Back to School How-To

Hey there Sunshine!  It’s the middle of the night, going on the very early morning hours. I had a bizarro day (may have witnessed a very injured and mentally unstable young man steal a wheelchair and run away from a hospital ER), and that’s making my anxiety go through the roof tonight. When the Amazingly Awesome Boyfriend was heading off to bed, I had to sit up in front of the TV for a bit doing my deep breathing, because I was sure I was about to have a heart attack.

Oh well, hope your night is going much better!

This whole combination of bizarro situations and ridiculously high anxiety DID remind me that school is starting soon, though. I moved a month into high school to a whole new city, to a newly opened high school. Somehow, my parents thought that the fact that the school was new meant that no one there knew each other yet, so I should have no problem making friends. Had to finish my fifth and final year at a new school back in my hometown. After a few years off, went back to college, only to leave after only getting my one year certificate (instead of the 2-year diploma) due to an incident there. Years after that, went back to university as a “mature student” and spent more than 5 years working on my degrees, only to let anxiety get the best of me and not apply to graduate school.

So believe me when I say that I KNOW back to school anxiety.

The thing is, there are so many different things that can worsen your back to school anxiety: financial woes, social anxiety, moving to a new place, the unknown in general, education itself, fear of the future……….  I keep seeing these articles on how to handle your Back To School Anxiety, but they only have band-aid solutions to things.  Sure, lavender might help you relax, but will it help you save money on school supplies and textbooks? Eating lots of veggies is great for your all-around physical and mental health, but how will that help you meet people? Companion animals are great, but most dorm rooms don’t allow them.

So what’s a student to do?

Hopefully, I can shed a little light on that for ya’ll. I researched things back then for myself, and research them now for friends and roommates. I’m digging through my ancient external hard drive, stacks of old half-used notebooks (I dare you to find a troubled writer who doesn’t have at least half a dozen of these in their home), and my very large pile of Research I Printed To Read Later But Never Did. I’m combing Tumblr blogs (I’ll have links to a few that are super helpful), old PowerPoint presentations, and that forgotten “Stuff For My Blog” folder in my Bookmarks. Basically, I’m digging through all my shit to find that shit that works best for you.

So, I’ll try and pour as much of this anxiety-fuelled awakeness into my research for now. Hopefully, I’ll have some posts for you on this all this week, while you’re getting ready for Back to School.

 

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Scheduling and your Syllabi

Your syllabus is probably the most important document you’ll receive in a class. It’s your schedule, your contact info, your lifeline for the next semester. How many of you know how to actually use it to your advantage though?

I’ll admit, my first year in University, I didn’t pay much attention to the damn things. I’d write down in my day planner when my exams were and when papers were due. Then, I’d stick my pile of syllabi in a folder and throw my day planner in my backpack. I didn’t check it regularly, and the “F” on my transcript is my proof of that (damn you History and Politics of Asian Religions!!!!).

I wised up a bit my second year. I’d check my planner once or twice a week, keep my syllabi with my class notebooks, and thought this was good enough. Actually, this is what most students do. And this is why so many students try to write 15 page research papers in two days, pull all-nighters cramming for exams last-minute, and spend more on coffee and Monster than tuition.

This method lulls you into a false sense of scheduling security. Yes, you have everything you need written down in front of you somewhere. And yes, you actually check what needs to be done the beginning of the week. But what do you have next week? Or a month from now? Can you open your day planner to a random page from this semester and easily figure out which classes will take up the most of your time and resources at a glance?

In my third year, I came up with a system. The first week of classes, I got all of my syllabi in class or on the class websites. Then, I took a whole afternoon to go over them and start scheduling. (Come on, it’s the first week of classes. You can spare a few hours to make the next few months a little easier!) All I needed were some coloured pens, sticky notes, and a day planner.

First, each class was assigned a colour. In the day planner, go through class by class and fill in WHEN each class is. I know you think you’ll remember that you have that Post-Modern Comic Theory class every single Thursday at 1pm. In a month or two, when you’re running on no sleep and ALL the caffeine, though, you may not even remember you’re enrolled in that class, let alone when it is. This also puts it right in front of you, in writing, when you are committed to be there.

Then, for each class, make note of your exams, papers, assignments, labs, and anything else that is a part of your grade. Write down when these things are, and a detail or two about each (like exam rooms and times, paper lengths, etc). This gives you your deadlines.

Now, for each major grade event that you need extra time for (like paper writing or studying for exams), give yourself at least one weeks notice. Flip back one week in your day planner, and make a section for this. Some planners come with a Notes area each week you can use. If you don’t typically have much planned for weekends, you could always use your Sunday space for this. Or, you could use the sticky notes I said to grab. (You can never have enough sticky notes in your life). Write down the day, time, subject, and how much of your grade this is worth. This ensures you have extra notice, so things don’t creep up on you at the last minute.

