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How to Save a Disasterous Semester

A Cry for HelpPanic!

The most common e-mail I receive takes the form of a plea for help. Typically, the student has done poorly on one or two tests, or perhaps got a ‘C’ on an important paper, and is desperate to know what she can do right now to save her semester grades.

In this post, I highlight five articles — selected from the more than 340 that populate the Study Hacks archive — that can provide fast results for students who need immediate help. These articles, on their own, won’t make you into a low-stress, student superstar, but they can help stave off a disastrous end to a tough semester.

Conduct a Mid-Semester Dash
This simple strategy helps you pull yourself out of a muddle of forgotten deadlines and soul-devouring small tasks, and prepare a clean attack for the second half of the semester.

Take an Activity Vacation
When the (academic) going gets tough, your activities should get going. An activity vacation asks that you temporarily suspend your involvement in all extracurricular activities. The key word is “temporarily,” so don’t sweat becoming a slacker. It’s a simple action that can free up massive amounts of time — the time needed to repair your academic woes.

Perform a Post-Exam Post-Mortem
Now that your schedule is simplified, analyze exactly why you did poorly on your recent tests or assignments. Use these answers to figure out what you could have done differently to have scored higher, and let this guide your studying efforts for the remainder of the semester. A wise man once said that a student who does poorly on a test yet does not change his study habits is a student who deserves bad grades. Okay, the “wise man” was me. And “once” means five minutes ago. But you get the idea.

Delete Your To-do List and Adopt an Autopilot Schedule
Don’t plan your day with a massive to-do list. Instead, maps tasks to specific and realistic blocks of time during the day. This “time blocking” approach helps you create schedules you can actually follow. Once you’ve gotten a feel for how much time is required to complete your regular assignments, consider constructing an autopilot schedule to make sure work always gets done when it needs to get done, without late night scrambles.

Eliminate Pseudowork and Admit Studying is a Skill
The final step of your rapid recovery is to learn how smart students actually study, and then change your own habits accordingly. The two most important ideas you must learn: (1) all work is not created equal (if you’re studying at midnight in your dorm room, you’re wasting your time); and (2) studying, at its basic level, is simply a technical skill, like playing the guitar or swimming; a skill you probably suck at right now, but can improve with the right practice.

14 thoughts on “How to Save a Disasterous Semester”

  1. This might sound obvious and is probably somewhere on the site already but … see the professor.

    After “post-mortems”, I often went back to ask about questions or papers I honestly don’t know how I got wrong (don’t go back as the whiny student that’s just mad about their grades).

    Often I squeezed just 2 to 3 point out of it, one time I squeezed a massive 12 points. Twice, the extra points made a difference on my letter grade, hence my GPA.

    (In freshman year, I often did so badly that I didn’t even pick up exams ‘cos I thought it’d be too painful to look at them. That was dumb… yet I have friends that still do that in grad school.)

  2. After “post-mortems”, I often went back to ask about questions or papers I honestly don’t know how I got wrong (don’t go back as the whiny student that’s just mad about their grades).

    Good point. I think you nailed it with your warning about not being a whiny student. They key to professor chatting, as you note, is coming armed with specific, knowledge-seeking questions.

  3. Aas kind of a regular I really appreciate your hacks and tips, but there’s something missing (at least for me): how to integrate a part-time job into a student’s schedule. I rely heavily on a job to pay for my bills and although I play around with different methods it would be nice to hear how others cope with the same things.

  4. Pseudowork tip is great. I killed myself several semesters by larding my schedule up with fake work that I told myself was helping me academically, when it really just was an avoidance strategy.

    P.S. Sorry to be pedantic, but it’s “disastrous.” Though disasterous sounds like an awesome webapp (posterous for people in crisis).

  5. Hey Cal! Haz.. Been lurking without commenting for too long :D. I think that the quarantine method is absolutely brilliant. And if your quiet spots become too crowded or noisy nearer the exams, find new places or bring along ear plugs 😀 (yes, i have seen people do that). Q and A methods are great too :}!!

  6. I think it is really important to see study as a skill. When you have accepted that, you can allow yourself to train that skill, and become better in it.
    And when I compare studying with skills/sports I get really motivated. ‘I have to train math’ it just works for me.

  7. Hello,
    Been enjoying your blog and your book How to Become a Straight A Student! However my situation is a little different so sometimes I have difficulty trying to adapt your advice to my particular lifestyle. I’m a fairly new grad student (2nd semester), co-habitating with half a mortgage, work a full time job and trying to keep up with my 6 units. And I’m way past my twenties, so staying up late isn’t an option for me. In short, I’m a full grown adult with adult responsibilities.

    Any way to tweak your system?

    Thanks for all the great posts – Toni

  8. ’m a fairly new grad student (2nd semester), co-habitating with half a mortgage, work a full time job and trying to keep up with my 6 units.

    Is 6 units a full course load? If so, we should start with a reality check: is it practical to imagine you can balance a full-time job and a full course load?


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