University is about to begin. You may be summoning your courage and excited to embark on the upcoming post-secondary adventure. You may also be trembling with nervousness and feeling uncertain about your academic future. Maybe you killed it in high school. Maybe you fell victim to “senioritis.” Regardless, university is about to begin and you want to get a firm grip on your GPA. Here are some things that helped me achieve a 4.0 in my first year of undergrad.
1. Know your audience
When it comes to assignments and essays, the most important thing to consider is who will be marking your work. More often than not, it’s Teaching Assistants, who tend to be Masters or PhD students. Every marker has a unique set of expectations with respect to what they’re expecting in an A+ paper. From my experience, it’s worth asking your TA what they are looking for in terms of the format of your title page, the style of citations, and also how you articulate your arguments. For example, my second-semester Political Science TA liked more clarity and conciseness in writing while my second-semester Anthropology TA appreciated more complexity and nuance. While it’s good to stay relatively consistent from one essay to the next, it can’t hurt to make a few minor adjustments based on who will be marking your work at the end of the day.
2. Try to get sleep on a regular basis
Getting a decent sleep each night can dramatically improve your ability to concentrate while studying and retain information. I can say from experience that pulling all-nighters in an effort to cram for an exam or foster the “grind never stops” mentality is not worth it. It’ll only make you exhausted the next day. When writing an essay or studying for a test, I found myself needing to get into tip-top mental shape. For that to happen, I needed to be awake and energized. If a regular sleep cycle is not something you can realistically maintain in the first year of your program, I’d recommend Awake Bars, caffeine-infused chocolates that absolutely saved me during my last exam season. You can order them on Amazon.ca. Watch out for the withdrawal though.
3. Keep a calendar and focus on what’s important
Just after your classes begin, you should be able to easily access the syllabus for each course you’re enrolled in. Definitely read them. I can’t stress this enough. A syllabus typically highlights all the tests and assignments for the course, the tentative due dates for each assignment, the percentage of the total mark that each is worth, and all the readings you need to complete throughout the term. It’s worth including all this information in a calendar and keeping track of what things you should prioritize. It’ll help you maintain a necessary focus. During the year, if I had an essay due in two weeks that was worth 30% of my final grade and a quiz on the same day that was only worth 10%, it usually made sense to spend more time researching for the essay than prepping for the quiz.
4. Meet your TAs and Professors
I promise it won’t make you a keener. In any case, based on my experience, introducing yourself to your TAs and Professors before you hand in your first assignment is definitely a good idea. It humanizes your tests and assignments to some extent and lays the groundwork for a meaningful future relationship.
It’s also cool to ask your TAs and professors content-related questions during the semester. From my experience, they love grappling with thorny problems that arise from course material. If you’re interested in a topic or idea that your TA is exploring in his or her own work, you should totally approach him or her about it. By asking questions during the year, I was able to get into some really thought-provoking conversations. These helped ignite my interest in course content and enabled me to reach my academic goals.
5. If you want to do well on an assignment, you have to differentiate yourself
Admittedly, easier said than done. But if you want a 4.0, you’ll likely have to find a way to write a paper or assignment by that, as my favourite high school teacher would say, “only you could write.” My advice would be to refrain from Wikipedia-ing or SparkNotes-ing your topic before starting your essay. If you look at other arguments before you create your own, these ideas will get injected into your brain and prevent you from harnessing your critical thinking skills and constructing an original argument. If you can’t seem to come up with anything unique, I’d recommend using as many course readings as possible in your paper and closely following the rubric. If you do that, you should be good to go.
While I hope you find at least one of the things above somewhat useful, I should clarify that these tips are all based on my own experience. Ultimately, it’s your job to do what works best for you and what fits most comfortably into your situation. Good luck on your academia adventure. It’ll be messy at times, and the romance may disappear at one point or another, but trust me: The years are gonna go by quickly. Enjoy it while it lasts.