Archive | June 2012

On The Importance of Knowing Your Secretaries

Students often forget that their department or major has secretaries and that these secretaries are paid to help them. Many fellow students I know dash right past the front desk in the Psychology building to hunt down a professor they have had when they have a general departmental question and forget the smiling men and women who are sitting there ready to give an answer. I’m not saying it’s bad to talk to a professor when you have a question that could just as easily be answered by a secretary, in fact building a personal relationship with a faculty member helps a lot and may be a topic I will write on later, but professors are busy. Unless he or she is your academic advisor, you should consider just going to talk to your department’s secretaries, and here’s why:

1. If you were going to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant known locally for its great Mexican food for the first time, you would do well to spot someone who looks like a regular and ask them what they think the best dish on the menu is. Secretaries are these regulars and when you first arrive at a new school as a freshman or a transfer, you’re the newbie who doesn’t know what to order. Secretaries exist to help you figure these things out and they have their finger on the pulse of your department. They know the class schedule like the back of their hand and they probably know the class schedule for the upcoming semester before you do (and possibly even before some of the professors do). If you have questions about the mechanics of finishing your major on time, certainly talk to your academic advisor but check with the secretaries too. There may be a class offered in the upcoming semester or over the summer that you don’t know about yet.

2. Secretaries are people persons—at least normally, exceptions do exist and that’s too bad—unlike some of your professors or, god forbid, your academic advisor. Remember, professors are paid first and foremost to teach classes and do research and some may have spent too long reading broken-spine editions of Kierkegaard, peering through microscopes, or roughing it in Papua New Guinea cataloguing new language groups to remember how to speak one-on-one with a student. They are experts in their given field but sometimes can also get lost in them. Secretaries are used to organizing things and presenting them to inquisitive first-years. They have their feet on the ground. Go to them first.

3. Professors can be notoriously hard to catch in their officers or when they have free time. Often times you need to first set up an appointment to meet with them anyways. Secretaries, on the other hand, are always around. Professors might only show up on campus to teach a night class on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but secretaries are usually always around nine-to-five, Monday through Friday. In fact, I’ve noticed that secretaries are one of the only groups that maintain normal business hours. The surest and easiest way to get a question answered in person is to go talk to a secretary. No appointment necessary.

4. Secretaries have candy. I’m not joking with this one, but you may not see my point yet so keep reading. I’ve noticed that most secretaries have a bowl of mint candy or chocolate kisses on their desks and combine that with the smiles they usually wear and the general air of approachability they exude and I have to ask: why wouldn’t you want to go talk to a secretary if you have a question? Professors can be scary sometimes, especially if they’re one of those overly bookish types that I mentioned earlier or if you are flunking out of one of their classes. Maybe you just feel like you have a dumb question. Secretaries are nice people (again, usually) so go up to their desk, grab yourself a mini Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup and ask away. No question is too dumb. Maybe you don’t get your question answered, but hey, free candy.

5. If you take advantage of talking to your department’s secretaries whenever you can, even just to say “hi” now and then, you could begin to feel like a regular (if we continue with the hole-in-the-wall restaurant metaphor). This is a bit easier at a smaller school or in a smaller major when they are going to have an easier time remembering your name, but the advantages might be greater if you go to a larger school or are in a larger major. All of a sudden you become a familiar face around your department’s office. Don’t become a loiterer, but be a regular. Professors and deans—who often will have their offices in the same vicinity as the secretaries—will bump into you more and you can remind them who you are and what classes you had with them as you pass by. With any luck you could end up exchanging greetings with them when you see each other. This semi-personal contact is good, and feeling like a natural part of your department is even better—especially at a big school. This keeps you from getting lost in the crowd, which is very helpful for getting on the top of waiting lists for classes, finding out about internships or research assistant positions as soon as possible, or getting letters of reference from professors who actually know you as more than just a name on a class roster.

On Organization

If you ever plan on graduating in a timely manner, you’ll have to be organized. Luckily for you, I have my fair share of time-tested organizational tips that will make you a more efficient student and help you graduate on time.

Growing up, my mom often had a daily planner to keep all her appointments and events in one place and boy did I think that was nerdy. I couldn’t have been more surprised my freshman year when I was given a free one in an orientation goodie bag and decided to fill it up with the information in my syllabi; like due dates of assignments, tests, quizzes and papers. It wasn’t long until I found myself going back to it regularly to check things off that I had finished and to make sure I was on-track in each class. I kid you not, getting — and properly utilizing — a daily planner will greatly increase your likelihood of passing classes and graduating on time.

On almost the same level as daily planners, accordion file folders are well worth the few bucks you’ll spend on them, considering the amount of time and frustration they’ll save you later in the semester. These things are pretty self-explanatory, it’s a binder that folds out like an accordion to let you easily store papers from multiple classes into their own slots so they don’t get mixed together. They also come with little tags you can put class names on to be better organized. Much like an accordion, it folds back up nicely and conveniently so you can take all your papers to campus while keeping them neatly organized.

