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7 Tips for Surviving Finals

It’s that time of the year again: the dreaded finals time.

I don’t know about y’all, but I am ready to turn in my final term paper, sit on the couch, and veg out for a long winter break. But before any of us can do that, we should prep and work on our finals. Hopefully, it’s no surprise that there are a few studies out there that offer some helpful tips on prepping for the end of the semester, and I thought I’d share my favorite seven from a few different sources.

  1. Create a master to-do list and a schedule for the remaining days in the semester. Break it down by due dates and exam dates and make sure you give yourself enough time to be comfortable, but still get everything done within a manageable schedule.
  2. Triage your study time. Do you think you should spend equal amounts of time preparing for each course? You don’t — proportion your study time; make sure you spend more time on the course where you feel less confident.
  3. Decide if it’s going to be a grand tour or lots of local attractions. Does your professor want a cumulative term paper/final, or are they looking for specific portions of the class? Figure out the answer and respond accordingly with a continuation of the triage method.
  4. Develop summary sheets for each class. Figure out what happened on the important class days and organize or rewrite your notes to help formulate study guides or paper outlines.
  5. Writing and study groups can be helpful if they make sense. My cohort and I have a paper writing group for one of our classes. Though we are all working on different projects, the camaraderie and shared experience are helpful for the writing process.
  6. Pace yourself! I know when finals crunch time comes around, we often turn to marathon study sessions and writing periods, thinking that’s the best way to crank out as much work as possible in as little time as possible; however, this is actually not the most effective strategy. Make the most of the time you have by pacing yourself: focus for shorter periods of time. Take breaks and walk around.
  7. Manage your anxiety. By listening to calming music, stretching or breathing deeply, you can avoid stress and release negative thoughts. Sometimes we avoid anxiety by avoiding the things that are making us anxious (e.g., studying for an exam or writing a paper), which can lead to procrastination and even more anxiety. Listening to music and intentional breathing and stretching can help you manage your energy in a constructive way. I love creating playlists or listening to the same song on repeat the whole time I’m writing. My entire master’s thesis was written to “Down with the Sickness” by Disturbed.

I hope you have found some of these tips interesting and/or helpful, and I wish us all luck during this end-of-the-term marathon. Remember the goal is in view

Why You Should: Write Down Your Goals

Have you ever made New Year’s resolutions that you failed to follow through with? If so, you’re not alone. Evidence suggests that roughly 60 percent of people abandon their grand plans for the upcoming year within six months of making them. Surprisingly, the trick to sticking with your goals may be simpler than you think. According to Dr. Gail Matthews, a psychology professor at Dominican University in California, people are 42% more likely to carry out their goals just by writing them down.

Writing down your goals is a useful practice because it helps you determine and prioritize what you want out of life, says Michael Hyatt, co-author of Living Forward: A Proven Plan to Stop Drifting and Get the Life You Want. The idea is that once you write down a goal and analyze what you’ve written, you’ll have a better understanding of the scope of your goal, and you’ll likely think in more depth about how you should follow through with it.

While it may be motivating to see what you want on paper, it is important that the goal can be measured and is realistic. Ashley Feinstein, author of the how-to guide “30 Days to Financial Bliss”, suggests creating a feasible timeframe and measurable details, so you know exactly when a goal has been achieved. Writing down your goals will also allow you to monitor your progress. You’ll be able to see where you’ve been, where you’re going, and make revisions for your progress.

If your goal is to lose weight, carry around a food and exercise booklet. Write down what you eat, how many calories those items are, how many miles you walked in the day, and other fitness-related goals. If your goal is to write your first hit as a songwriter, carry around a journal just for your lyrics, witty one-liners that would work well for later use, etc. If your goal is to complete an IT certification within the next six months, make a schedule for yourself with a set goal in mind for progress.

While writing down a goal doesn’t guarantee that you will accomplish it, it greatly increases the odds. A study carried out through Harvard University’s MBA program also found that students who wrote down their goals tended to be more successful in their careers than students who didn’t. So go to your favorite stationary store, grab a nice pen and a few notebooks, and start writing.

