I’m done with my third semester at UT Arlington. I always take notes for reflections, but I thought this deserves to be a solid blog post. These are all the tips and tricks that I’ve learned over the last 18 months, from personal experiences, from working as a peer academic leader for transitioning freshmen, from peers and mentors that have crushed engineering, and from some of my extraordinary professors. Implement these effectively
I promise you’ll start to see results immediately. These will work for all majors, but are tailored towards STEM degrees. This is not gonna be a vocab savvy blog post, and this is not going to give you cliche advice like ‘study harder’ or ‘form better habits’. No digressions. No nonsense. Let’s get right to it!
1) POP YOUR BUBBLE, YOU’RE NOT SPECIAL
Sorry. I must begin with the harsh reality. Crushing engineering is really a mindset which you need to ease into. This requires debunking some existing myths and assumptions. If you’re in engineering, you’re probably a good student, at least you were in high school.
You were told that engineering is a good choice because you were ‘good at math’. Sounds amazing eh? Except almost none of it really helps with engineering school. It only makes it worse, by giving you a false and inflated sense of self, which university is going to crush.
University is really different. In school, you were probably topper of a small school, in a small city, and if you are like me -in a small country. You had no idea what ‘fierce competition‘ really meant.
Remember, everyone goes to high school. Its a default setting. But undergrad? Only people that WANT to go to undergrad, go to undergrad. This is the real competition.
Get used to getting help. Go to your professor and ask for advice. Contrary to popular belief, your professors are not devils that want to suck your soul. More often that not, they want to help you succeed. Email your professor about your concerns. Be completely okay with inadequacy, because that is the only way you are going to learn.
2) UNDERSTAND THE 80/20 RULE
This is one that certainly applies to every single major. Research shows that in school, 80% of the material is taught to you. This was done by your teachers’ lectures, their notes, weekly tests, separate revision days, and mock tests.
A lot was done to make sure the concepts and practices were cemented in your brain. The remaining 20% consisted of you reviewing over concepts yourself and prepping for exams. In other words, only 20% of the work consisted of self study. High school took care of the 80%. This is why you had so much free time.
For college? Simply flip. Only about 20% of the material will be spoon-fed to you. That is, if you only go to class and call it a day, you’ll only equip yourself with 20% of the knowledge required to pass the class.
Disastrous to say the least. You have to painstakingly put 80% of your own time. This consists of reviewing concepts, synthesizing them, practicing tons of practice problems, going over old tests, visiting office hours, and long nights at the library.
There is a rule of thumb that for every hour of class, you should expect to spend an extra 2 hours of time outside of class digesting and mastering that material. While some of your intro and elective classes will not need this, most of your major classes certainly will.
This complete shift of study habits needed will rattle many high school toppers. It’s like being a pro at FIFA 07 and hoping that those skills will somehow make you an astonishing FIFA 18 player. it’s not happening.
see also: The 11 inevitable stages of Life
3) GO TO CLASS
This might seem really obvious, but it’s not unfortunately. Take my Statics class for example. It is humanly impossible to learn every single concept and read every single page of this enormous book.
Your professor is well aware of the impossibility of this task, which is why they will subtly and intentionally – narrow things down for you. You really have to go to class for this, besides the extremely obvious reason which is to understand the material.
Pay close attention to the problems the professor works on the board. Chances are, they will be on the exam. Of course, they can’t just explicitly tell you what’s going to be there on the exam, but again, they want to help.
They were students, and they know the struggle. You can’t just skip class, and then try and digest the entire book the night before. Narrow down on what is really important. Going to office hours is again another excellent way to work on this.
Engineering is hard, and going to class can be challenging with impending assignments for different classes every other day, but you’ll see the results if you start making conscious efforts.
4) SLIDE WATCHING
You’re motivated on a Sunday afternoon. You pull up your Physics 1 lecture slide, and start thoroughly memorizing Newton’s second law. You got it down. In fact, good thing you covered it in high school. You then take breaks and until the day of the exam, repeatedly look at all your slides making sure you understand every single concept.
So you should get a decent grade right? Nope.
As an engineering major, knowing the formula alone and expecting to pass is wishful thinking.
You will probably be allowed to take a note card or a formula sheet, so if you’re memorizing what you will be allowed to have with you in the exam, you’re wasting valuable time. Knowing what the formula is, is irrelevant.
What toppers know is – how to use the formula in a different environment. And how do you do that? Three tips – Practice. Practice, and you guessed it – Practice. There is a huge, and I mean huge gap between knowing the formula and being able to use that formula in a multitude of ways.
Remember – not only that, you also have to do it under stress and with the clock ticking. The idea is to know how to use Newton’s Second Law. Read the slide and look at the professor’s example.
Open your textbook and get some fresh ways of solidifying what you’ve learned in class. Don’t waste time trying to understand every bit of theory.
