Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success Posts on Features: Reader Questions

The Grade Whisperer: Rapid-Fire Advice

October 13th, 2009 · 10 comments

The Grade Whisperer is an occasional feature in which I use the Study Hacks philosophy of do less, do better, and know why, to help students overcome their academic problems.

The Return of Q & AAdvice

After spending a nice evening yesterday working through my backlog of Study Hacks e-mail, I felt inspired to do an old fashioned Q & A style post. I like these posts because they allow me to cover a lot of ground quickly and reinforce some of the Study Hacks basics. If you’re amenable, I’ll try to work more of these Q & A dashes into my regular rotation.

And as always, feel free to e-mail me with your own student questions.

From the reader mailbag:

While most of your site deals with college and some grad school advice, I haven’t seen anything for med students.  Have you talked to any successful students in med school?

Cal responds:

I have. The consistent message I hear from med students is that there’s a unique best way to study for each course/professor combo. If you can find this best way, then the task isn’t too bad. By contrast, if you don’t, you can end up spending endless hours and still not score as high as you hoped. With this in mind, these students recommend that for every class talk to both the professor, and older students who already took the class, about the best way to study.

Read more »

Q & A: Taking Biology Notes, Switching Between Tasks, Deconstructing Crappy Papers, and More…

April 29th, 2009 · 7 comments

Back to Questions… Q & A

It’s been a while since I’ve done a Q & A post, but I’ve received so many good questions recently, I thought it was about time this series made a comeback!

From the reader mailbag:

How would you go about taking notes on Biology textbook chapters?

Cal responds:

Take notes using your laptop and format them directly as focused question clusters. This removes any obstacles between your notetaking now and efficient studying later.

Read more »

Q & A: Mastering Question Clusters, Breaking Up with Terrible Majors, Withdrawing from a ‘B’, and Debating a Two-Day a Week Course Schedule

November 21st, 2008 · 7 comments

From the reader mailbag:Questions and Answers

I have three questions about your focused question clusters study strategy.

  1. Is the list of rapid-fire questions for one test (with answers) supposed to be nearly as long as a textbook chapter?
  2. I’m confused — what exactly are they supposed to cover?
  3. Can one go about making them without spending several days’ worth at the computer or with a pen and pencil?

Cal responds:

  1. Hopefully much shorter.
  2. Everything you need to know for the test.
  3. Try to inline the question building with your note-taking in class and while doing reading assignments. Don’t wait until right before the test to construct all of your clusters from scratch.

From the reader mailbag:

I have two majors and a minor. I love one of my majors (Psychology) and my minor (French). Most of my stress comes from my other major (Business). I dislike my business classes and find them hard. I want to go to grad school for Psych after graduation. I am using business as a “back up”… but this “back up” is taking over my life!!! If I could have things my way, I would finish the psych major, apply for grad school, and graduate.

What do I do? I am too scared to not go the B-school route…

Cal responds:

Read more »

Q & A: Life After Scoring an 80% and Joining Boring Clubs to Impress Grad Schools

October 17th, 2008 · 11 comments

I recently received an e-mail from an Ivy League freshman that I think captures a lot of common concerns about starting college and finding your niche. Below I’ve reproduced my answers to his exceedingly common questions.

Reader question #1:Questions and Answers

I did very poorly on my first test (an 80%)…is it easy or common to rebound from such a grade and eventually end up with a satisfactory grade, like an A?

Cal responds:

We’ll start with some tactical advice then move on to something more philosophical.

Tactical Advice:

You’re used to numeric grades being synced to a letter grade scale. Therefore, you see an 80% and think “I got a B-“, and then conclude that you are now a low B student who will never get into graduate school.

Not true.

Numeric grades at college do not match letter grades. They match, instead, what percent of the points you got right. Your final grade will be relative to the class. It’s possible that 80% is at the top of the class, or maybe the bottom. It just depends on the test. It has nothing to do, at this point, with A’s or B’s.

I once got, for example, the highest overall grade in my discrete math class at Dartmouth after scoring a 50% on the midterm. It turned out that for that particular exam, 50% of the points was pretty damn good. I’ve also had scores in the 90’s deemed average due to the fact that so many students got every single point right. Again: it depends on the test.

To sum up the tactical advice, don’t sweat specific scores. Just keep working to get as many points as possible in each exam. The final grade will reward you.

