Home > Advice, college, Gen-Y > I Am Not A Lemon – Part Two: Understanding the System of a College Semester

I Am Not A Lemon – Part Two: Understanding the System of a College Semester

Editors Note: The following is the second in a five part series about what to do, what not to do, and how to make the most of your college experience. There are a lot of lists out there telling students how to succeed, but not too many of these lists have been written by recent graduates still living in the college mindset. Please read this series not as a “do as I say bible”, but rather one humble ex students suggestions.

College is a system. The smart kids will learn to work within the system and ultimately make the system work for them. It took me two years to understand my college’s system, but when I did classes got easier and my workload more distributed. Though it’s important to note that each college is different, and each major has a different quirkiness to it, the basic system of college remains the same. I’ve broken up a typical semester into several different parts that may help you understand what is expected of you and when it’s appropriate to slack. I understand many colleges are on either a semester or quarter system. For the sake of this article I’ve decided to use the word semester. This, however, does not mean it will not work for the quarter system.

Part 1: Welcome to my class, here is my syllabus; it is the most important class of the year.

Unless you are a science major, the first week of class can seem a bit redundant. Teachers hand out the syllabus, brief the class on what to expect and then usually throw in a reading assignment or two. Sometimes they threaten a quiz that will be 10 percent of your grade. But DO NOT stress, this is mostly a scare tactic. Take this week to prepare yourself for the onslaught of work ahead of you and study the semester.

Many times I would get out a calendar and mark all my tests and large assignments for the semesters. Then I would look where I could slack, where one class would take precedence and where I would need to stop having a social life. Some classes made it hard by having weekly quizzes, but the majority of teachers are too lazy so they revert back to midterms, finals and a surprise quiz that really doesn’t matter.

It’s during this first week of a semester where you are able to get a high-level overview without the clutter of looming assignments and tests that need emergency cramming. An hour of your time can be a huge benefit.

Part 2: Read now, don’t fall behind and you can drink more later.

Most college students start out the semester with optimism. They want to do well. They want to learn and they want to impress their professors. Then the second week hits and there isn’t an assignment due for two more weeks. Suddenly the reader that was front-and-center in your mind, shifts to give way for beer pong, intramural sports and a new fling.

DO NOT let this happen. Most successful students know that hitting the books hard for the first few weeks can be the difference between coasting mid semester and freaking out. Think of it like building a house. First the foundation needs to be built, and then the exciting stuff takes place. The problem is that the foundation takes forever and the framing only a few days. It’s like that in a college system. Two weeks seems like an eternity, but slack at the beginning and the mid semester midterm comes up blindingly fast.

Now this doesn’t mean you have to over work, just work enough not to fall behind. Take it from me, I’ve gone both routes and my life is probably ten years shorter because I would stress mid semester when my roommate, who is a hell of a lot smarter than me, would watch 24 and say “I told you so.”

Part 3: Midterms are here, life is over I need a drink.

This is the time for no social life. Everyone goes to the library and takes college seriously. OK, not really, most take it seriously for a few hours and then shuffle their way back to Starbucks or the pickup game of soccer their friends are playing, but if you can do well here the final exam will be easier.

Most students don’t think ahead. At the end of the semester you want to be hanging out with friends, talking about the good times and living it up. Not be stuck on the third floor of the library wishing you had worked harder over the semester. If you’ve taken the time to keep up with the reading then midterms shouldn’t be that hard. Just a test that forces you to pay attention to what you’ve read. Of course if you’re a science major, then it’s going to be REALLY hard. For that I’m sorry.

Part 4: Slack

The smart kids slack here. Midterms are over and your next reading assignment, even though big, isn’t that important right now. Seriously, GO OUT and enjoy yourself. This is where the smart kids make the system work for them. They understand that a semester is built on a reward system. Take a test and the teacher and assistants most likely don’t want to grade another one for at least a few weeks. They, just like you, dread the large exams and need room to breathe. Make sure to keep up, but also make sure to have fun. This will be your saving grace.

Part 5: This sucks, the weather is nice, I get to go home soon, my teacher is killing my vacation and I really, really don’t want to do this right now.

My chemistry teacher in high school had a great word for this. He called it TQS or “Third Quarter Sluff-Off.” He would warn us of falling behind due to nice weather, vacations or laziness. In college the allure of going home, or a wild spring break trip to Mexico magnifies this. The trick here is to work HARD right before the break so you don’t have to work over it, or after it. I can’t tell you how many times I would come back form a vacation and have a pile of work left to do. I would kid myself saying that “Oh, I’ll do that on my trip.” Yea right. If I was sober any amount of time I’m sure it was to find my way back to the hotel, not open up my anthropology book and read.

No, this is your vacation. You deserve it. Work hard and take it. Its good preparation for the real world when only get two weeks a year if you’re lucky.

Part Six: Finals are here, I need to move out, I want to go to the bar, I should have read more and my parents are going to kill me.

There is a tip that will get you through finals. I learned it from a senior my freshman year, who told me he learned it his freshman year. I’m sure it wasn’t that romantic, but it goes like this. During finals week, DO NOT worry about money, within reason of course. If you want a smoothie—go buy it. If you want pizza—go get it. You need to take care of your body. Don’t stress out your mind. Finals suck so make it easy.

Remember that finals are where teachers decide just how much you have learned during the semester. They tend to forget that you have four other classes and a social life. They tend to also forget that they are not God. But don’t let this get to you. Go into finals with the understanding that you’ve learned their system. Hopefully you have learned how they talk, how they grade and what buzzwords they like. I’ve found that several of my past teachers scanned responses and if they saw particular words they would immediately give full credit. This is working within the system.

When finals are over, GO OUT and celebrate. You’ve made it through another semster and it’s time to rejoice. Let yourself forget your classes for a while and bask in the fact that you’ve successfully made it.

Part Seven: Write down what worked and what didn’t.

Give yourself a roadmap form nest semester. It doesn’t have to be an essay, but a few key notes can be huge in helping you continue on how to use the system.

Of course there are hundreds of ther tips and suggestions, but the majority of them are things that you will find out on your own. Hope this helps.

Part Three will be about how to build relationships in college and why they matter more than grades.

Categories: Advice, college, Gen-Y
  1. Dewey Bushaw
    August 16, 2007 at 6:11 pm

    I have an interesting story to add:
    I decided one semester that I would be the perfect “A” student. This meant reading every chapter along with each cases and examples included as well. My example class had two tests, a midterm and a final. The following details my ammount of study vs score.

    Test #1 – Chapters Read 100%, Score 65%
    Test #2 – Chatpers Read 80% Scanned 20%, Score 75%
    Midterm – Chatpers Read 50% Scanned 50%, Score 85%
    Final – Chapters Read 0% Scanned 100%, Score 95%

    How, do you ask? Well this is because a lot of classes use the standardized test banks from the book. If you read every word in the book you will gain a fairly stable understanding of the concepts presented in the text. The tests on the other hand want to know the tiniest of details (e.g. dates, names, places, definitions, etc.). When you read in full chances are your brain generalizes everything together, but when you scan your mind just collects the facts.

    Tip: Figure out what type of tests the teacher gives and prepare appropriatley. I have had classes that require short essays, so reading everything and gaining that general understanding was perfect. Other times I only picked up the text book right before the test. It all comes down to working the system and making the system work for you, like Tim says.

  2. October 11, 2007 at 3:20 am


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