your own time or else you might piss everyone else off,” warns Wong. 

Asking the right questions helps yourself and your classmates.

Tip 7: Schedule your free time

If everything in your life at this moment was put up for auction, your free time would be gone quicker than free pizza in MacHall. In other words, free time is a valuable asset to a university student, perhaps even outscoring a new MacBook Pro. As you go through your day, you should know whether you are working or relaxing. Don’t switch between your online accounting homework and mindlessly surfing the web. Focus when you’re working, and then mindfully take a break.

“Otherwise, [free time] just goes away. It’s so easy to waste time with random crap, like cat videos,” notes Greenberg. 

“This way, you can work hard and play hard,” Gao agrees. 

However, as Bauer points out, “it might not be a good idea if life is too structured.” She suggests trying out different strategies of time-management. “For example, for a student with a packed schedule, I suggest studying in reverse. You start from the last subject that you learned that day, and work backwards. This way, when you’re the freshest, you tackle what you learned when you were the least fresh during the lecture.” 

When it comes to free time, be responsible, be flexible, be smart. 

Tip 8: Eat alone twice a day

For people who need constant social stimulation, this one’s for you. Mealtime in university is like a black hole — it will suck hours of free time out of your day. And unless you explicitly planned for it (see tip 7), you will probably walk away from a meal with your friends and wonder how you’re going to finish studying for that anthropology exam now that you are three hours short. 

However, this tip was met with mixed reviews. 

“In that case, you only have one meal that you can eat with other people. Are you saying [never to] eat with people? How do you hang out with friends?” asks Wong.

Gao said he schedules his time beforehand. “With friends, you talk about stuff you learned. I think it’s important to eat with friends — they have to be the right group of friends — because it’s a good way to generate ideas,” he said. 

On the other hand, Bauer understands where this suggestion is coming from. “The problem with eating with other people is that you end up working,” she says. “You need some time alone in your day to let ideas settle.” 

Nevertheless, the purpose of this tip is to remind students not to use eating with friends as an excuse for wasting time.

Tip 9: Never pull an all-nighter

In high school, pulling an all-nighter was considered grown-up, and would require immediate public announcement in class the next day. Those days of adolescent sleep deprivation are over. 

All-nighters are dangerous for two reasons: your mental ability at three in the morning is comparable to a toaster oven and recovering from an all-nighter is like recovering from a hangover, except for the part where you actually had fun the night before. A 2007 study by Pamela Thacher, associate professor of psychology at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, looked at the sleeping patterns and transcripts of 111 students to see if there is a correlation between sleep and GPA. She found that those who pulled all-nighters regularly had lower GPAs. 

Never pull an all-nighter, especially before an exam. There is probably not a single person on the entire U of C campus who performed better on a exam because they studied for seven-straight hours the night before. 

“You’re going to be screwed,” says Gao. “The only time I pulled an all-nighter was one week before class started to get my circadian rhythm back on track.” 

As a general rule, you should try to get a lot of restful sleep at regular hours instead of very little sleep at irregular hours. Your brain, body and GPA will thank you for it.

Tip 10: Find a secret study space

Imagine finding a Clif bar in your pocket every time you are hungry. Finding a secret study space is just as rewarding, for the space serves as a haven — your one and only love in academia. Your space is where you will find complete silence and Zen-like concentration. This is the place where you can go to study for the next big assignment or final, where your friends will never find you and where you can make your home away from home. 

“Sometimes you don’t want to be disturbed, but you can’t tell your friends to leave you alone because that’s socially awkward, so the thing to do is hide,” says Greenberg. 

There will also be times when one isn’t enough. Wong estimates he has eight study spaces. “I would find one and someone else finds it and brings all his friends. Then I have to find another one. I always look for signs that say Do Not Enter,” he says. 

If you can maximize the use of your surroundings, you can maximize your performance as a student.

Now that these 10 tips for university success have been bestowed on you, feel free to try them out and find what works for you. You’ll be well on your way to success if you spend less time on Facebook and do a large portion of your reading and practice problems so you can participate in lectures. Incorporating additional study habits and tricks into your schedule will have you studying more and procrastinating less. If you follow these tips, you are guaranteed to have time and energy left over after midterm frenzy to have a celebratory party in anticipation for your upcoming As. Either that, or you will simply have some energy to push towards final exams without feeling October has left you behind.