Philosophical Advice:

Now it’s time for some tough love. I think there’s a bigger issue at stake here. It seems you’re approaching college the same way you approached high school. You fear that if you make any mistake — e.g., missing an ‘A’ in any class — that you won’t succeed after graduation.

Read more »

Q & A: Transfer Student Zen, Taming Tardy Problem Sets, and Tweaking the Straight-A Method for High School

September 10th, 2008 · One comment

From the reader mailbag:Questions and Answers

I’m wondering what changes a college student who intends to transfer should make. I ask this because colleges usually expect transfer applicants to have taken a fairly rigorous schedule and still earned decent grades, as well as participated in extracurriculars. While I’d love to do the zen lifestyle thing it just doesn’t seem like an option until I’m at the college where I want to be.

Cal responds:

The goal of the Zen Valedictorian philosophy is to become more relaxed without becoming less impressive. Applying it to your situation, we can generate these observations:

  • The college won’t care about the difficulty of your individual courses. They’ll look at your G.P.A. and your major. They’ll verify that you’re taking a normal course load. They’re not, however, going to go course by course, and ask: “How tough is this professor?” or “How much work did it demand?” So keep your load reasonable and balanced.
  • In terms of extracurriculars, as we’ve discussed before, a laundry-list impresses no one. Instead, choose one thing, focus on it, then once you’ve paid your dues, look for a place to innovate. This will always be more impressive than joining ten clubs — regardless of whether you are applying to college, applying for a job, or trying to transfer.

Remember, it’s not the Zen Slacker philosophy (which is much easier!), it’s the Zen Valedictorian. Finding ways to relax without scuttling success is what makes this lifestyle both tricky and worthwhile.

From the reader mailbag:

As an engineer, I have to do a lot of problem sets. Oftentimes one of my professors assigns homework that covers subject material we haven’t learned until the day before the problem set is due. How do I handle this?

Cal responds:

Talk to the professor. Most likely he’ll be happy to adjust the problem sets to make sure they don’t include the most recent material. He’ll also be pleased to know at least some students aren’t waiting until the night before to start work!

Here’s the thing, if he’s like the engineering professors I know, he’s not trying to be mean, it just never occurred to him that the late additions to the problem sets were causing trouble. Good things come to those who communicate.

From the reader mailbag:

I’m a high school senior. I was wondering what advice you would offer me to manage my time, and get things done more efficiently? I guess some of the advice you offer on your blog applies to only to college students and I was wondering how you would modify it for high school?

Cal responds:

For high school students, the following tips seem to work especially well:

  • Use an autopilot schedule: set specific times each week, to work on specific classes. High school workloads are more predictable than college workloads, making it well-suited for automated scheduling.
  • Increase your study efficiency: take smart notes and use smart review strategies. High school students often make life much more difficult than it needs to be by using terrible study habits (think: reviewing a textbook with the iPod on and the instant messenger window blinking.) At this level, you can get away with bad habits — but it makes life suck. If you start taking good notes and stop reviewing like a moron, you’ll be embarrassed by how quickly you get work done.
  • Start everything early: break things up into small pieces and start right away. I suggest taking a look at the ESS Method and the Same Day Rule. In high school you get a lot of assignments, but they’re easier than college level work. The main problem, therefore, is scheduling pile-ups. By starting early and making constant progress you can keep on top of this large amount of small things.

At the 30,000 foot level, however, the biggest most important recommendations I can offer is to live the Straight-A Method and, when in doubt, experiment to see what works for you.

Q & A: Coming Up With Innovative Activities, Skimming Fiction, and Making the Morse Code Method More Studyable

August 27th, 2008 · 6 comments

From the reader mailbag:Questions and Answers

I read your article on activity innovation. Here’s my question: how do I find the “ultimate” activity for my field of interest? I mean, I look at the examples you give and think: “Wow, I would never have thought to do that.”

Cal responds:

Don’t expect to think up your awe-inspiring project from scratch. Instead, following the program laid out in my activity innovation article: you need to first gain access to the relevant insider world by joining a related club and then paying your dues. This will probably take at least a year. Maybe two. Just keep taking on projects and completing them.

As time progresses you’ll learn more and more about the insider details of this world. After you’ve paid your dues, you can then package some of this knowledge into a project custom-built to invoke the failed simulation effect in outsiders; i.e., defy their ability to explain how you did what you did. There is no shortcut here. You have to gain access and prove yourself first before you can think up the flashy stuff.

