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College Chronicles Season 2: Meet Marina, the Liberal Arts Major Who Craves Simplicity

September 5th, 2008 · 7 comments

The New Season BeginsCollege Chronicles Season 2

Last fall I launched an experiment dubbed College Chronicles. It was a “blog-based reality show” that followed three students struggling to overhaul their study habits. You met Leena, the exhausted MIT student, Welton, the over-committed Harvard junior, and Jake, the Tufts rugby player looking to walk that fine line between frat-boy debauchery and academic excellence.

As I announced a few weeks ago, this fall will feature a new season of College Chronicles. This time, we’ll be focusing on three students who want to embrace the Zen Valedictorian lifestyle.

Thirty of you answered my call for volunteers. Whittling this down to a final group of three was tough; but I think I’ve arrived at cast that will provide us a semester’s worth of insight and entertainment.

But enough promotion. Today we begin by introducing you to the first of our three students…

Meet Marina

“I remember pulling an all-nighter in the library with a bunch of friends,” says Marina, recalling last spring. “[I remember] leaving for an hour to go to a meeting, coming back, phone conferencing with my sister [to discuss my paper], sleeping for 2 hours, putting the finishing touches on my paper, walking back to my room…finding a huge half-dead roach wiggling on the floor of my room, printing my paper, going to breakfast, pouring hot sauce on an omelet, poking at it with my fork and thinking, ‘This is NOT my life!'”

Marina is a rising sophomore at an elite northeastern liberal arts college. Her first semester as a freshman taught her a lesson about the difficulty of college-level academics.

“I remember the moment when I realized I was way in over my head academically,” she recalls.

“I’d just gotten my first papers back and had gotten B’s on both of them, despite having spent a reasonable amount of time on both of them. I’d also just gotten a grade too bad to print on my first math midterm because I’d had a huge panic attack during the test and hadn’t written anything for most of it.”

Marina’s second semester started with the concern that she wasn’t involved in enough activities, so she “signed up for a bunch of groups,” joined a club sport, and started up a woman’s shelter.

“I was pretty good about attending meetings at first, then proceeded to spend the rest of the semester feeling guilty for sporadic meeting attendance.”

The combination of her academic challenges coupled with her growing extracurricular soon became a drag. To put it simply: Marina’s ready for a change.

Marina’s Plan

At the top of her Zen plans for the new term: underscheduling. “I am not making any set-in-stone commitments this semester,” she promises. “Except for my club sport and volunteering at a women’s or family interest non-profit.”

On the academic front, she’s seeking more simplicity by embracing some of the strategies familar to Study Hacks readers. Among them, the student work day and studying using the quiz-and-recall method.

In terms of innovation, she’s has her eye set on the women’s interest non-profit as the insider world in which to start her path toward impressiveness. As we’ve discussed before, the most innovative accomplishments start with paying your dues in a world you enjoy, then, later, leveraging this access into something inexplicable. It seems like Marina will be taking the first step in that direction this semester.

Cal’s Commentary

Marina has certainly embraced some of the key ideas of the Zen Valedictorian philosophy. She’s simplifying her activity schedule and looking to make her studying more efficient.

From my experience, the hardest challenge of the near future will be helping Marina find peace with simplicity. Many undergraduates panic when they feel like their schedule isn’t filled with “enough” activities or work. I think she’s setup perfectly to launch an impressive, relaxed, Zen-style life. It’ll be interesting to observe how rocky this transition actually proves to be.

Stay tuned…

(Photo by peasap)

7 thoughts on “College Chronicles Season 2: Meet Marina, the Liberal Arts Major Who Craves Simplicity

  1. Jason says:

    Good luck, Marina. As an incoming freshman whose school starts much later than most, I’ve already heard from a number of friends who could use a healthy dose of Zen Valedictorianism…

    I feel like information on the student workday should be sent out at the beginning of the year with the other mandatory information, like the alcohol policy.

  2. UH oh@ cornell says:

    Cal:

    I would be interested in participating in your college chronicles series as well, if you’ll have me. I have a back story which I’m sure you’d find interesting, in that it highlights the perils of being a grinder and the consequence of burning the candle at both ends. As you suggested I have been time blocking. The only issue is I drastically under estimate the number of blocks needed only to realize it too late. “Early” is of course a measure of relative time and to decide what is “early” one must have some accurate conception of how long a project might take, perhaps before I might make such an estimate and then double it. This has not been sufficient. I have now decided that for each time block of an unfinished assignment I complete I will schedule two subsequent blocks of the same length. I also have decided, I am taking too many classes (20 hrs i think) and will drop one.

