Sunday, 5 June 2005

So You Want to be a Straight “A” Student (Undergrad and Grad School)

Another old blog post here -- this was originally meant for undergraduate students, but I've added some new items for grad students too.


At this point, when I’m asked by students who are wondering how they can become a straight “A” student, I can offer my own advice and the advice that I have collected from other graduate students and professors in my own climb to becoming an “A” student. I also have the research knowledge of some fairly good studies in the areas of integrated and holistic learning, and I hope that the following is worth something to any student or teacher reading this blog. Take the following advice for what it’s worth!

Much of university is learning the basic skills that you would need to succeed in any career and how to deal with stress around your individual problem areas of learning, because no one is a perfect learner (everyone has some weaknesses).

The following key skills are important for any professional’s success, and I have attached notes for each of them either in the following links and/or on the Ryerson Blackboard:

1) Passion: Dream BIG and be Passionate – What do you want to do?Find a subject area that you are passionate about, and would love to work on for many years to come. Some people find remembering what they enjoyed doing when they were younger often inspires a career at a later age. If you liked doing that activity as a kid, it's likely that you'll be interested in it for a long time (e.g. writing, building things, taking things apart, etc.).

If you already know what you like to do, then you’re ahead of the game and you just have to find a place that will help you do that. Why wouldn't you try researching the BEST place or school to do what you like doing and find out how to go there? If you are not interested in what you’re learning, then it will be hard to convince others that your work is interesting too.

2) Goal Setting: You won’t get anywhere without setting goals and checking them regularly. Did you succeed? Why or why not? Don’t get discouraged, just learn your areas of strength and weakness, and work to improve in the areas where you are weaker. Always follow up on assignments when you fall short of what you expected. Proactive students who visit their instructors well ahead of official assignment deadlines generally tend to be the straight A students because they receive valuable feedback before the assignment is even due. In other words, they are separating themselves from the pack and demonstrating that they are leaders to the key authority figure.

Whether your goal is applying to a university or completing a full degree, you can follow successful steps that others have used to get there before you. For example, don’t just apply to one job or one Grad School or one type of degree program; apply to non-profit, private, and public positions too. Take the best offer that is right for you; that way if the position of your dreams comes knocking on your door, you'll be ready to take it. Also, some people can learn on the job the skills that they need at work, so Grad School doesn't have to be the number one choice, and some jobs will pay you to go to Grad School – just do your home work and find out what is possible for the line of work you wish to explore.

Overall, the question is what do you want to do and where would you like to do it? Only you will know.

3) Find a Mentor:

* If you're going to Grad School, do this before you apply -- find a mentor and potential supervisor, even if it's on-line through e-mail and it's just a tentative arrangement.

Think about the following questions:

- Who in your field would you like to be?
- Can you work with that person?
- Can you at least talk to the person and learn what the skills, courses, and requirements are for that career?

Other considerations for Grad School:

- Do you have the necessary qualifications to apply to the program where that person is? If you do not, go talk to the program’s administration about applying for a qualifying year, or what you could do to make up for missed items – do not be disheartened if your application does not succeed at one school or another; often the same application package could be submitted with minor variations at the same school and get in the following year – it all depends on the pool of candidates that you are up against and how you compare to those other candidates based on your qualifications.

- Contact potential Grad Schools early so that they know you’re interested, and so you know what you need to get into that program. If you find a mentor or supervisor, they should be able to offer you advice on all of the following items:

- STATEMENT OF INTEREST: Make sure someone, perhaps one of your referees or your new supervisor, checks your statement of interest before your application is sent in. The document demonstrates the quality of your writing and details why you want to be in that particular program. It also demonstrates that you’ve read the program/school’s website at the very least, that you know specific faculty in the program/department, and that you already know about the field of study in question.

- PUBLISH FOR SCHOLARSHIPS: If you have anything that is publishable, then try to get it out to a Grad Journal at least. If you’re applying to MA programs having a publication will put you ahead of most of the pool of applicants.

- GETTING INTO A PHD PROGRAM: Many schools now expect students to have one published paper and/or one conference paper during the MA to get you in for a funded PhD program, and after that, at the PhD level one conference and paper each year, if possible is a guideline to differentiate yourself from your peers for the job market. The better quality of journal you can publish in during your PhD, the better your CV – quantity and quality will help, but focus on quality.

- COMPETING OFFERS: If more than one position comes to you after you apply, then you can always try to work one position against the other. For example, if you receive funding at one school and not another, then you can let the other school know about the competing offer and try to match it before you decline their offer.
NOTE: Your goal should be to have some funding while doing Grad School, but if money is not an issue for you because of family support, then you should count yourself as lucky.