For example, you told me you’re interested in environmentalism. Let’s pretend that your college has a student club that publishes an environmental science journal. You join the club. For the first year or two, you climb the ranks; helping to edit and do layouts and sell ads. Eventually, you become an editor. At this point, one of your insider connections — let’s say the club’s faculty advisor — mentions that the college is hosting a big environmental science conference. He notes that it might be nice to have a student conference held at the same time. Because you’ve paid your dues, you jump at the chance and pull this together. You make it happen by using the access and connections you’ve built over your past two years in the club.

It would be hard for you to think up the conference right now, as a rising freshman with no insider experience. But two years into a club and holding a leadership position, such possibilities will abound.

From the reader mailbag:

I read your chapter from Straight-A about just reading the introduction and conclusion of your assignments and then skimming the material in between. That all seems well and good…but isn’t it only applicable to social sciences, hard sciences, or other non-fiction assignments with logical structures? With a few weeks before classes start I need to read The Odyssey and The Illiad, and a course I will be taking will be a humanities course in which I will have to read classic works which are also fiction. What do I do?

Cal responds:

You read the whole book. Carefully. And relish it. My advice is to find a quiet and contemplative environment. Preferably somewhere with wood paneling and musty old books. This will put you in the right mindset.

My tips for efficient reading, as you note, are only for non-fiction. If you’re taking a course that assigns literature, you have to read it.

From the reader mailbag:

I used the morse code method to take notes on my reading. How do I now study it? Do I put it into Q/E/C format or — gasp! — do rote review?

Cal responds:

For the uninitiated, the morse code method has you read an entire assignment at your natural pace without stopping. To take notes, you make pencil marks in the margin. A dot signifies “important point” and a dash signifies “detail related to the most recent important point.” The motivating idea is that more elaborate notations would slow down your pace, which leads to mental fatigue.

To study your morse code notes, you have to (eventually) go back and transform the dots and dashes into something more useful. My suggestion was to paraphrase in your notes the points indicated by the dots. For the dashes, also add a paraphrased note, but indent this with a bullet point to offset it from the relavent “dot” note. Typically, lots of internal editing occurs here. You’ll likely toss out 25 – 50% of your dots and dashes. Finally, try to throw in a question and conclusion around your points so that you can later study using quiz and recall.

Of course, this effort is only for articles you need to understand well; perhaps for an exam or a paper. If a passing familiarity is fine, don’t bothering taking any additional notes. Just skim your dots and dashes right before class to bring you up to speed.

Q & A: Death by A.P. Course, Initializing the Autopilot, and Shameless Promotion

July 9th, 2008 · 9 comments

From the reader mailbag:Questions and Answers

College classes are generally spaced out; each class meets once or twice a week and you take only 4 to 6 classes per semester. Isn’t applying your tips to a class schedule like this easier than applying them to a rigid high school schedule of 9 periods, 7 of which could be AP (which is how my schedule is based next year)?

Cal responds:

High school has a different rhythm than college, and therefore requires a slightly different approach. With this in mind, I have two big pieces of advice…

First: it is easier to screw yourself with your schedule in high school. At the college level you take a small number of courses all of which are expected to be tough. In high school, on the other hand, you have 8 or 9 periods to fill. It is not expected that every one of these periods is equally hard. There is lunch, and gym, and maybe a study hall or two. There is also the possibility of lighter electives or vocational classes sprinkled throughout.

If, however, you try to fill most of these periods with the toughest possible classes — ahem, 7 A.P.s !? — you can get into a situation where it’s almost impossible to keep up. So my first piece of advice: craft a balanced schedule.

This basic advice has become harder to preach because, at some point, high school students collectively decided that the more A.P. courses you take at once, the better your chances of getting accepted at a top college. This is masochistic nonsense. It has no basis in the reality of how admission decisions are made.

My advice: Don’t schedule more than two A.P. courses per term. Balance them with other courses you enjoy. Do well. And stop killing yourself! In my humble opinion: 7 A.P.s at once is ridiculous; your health will suffer, your grades will become erratic, and it’s not going to help you get into Harvard. So why do it?

My second piece of advice: start early and work constantly. There are many more assignments in high school, but they are also much smaller than college assignments. The key is to avoid pile-up. An efficient strategy is to put in 1-3 hours every weekday at the local library. The quiet lets you focus and rip through your work.