Finally, and what I think should be the base of your organizational system to success(™ coming soon), is the arrangement of your main study area. It’s important to have a desk dedicated solely to your school work. Make sure it’s always mess free to avoid distraction, and in a place where you can completely drown out all other stimuli to focus on your work. Facing a wall is an easy way to get rid of visual distractions, but sometimes drowning out the noises of your house, apartment or dorm can be slightly more challenging. For that, I would plug my headphones into my laptop and go to Simply Noise, select a tone and volume I liked, and go to work. With this noise generator, I often found myself taking fewer breaks and feeling my thoughts flow more smoothly, ultimately finishing my papers faster than I would otherwise. I tried listening to my own music library, but quickly found myself jamming out to the music and not doing any work. Everybody sings alone in their cars, so sitting alone at a desk will probably yield the same result. Good luck.

On Dining Halls and the Freshman Fifteen

One of the most obvious problems facing incoming freshmen who are planning on living on campus is the struggle of nutrition and of learning to control their own eating habits. Most schools attempt to thwart this conundrum by offering various meal plans that allow students to purchase meals at the various dining halls located on campus.

As time has progressed, most student bodies on campuses across the country have led initiatives to force their schools to offer healthy options for students. The problem is that along with the promising nutrients of all the healthy options, students seem to have little to no control over their own consumption.
Healthy Options at the University of California, Irvine Dining Hall

From my own experiences in the dining hall, I would often see students bypass the leaner options and head straight towards the pizza and burger station. My freshman peers would walk to their tables with multiple plates of food, washing their greasy meals down with endless cups of the various sodas that flowed freely. Even if they were full halfway through the meal, they would most often continue eating the food they had gotten in an effort to not waste anything. After months of doing this they easily put on quite a few extra pounds.

So, what is the easiest way to fix this? I need to preface this by saying that I am in no way a dietitian or nutritionist, but simply a student who successfully made it through the first years of college in a relatively healthy state. The main way to combat this overconsumption is to simply only grab a single plate of food at a time. This forces you to have to continually choose whether or not you want to eat more, rather than simply having all of the food in front of you. Most dining halls that I have visited are wholly fine with students going back and forth between tables and the food areas, so no additional charges are levied. Getting into the habit of forcing yourself to a single plate can easily help keep off the excess weight.

Students who live on campus are offered meal plans of various sizes, and most of my fellow students made the expensive mistake of purchasing the largest meal plan. It is easy to have the mindset of “Of course I’ll need to be able to eat at the dining hall three times a day!” More often than not, you’ll skip a meal each day because of classes, outings, or just pure apathy. Unless you are absolutely certain that you’ll need to eat in the dining hall for all three meals each day, go for a smaller and ultimately cheaper plan. Almost everyone I knew at the end of each school quarter had extra meal points remaining, which was a complete waste of money.

Living away from home for the first time can be an amazing experience, but it is easy to ruin your body and time by eating terribly in the campus dining halls. Avoid the pitfalls of overpaying and always remember to stick to a single plate.

On Time Management

In case you feel as though you’ll be overwhelmed by college, relax; it’s easier than you think.

Most colleges require around 15 units a semester (or 12 units a quarter) to graduate in four years. Units can typically be understood as the number of hours a week you will be in class. If you compare that to the 30-35 hours a week spent in high school, there should be no reason you shouldn’t graduate in a timely manner. Yes, classes are harder than those you took in high school and will require more time for homework, but given the amount of free time you get, it’s more than reasonable.

Accordingly, if there’s one thing you will need to get used to in college, it is the amount of free time you’ll have. Getting a job will help offset the free time and besides; there are few things better than a steady paycheck, whatever the size.

One of the main problems I saw in college, was the ways in which students abused their free time. As soon as classes got out for the day or for the week, my classmates would immediately immerse themselves in partying or video games that would last until hours before class began again, leaving little to no time for studying or homework. I’ve witnessed numerous people fail classes because they were not able to find time to put in the work, despite the substantial amount of time they were given.

When I would get out of class, I would head back to my apartment and finish most of the homework assigned to me that day, and only after that I would feel ready to begin socializing with friends. This routine worked well for my first year, then I began giving myself a little more leeway as I became more comfortable with it and because my work hours didn’t always allow me to do so. Regardless, I still completed assignments and papers as soon as I could. I would suggest you try this first semester to avoid being overwhelmed by deadlines and due dates, instead of waiting until it’s too late. After you get used to this system, try adjusting it to see what works best for you.

Now don’t get me wrong, partying and hanging out with friends is great, but there is a happy medium between socializing and studying. Though it may vary from person to person, it is out there, and finding it for yourself is well worth the satisfaction.

On Expectations

Regardless of where you end up going to school, college will not be exactly what you expect it to be. We’ve all seen the films Animal House and Revenge of the Nerds, or viewed one of the many shows that MTV has played over the years to suggest to our young minds what our lives at university will be. You’ve invariably built up some notion of wild parties, free-flowing alcohol, and unforgettable antics that somehow combine to form this four-year extravaganza. While I promise you that this does exist somewhat at every school I have visited; this is not college. If you go in only expecting this, you’re in for a wake-up call.