4) Designing Thesis Committees:

If you are writing an undergraduate Honours Thesis or going to Grad School, you need to find people to fill the following roles on your thesis or dissertation committee, on top of your usual supervisor and other committee members who are knowledgeable in your area of study:

1. Editor: The best editor of your writing and essays (grammatically and stylistically) that you have had in any of your courses.

2. The Cheerleader: Someone who will think everything that you write is gold.

3. The Critic: Someone who will be hard on you, but hopefully offer constructive criticism rather than only negative feedback.

4. Networking / Job Market Pros: Preferably everyone on your committee should be tapped into larger academic job markets. Are your committee members well known in their fields? Have they published a lot? Do they know and have access to jobs or research positions in your area (even while you are completing your degree, for example Research Assistantship positions)?

5) Know your Learning Style:

- Do you learn better through visual, aural (by listening), or kinetic (by doing an activity) means?
- Does your professor’s teaching style match your learning style? If not, what can you change to increase your chances of success knowing your preferences?
- Are you taking notes in a method that matches your learning style? If not, what can you change to increase your retention of key materials?

6) Maintain Balance through Time Management and Organization:

Generally, I advise that -- if at all possible -- students treat school like work. In other words, have a 40 hour per week schedule, and stick to it. If you work 40 hours a week on school work, then you should still have time to do other pertinent things in your life for balance, including your social life, staying healthy and fit, eating well, and all of the other things that are necessary to succeed in life. Make sure NOT to get stressed out by maintaining an effective and balanced routine. If you are as professional at school as you have to be in a future career, then success should follow you -- and learning successful habits and behaviours will both literally and figuratively pay off. I say literally because there are many scholarships that can fund students, and I say figuratively because a university degree is far more of a benefit in life than just the money that it will help you to earn. UNLIKE MONEY, NO ONE CAN TAKE YOUR DEGREE AWAY ONCE IT HAS BEEN EARNED.

I hope that these general descriptions help you as guides to your academic success.

Beyond these general skills, one particular skill that you should know if you are a student in an Arts program is how to use a writing standard such as the Modern Languages Association (MLA) standard or the American Psychological Association (APA). I should note that every discipline has their own writing standards that their professionals (and students, of course) must know, and learning the MLA standard is a good start for students of all disciplines.

Please see the following sites for brief introductions to the MLA standard:

7) Study smarter, not harder: Learn methods to help streamline your work, and be strategic about your workload.

- Pace yourself: (e.g.) First study the structure of a textbook chapter quickly before reading the details... What are the key sections of the chapter? Read the bolded text, conclusion sections, and charts/graphs first -- can you understand the chapter from this fast skim or do you need to read everything to understand it? Study smarter not harder by assessing first the difficult parts of the chapter.

- Instrumentality: (e.g.) Can you work on developing your final assignment through other assignments in your current course?

- Travel: (e.g.) Can you gain credit for a course by doing extracurricular activities like attending a conference or a charrette?

- Thesis/Major Research Project: (e.g.) Can essays in your courses be used as chapters in larger projects? Yes. Many professors recommend using half of your required courses for your larger projects, and the other half to try new things and expand your knowledge area into places you haven’t been before.

8) CV / Resume: Keep a current CV and resume. Shop it around yearly to learn whether or not you can move to a higher paying job, or a job more commensurate with your abilities.

9) Peers: You will not view your peers as competition if you work with them, and learn from one another. Grad school is competitive as it is, so make sure to take time to create friends there who can help you along the way. As I said, most of this advice is garnered from other people who have helped me along the way.

10) Resources: Build up some resources to help you out if you forget your way -- here's some examples:

- A link to critical reading and writing skills:

- Advice for MA Defenses:

11) Challenge Yourself: Some come challenges include finding out your own limits, in terms of helping others, achieving good grades, making money, and your own physical health. Can you find a healthy balance to do your best in each of these areas of your life? For example, have you ever challenged yourself to see how much money you can make each hour of the day that you're awake (or better yet, can you get paid while you sleep?), each week, each month, each year, and then compare it to the previous year? Tracking your finances each year is away to see if you're reaching your personal goals.

What about challenging yourself, and others, to see how many people you can help in a day, week, month, or year? How do you define "helping others" here? Can you be paid to do it, or is it charity, or is it volunteer work? Often people find that they feel more successful when they are helping others and when they define their work as meaningful to others, rather than simply by monetary measures.

If you can find a healthy balance between these elements of your life, by taking on challenges, but also giving yourself permission to take a vacation when its earned, then you may find these traits lead you in the direction of being an "A range" student.

12) Say Thanks! Always remember those who help you along the way, and do not forget to help others along the way too. No one does this alone! Also, remember to celebrate with those people when you earn your celebrations along the way…