What I Learned from One Full Year as a University Student

In 2022, I decided to Pull a Crazy and invoked what would end up being the busiest year of my life, all for the love of learning. In my favourite coffee shop, in the pleasant white light of a snowy day, I decided to sign up for university classes. I had no plan aside from don’t fail, hoping that I would find some attunement with a particular subject (or two). Throughout the year I took fourteen classes (the maximum allowed), which meant a fall and winter term of five classes, and a summer term of four classes. This was a bumpy ride for several reasons, not least of which because life circumstances forced a (temporary) move to a different province. Even amidst a season of personal chaos, and some bad illnesses, including Covid, and whatever demonic respiratory viruses have been currently floating around, I managed to pull off an average of 91% across the fourteen classes.

(A brief note: there are many, many people who are pulling off excellent mark at high-tier universities who might have more interesting things to say about their experience. Still, I’m going to brazenly plod forward in sharing thoughts and advice.)

The lowest mark I received was an 85% in an introductory-level English class. I love reading fiction, and I love writing, but I do not love writing about fiction. The highest mark I received was a 97% in my philosophy-logic class. While I did end up with a final mark of 99% in my intro-level psychology class, it was actually a true 96%, with the extra three percentage points coming from participating in psychological studies, so I don’t count that one as being my top mark.

Talking to some of my classmates in this most recent term, it became apparent that I am not getting high marks because I’m the brightest of the bunch. This just isn’t the case. Some of these 20-something kids are ridiculously sharp, and handily outperformed me on some papers. The only reason why I might have a higher GPA than them is not sharpness, but consistency. One classmate talked about their doomed intro Philosophy class in which they only pulled through with a 70%, and another classmate mentioned the challenging language class they barely managed to pass. One 60% or 70%, or a few of them, scattered across 90%+ class scores, significantly weighs down the GPA.

That’s it. That’s the only reason I haven’t (yet) fallen below 85%. Granted, I haven’t yet had a really wonky class (though I’m certainly knocking on wood after writing that). This consistency has little to do with sharpness. It’s all about being organized, budgeting my time properly, and showing up to do the work.

For example, I ended up with a mark of 91% in my first Japanese class. This was a notoriously challenging class, and many of my classmates struggled – and those were the ones who managed to make it to the end. I didn’t get 91% because I was better, or sharper, but because I dedicated 1-1.5 hours a day to it. I also knew a few things about language-learning and was diligent with flashcards, using my own simple spaced-repetition system. I also learned and practiced the alphabets daily, which meant that I was able to read Hiragana relatively fluently quite quickly. Anyone could have done that. Diligence, non-negotiable daily practice (even in the throes of illness), and good organization skills earned me that mark.

It must be said that I am a decent writer, which is a crucial advantage in the Humanities. I am very glad that I’ve had years to hone my writing skills, not just through journaling and posting articles such as this, but with reading hundreds of books. This is where being the old lady of the university comes in handy.

In addition to having more time to develop my writing skills than some of my peers, I have also honed my communication skills in the many videos I’ve created over the years, and with all of the teaching I’ve done. Teaching, and making videos of teaching, has forced me to get very clear in how I communicate, to think of things in different ways, and to continually practice mental flexibility. Teaching has also been a forcing function for developing organizational skills.

Again, I am nowhere near being the “best and brightest.” I have caught glimpses of these people, and they are not me. They certainly inspire me. This isn’t some attempt at self-deprecation; it’s just that I’m intimate with my limitations. For example, detail work continues to be a thorn in my side, both in my professional life and school life. I do the best I can, but details are not my strong suit. And I’m not talking about details like forgetting a comma or something – sometimes the details end up being very major things.

An example of this is when I wrote an assignment for a psychology class. I followed the instructions, and felt good about what I had written. It had been fairly easy. So when it came back with a mark of 60% from the teacher’s assistant, I was aghast. It turns out I forgot to cross-reference the syllabus and missed a section on providing sources for my writeup. Sources are important! At that point, I had written several large papers (including a big history one), and I am no stranger to providing sources. But even though the assignment was essentially just drawing from one source (the textbook), and even though similar past small assignments in other classes were more informal, I was axed hard for not providing that source. Can you tell I’m still a little salty? But ultimately, it was my fault. It was a detail I overlooked. I do try very hard to avoid these situations, but they crop up sometimes and I have to just let it go.