College is better. For a very short four years of our lives we are given the chance to use the amenities of giant institutions across the nation. The amount of resources that school’s put at a student’s fingertips is absolutely astounding. From endless library access, to a whole host of professors and classes conveying light on every imaginable subject; the chance to gain knowledge is easily there.

I’m sure this does not impress many of you. You’re thinking something along the lines of “I’m going for the college experience, not just to learn! I don’t care about libraries!” Sure, I firmly believe that the importance of college is not academic learning. But ignoring the academics all together has gotten many of my fellow students in heaps of trouble, so I thought I’d try to get you to realize the value of some of the resources before you forget to utilize them. The faculty and staff are literally there to help you, don’t be afraid to ask them any question.

But back to expectations, it’s probably safer to lower your own. That isn’t to say that college won’t be a life-altering experience, but it is simply your own journey. For the next few short years of your life, you’ll be able to completely redefine yourself and fully grow in to what you want to be. You’ll get to meet people from all around the world and try out a myriad of different activities with little to no real world consequences. You want to play a unique sport? You want to try your hand at being a painter? You want to become a published physicist? Then do it! College not only allows for this, but also encourages it.

The main thing to take away is that everyone’s college experience is unique. With such an opportunity ahead of you, its important to utilize all of the benefits of being a student. You don’t have to be a character out of some party movie, but you also don’t have to be so studious that you have no life. Your education is not only about the grades your earn, but also about the life lessons your learn.  Live a little, learn a little, grow a little and simply enjoy it.

On Getting Books

It doesn’t matter which college you go to, you’ll usually always be left penniless by the prices of books offered at your campus bookstore. What’s more, some professors insist on using the latest editions, which most of the time are a waste of the little money you already have.

When a class requires expensive books with many editions, it may be better to contact the professor before the first day of class and ask if it would be all right if an earlier edition could be used instead, this will save you a lot of money over your college career.

One motto to live by when searching for books, is “never settle.” If you settle with the first price you see, especially those from the campus bookstore, chances are you’ll be paying too much. Whenever the list of books for the next semester came up, I’d find its ISBN (the multi-digit number above the barcode) and search different sites for the best deal. The best deal you’ll probably find are from rental sites — sites that lend you the book for the semester or longer, and will be only a fraction of the cost. Then again, it may be better to buy a book that you may use again within your major, just be sure to make the best choice either way.

Though they do not rent books, I have known Amazon to have books for sale cheaper than rentals, but as most used book sales are done by everyday people and not by Amazon itself, I have heard stories of people having problems, like getting the wrong book. It can be a gamble, but usually it pays off nicely. Then there’s Chegg. Probably my favorite and go-to book-rental site. According to the ticker on my Chegg account, I’ve saved a couple hundred dollars and that’s always a plus. There are many other book-rental sites, like AbeBooks and BookRenter that I’ve heard great things about, but have never had the pleasure of using. In the end, it all comes down to how well you search for the best deals, and who knows, maybe you’ll find prices better than any of these; just don’t settle.

On Registering for Classes

Registering for classes had to be my least favorite part of college. During the last month of the semester, when registration for the next term became available, worried students could only talk about the lack of seats in a needed class and how their registration time was inconvenient. For freshmen and sophomores, it is typically the worst. Since they’re farthest away from graduation, they typically get the scraps after the upper class-men have taken all the better classes; but that’s just the way it goes, it gets easier.

If you’re new to registering for classes; don’t worry, there are a couple of ways in which you can optimize your schedule for your benefit and make the whole process a little easier.

A website that I’m sure is mentioned by students on every campus, is Rate My Professors. Here students rate professors from easy to difficult, comment on the best or worst classes of theirs, as well as rate their attractiveness. Though I have used this site before, I often found that students would live by it and not enroll in a class they needed because of information they found. I figured that if I went to classes and did my work, it wouldn’t really matter what professor it was and it worked just fine for me.

Another thing to consider is what time you should schedule your classes. I’ve taken classes that started at seven in the morning, and some that got out around 10 at night; it all depends on what works for you. For most of my semesters, starting from my very first, I decided to schedule my classes for almost every day and during the time I was used to attending school. I had just graduated high school a few months earlier, and figured that it would make for an easy transition to have classes from 8 or 9 a.m. until just before three o’clock. This was great for me, because when I got out, I was done for the day and didn’t have to sit around on campus and do nothing, as many students do.

Also, you must think about your job (if you are lucky enough to have one) and make sure to schedule classes at times that don’t conflict with your job hours (or potential job hours). I would usually draw out a mock planner to see when my best times for class and work would be and go from there.

Now for my last bit of advice for this post, which will probably be told to you at orientation. Your first two years should be focused on GE (General Education), the easy classes that are required for all students. They’re easy and easy to get into, so it should make your first few registration days a little less stressful.

Congratulations, you made it to college! Now don’t screw it up.

Teach Me How to College is here to help you have a successful college career and help you not screw up this great opportunity. Best of luck, students.