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

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.

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