Get a decent grip of the concept and then ditch the reading. Yes I said it. Your real skill development begins now – when you start practicing problems. If the exam is the first time you’re giving this a try, you’ll suffer. This will affect the crucial step of thinking about it yourself. Remember this–
“You learn in the interval between when you attempt the problem and before you look at the answer, provided you have exhausted your mental faculties in the meantime”.
Practice until you can do similar problems in the back of your head. It is the only way deliberate and tricky variations won’t stump you in the exam.
5) FIND THE RIGHT CROWD
“You are the average of the five people you hang around with”.
Heard of that? Is it true? ABSOLUTELY. Human beings learn best through osmosis, through influence, and by watching others perform. Find the smart kid in your class. Make some study buddies. Get on the class GroupMe chat.
It helps a lot more than you think. You’re going to get through that long physics homework a lot faster when you’re in a group of 4 people that are feeding off each others’ strengths.
In this process you’re bouncing your ideas back and forth with someone, which is an excellent way to learn. You’re also in the process of teaching someone else as you collaborate, which is again – probably the most effective way to learn.
If you’re unsure who is the right crowd, go to the library on a Friday night when everyone else is partying.
Whoever is there getting ahead of the next week, that is your guy/gal. Double check calculations, redo problems, figure out stuff together etc. This brings me back to my very first point. Yes, this will also probably be uncomfortable at first. but learn to learn while being the intellectually inferior one.
“In fact, that is the only way you grow – by surrounding yourself with people that are better than you”.
6) DON’T GIVE UP ON A CLASS
College will be many firsts. For a lot of you, this will be the first time you get a 72. Your heart will sink cause according to Brown standards, you’re now a disgrace to the entire race and possibly even human kind.
Take a deep breath.
The syllabus states that a 72 is a solid C, so that’s what you are probably going to end up with right? Nope. If it’s a midterm, then it probably isn’t worth anything more than 30%, which leaves with you with enough opportunities to bring your grade up to a B, and even an A!
Although the syllabus states that the boundary for an A is ‘90%’, that is often not the case. Many STEM classes are graded on a curve which means that your grade will probably get bumped up. In other cases, the boundaries will usually be lowered. Calculus 2 is a hard class here at UT Arlington, and the boundary was brought down to Mid 80 for an A last semester.
The magic word – distribution. Your college or department has in mind the percentage of A’s and B’s they want to hand out. At the end of the semester, things are tweaked and adjusted to satisfy this distribution.
For my Physics Class, the professor wanted to give A’s out to 25% of the class. The boundaries were lowered to 88% to meet this.
Also – DO EVERY SINGLE EXTRA CREDIT ASSIGNMENT
You might wonder what good will ‘1% added to your final grade’ do to my chances of getting an A. Is doing 50 extra problems or writing 2 essays really worth it? ABSOLUTELY. You bet. Extra credit assignments are one of the few assignments where you’re guaranteed to get 100% marks if you do the job.
This will not be graded holistically like an exam. You either do, or you don’t. It’ll be fairly simple. Rethink this scenario now. You’re in a hard class. You get a 72 percent on your first exam and conclude your life is over.
Theoretically, even if you get 95% on your remaining midterm and final exam, you still can’t get a 90% overall. So you give up. ORRRR – you give it your absolute best. You don’t get 95%, but you did amazing – you end up with 90% on your remaining assignments.
Except, the boundary for an A is lowered to an 88%. It’s actually 87% for you since you did the extra credit! And voila, you did it. You’re brown again.
7) RELAX, JEEZ
“Engineers don’t sleep”
the most popular engineering meme motto. I disagree. Sleep is an essential part of retaining information. Imagine trying to visualize a 3D parabola while on 34 minutes of sleep. Good luck.
Instead of trying to follow the needless social construct of no sleep, try and work on your time management.
Sleep is a really important part of studying. It is during sleep that information is transferred from your conscious skill set to your subconscious. That is how you make an idea innate. By sleeping on it!
I personally made time to play soccer, play FIFA, hang around with my friends, and I still managed to get on the Dean’s List.
In fact, I think I’d do terrible if I didn’t take some time out for recreation. Remember, your career is important, but it probably isn’t the most important thing in your life, so treat it accordingly. Give some time to yourself, to your hobbies, and your friends and family.
As for this guide is concerned, it’s worked really well for me. Now if you’re an entering freshman or a high school student reading this, you’re feeling pretty good right now.
Feeling like you’re gonna be okay now that you’ve equipped yourself with the right information. How do I know? Cause that was me 2 years ago. I’ll tell you the most important thing to take away from this blog post –
CONVERTING TO ACTION IS THE HARDEST
It’s ridiculously easy to read this blog post, feel super hyped and then do absolutely none of it when the going gets hard. Trust me, I know! Habits are stubborn and hard to break, but you’ve made the first step by reading this far.
Take it one at a time, and start implementing small chunks every day.
That’s how long term habits are built. If you put in the time, understand the game has changed, and adapt accordingly, I promise you’ll do great!
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