How to prepare for the new Academic Year in Advance 🎒

University • Studying • Digital Tools

August 28, 2022

by Yassen Shopov

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If I only had an hour to chop down a tree, I would spend the first 45 minutes sharpening my axe.” - Abraham Lincoln

The aforementioned quote perfectly describes one of the main laws of productivity - preparation beats action any day.

And preparing for the upcoming academic year is one hell of an obstacle to act on without a plan. And, surprisingly, most people actually tackle it heads-on without a plan in mind. This is the reason why “good” students often continue to do moderately well til they graduate, and vice versa - momentum.

Since we’re never taught proper study techniques, we usually follow our intuition on how studying works. We study the whole material just a few days before the exam, we postpone assignments till the last minute and generally try to minimise the time spent studying as much as we can - often at the cost of the quality of learning.

However, both school and university are institutions that have existed for quite a while now. Even with the recent transition to online learning in some places, most of the underlying principles behind doing well in academia are the same. The academic year follows a relatively predictable structure, and it’s usually a repeatable one as well.

For example, with my Engineering modules at Uni, I have found some patterns in the optimal study techniques for each.

  1. Essays follow a similar structure that you can templatise
  2. Tutorials teach you the material through repeated problem-solving
  3. Most of engineering can be boiled down to figuring out how to figure out things in a relevant context.

What is more, preparing ahead of time and planning your goals is essential because…

You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” - James Clear, author of “Atomic Habits”

And in this article, we will look into the systems you can purposefully build to increase your academic performance - ahead of time.

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Your calendar

Most students only start using a calendar, either a physical one or a digital one, when they go into university. Personally, I have been using one even in high school, courtesy to Thomas Frank’s inspiring videos that I was lucky to stumble into when I was 16:

Your calendar is a powerful tool for a few reasons:

The last one is also the reason why I personally prefer using a digital tool like Google Calendar. It allows me to move events around, reschedule, and most importantly, attach details to events. Now I can set the location of a lecture event, to know where I’m gonna be each day. It allows me to colour code all my business tasks in yellow to differentiate them from the green fitness events that I have spread out in the week. On that note, I can have multiple calendars within one app - and toggle their visibility on and off whenever I want to isolate for a specific area of my life.

So how is a calendar useful in an academic setting specifically?

Well, ever since I got into uni, I also got into the habit of blocking out study time ahead of time. On a Sunday, I will look at the lectures and set-in-stone events for the following week and find out when I’ll have bigger gaps in my schedule. If I happen to be on campus for the whole day, and have time between lectures, I can use that to do some studying in the library instead of going back and forth.

Tip #2 for your calendar will be to allow for buffer time.

I would describe buffer time as a countermeasure against unexpected delays. Say, something that often happens to me is that my laptop takes a long while to boot, and sometimes the loading kills productivity.

This is why, if my schedule allows, I will set bigger time intervals for tasks than what I know they usually take. An “Assignment” task that usually takes an hour? I’ll leave 90 minutes for it, so even if my laptop has the worst performance, I’ll still get it done in time before the next event.

Also, for tasks that happen at different locations, it’s important to allow for buffer time to reach those locations.

Analyse the 80/20

We all realise that tasks are not made equal, and our effort should be optimised, not maximised.

For example, when writing an essay, you are often given the guideline beforehand. In my experience with Engineering assignments, they follow this formula - most of the points you get from the results, discussion, and conclusion of the article, and less points are allotted to the introduction and methods sections.

This means that if you optimise your efforts into writing an amazing conclusion (a bit backwards, I know), your effort will be better rewarded.

Basically, effort is effort, but the effort can have a different “reward” attached to it, depending on the way you allocate it.

Get ahead

You know what you can do, that many people are scared to?

Ask for notes.

We are often engulfed by the idea that we have to do everything on our own. Plus, for us, every subject at school or uni feels new and novel. This often hides the fact that those are games with preset rules - and other people have already walked those same routes.

Ask your upperclassmen for notes, you’ll be surprised by the resources that could be available at your fingertips by just putting yourself out there. Also, on that note, try asking your classmates to share notes as well, while you’re both creating them. A shared Docs file that could be edited by a few people and is constantly fact-checked becomes invaluable as exam time approaches.

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