While I’m at, I’ll mention that you should not write papers all at once. Do little pieces throughout the weeks leading up the deadline and finish it in one final weekend spurt. Never — and I can’t emphasize this enough — work on or near any machine with an Internet connection. Facebook and IM will increase the time required to finish a writing assignment by a factor of 3 or 4. Write first. Go online later.

Thus endeth my high school fire and brimstone study sermon…

From the reader mailbag:

I have been trying to get better at studying for the past 2 years of college. An autopilot schedule is exactly what I need, but that’s harder said than done. Any tips?

Cal responds:

As I’ve learned from my College Chronicles experience, it’s difficult to jump from disarray into precision organization all at once. It’s just too much. What happens is that small things in your new super schedule will slip through the cracks and this, in turn, will destabilize the whole shebang, quickly sliding you back into your old ways.

My advice: start slow. Maybe with just one or two autopilot sessions per week. Try this for a month. Once you get used to reaping the benefits of getting some work done regularly, habitatize a few more obligations. The students with the most efficient study systems tend to get there step by step.

If you’re looking for a little more guidance, you might check out Scott Young’s recent articles on conducting 30 Day Trials.

From the reader mailbag:

I am interested in reading your books. Does the content of one book build on the other, i.e. where should I start — which book?

Cal responds:

Here’s my advice: buy several hundred copies of both then distribute them to your most influential friends in the popular media.

Once this is complete, then keep in mind that neither book really follows the other. How to Win at College is 75 pithy rules for improving all aspects of your college experience. How to Become a Straight-A Student focuses entirely, and in great detail, on the academic piece of college life.

You can read excerpts of both here. There are also more than 25 Amazon reviews of each here and here. (As I always mention, only a handful of the early reviews for each are from people I know.)

Q & A: Beware of “Ducks” at Stanford, Forget About Your Senior Year G.P.A., and Become Interesting to College Admissions Officers

June 18th, 2008 · 5 comments

From the reader mailbag:Questions and Answers

I’ve just finished my first year at Stanford University, and I’m not at all happy with my academics. My main concern is science. I’m a pre-med student. I was very enthusiastic about Organic Chemistry, among other classes, before taking the mid-terms and finals (and not doing well on them). I was wondering if you had any specific tips towards such science courses?

Cal responds:

Though I can’t tell for sure what’s going without actually knowing you, your e-mail smells to me of a standard study skills mismatch problem. It’s common for ambitious, smart students to arrive at a school like Stanford and assume that by simply putting in the hours — starting early and spending plenty of time on assignments — the good grades should follow. At these top schools, however, time alone is not enough: your study habits must match the classes. This is tricky to get right at first. It took me, for example, about a year to find a standard toolbox of study hacks worked pretty well.

My advice: run a post-exam post-mortem on your most recent finals. This should suggest some new note-taking and review tactics for your to deploy at the start of the next semester. Treat this as an experiment. After you get back your first graded assignments of the new semester, conduct another post-mortem, evaluate what worked and what didn’t, and make further changes.

I want to share one additional warning. A common complaint I’ve heard about Stanford, in particular, is that many of the students are “ducks” — they try to appear calm on the surface while their feet are paddling furiously below in the water to keep them afloat. In other words, be careful that you’re not taking on an overly punishing course load or too many activities just because it seems to be “standard” for your Stanford chums — they might be faking their serenity.

From the reader mailbag:

I have heard that the GPA is relatively unaffected by low grades in one’s final year. Is that true or is it an urban myth?

Cal responds:

Who cares!? Take a reasonable course load. Don’t have too many activities. Sign-up for classes that interest you, give them the attention they deserve, and, in general, enjoy life. Your GPA will do just fine, regardless of how it’s calculated.

(All of this being code for: “I have no idea how that calculation works…”)

From the reader mailbag:

Would you find starting a ping pong team at my high school to be interesting? Would colleges feel the same?

Cal responds:

My general rule of thumb: if your main criteria for participating in a high school activity is that you think a college will find it interesting, then, almost always, they won’t. The best way to get a college to think you are interesting — which is much more important than many students understand — is to actually be interesting. Cool stuff has a way of shaking loose from there.

Among other things, becoming interesting might mean that you:

  • Meet interesting people;
  • do interesting things just for the hell of it;
  • read interesting things solely for the thrill of motivation;
  • take crazy trips;
  • be spontaneous;
  • and, above all else, make a feeling of engagement and excitement the number one quality you seek in your daily life.

Though if you’re really good at ping pong, I know someone who would love a match…