Finding your academic (and career) passion

By Olivia Martin, 2nd-year Life Sciences student

There are billions of possible careers in the world to choose from. Though this seems fairly obvious, it came as news to me in my first year. In high school, I was given the impression that if you’re good at (insert subject here) you become a (insert corresponding career here).

Some examples of this are: science leads to doctor, arts lead to teacher or lawyer, and athletics lead to gym teacher/sports coach. As a result, I thought I only had about five different career options and if I didn’t choose one of them I would have to stay at my lifeguarding job for the rest of my life. Though maybe not everyone was as naïve as myself, I think this is a common trap that young people fall into.

I came to university convinced I was going to be a doctor, as did about 80% of the people in my program. For me, this conviction to go into medicine stemmed partially from a real desire to help others but also from a need to prove to everyone that I COULD and WOULD do it. I was in the mindset that choosing any other career would be an admission of failure, but I didn’t even know what other options were out there!

As students, we often put pressure on ourselves to do well because we want to achieve certain goals, like getting into medical school — and we attach our self-worth to those goals as if we don’t do lots of other things in our lives already! Transition to university is difficult enough, but it is easy for us to fall into the trap of defining ourselves by our marks or achievements. This can lead to a lot of undue stress.

If you feel this kind of pressure, Learning Strategies can help you cope with it.

  1. Identify your sources of distress. What specifically is worrying you? Your marks? The uncertainty of the future?
  2. Aim to “control the controllables”. This includes the pressure you put on yourself. Have faith that you will do the best you can and you will get to where you need to be.
  3. Change your “mind set” or attitude. Stop being so hard on yourself and try be open to different possible career paths and opportunities. Success comes in many different forms — try not to limit yourself to just one.
  4. Change your behavior. Stop dwelling on the future. Don’t let your undergraduate degree be defined by your worries about what comes next. Remember that you’re here to experience, not just achieve.
  5. Learn relaxation techniques. I find yoga to be particularly helpful, but running or any form of exercise can help you focus and reduce anxiety.
  6. Make an appointment with a counselor at Counselling Services or with a learning strategist.

 (For more information, visit our module on Coping with Academic and Exam Stress.)

We are constantly learning new things and being exposed to new topics and avenues of study. We also have professors, T.A.’s and advisors at our disposal who know about career paths that we would never think of. Even if you do know for sure that you want to be a doctor/ lawyer/ teacher (which are all wonderful career options, if they are right for you), it is important to be open to these new experiences, because you never know when you might find a new passion that you had never considered before. Don’t get stuck on a path that isn’t right for you just because you never checked to see what other options you had. Even if you do your research and find out your original plan was right all along, you haven’t wasted your time because then you have made an informed choice.

It is okay to change your mind, and then to change it again and again and again. Just think of what an exciting adventure you have ahead of you and all the different paths you could take. So if you’re feeling confused, make an appointment with an academic advisor, ask your prof about that one subject you found SO interesting, and join different clubs and groups. Your passion is out there waiting for you.

Photo courtesy of Aidan Wakely-Mulroney under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License.

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How to beat the Exam Time Blues

By Cristina Valeri, 3rd-year English student

As a third year university student, I can say with confidence that at least four times throughout the past two years, I have seriously questioned not only my sanity but the meaning of life in general. These mental doubts usually strike around December and April exams. True, the insanity in December could be attributed to my somewhat maniacal enthusiasm for Christmas which usually manifests itself in listening to the Michael Buble Christmas album four, sometimes five, times a day. But I think it’s much more likely that it’s those old Exam Time Blues.

The Exam Time Blues usually affect people who use phrases such as, “I HAVE to do well on this exam”; “It will totally screw up my GPA if I mess up this exam” or “If I don’t do well on this exam, I won’t get a good mark in the course. If I don’t get a good mark in the course, I won’t get into grad school and then I won’t become a (insert career here) and I’ll spend my life in my parents’ basement!” If you find yourself saying any of these things, you may be susceptible to the Exam Time Blues.

