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I have a degree in mechanical engineering. It took me three and a half years to get it at a state school after transferring from a community college. Doing it this way allowed me to skip the obligatory freshman classes and all the general studies requirements. But still…
It was tough.
Sometimes I look back and think that getting my degree was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life.
I didn’t particularly like my classes. Some of the subject matter was interesting, sure, but mechanical engineering wasn’t (and still isn’t) my passion. I appreciated the good professors more than the subjects they taught – in some cases, my worst subjects were taught by my favorite professors.
However, I somehow made it through with only one meltdown (that I can remember) and no all-nighters. The closest I got to an all-nighter was 2 AM at a classmate’s apartment for a project due the next day.
Now, I’m three years out of the undergraduate grind, but the things I’m going to tell you are applicable to keeping your sanity while still taking classes.
Let’s dive right in!
1. Sleep. For the love of God, SLEEP.
You do yourself no favors by staying up all night and stumbling into your lab class half-awake, having forgotten your homework on your desk. There is research that sleeping helps to organize what you’ve learned, so studying right before bed will help you retain the knowledge – but only if you actually go to sleep! Staying up all night cramming for a test will do you more harm than good.
2. Find a food solution that works for you.
After my first year, I never set foot inside a dining hall again. It was cheap, low-quality food that somehow cost more than it did to go to Winco every weekend and make my own meals. Depending on your college, you might have a stellar dining hall, and will never have to cook for yourself in school.
3. If your college has a gym, USE IT.
Mine was a bit of a hike away from my apartment, but I always felt better after going for a swim or a few routes up the rock wall. All the bullshit about exercise being good for you is true, apparently. Another cool thing to do is take advantage of your outdoor rec program if your school has one. At mine, there were rock-climbing trips, kayaking on the nearby river, and even ski trips during the winter. It’s a great way to make friends and blow off some steam about that bullshit economics test.
4. Your professors are your friends. And if they aren’t, your TA is.
The professors you like, and whose classes you do well in, are the ones you want to write your letters of recommendation when looking for a job before graduation. I firmly believe that my favorite professor’s rec letter got me my internship, which turned into my first job after graduation. The professors WANT you to succeed. Their success as a professor is often tied to how many students pass their classes.
5. Find a study group, but don’t rely on them.
There’s evidence that studying alone actually improves your retention of the information, but having a group helps with the social aspect and for verifying your work. I’m an introvert, so I studied alone out of habit – and I had a group of friends with whom I would check my work before it was due. I found it to be a good way to learn since I was looking at others’ thought processes to the same solution after I’d figured it out myself. Of course, there were times I couldn’t figure it out, and those guys saved my bacon more than once.
6. Find a creative outlet.
If you’re all GO for four straight years without having a hobby that keeps you grounded, you’ll burn out before you hit your junior year. My creative outlet turned out to be writing Fanfiction – the majority of my creative time in college was spent writing a 230,000 word, 50-chapter story for Harry Potter. It took me five years to write – longer than I was in college!
- School clubs
- Game nights
- Volunteering (bonus if it’s at a humane society nearby)
I did actually volunteer at the local humane society close to the end of my college career. At one point there was a cat room FULL of kittens, and you can imagine the fun I had just sitting in there with them.
7. Develop study habits that don’t suck.
THOMAS FRANK IS YOUR MAN. CollegeInfoGeek is your hive. This guy’s entire life and business revolve around making you into an ass-kicking college student. He has a free book on how to build kick-ass study habits and get awesome grades, and I wish he’d been around when I was still in school. I would’ve absorbed all of it like a sponge. As it happens, a lot of his content is useful for the non-college student, even though it’s geared towards them. He also recommends Cal Newport’s Deep Work.
If you’re looking for another source of pro study tips besides Mr. Frank, check out My Degree Guide’s list of scientifically proven tips to develop better study habits.
8. Don’t leave your course curriculum plan up to your adviser.
Seriously, don’t. Unless you’re at a small school with an abundance of advisers, you’ll need to do it yourself if you want to graduate in time (or ahead of schedule) and take the lowest number of bullshit classes possible. At my school, we had one adviser for 1000 students. Understandably she felt grateful whenever a student came in already knowing which classes they needed the next semester.