The True Meaning of Thanksgiving Break for a College Student

Many students want to forget about schoolwork over Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving Break is ideally supposed to be a time when you relax, enjoy family and friends, catch up on the sleep you’ve missed from studying, and reflect on what you are thankful for.  But when you are in college that idea is far from reality. Here are five things me and mostly every other college student will be doing during Thanksgiving “break”:

1. Playing Catch Up!

And by this I mean trying to email your teachers and see what late assignments they will accept because you’ve finally had some free time to calculate your grade, and you are regretting not turning in that 5-point response. Also, catching up on shows you haven’t watched in-between time. Somehow when you are in college TV is non-existent due to late night study sessions and falling asleep between chapters.

2. Roadtrip Homework

The awesome part about Thanksgiving break is spending time with family you haven’t seen in a while. Georgia State has so many students from so many places, it can be easy to get homesick. But the unfortunate thing is while making that trip to Grandma’s everyone will be catching up on sleep, watching their fav Netflix series, and then there will be you, studying for those tests you have as soon as the break ends.

3. Eating Thanksgiving Dinner with a Book in Your Lap

Like I said before, I have no clue why professors schedule tests right after the break. That’s almost like saying “enjoy your Thanksgiving ‘Extended Studying’ Break” because they have to know that you will be using your so called “break” to study for a test. So while everyone’s around the table sharing laughs and memories, you’ll be stuffing your face and reading chapters 4-11 because you had no time to do it before now. There’s nothing like enjoying mac and cheese and a good read!

4. Attempting to Catch Up on Sleep

Between homework, work and extracurricular activities, being a college student is almost like being a superhero. We are always on the go and never in bed on time. So between studying, trying to hang out with the friends and family you never have time for during the semester, and stuffing your face, one thing we must be sure to do is to catch up on that thing that hasn’t happened in a while, …

5. Doing what we do best: Procrastinating!

This break is seven days to get your school-life back together, which seems pretty hectic around this time of year. With that fact in mind just like every other student, we will probably wait until Saturday to actually study for that test on Monday, finish up old assignments and start that project you’ve known about since August. But at the end of the day, we always get the work done. And this break, be sure to enjoy family and friends, get some sleep and finish up the work you need. Luckily for us, the semester is almost over after this break, so finish strong and have a happy Thanksgiving!

5 Things You Should Stop Doing in Essays

As a college composition instructor, I never run out of examples of terrible writing. Students still transitioning from high school writing habits have a tendency to write papers that all sound the same—and use many of the same tropes and generalizations. I spend most of that first semester trying to un-teach many of the things you probably all had drilled into your heads through middle and high school, mostly for the sake of writing essays for standardized tests.

My students always have a little bit of separation anxiety from the five paragraph essay when I yank it out from under them, though, so they cling tighter to those transitional phrases and cliches that they’re so familiar with using. They’re tried and true, right? They got them decent grades in high school so they must be legit, right?

Well, unless you want your likely overworked graduate or adjunct instructor to start crying into their eighth cup of coffee while grading your paper, there are some things you’ll want to nix from your go-to toolbox for essay writing. And, since I feel for those instructors, I’ll throw in some suggestions for upgrades.

“From the dawn of time…”
If you’ve ever started an essay this way, go ahead and hang your head in shame, shame, shame. It probably preceded a lengthy discussion of something really general and nonspecific about “society” at large, while using the word “society” about fifteen times. Instead, stop worrying so much about having that wide, broad opening at the start of your paper. Don’t hesitate to jump right into the point you’re trying to make. So many of my students spent most of their introductions dancing around the point, and then shoving the whole point of the essay into their thesis statement. Let the intro do its job—it should, you guessed it, introduce the subject of your essay, and act as a logical lead up to the thesis statement.

Wild assumptions and accusations

Unless you have proof that every human being on Earth believes a certain thing, don’t use the word “everyone.” You might as well go ahead and throw the word “society” into the no-no bucket, too, since it’s super broad to begin with, and therefore impossible to really nail down who, exactly, you’re referring to. As a rule of thumb, if you don’t have proof from a reputable source that you can cite in the essay, don’t include it as a fact. I usually tell my kids to use speculative language if they absolutely have to, in these situations. For example, instead of saying “Everyone loves elephants,” you could say something like “It’s possible that everyone might love elephants.” See what I did there? I left some doubt rather than asserting it as fact.