    If you’d like to exchange dialogue with regard to the chronicles that’d be great. Being included, would be an excellent way to force me to change my habits by broadcasting my goals, as you suggest in your book.

    Thanks for doing what you do.

  3. UH oh@ cornell says:

    … And another thing…

    You say that marathon study sessions look like this in terms of productivity:

    Intensity of Focus over Time for Marathon Session Approach
    hour 1 : 10
    hour 2 : 9
    hour 3 : 5
    hour 4 : 2
    hour 5-10 : 1

    But i’d say mine are like this:

    Intensity of Focus over Time for Marathon Session Approach
    hour 1 : 2
    hour 2 : 3
    hour 3 : 7
    hour 4 : 5
    hour 5-10 : 3

    It usually takes me a couple hours just to figure out what the is going on and what I’m supposed to do. I don’t really understand what is going on in the class at that point and i’m just forcing myself to sit still long enough to figure out what I’m supposed to do. Then I figure it out and for a couple hours i’m golden then once I start feeling like i know the material i start to slack off and lose focus without the fear of immanent failure to keep me motivated. Which is part of my issue with time blocking, usually it takes me 2 hours to get to the point where I’m productive if I only work in 2 hours blocks…. well, you can see how this could be a problem.

  4. Daisy says:

    this is going to be interesting… 🙂

  5. Ilham Hafizovic says:

    @ Uh-Oh,

    Maybe you have some incorrect methods or steps in trying to understand something. When it comes to understanding something what I usually like to try is to break down stuff into pieces.

    For example, in my Biochemistry classes, I tend to break a process down into steps in order to not memorize but understand the complete process. I try to understand each step and how it connects to the whole picture by first understanding the step in its own little world. I have noticed that it you try to work at a problem by just staring at the whole thing, you usually have a harder time then if you break it up. But then again, my method might only work in Science classes.

    Using this method, I can actually learn a lot of facts though and knowledge in very little amount of time.

  6. David says:

    @UH-oh

    I start feeling like i know the material i start to slack off and lose focus without the fear of immanent failure to keep me motivated.

    You are not alone. Many students seem to work that way. One thing I think will help you [which I’ve also been experimenting with this semester] is setting arbitrary deadlines. I have to translate 2 pages for each class for one of my language class. So far this task has proven to be very tough. It would be suicide [both to my understanding of the material and ultimately to my academic performance] if left it till the last minute or even if I let it drag on slowly over several days. Thus I set a “kill date” for when I want this project done. It doesn’t matter how late I run (however, I have not had to work very late to meet my deadline so far), I want that project done by the time I go to sleep. The key point is that I can free myself to concentrate with laser intensity on just ONE project. Everything else can wait. Doing this has helped me build trust in the reliability of my schedule, which in turn re-enforces my concentration.

    Also be sure to clearly define what “done” looks. In my case, it is giving every sentence at least a look and composing a first draft of the translation (picking off the easy and priming the hard as Cal calls it). Later on I will go back and edit my translation and fix the hard spots that I’ve had a chance to think about.

    Much more could be said but I think that this will help you get a solid start in the right direction and help with overcoming always relying on “fear of failure” to motivate you [although it can be helpful at times].

  7. Study Hacks says:

    Would be interested in participating in your college chronicles series as well, if you’ll have me.

    Unfortantely, I’ve already locked in my volunteers for this season, but this shouldn’t stop us from discussing your particular issues…

    It usually takes me a couple hours just to figure out what the is going on and what I’m supposed to do. I don’t really understand what is going on in the class at that point and i’m just forcing myself to sit still long enough to figure out what I’m supposed to do.

    Both Ilham and David give great advice, so take a look at their comments. I would also add that it seems like you are doing lots of emotional studying instead of specific reviewing. The former is a loose collection of behaviors and feelings that you associate with doing work. For example, sitting in the library for a long amount of time taking notes. The latter is how efficient students review. As Ilham and David discuss, it means figuring out what’s the quickest way to learn what you need to learn, then spreading the work over a well-calibrated schedule.

    I might suggest browsing through the Study Tips category to get some ideas. I’m also happy to discuss a specific class or challenge if you e-mail me.

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