I had previously asked you to try to identify some of the goals of your university career. Do you want to be at the very top of your class or would you be satisfied with a degree with only mediocre grades? Do you want to move on to law school or medical school after your degree or will you be happy to just ‘get out alive’? This section is about the means to the ends you identified earlier. In other words, what is required for you to achieve your university goals?
To begin with, apart from your particular goals most people who get a degree from university end up learning about one or more topics and more importantly, they learn about themselves. They learn what they like and don’t like, what they are good at and what they aren’t. Even those who don’t get their degree achieve these goals at least partially. For example, for those who never complete university we might surmise that they learned that they don’t do well in university! These things are important because an awful lot of what you learn in your courses you are going to forget within a year or two. The biggest thing you will get from school is self-knowledge and this is important because that knowledge will help you navigate the rest of your life. It will improve your ability to determine if a certain romantic partner is “right” for you, or whether a particular career path is best, or if you need to drop out and become a goat herder in Tibet!
Just in case you are a little sceptical about what you will take away from university you should be aware that current estimates are that you will have somewhere between 12 and 20 jobs through the course of your life. Unfortunately, many of those jobs have not been invented yet! So how are you going to equip yourself for that many career transitions? Certainly not by learning specific facts in university today. No, what is more important is that you learn how to learn—so that you can re-tool yourself for your next job and the job after that and the one after that! To “learn how to learn” you need to know yourself better. You will need to know how you learn best; what techniques to use to make really hard life decisions; and how to think through to determine what your heart or mind are really telling you.
One way to look at the university experience is to consider what characteristics are required to succeed. In my opinion these are comprised of Smarts + Opportunity + Resources + Motivation. Obviously you have to be smart enough. Some of the people who you knew in high school probably weren’t smart enough to be where you are now. In fact, at least some of the people in your classes today may not be smart enough to succeed in obtaining their bachelors degree. You also need the opportunity which has to do with whether a school saw fit to admit you. However, schools can be wrong sometimes which is why just because you have been admitted to you university that does not guarantee that you will successfully complete your degree. You also need the necessary resources; the time and money to spend in school and pay for your tuition, books, and living expenses. Even though you may be taking on some part-time work to help pay your way, you obviously need to ensure that your work schedule still allows you to attend classes and study. Finally, how much do you want your degree? Are you hugely motivated or is this just something you would like to do?
In Figure 1 below I would like you to rate yourself on these 4 ingredients. Think carefully and honestly and give yourself a grade out of 10 on each of Smarts, Opportunity, Resources, and Motivation. While you don’t need to score 10 out of 10 on each of these, if you are less than 5 on any one you are going to need to have a really high score on one of the others to compensate.
Figure 1: What you need for university
Returning to our earlier point about university being a war and not just a single battle, most of what you will accomplish will become evident over a period of 4 or 5 or even as long as 10 years. Your learning curve will take place over a long period of time! While we all change in many ways over a decade, the things I am talking about here include your critical thinking skills, your communications ability (write, read, speak, present), and your knowledge about yourself including what courses and topics you find most interesting at university as well as what you would like to do for a living. Some of these changes will come about organically as a result of increasing maturation but some will happen much more efficiently if you work at them. As an example there will be a number of your classmates who will drop out and spend several years doing “other things” until a time when they find that university can be an effective learning environment for them. If or when they return to school some of them may go back to the same program and courses they attempted first time around while others may pursue a totally different track. What happened in the intervening time is they learned more about themselves. That is not a bad thing. Trust me, you would be better off taking some time off to discover what you really want to do versus running a sprint to complete a degree in a topic that you know you really do not like!
Finding your passion?
Many people talk about “finding their passion” but we think it is a misleading phrase. Most of the time we don’t merely stumble upon an interest that becomes our life’s work. In most cases people develop their passion in the process of following up on an item of curiosity and digging into it, working on it and discovering that it holds our interest and we can imagine doing a lot more of the same. For that reason, do not despair if you do not seem to be as fired up about a particular career or line of study as you think you should be. Be patient. If you keep your mind open to the possibility of multiple genuine interests and be ready to imagine having to work hard at one or two of them to see if they are really for you then I think you will be more satisfied with the end result. Developing your passion may be a little like the difference between love at first sight versus a friendship that becomes a romantic relationship. “Finding” your passion could be like the phenomenon of love at first sight. It might lead to something hot and heavy for a short period of time but probably not a lifelong commitment. In contrast, “developing” your passion could be like the real friendship that some people have that gradually evolves into a romantic relationship. I think the latter has the better long-term prospects, don’t you?
More Myths About University
While we’re at it, there are a number of other ideas that you might have about university that are incorrect. One has to do with your high school grades and the grades you might expect in university. While the two are correlated (if you were an A student in Grade 12 you are more likely to be an A student in university) in most cases you will see a drop in university. Part of that is because the work is harder and part is because you are a little fish in a much bigger pond in university. You might have been one of the top ten students in your graduating class in high school but in university you are alongside the top ten students from hundreds of other graduating classes. You may not see the same stellar grades in your first year.
In a similar way, you may have been able to cram the night before your exams in high school and still ace the tests. While that technique might work for a few of your university courses unless you develop the better habit of distributing your study over a longer period of time do not expect a stellar result. Plenty of psychological research has shown that if for example you are going to spend 4 hours studying for a mid-term, you are likely to get a better grade if you spent 1 hour distributed over 4 separate days as opposed to one, 4-hour cram session.
Another myth that has no support in the research literature is multi-tasking. You may think you are good at playing a video game while doing your homework but the evidence is clear that what you are actually doing is rapidly switching back and forth between the two. Unfortunately that switching is actually taking away from your overall cognitive resources and you will end up devoting less of your talent to each. You are much better off devoting yourself to study for a set period of time and then rewarding yourself with some time off. A really good way to do this is called Pomodoro technique. Look up “Pomodoro Technique” in Wikipedia and read the entry. Do you think it will help you? I am certain it will work a lot better for you than trying to multi-task.
Are you familiar with the acronym TLDR? It stands for Too Long Didn’t Read. There will be many things in university that you may be tempted to label TLDR. While some of those things deserve the label, others do not. In particular, I recommend that you carefully read the Course Syllabus for each of your courses. It may seem long and boring but most of your professors will assume that you understand it completely. Many even treat it like a legal contract. Don’t make the mistake of ignoring an assignment due date or forgetting a mid-term because you were too lazy to read the Syllabus.
Some of you may have come to believe that you have one learning “style”. That is wrong on two fronts: We do not have one learning style, we have multiple preferred styles depending on the nature of the material to be learned. Furthermore, our preferred styles change as our intellect and maturity grows so that the way we might have preferred to learn in Grade 10 is likely to be different in university. What I recommend is that you find the style that is right for each of your courses and it may be completely different for each.
Another myth has to do with how much your profs know about you. The truth is, almost nothing. If they know your name they might be able to look up what program or year you’re in but in most cases they don’t know your name. Although you may have had to submit detailed financial and personal information in order to get into university this information is typically unavailable to your prof. The truth is you probably know more about them than they do about you. This can be a problem if you would like to ask them for a letter of reference or for help finding a summer job in their lab.
Want to know more?
Dweck, C. (2014). The power of believing that you can improve. Ted.com Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/carol_dweck_the_power_of_believing_that_you_can_improve This TED talk is all about your ability to improve.