Unnecessary repetition
When my students are struggling to meet a word count, they tend to recycle material from earlier in the essay and repeat themselves. Then, when they come in for conferences, I have to spend a few minutes explaining why I don’t need to be told the same thing twice in a 1,200 word essay. If your essay is on the shorter side (I’d say 10 pages or under) you really don’t need to repeat information. This includes your conclusion. Rather than using your conclusion as a place to tell your reader everything you’ve just told them, use it as a place to leave them with a new or lasting thought. Consider your thesis statement, and the purpose of the essay, and think about what you would ideally like your reader to take away or keep thinking about when they finish reading.

“I think…”
When I was in the seventh grade, I learned one of the best writing tools I’ve ever learned—if the sentence starts with something like “I think” or “I believe,” it’s pretty likely that you can take off that phrase and the sentence will sound much better, clearer, and more straightforward. For example, in an argumentative essay, I could write “I think there should be more consequences for animal abusers.” But, if I drop the “I think,” the sentence becomes “There should be more consequences for animal abusers.” It’s assertive and straightforward. Then, I could move on with facts and points to support my argument. I’m always telling my students to assert themselves in their writing. It also helps to take a step back and try your best to stick with third person point of view, in these cases. It comes off more objective and far more credible when you rely on outside sources and journal articles rather than your own personal beliefs or anecdotes.

Using slang or colloquial/casual language
With the exception of things like personal essays, it’s a good rule of thumb to keep casual language out of your academic writing. If you’re writing an essay about Middle Eastern politics, for example, you might not want to write it like an email to your best buddy. Your audience is going to be your instructor, who might be a graduate student, or a tenured professor—either way, you need to elevate your language. I’m not saying you should speak outside of your vernacular and use words you don’t really know. I tell my kids that when they’re writing for academia, they need to “wear their ties,” rather than their sweatpants. They need to dress up their language. This essay will be having brunch with the dean, not watching Netflix with your bro.

Naturally, all instructors and professors will probably have different guidelines or requirements, so if they specifically ask you to do something listed here—like write a casual, personal essay, for example—then by all means, follow their cues. But, in general, avoiding these few little things will help you stay in line to write a better essay.

Some B-list suggestions here might include avoiding the five paragraph structure, not using the phrase “as I stated before…” to reference a previous point, and trying to avoid writing a thesis statement that repeats the essay prompt.

Here’s to stepping up your essay game. Happy writing!

Make the Most of Advisement

This week we begin a series addressing questions that admitted graduate school students often ask with answers about how the academic advising process works.

Some students may be more familiar with this part of the graduate school experience than others. But whether you are enrolled in an arts and sciences program, lawmedical or business school, you will most likely work with an academic adviser.

Typically, academic advisers are committed to helping you identify your academic interests, discuss course selection and fulfill your requirements for graduation. At the master’s degree level, academic advisers are usually professional staff in the offices of the dean of students or the registrar. At the doctoral degree level, academic advisers are almost always full-time faculty. In nearly all cases, advisers are assigned to students by the institution.

Your admission letter should include information about next steps in the enrollment process, i.e., financial aid notification, campus visit programs, orientation, registration and academic advising. There will also most likely be a website for newly admitted students.

If you do not see anything in your admission letter or on the Web, reach out to the admissions office to ask about the advising process and how best to reach and communicate with your adviser.

In my experience, academic advising at its best is a collaborative effort between the student and adviser. You will get the most out of this experience if you actively participate in the advising process. Following are tips for how to get the most out of this process starting as an admitted graduate student.

1. Introduce yourself: As soon as you learn who your adviser is, send an introductory email. Include your resume and your application essays. Offer to speak with this person on the phone before orientation.

2. Learn how the advising process works: Ask the admissions office how the school handles advising. Does your adviser usually reach out to you? Are you supposed to contact your adviser? Does he or she have regularly scheduled hours for appointments? Can you schedule an appointment on an as-needed basis?

