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Q & A: Strategic Drinking, Mission Impossible, and the Tale of the Rhodes Scholar Who Failed Freshman Calculus

From the reader mailbag:Questions and Answers

You’ve mentioned in your book and on your blog that “energy level” is important when it comes to studying. This is certainly true. Can you give more details about how different things affect energy level? I am really curious. My own main observation is that alcohol is bad. I like to “have fun,” and that’s what I did last night. But today I have to pay the price: I’m sitting in the library, unable to get started on a paper I need to write.

Cal responds:

Alcohol is bad? Blasphemy! But you’re on to something about the drinking. You have to be strategic. If you need to work the next day, don’t rage. If you need to rage, get your hard work done first. Eating habits, of course, also play a big role in maintaining high energy levels. I’m no expert here, but here are a few simple things that work for me:

  1. Don’t skip meals.
  2. Eat only real food (i.e., things your great grandmother would recognize).
  3. Avoid processed food (i.e., white flour, sugar, anything with more than five ingredients).
  4. For lunch and dinner try to fill half the plate with plants.
  5. Drink lots of water.
  6. Exercise. Even if only briefly and in your room.

And of course, at least one day a week, ignore all of this so you don’t go crazy with nacho-lust. (Note: much of this advice came from two influential books: In Defense of Eating and The Power of Full Engagement. Check them out.)

From the reader mailbag:

My econometrics class has a reputation for being the one undergraduate econ course you simply “grin and bear”: the problem sets are rarely helpful and the grading on tests is all or nothing (no partial credit). What are your suggestions on succeeding in a seemingly impossible course?

Cal responds:

Hard is relative. To a math major, econometrics would seem like any other upper-level math course. Because of the subject matter, however, it sounds like many non-math types take the course. They are not used to the study style that works in this context and, instead, attempt the standard cram strategy — which will fail. Soon it develops the reputation of being “impossible.”

So how do you study for tricky math-style courses? Your need to be able to reproduce, from scratch, the proofs (or solutions) to basically every major sample problem reviewed in class and on the problem sets. Not just reproduce, but really understand what you’re doing. You can’t do this the night before. You have to attempt to keep up with the material as it’s presented, using office hours and asking questions to fill in gaps in your knowledge. That’s the hard part about math. Unlike an English essay, remembering a little bit from a frantic night before skim-job doesn’t help. You either really understand how something works or you don’t. So make sure you are understanding as the course proceeds.

If possible, befriend a math nerd in the class. He’ll know what’s up.

From the reader mailbag:

Have you ever encountered a student who had a rough start in his first year, but later on in his final three years became better: earning good grades, for example, or getting involved in interesting research opportunities?

Cal responds:

Absolutely. One of the Rhodes Scholars I know best, for example, did poorly in freshman year calculus. By the time she graduated, however, she had published some interesting mathematics research and — talk about poetic justice — even co-authored a chapter with her professor for a calculus textbook.

Another example: I had a non-exceptional first year. I had good grades but not the type that would turn heads. All of my free time was devoted to crew. Either training or partying with my teammates. By my sophomore year, I had to leave the crew team due to a heart condition. With a lot of free time to fill I began to clean-up my study habits and take on some more interesting extra-extracurriculars, including, notably, writing and undergraduate research. The rest is history.

In other words: now is a perfect time to start planning some big moves.

7 thoughts on “Q & A: Strategic Drinking, Mission Impossible, and the Tale of the Rhodes Scholar Who Failed Freshman Calculus”

  1. Comment about the last reader’s question:

    I am just a freshman this year but I’ve noticed a drastic change since high school.

    And the thing that matters about college, or anything, is what you become because of college. If you started as a slacker but ended as a hard worker, you are still a hard worker. The fact that you were a slacker is now irrelevant.

  2. @Kabir:

    I applied for an undergraduate research grant. Looking for an existing program is the best way to start. If no such programs exist, talk to the professor you know best about what types of opportunities are available in your department for undergraduates, and how you might go about finding them.

  3. Kabir,

    Some schools even have specific programs that are called ROP [Research Opportunity Program]. They are usually full year research programs that are done with any Professor willing to participate.

  4. @Cal,

    I had a question about the perceived math hard-type courses. My Calculus class, although supposed to be organized in a way to make it easy for Biologists; the tests tend to be of a higher math course.

    My question would then be, along with fully understanding and being able to replicate the proofs/solutions to class questions, would it be also wise to do questions from textbooks of stronger Calculus courses, or is this somewhat a waste of time if the material is completely understood?

  5. @Ilham:

    Probably a waste of time. Especially if the problems are on topics not covered in your original class. On the other hand, if you’re hurting to find a good sample problem for a given technique, and think you can shake one loose from another text, well, that might be useful.


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