So if I were to (brazenly) provide some tips/suggestions to sum up how I pulled off a good average, relatively independent of mental faculties, it would be these:

1) Organization is key.

Know deadlines. I dump data from all of my syllabi into one Excel doc, organized by date. I include every single assignment, including when readings need to be completed by, and refer to it when I’m creating weekly plans. I usually look two weeks in advance when I’m planning, because two weeks is about how much time I like to have to write an average paper (though I prepare for them much earlier than that), and it’s about how much time I like to have to study for a large exam. If there’s a big paper to write, such as in a history class, then I choose my topic as early as I can and start reading primary and secondary sources immediately. I like to get through a handful of books before I even consider what my angle will be, and before I get into the writing draft phase.

Each week, I plan my upcoming week. So on Sundays, I plan the next week. This includes specific plans. I don’t just write “study” on the agenda. I specifically write, “Read Sartre p. 116-181 this week,” and set aside regular time to pull that off. If I have an upcoming test, I reserve 30m-1h per day to study for ideally two weeks before the test. I put all assignment due dates on my calendar, and make sure I give myself plenty of time prior to the due date to chip away at them.

2) Consistency is key, too.

For me, this has meant setting aside 20-30 hours per week to attend classes and study. It is basically impossible for me to put in more than 30 hours per week, since I also run a business and have a small child. So when I’m planning the week, I have to decide how long things are allowed to take. I just can’t do an ambling 8-hour writing session for a paper that I didn’t properly plan for. It needs to be highly-focused intermittent blocks spread over a longer time horizon.

I also have regular blocks dedicated to school work, including before 7am and most mornings and Sundays. This means I don’t have genuine “days off” and must prioritize longer holidays to actually get those. But reading Sartre for two hours on a Sunday morning is relatively luxurious, so I try to save the nice schoolwork for Sundays. For me, that usually involves reading. I love reading on Sundays, and it doesn’t feel much like work at all.

With things like language-learning, even a few missed days can create big setbacks. The daily habit (7 days a week) is indispensable.

3) Keep the chin up.

When I mess up in a class (like with the 60% assignment), I have to do some big emotional work. Some people out there would be unbothered, but for me, I have to fight this feeling of wanting to throw the game board into the air in a rebellious rage. Screw this class, I didn’t like it anyway! It’s a self-destructive instinct to fail with shining glory and go down in flames. Had this been ten years ago, I might have made this mistake. Fortunately, a calmer head prevailed and I finished that class with a 91% average.

4) Don’t care too much.

Since I’m a mature student who already has a “real job,” I don’t have a lot riding on being a student. If I get a bad grade, it really does not matter. I’m not worried about career prospects, or not getting into med school or law school. And this slight detachment from the outcomes of my efforts means that I’m more likely to take creative risks, instead of doing, say, writing assignments that play it safe. Not to any ridiculous extent, but I like putting myself out there a little bit. If I’m feeling nervous to submit something, that’s a good sign. Sometimes if I attempt to take a stand on some matter or other, I’ll fall flat and not convey my position effectively. And sometimes (okay, rarely) I’ll hit on an ever-elusive “good idea” that is not just a regurgitation of other authors. Those “good ideas” don’t come without ample practice and a graveyard of “not-so-good ideas,” so university writing is an excellent playground in which to hone my point of view.

What does this matter if one is trying to get into med school? I think the broader principle is the less one is attached to grades, the more smoothly things go. There is more ease and relaxation, which makes for better work. It’s a fine balance; I really do care about what I’m learning in university, and I’m really putting in the best of myself, even if the best of myself doesn’t always crack it. I’m putting in a lot of effort. So when I say “don’t care so much,” I’m not saying that with shoulder-shrugging passivity. It’s more about detaching from outcomes. I give it my all, and then I try to learn from it afterward. So it’s this fine balance between striving and ease.

This is so similar to piano. Piano practice has been one of my greatest teachers in adapting to university, because many similar mental skills are needed. In piano, you must straddle the line between striving and ease. Too much striving, and your playing is tense and forced. Too much ease, and your playing is lifeless and limp.

5) No excuses.

Not to sound like a drill sargent, but personal crises are inevitable. People get sick, people die, mental illness can come knocking, cars break, financial situations change, babies are born, and any other assortment of things. Anticipate that there will be obstacles, and that your semester will not be smooth-sailing all the way through. If that’s your expectation, the first sign of hardship is going to send you to teacher’s offices (or inboxes) asking for an exception, or exemption, or extension. Or you’ll just complain on your class Discord server. You’ll say, “I’m really sick, so I guess I’m going to do a bad job on this paper.” And then when you do a bad job on the paper, you say, “yes, just what I expected.”

