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.

Do I REALLY need a portfolio?

In one of my job search seminars (I attend a whole lot of those lately), it was suggested that we each create a portfolio and bring a copy of it to every interview we go to. We were told tales of the people who had done that and were then hired on the spot, with employers impressed by their readiness. After talking with a lot of professionals in different fields through personal contacts and LinkedIn, this seemed a little wonky to me. Is a portfolio really needed?

The long and short answer is: kinda. You should definitely create a master portfolio for yourself, with both an electronic and a printed copy, with the originals put somewhere safe (a fire-proof safe or lock box is ALWAYS a good idea for anyone to have, and the perfect place for original documents). It is always a good idea to have all your documents and proofs in one convenient location, in case you need them.

So what is actually in your portfolio? To start with, put a copy of the resume you applied with. If at all possible, also include the cover letter you used to apply with, even just for your own reference. You should scan copies of any educational documents (high school diploma, GED, degrees, diplomas) and print copies. Any certificates, transcripts, letters of reference, or other documents that prove that you have knowledge are a good idea too. Basically, your portfolio is a presentation of the very best of you (in a professional manner).

But do you need to bring this to every interview? From what I’ve been told, no! Not every employer is going to need or be impressed by this. There will be jobs you apply for that are not interested in everything you have to offer.

So how do you know when to bring it? Easy: check the job ad! Most job ads list the required education, skills, and knowledge needed for a position. Do you have documented proof of these? Then bring copies! If you are up for a creative job, bring examples of your prior creative works! But you don’t need to have copies of EVERYTHING for every job.

Basically, you NEED a portfolio in order to have one file for yourself , even just for your own piece of mind, that shows all of your accomplishments. At the same time, you need to tailor your portfolio to each job you bring it to. A job involving spreadsheets and data entry may not be excited about your experience creating magazine covers for your Creative Media courses, but would love to know that you have certification in Word and Excel. At the same point, a photojournalism job may not require an advanced knowledge of Microsoft Access, but sure as hell needs proven knowledge of photo-editing software.

So yes, you do need a portfolio, even if it’s just for you. You do not, however, need to bring then entire thing to every job interview you go to. Just like your resume and cover letter, you need to tailor it to each specific job.

I Wasn’t Prepared for My Preparedness Post………… Oooops!

Ironically, I was going to prepare a post for today about how you should always be prepared for anything. I was going to go into the basics of planning ahead, because life happens all around us.

Well, then life happened to me.

I’m writing this post on a borrowed iPad while sitting next to my grandma’s bed in the hospice. I didn’t take my own advice and plan ahead for this. While I did have a few weeks of posts scheduled before this, I didn’t have anything for this week.

Learn from my error.

Once we’re a little more settled here, I will be preparing for emergencies like this. How? I could do things like save drafts of posts that can be posted at any time during the year. This could be anything from horror stories from roommate experiences past, to tips for studying and writing papers. I could also keep notes with me for simple posts that can be done of hone go. And, of course, I could always make sure I have a few weeks of posts scheduled ahead of time to make sure things like this don’t happen again.

So keep checking in for more posts. Soon I will be talking more about organizing, scheduling, and planning. I am researching a series on effective study and writing habits. Also, I hope to start up my Roommate Horrors series. Stay tuned for the Tale of Too Much Protein, Where is my Freakin Cheese, and Why I Was Allergic to My Own Kitchen. These stories are all based either on my own personal experiences in university, or stories from my friends’ time at school.

So check back here in the coming weeks for a little more of the usual, and a little less of this “typing from a hospice recliner”.