And now, VERY CAREFULLY read through each syllabus. Each syllabus is your professor’s notes to you on how to get as high a grade as possible. Take a page in your planner and write down each professor’s contact information, office hours, the course you are taking with them, and the course time and place. Then, read their instructions. Some professors will throw in exactly what they expect for assignments, or a grading rubric to help you plan our papers. They also give details about your exams, like if the final exam is cumulative, or only covers materials you learned since the mid-term.  Some will break down exactly what chapters to read each week, what online material to look up, and what they expect to cover in their lectures each week. Make note of ALL of this! You need to know what you’ll have to do before each class, or else you can’t actually do it.

I know this seems like a lot to do all at once. This is the simplified version of what I did for three years, though, and what a lot of friends and colleagues have said have worked best for them. When my schedule got really tight (4-5 classes, two jobs, 6 volunteer positions, fraternity events, family obligations, sleeping, eating…..), I used a day planner, a one-month wall calendar, a 4 month wall planner, a system of 4 separate To-Do lists, and email reminders to keep everything straight. Compared to all of that, this is a walk in the park.

This also helps make your semester run a little more smoothly. Imagine, never checking your schedule on Monday to find out you have a paper due Wednesday that you forgot about; never again forgetting about your Monday midterm until Saturday night; never missing a party because you have to pull an all-nighter to finish an assignment you forgot. Sure, this will take a few hours to get done in one day. But think of all the money you’ll save on energy drinks, caffeine pills, coffee, and everything else you’ve been using to keep you up for those last-minute all-nighters.

Most of all, think of all the stress you can save yourself by giving up one afternoon to write stuff down with pretty coloured pens. You can plan things out like those real grown-ups you see in the movies, with their leather-bound planners and appointment books, snootily telling people “sorry, I need at least 3 weeks notice. I’m already all booked. Are you free in May? I may have an opening in May sometime.” This one afternoon with your day planner could be all it takes to put you on the path to becoming Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada.……. or it could at least free up enough time for you to remember you love that movie, and actually watch it again.

Follow Through With Your Plans

So you have a plan. That’s fantastic! You know pretty much what you want to do after graduation, what your chosen career path is, and/or what you want to do with the rest of your life.

So how to you follow through with all this?

For a lot of careers,getting a degree just isn’t good enough. You need a totally kick-ass CV and/or resume, with loads of entries on it showing why you would be the most obvious choice for a job in this field. Sounds easy, doesn’t it. Yeah, it’s kinda not.

You see, need to create epic aura of awesomeness that not only makes you perfect for this specific job, but also doesn’t make you perfect for ONLY this specific job. You need to make yourself seem like some secret super soldier created specifically for this job, but also for other jobs in that field that you may want to apply for. Basically, you need to show that you are perfect across the board.

No pressure, right?

Calm down. There are a few universal things that you can do, no matter what your career goal is:

  1. Leadership! Show that you’re not only great at taking directions, but that you can give directions to others. Join a club that interests you, and get yourself into a position of leadership. Anything from President of the Psychology Association to the Event Planning Chair of the Local Hippie Coalition works for this. Anything that gives you the power to give orders to others is good.
  2. Financial Responsibility! Chances are, at some point in your career, you will have to work with a budget. You may have to create a budget, keep track of petty cash, delegate funds for other projects, or oversee a large project on a budget. Do something specific that shows that you know how to do this already. Join a club (or just use your position in the last point), and plan an event. Make sure you work with a budget, and can track everything. And hey, now you also have experience in event planning! That’s TWO skills in one point! Bonus!
  3. Computer Skills! Obviously, someone in a Computer Science program will already have plenty of experience with computers. I mean, it’s right there in the program name. Criminology? Math? Political Science? Nothing there screams “I’m not a technological failure”. You need to up your skills, and make sure they are marketable. First off, know your Microsoft Office programs. It never hurts to get certification in programs like Word or Excel. Next, work on programs that are needed in your specific field. Things like statistical analysis have a few programs used by pretty much everyone in the field. If your field has programs like this, then you damn well better them!

Now that you have these few things taken care of, lets take a look at your actual course work. Do you know exactly what you need to get into your chosen career?  Some jobs require grad school, a doctorate, special certification, or co-op/internship experience. Does yours?

It’s best to do research into your field early. Ideally, as soon as you know what it is you want, you would start your research. If you require a graduate or doctorate degree, then you need to also start researching how to apply for these programs. You also need to know what the admission requirements are. Some schools require tests like GRE or LSATs, a large number of letters of recommendation, or admission essays. Know what is required.