3. Keep in touch with your adviser once enrolled: If not asked by your adviser to do so, schedule an appointment early in the fall semester as you explore your interests and see how your fall courses are going. Meet at least once per term after that.

The more your adviser knows about your interests and concerns, the more he or she can support you. This will increase opportunities for you to take full advantage of what is offered by the program or institution, identify issues needing attention and assist with planning for after graduation.

4. Discuss various academic options beyond the classroom: Your adviser will help you to think strategically about your long-range academic plans, encouraging you to keep your options open so that you’ll be able to take advantage of opportunities like study abroad programs, research grants or internships.

5. Make sure you have an agenda for your appointments: Go in to your meeting with an idea of what you wish to discuss. This is your graduate program, and while your adviser will be ready to provide input and assistance, it is up to you to facilitate each meeting.

6. Take good notes: As soon as possible after each appointment, write a summary of what was discussed, any next steps you need to take and any items you may wish to discuss at your next meeting.

7. Show your appreciation: From time to time, thank your adviser. Send a holiday card or provide an update on something about which they provided input. Let your adviser know how much you appreciate his or her time.

Parenting in Graduate School

Parenting in grad school can be crazy hard. There is really so much to say about parenting in grad school. I asked the question on Twitter and on Facebook and was just overwhelmed with the responses. I have blogged on Gradhacker before about being a mother in academia. As I enter what is hopefully the last year of my grad school experience, I find myself reflecting on how I’ve made it work and how making it work has changed as I’ve advanced in my doctoral program. Additionally, I started my PhD program as a married mother with my twins in diapers, and now I am a divorced, single mother of twin kindergartners. The demands of what both my children and my program and career needs are changing. So how do I make it work at the dissertation, job market, single-mom of school-aged kids part of my grad school experience? Here’s a start:

1. The schedule is sacred. My schedule includes time for each of my assistantship jobs, my freelance writing, my chores (ALL the laundry, omg), the time I am on mom duty, and even sleep. In short, I schedule each of my 24 hours. I work in the wee hours of the morning, I work in the evenings, and every weekend. Setting the schedule ahead of time and sticking to it is the only way I can get all the things done, and even then I don’t quite make it. This also ensures that I’m getting enough sleep to stay mentally sharp and physically healthy. Objectively seeing the shortfalls in my schedule also helps me know when I need to ask for more help, adjust deadlines, or if I need to say no to new projects.

2. Finding balance isn’t optional. I’ve found that sacrificing free time has a negative effect on my productivity. Those moments when I allow myself to daydream and let my mind wander is largely when I have the aha! moments I need to push my own work forward. My advice is to not skimp on self-care. Even though I do have to schedule in my down time and my exercise (see above), there is a huge return on the investment of those hours in terms of my own productivity. Not to mention that it just makes me a more pleasant mom, friend, and co-worker.

3. There is enough of everything. At least that’s what I tell myself. The truth is that it sometimes feels like there’s not enough time.  I find this is true for my friends with and without kids, single parents or married parents–no matter what your situation, there’s never enough time. The tasks will always swell to consume it. Despite my tendency to account for every minute of my day, I find that focusing on the scarcity of time just makes everything worse. The same is true for money, and I regularly panic about it. As precise as I am about time, I am the same about money. Being a grad student is not lucrative in any way, and I use Mint.com to track my spending and bills. Every day I repeat the mantra that I have enough time and I have enough money. The psychology of scarcitycan be a cognitive demand that I just don’t need and do my best to avoid, despite the occasional hyperventilating when my kids need new shoes.

5. No excuses. This past semester was a disaster for my deadlines. For the most part, I was pretty close to on time for the big things, but a series of snow days (which meant the kids were at home), weeks of someone being sick (including me), funerals, and midterms conspired to a huge backlog of grading. I’ve never been so behind.  Those close to me, such as the professor I was TAing for, knew in general what was going on, but I tried not to overly discuss it and instead focused on the facts: I am behind, I have a good reason to be behind, here is my plan to get caught up. Everyone has personal issues,whether they are parents or not, and those issues will interfere with work at some point or another. Focusing on a concrete plan to rectify the situation reassures those around me that I can handle it, lets people know how they may need to help or adjust team planning, and maintains my professionalism.