In fact, I wrote two papers while in bed for three weeks during a particularly rough illness. My attention was fragmented, and the writing was labourious. What came out of it was one paper that I fist-bumped the sky about (I was very proud of it), but the other probably would have been improved if I hadn’t been under an illness fog. C’est la vie. I didn’t complain about it, and it was not my finest work, and I also received some valuable feedback on it.

When someone very close to me was hospitalized for months, prompting a temporary move, there were some nights I did not sleep much because I spent hours reading every medical study I could get my hands on. It was a time of deep inner turmoil. And I still attended all of the classes (remotely) and did all of the reading and studied hard for all of the exams. The crisis was such that I almost certainly would have been able to get leniency from my professors had I asked. But I didn’t.

This isn’t a tough-guy thing, a recommendation to grit your teeth and bear it. It’s more in remembering what the classes are for, and what the larger goal is. Taking classes is maybe even my favourite thing that I’m doing right now. Sometimes it has been very challenging to do the work, but it’s a high priority. It would hurt more to get derailed from my classes than it would to take it easy in tough times.

Besides, university is one of the easier things that I do on a daily basis. I find teaching, and creating lessons, much more challenging. Exercise is challenging. Not eating takeout is challenging. Meditating is really challenging. Parenting is the most challenging of all.

But 90% of what I do with school is read, write, and attend lectures. I love reading, and all I need to do with lectures is pay attention and take good notes. Writing, I’ll concede, is really hard, but it’s a small part of the overall experience.

So in the throes of hardship, I am not framing university as this huge hurdle that impedes my ability to cope with life. Most of the time (certainly not all) it feels more like a respite.

6) Being present.

You would not believe (or maybe you would) how many people go on their phones or open other tabs on their laptops during lectures. It does somewhat depend on the class, but I saw it even in an upper-level philosophy class.

When I’m in class, I try to be in that class as much as I possibly can. The more I soak up and learn from that class, the better. It saves time and effort in the long run. I take notes, write my own observations or questions that come up as I’m listening, and try to commit concepts to memory. What a massive benefit this is when it comes time to prepare for an exam!

As someone with attentional issues, this has been one of the steepest learning curves for me. I was absolutely abysmal at this in high school. Instead of paying attention, I would usually doodle or journal, if I bothered to show up at all. There’s a reason I did very poorly in high school, and I even dropped out (but later finished).

In order to be present, I have to first promise myself that I will not open any other tab on my laptop. My workaround is to have scrap paper or a little notepad on the computer where I can write any errant, random thoughts, like, “I wonder if the new assignment was posted,” or, “I wonder how many apple trees a family needs to meet their annual apple needs.” These thoughts swing around my head all the time, and as much as I like to tell myself I’ll just do a teeny-tiny Googling and then pay attention to the class, it’s much more likely that I’ll embark on a 1-hour rabbit hole adventure. At least if I write down the random, stray ideas I have, even if they are really appealing, I tell myself that I can do all the Googling I want once class is done.

The other big thing that helps me concentrate, weirdly enough, is having a hot beverage to sip. It doesn’t even have to be coffee, though it usually is. This is a big help in private conversations, too, not just lectures.

And it’s not just about being present during class, either. Being present with my readings, and with my assignments, is just as important. This hyperfocus mode is one reason I’m able to accomplish quite a bit in a relatively small amount of time. If I am distracted while I’m reading, I’m not going to absorb things, and I’m going to have to do more work to make up for it later. If I’m researching for an essay and open 50 tabs and one of them is YouTube and I start watching random videos, it’s all over.

Beyond that, being present with my family is so important for my soul. A well-thought-out schedule is the mise en place of life. If I do my schoolwork with high focus, in the allotted time (as well as my regular work), then I have mental space to actually just do a puzzle with my kid, without the feeling of a nagging to-do list. The list will never end. Time with loved ones is precious. So few things in life actually matter at all, but they matter.

I could easily go on in more length, but I’ll save that for another day. Hopefully this does not come off as massively self-important. Look at me, a freshman who thinks she’s figured out college! Perhaps my senior-year self will look back on these days with a mocking eye roll. Yet I press on, in the hope that any part of my experience could be of use to someone else.

Thanks for being here. I appreciate it so much, as always.

-A

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