Don’t you just love it when vacation ends and it’s time to get back to school? Me too! But in all seriousness, it’s time to get back into the groove and if you need help in setting up your new quarter or new semester for success, then this post is for you.
At the beginning of a new quarter or semester, you may feel amped and motivated to do things differently; but more often than not, we revert back to our old ways. And once again, we didn’t exercise as much as we wanted to, and our grades are still not where we want them to be. This tendency of feeling good in the moment and allowing that burst of inspiration to positively color your future projections is called affective forecasting. And it doesn’t last. I get it, I’ve been there. This time, we’re going to use that to our advantage.
1 | Schedule the Quarter/Semester
First, it is critical you set up the systems that reduce friction throughout the quarter. The most important one being to lay out all the important information in your calendar of choice. This is the foundation upon which you will build your study schedule and good habits. More on that shortly.
I opted for Google Calendar, and would input a few critical pieces of information. First, my “Class” calendar included my lecture and small group schedule, in addition to the building name, room number, and professor. Second, my “Exam” calendar included mid-terms and final exams. The reason I included this as a separate calendar is two-fold. First, it could be a different color than the Class calendar, helping my exams to pop out from the rest of my classes. Secondly, I could schedule automatic reminders for all events in this calendar. Therefore, for each exam I had, Google would automatically send me a reminder 1 week in advance, again 1 day in advance, and then 1 hour in advance. Lastly, I created a third calendar to include any other class-related events, which I creatively titled “Class (Other)”. In this, I input my professor’s office hours (again, being careful to include the building and location), as well as review sessions and other events that weren’t part of mandatory class or exam time.
2 | Structure Your Days & Weeks
Now that you have a framework of what your days will look like, it’s time to fill in your calendar with how you will spend your time. The key is to not get too ambitious at this step. It’s better to have a good plan that you can actually adhere to rather than a perfect plan that you ultimately give up on.
Your study schedule needs to work into your life to be sustainable, rather than you forcing your life to meet your study requirements.
If you were to fill a jar with large rocks and sand, you’d first put in the rocks and then fill in the gaps with sand. We’re going to do the same thing here with scheduling. Approach your schedule in the following order:
- First, make sure your classes and exams are set from step one.
- Second, schedule in regular exercise. Do not overlook this step as it will help your grades in the long term! This is your activity of choice – something that you actually enjoy. For me, that’s been weight training and cycling, but for you it could be running or swimming or dancing or anything else. I aimed for 4 or 5 days per week, but figure out what works best for you.
- Next, schedule your meal times. You don’t need more than 20 or 30 minutes per meal. I still sometimes forget to eat meals because I get caught up with work or other things on my plate. No pun intended.
- Last, schedule in your study time. Again, be realistic here. Are you really going to marathon for 5 hours immediately after coming home from class? Probably not. Instead, give yourself a short 30 minute break to unwind and destress, and then plan to do a couple Pomodoro cycles.
You may be wondering why I am suggesting to schedule study time last. While study time is critical for your school success, your study schedule needs to work into your life to be sustainable, rather than you forcing your life to meet your study requirements. If you have dinner from 7-7:30, its easy to schedule study time before, then use dinner as a break, and then study some more after.
In structuring your schedule, there are three additional elements to keep in mind:
- First, regularly scheduled events are more likely to stick. That means if you wake up at the same time, eat breakfast at the same time, and work out at the same time, you’re more likely to be successful than if your workouts are at 8AM some days and 8PM on others.
- Second, use necessary chores or meals as breaks from studying. I would often come back from class, do a couple hours of studying, and use laundry or groceries or dinner as a large study break, and then study more when I got back home.
- Third, don’t be too ambitious, and make sure you schedule in enough time for relaxation and buffer time. See if you can have either Sunday OR Saturday completely free from any studying. This will require you to be very efficient during the week, and will also contribute to a healthy social life and healthy mind, which ultimately is more sustainable in the long term. Remember, we’re going for a marathon here, not a sprint.
3 | Get Your Materials in Order
It’s key you get your materials in order before classes start. You don’t want to be falling behind because you don’t have the books yet. Again, minimize the chances of getting derailed early in the quarter or semester, and you’ll have a much better outcome. That being said, you shouldn’t blindly buy every textbook listed in the syllabus.
To most effectively prepare for your class, I recommend you first speak with at least 2 separate friends who have already taken the course before. Ask them what the professor’s testing style is like, if they teach or test straight from the textbook, and whether or not the book is necessary. If your two friends have conflicting opinions, then ask a third. When in doubt, err on the side of buying a book versus not. Even better, ask your friends if you can borrow their books for the quarter. I did this multiple times and returned the favor as well. If you’re on a tighter budget, consider going to the library when you need to access the textbook. I personally never did this, because if another student is using the textbook when you intend to, it can completely derail your studying. Lastly, PDFs and other digital copies of textbooks, if available, can be cheaper and more accessible alternatives.
I generally bought books new from Amazon or the campus bookstore, and would resell them used on Amazon when the quarter was done. You can also opt to rent books if you’d rather not deal with the process of selling.
4 | Keep Busy (But Not Too Busy)
Over the years I’ve become intimately familiar with Parkinson’s Law. Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to fill the time allotted to it. I’ve found there’s a sweet spot during which I am most productive. If I don’t have a plan for the day and don’t feel pushed for time, I’m not as efficient. Similarly, if I have too many things lined up for the day, my efficiency may be pushed to the limit on that day, but the following day I’ll be drained. The middle is the sweet spot, where there’s a slight amount of stress to be helpful, but not enough to be detrimental.
To achieve this balance, I suggest you kill two birds with one stone by joining interesting and fulfilling extracurricular organizations. If you’re a pre-med student, choosing your extracurriculars wisely is essential to bolster the strongest possible application for medical school. Don’t look at is as a way to check a box. Instead, see it as an opportunity to develop the skills and qualities necessary to be an effective future physician. Through these extracurriculars, you’ll learn additional skills, make new friends, and have a lot of fun. While I did research and volunteered in the hospital, I also competed with a dance team and was a graphic designer for the events organization.
If you need help figuring out which extracurriculars to pursue and at which points during your college career, I recommend you check out our Pre-Med Roadmap to Medical School Acceptance Course. In it, you’ll find everything you need to effectively plan out a successful college career to set yourself up for a medical school acceptance. It goes over everything from when and how to pursue research, including the various types, to the timeline of letters of recommendation, optimal MCAT scheduling, recommended extracurricular activities, and much much more. It was created from the ground up by our team of top doctors with combined dozens of years of medical school admissions experience.
Good luck with your new quarter or semester!