6. The secret benefits of being a parent. My own experience has revealed this secret: when I fail (and I do fail often), my kids just don’t care. And that is a huge gift. Young children especially take so much joy in the littlest things, and my young zen masters have taught me to really be in the moment with them. Knowing that I have to set aside the yardsticks of academia for a game of stick-fighting instead has kept me happy and mentally healthy, I believe. The more I focus on them, the easier it is for me to focus on my work when it’s time to work and remember that there are really more important things in life than what’s listed on my CV.

This is by no means an exhaustive list and I know I heard from many parents out there about different tips and tricks to manage being a parent in grad school and beyond. I remind myself that we are all, in fact, managing it. Those reminders that I am not alone and it isn’t impossible help keep me going. That and coffee. Lots of coffee.

3 Ways You Can Completely Blow Your Midterm

Even if you aren’t the best test-taker, there are some simple ways you can improve your readiness for graduate school midterms and finals. Conversely, there are always some ways to “blow it.” The key is always preparation—graduate school requires a lot more of it than undergrad. Don’t let any of these mistakes ruin those big exams and hurt your graduate school success!

Don’t ever cram the night before

Graduate school midterms are not the type of test you can successfully cram for in one 24-hour period—taking any test exhausted is a surefire way to wind up with bad scores. Make sure you are sleeping regularly at least six hours a night in the weeks leading up to midterms. Information “sticks” in your brain better if it is revisited in short bursts over an extended period of time, and you will only be able to memorize so much information in a short span of time.

Be extra neat on your scantron or grid

By the time you get to graduate school, you will have taken hundreds of tests that use a scantron or grid-in. A number two pencil lets you mark in each answer and allows for professors to grade multiple choice questions quickly and efficiently. Though most midterms now also require a short answer or essay portion, make sure to be cautious with the grid. Bubble in your choices fully and darkly so that there is never any confusion as to which choice is intended. If you need to erase and change an answer, always erase neatly and as completely as possible. It may sound silly, but many students still miss one or two answers due to machine error. The neater you are, the better likelihood of that not happening!

Cheaters never prosper

The best graduate schools are institutions with strong academic policies and extremely strict cheating punishments. Whether it’s on a multiple-choice midterm or a thesis essay, don’t ever, ever cheat. We’ve all heard the phrase, “cheaters never prosper,” and it’s true! Character and integrity is part of what you came to grad school to build, and cheating doesn’t prepare you for success beyond academia. On a practical level, there is no guarantee that on test day, the person you are cheating off knows the correct answers, or that the person whose essay you copy is any more convincing than your own thoughts would be. If you are caught cheating, it could lead to a serious blight on your academic records, and you could even be dismissed from the school. Trust that you are capable of doing well on your own!

How to Stay Motivated

Motivation may be key to success, but it’s also one of the most difficult keys to acquire!

I’m one of those people who feel really motivated after accomplishing just one thing, because it makes me want to accomplish everything else that I have to do. Then, once I’m done with all my work, I get this weird feeling because I want more, but by the time I get it, the motivation has passed and it takes me forever to get started again.

Below you’ll find some problem-solving aids I’ve implemented to help keep my motivation (or create it).

Make lists.

Something about having everything I need to get done in the next day or two written down makes me want to sit down and do it all. A lot of the time, we psych ourselves out by thinking we have such a huge workload that we get overwhelmed, but once it’s all written down it doesn’t seem that bad.

Knowing the work won’t be as time consuming or difficult as I initially thought is a huge motivator!

Tackle easy things first.

This is so important!

If you start with the most time consuming and difficult task, you’re going to drain all of your energy, and the smaller things may not get done.

Go for the easiest, quickest of your tasks first so that the accomplishment will motivate you for the harder tasks to come. This way, you’ll also ensure that you won’t run out of time for everything else you have to do–because it will already be done.

Get help from friends.

My friends yell at me to do my work more than my parents used too.