9. Understand that your major does not guarantee you a job.
No major is a guarantee of a job. As I said, I’ve got a mechanical engineering degree. When my cohort first started, we were pretty much told that the demand for mechanical engineers is so high that we’d all sail into jobs right after graduation. As it happened, only half of us had job offers out the door, and of the other half, a few still don’t have jobs in their field today – over three years later.
10. Be friends with your roommates, not roommates with your friends.
If you’re lucky enough to go to the same college as your best friend, do not, under any circumstances, decide to become roommates. Living with your best friend will bring up thorny issues and discussions that, if had with someone you don’t know as well, will likely end up with tears and feelings of hurt. Do you want to have a fight with your bestie about why the food you bought isn’t for both of you? Or whose turn it is to pay the electricity bill? Or why good people clean up after themselves in the kitchen?
11. Party responsibly.
This one should go without saying, but I did go to a party school. (I was one of the few who never actually attended a party there in all my years.) Parties can be fun, and parties can also be dangerous. Never lose sight of your drink; go with a trusted friend; if driving, have a designated driver; as soon as you start to feel uncomfortable, LEAVE. You have no obligations to stay at a party if you feel like the skeezy frat boy won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.
12. Start looking for INTERNSHIPS at the end of sophomore year.
This one’s pretty simple – you’re more likely to get a job if you have an internship first. This sort of solves the problem of needing the experience to get a job, but not being able to get a job because you lack experience. Completing an internship or two before graduating shows employers that you took the initiative to get experience in your field before graduating.
13. Start applying for JOBS at the beginning of your senior year.
Employers often take a ridiculously long time to get back to applicants about whether you’ve been selected for interviewing or rejected. And many companies don’t bother to send rejection notices. I had a company email me almost a year after my application to tell me they didn’t think I was the right fit for the position. Like…a year later? Really? Yeah. Moral: apply early, apply often, and always disclose your soonest start date after graduation.
14. It’s cliche and everyone says this, but network. Like, really. Network.
It’s the biggest cliche in college: network. Network like a crazy person. Hit up all the career fairs. Perfect your elevator pitch. Sell yourself. The point is to have a network of people who know you well enough to help you find a job after you graduate or after you lose a job. In fact, your classmates are a built-in network. Connecting on LinkedIn with them is a great idea too. I honestly wish I’d networked more, but I still had a pretty good one when I finished school.
15. Take your time.
Unless you’re trying to complete a double major in two years, you have plenty of time to cultivate good study skills, build friendships, have a good time, and get through all your classes without freaking out. Many people change their majors in the first two years of college, so don’t fret if your first pick doesn’t work out. That’s what the introductory courses are for – to determine if you really want to do that thing. So take your time – there’s plenty to spare.
16. Read books that aren’t related to your classes.
I know it’s not feasible to read a book a week while in college (not including your textbooks), but reading improves vocabulary. Try reading a book a month or at least a couple of books a semester. It’s a great way to calm your mind down after stressful classes or tests, and it’s the awesomeness of sinking into your favorite fantasy landscape. I read the Harry Potter books several times over while in school.
17. Take advantage of your school’s health and wellness center.
If you have a disability, get accommodations before you need them. If you’re anxious or depressed or homesick, talk to a therapist. YOU DO NOT HAVE TO DO IT ALONE. The health and wellness center is there for you to use if you need it. If you get sick, make an appointment. Take care of yourself. Maybe go pet a cat at the humane society.
18. Maybe don’t go to college.
This one might be the most confusing of all. College isn’t for everyone. Contrary to what all your parents and teachers tell you, college is not REQUIRED for a successful life. There are trade schools, online courses, and entrepreneurship – none of which require a college degree. If you don’t like the idea of tossing $100,000 or more at a 4-year degree that has no guarantee of getting you a job, don’t. Just don’t. You have no obligation to go to college unless you want to be a doctor, lawyer, engineer, etc.
Are you in college? If you’ve already graduated, did you use any of these tips? What helped you get through college or what are you hoping will help you get through? Let me know in the comments!