Certification requires knowing where and when to test, what knowledge is needed, and where to get study material. Sometimes, it’s only a matter of sitting through a workshop. Other times, you need to take a series of tests. For my Advanced Certificate in Microsoft Excel, I took three workshops (basic, intermediate, and advanced levels), with a series of small assignments during them. To get actual Microsoft Certification from Microsoft, there are special certification tests that have to be administered at very specific locations, by specially trained administrators. Make sure you are actually getting what you need when you sign up for these.

And finally, take a look at the courses you’re taking. Even within your program, you can show specialization or expand your knowledge. In my Criminology program, I chose to take a very broad range of topics that could all apply to my chosen area of research. I took courses in Youth in Criminal Justice, Victimology, Penology, Social Deviation, and Policing and Security. I also took a series of Psychological Development courses, Social Justice, Morality, and both Quantitative and Qualitative Research. All of this is to aide in my research into school shootings and trends in violence and blame. At the same time, I also did courses in Business, Philosophy, Computer Concepts, and Political Science. These gave me a broader range of knowledge, more marketable skills, and gave me a chance to broaden my network. It’s best to also try to do a combination of both of these (specific, and broad).

So, to sum up quickly, you need to make yourself as marketable as possible in your chosen field. Make sure you have all the education and skills you need for your career, and make sure you know what you actually need for that career.

Do You Have A Plan?

I mean beside, “Graduate, find a job, make money”.

So many students go into their post-secondary schooling without any sort of plan in place. It’s almost like they’re on autopilot. Going to college or university just seemed like the logical next step after graduating high school, or not finding their dream job after a few years.

There’s also the outside pressure from friends, family, and “experts” to get some sort of degree. It’s like people seem to think that getting some sort of piece of paper will make the job offers come flying in. I’ve even heard the “advice” that it doesn’t matter what your degree is in, as long as you have a degree.

Well, that’s not exactly true.

Now, you don’t need to have a concrete plan, set in stone, laying out every educational and career move you plan to make in the next five years. You should have some sort of idea of what you’re getting yourself into. You can’t go into this whole “planning the rest of your life” thing blind.

Do you have an idea of what career you want after graduation? If so, that’s great! Make sure you’re on the right track to get there. (I’ll have a whole post next week about how to do this) Not so much? That’s ok too.  Not everyone knows exactly what they want out of life. The main things to focus on are to not panic, and to not pigeon hole yourself into such a small niche that you have no options to look to.

Do you have a major topic of study? Many students spend a year or two as an “undeclared” major, or in a “general arts/science” program. And that’s perfectly fine. If you’re not sure of what you want, then don’t rush into something you could totally regret. It’s perfectly fine to take a variety of courses in order to find out what it is that really gets you going. You may find that you have an undiscovered love of statistics, or geology, or quantitative research. Taking a little time to explore could help you discover your true passions.

Do you have no idea whatsoever what you want to do, but you’re in school anyway because it’s what you’re supposed to do? Then maybe you need to take a little time out here. So many people get pushed into university by well-meaning people and advice, when what they would benefit most from is going into a skilled trade. Or they rush into getting a degree when what they really want is to be a chef. Or they get a job with a company, and would love to just work their way up the chain there, but are pressured to give that up to go to school.

Not everyone needs to run out and get a degree! If you really have no clue what you want to do, or you have a career goal that some seem to see as non-traditional, then maybe you need to take a little time off to figure things out. Some people travel, or take time to explore different career options. I’ve known people who took time off and worked for cruise lines, department stores, garages, fast food restaurants. Some of them found a career path they loved. Others found something they thought they would love, and instead hated with the fiery passion of a thousand supernova-ing suns. Either way, they found something about themselves, and were able to either create or narrow-down their career path.

So do you have a plan? If so, congrats! You’re ahead of myself, and about 3/4 of the people I know. You don’t? That’s ok too. Just make sure not to pigeon hole yourself out of options.

ALWAYS know the rules!

Playing this crazy game called like is a little like…… playing the Game of Life. There are certain rules that need to be followed. If you don’t follow then, you risk failure.

This is especially true when you’re looking at your course load for school. Not every school has the same rules regarding grades, required courses, and how their Degree Audits work. Just because you think you know what you’re doing when planning out your degree, doesn’t mean you actually do. You ALWAYS need to check these things out!

Case in point: I know of someone who was working on a second degree. At one point, she was told that she needed three more courses before she could graduate. Since she was committed to a full year of part-time studies due to her job, she split the three classes between two semesters, and filled in some of the gaps with courses she had already taken.

THIS is where things get a little hairy.

You see, she decided that, since she had already passed these courses, she didn’t need to pass them again. At some schools, when taking the same course multiple times, the school will take the best mark you get and put it on your transcripts.

Not this school.

Here, if you retake a course, your make the second time around is the mark you’re left with. It doesn’t matter if that mark is better than the first time, or worse: that mark is the one you get.