Let your friends know when you have a lot of work to get done and what your deadlines are so they can remind you. Or, at the very least, they can not invite you to things that are more fun than sitting around doing homework so you don’t feel the urge to skip it. If that won’t work, use going out with your friends as the motivation to get your work done. Whatever works best for you.

Pat yourself on the back.

Self-validation is key to success!

There is nothing wrong with being proud of a job well done. If you get all of your work done, or even some of it, consider it a win. Don’t underestimate even the smallest victories like reading for class or writing a short paper.

Reward yourself in some small way–a break, a snack, planning something fun with friends, a Netflix hour, etc.

Fill your time with what’s important.

I hate to say it, but if you have zero motivation to tackle your workload no matter what you do, you may just have the wrong workload.

I took a class I absolutely hated last semester and never wanted to do anything that involved the subject. Luckily for me, it was just an elective, so I never have to deal with it again. But if you’re feeling this way about work that’s in your major, it may be time to reconsider your chosen field.

I hope that’s not the case, but if it is, know that that’s okay.

Hopefully these tips will keep you motivated for a strong semester. Now go get that to-do list done!

5 Things You Learn in Your First Month of Graduate School

5 Things You Learn in Your First Month of Graduate School

1. You are your own boss

When people say that grad school is what you make of it, what they really mean is that you are on your own. There will be many deadlines, assignments, and other duties, but most likely no one is going to check in with you periodically, hold your hand along the way, much less help to keep you on schedule.

Your professors and peers are all busy with their own research, publishing, and studies. To put it bluntly, no one else cares about your advancement.

Try to see the bright side of that: you have full autonomy over your academic life.

2. Setting your priorities right is crucial

While we all know that grad school can easily become a 60-hour-a-week job, very few of us are able to dedicate 100 percent of our time and energy to our studies. Most of us have at least one other, larger commitment: a spouse, children, and a job. That makes the life of a grad student a delicate balancing act.

You need to decide what roles in your life are the most important and what your non-negotiables are. Are you a mother and wife first, a working professional second, and a grad student third? Are you a researcher first, student second, TA third?

Set your priorities and decide what percentage of your time and energy you are willing to allocate to each role. If you work full-time, study part-time, and TA part-time, you may be left with only an hour a week to spend on your scholarly publishing. The sooner you make peace with that the better.

Knowing what is realistic to achieve in the time allocated to each role will help you avoid beating yourself up over not getting more done.

3. You should use your commute time well

Unlike during the undergraduate years, many of us choose to live off-campus as graduate students. As a consequence, we face long commutes, often in rush hour. It is crucial to make use of the time spent on the road.

If you are taking public transport you can finish drafting a journal article, give your presentation one more read-through, or grade student papers.

If you are driving, you can listen to an audiobook or have your phone or computer read one of your papers to you through the text-to-speech feature. Catching up on the news while commuting is also a great way to start and end your day because it gives you something current to talk about with your peers and professors.

4. Teamwork is crucial to graduate school success

While your undergraduate years were spent exploring various subjects and being graded on them by professors, your graduate studies are focused on a narrow field and you spend most of your time working alone or completing group projects with your peers.

The transition is one from pleasing your professors to proving your value to yourself and to your peer group.

5. You might not make friends with everyone and that’s fine

Just like any other social environment, your program has a variety of personalities. Some you instantly connect with and others are simply not your cup of tea. There will be people who will not talk to you and people who talk about you behind your back.

Occasionally, you might find out about group parties the next day, or may feel left out when you are sitting alone and see a large group of your peers having lunch together.

Don’t take it personally. Maybe not inviting you was a mistake, maybe they have a small house, or they needed to talk about something in private.

For whatever reason you didn’t make the cut, and that’s okay. Try to let go of your hurt and keep things professional with everyone.

Bonus Tip: Comparing yourself to others is pointless and exhausting

You are probably not the smartest person in your program. You are also not the dumbest one. You are somewhere in the middle, perhaps average. There is nothing wrong with being average among a group of advanced degree students; by definition, everyone in your program is already gifted, and probably so in an area different from your strong suit.

Therefore, competing with your peers does not make sense. The sooner you accept that you are only in competition with yourself, the sooner you can start growing and outdoing your past self.