When this person took her courses the second time, she didn’t bother actually taking them. She focused all of her time on her last three courses, and her job. She didn’t even write the exams for her other courses. So, she failed.

Fast forward a few months, and she checked to see why she didn’t get a letter about graduation yet. Low and behold, she was three courses short! It took months of negotiation with the University to straighten things out.

She was lucky. The University forgave those three failed courses. Don’t count on that happening for you.

If you want to retake a course, check with someone to see how this will effect you overall in the event of failure.

Get The Most Out of EVERYTHING You Can

Yes, once again I’ve been gone for quite some time. While I am working part-time at a liquor store, I’m still looking for work. There have been quite a few obstacles in my way, that it turns out I could have taken care of a lot of these obstacle while I was still a student. Which brings me to today’s post: Certification matters!

When I was a University student, the school offered a variety of workshops, seminars, free classes, volunteer opportunities, and all the things that you need to prove that you are an educated, responsible grown-up person who deserves a job. And, for the most part, we all ignored them. I did quite a bit of volunteering, but didn’t bother trying to get that put onto my Co-Curricular Transcript (a transcript of school-approved clubs and societies, and the different positions you could hold in each). In five years, I went to maybe a handful of workshops and seminars. For the most part, I figured that I didn’t need them, since I already knew what they were about.

There were Microsoft workshops offered at one point. For a very small (less than $30) fee, you could take a weekend workshop on a specific Microsoft Office program, and receive an official Certificate upon completion. Back then I thought, “Hell, I know Microsoft Word! I type essays, and wrote out a resume, and even create meeting minutes for one of my clubs! Why would I need  to waste a weekend learning about it?”

Turns out I needed it for that CERTIFICATE. After school, all those jobs I thought I could get easily wanted PROOF that I knew how to use that program. Instead of paying $30 back then to get that piece of paper, I am taking a $225 workshop. Yes, $225!

It turns out, all those things I had shunned in my University days actually mean something afterwards.  Sure, I joined clubs, but never strove to get a leadership role. I used Microsoft Office programs, but never got proof that I can use them. I worked on-campus positions, and volunteered with students and staff, without securing professional references. Basically, I wasted my time.

So take the time to get those little bits of experience (and paper) that will propel you higher than your peers. It’s not always good enough to type out papers and volunteer; you need proof! Get a certificate, a letter, some sort of documentation that proves your knowledge. And while you’re at it, make as many contacts as possible.

(I’ll cover making contacts and creating a portfolio at a later date. They are both VERY important things that never seem to get taught to students.)

Time Budgets

Sometimes it feels like there just aren’t enough hours in a day to get everything done.  Other times, it’s like there is absolutely nothing to do for hours on end. And in Netflix time, you’re 23 episodes in to Supernatural and decide you have just enough time for another season or two before bed.

No matter how you spend your time, though, just remember: you have 168 hours to use each week.

That’s right: 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, equals 168 hours in every week.

I know that seems like a lot and not enough at the same time, so just take your planning one step at a time now.

1) What commitments do you have?

This is where you factor in the things you absolutely must do on a set schedule: classes, labs, work, and other things you simply MUST be in attendance at. Write these things down in your day planner (don’t know how to use one? We’ll get to that another day). Add up how many hours you have in your week that you just cannot use for anything else, because they’re already scheduled.

2) Check your “time sucks”.

Yes, “time sucks”. These are the things you might forget about, even though they’re unavoidable. This could be anything from commuting to and from campus, getting to and from different parts of campus, or those awkward bits of time between classes (seriously, who thought a 15 minute break between classes would be productive?). Make sure you figure out roughly how much time these will take up.

3) Now throw in your basics.

Everyone needs to sleep. Some people only need 5 hours a night, while others need a good 9 hours to feel productive. Figure out how much sleep you need, and factor that into your schedule! Don’t forget the time it takes you to prepare and eat your meals. And (many people forget to factor this in) most of us don’t just roll out of bed looking (and feeling) fabulous. Make sure you factor in whatever time you need to get ready to start your day. (Personally, I need at least 1 1/2 hours to wake up, shower, have my coffee, check email, and get myself looking presentable)

4) Now you can plan everything else.

Take a look at the hours you’re not using yet. THESE are the hours for you to do everything else you want to do. This is when you study, socialize, volunteer, party, and marathon Netflix.

5) Be realistic.

Don’t schedule every spare moment for studying. You’ll burn out pretty damn fast. Don’t plan every day to keep you on campus from 8am until 10pm. Don’t plan nothing but work and studying, with no fun. No matter how dedicated you are, you need to take a break from time to time. Frequent breaks ensure that you won’t burn out too fast. If you see that you have a rough couple of weeks, make sure to plan a night out (or a night in to relax). If you see that you have an easy few weeks, try to throw in a little extra study time to work on things you’ll have less time for later.