How to identify the Exam Time Blues:

  1.   You haven’t brushed your hair or shaved in four to five days.
  2.   You begin to forget what life was like before exams.
  3.   Your friends are tweeting/ Facebook messaging you to check if you’re still alive
  4.   You begin calculating the salary you’d have to live on if you just worked at your old high school job for the rest of your life.
  5.   Your parents and friends from other schools keep asking you about this guy you keep mentioning–Joseph Stauffer.
  6.   You find yourself having intense inner philosophical debates regarding the meaning of life and you’re not even a philosophy major.

How to beat the Exam Time Blues:

  1. The 50/10 Rule. Studying for fifty minutes and then taking a break for ten. This allows your brain to process the information and also gives you the motivation to stay focused. The ten minutes will give you time to have a snack, call your mom, or brush your hair.
  2. The 9-5 Workday. Treat school like it’s your full time job and study between the hours of 9 to 5. This way, after five you have guilt-free personal time and you can feel proud of yourself for studying all day. It is recommended to study for your exam at the actual time that the exam’s going to be that way your brain gets used to doing Advanced Functions at 9 in the morning. This rule ensures you’re keeping to a good routine.
  3. Use STING for procrastination:
    S-Select one thing to do.
    T-Time yourself.
    I-No Interruptions.
    N-No distractions.
    G-Give yourself a reward.
  4. Study with a group. 25% of studying should be done with a group. Group studying is beneficial in two ways. A) You can benefit from other people’s ideas or study strategies such as acronyms. B) Teaching others concepts or theories ensures that you have a good grasp of the information yourself. Also, you can socialize with friends in a helpful and productive way, instead of sitting all by yourself reorganizing your life plans.
  5. Eat right and exercise! Nothing makes you feel more healthy and normal than exercising and eating right. It gives you the energy to study and your brain better focus, memory, and concentration.
  6. Positive self-talk! Remember, it’s just an exam. You are not a failure or a bad person if you don’t do well. It’s completely normal to stress about exams; everybody does it at one point in their academic lives. But remember to stay optimistic! The better you feel about yourself, the better you’ll do.

So when the Exam Time Blues have got you down and not even Michael Buble’s sweet croon can make you feel like there’s more to life, just remember some of these tips and hopefully you’ll feel like your life’s headed in the right direction.

For more tips on beating exam anxiety, try our Stress and Coping Strategies module.

Photo courtesy of Matt Miller under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No-Derivations 2.0 license.

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The Exam Cram

By Ali Rawling, 3rd-year Kinesiology student

As exam season is fast approaching (I can’t believe it’s week 11!), lots of people will be putting tons of hours into their studies in this upcoming month. There are lots of effective and different ways to study, but there is one type of studying that doesn’t work well for most: cramming.

“Cramming” normally means

packing every single bit of material into a study session the night or day before an exam.

There are many reasons cramming doesn’t work, including not allowing enough time for your brain to consolidate what you’re studying into your long-term memory. That can make it more difficult to remember answers to exam questions without having your notes or textbook around as a cue. Another huge reason cramming is ineffective is that it increases stress and test anxiety — and stress can have a negative impact on sleep, which is essential if you want to remember any of the facts you just studied!

Want some tips to avoid those last-ditch cram sessions?

  • Create an exam study schedule ASAP to avoid cramming all together. Come by Learning Strategies to make one today, or use our famous online Five-Day Study Plan.
  • Keep your study session length according to the 50-10 rule. Study key material in short, focused bursts over several days leading up to the exam. This way you can learn the material better and retain more of the information.
  • Exercise before you study. Exercise has been shown to improve memory, increase focus, and reduce stress. Your brain is a physical organ — a healthy body often means a healthy brain!
  • Sleep after studying. Did you know the brain encodes what it has recently learned during sleep? It is more effective than staying up all night to study earlier and rest up — you’ll remember more in the morning!

If none of the above tips convince you that cramming is a bad idea, consider this: Going 18 hours without sleep results in similar cognitive functions as a person who’s legally drunk!

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“Despite your best intentions …”: Flexible time management

By Vicky Chan, 4th-year Commerce student

For some students, term calendars with multiple dates and commitments provide strategic planning for weeks that are packed with assignments, due dates, and tests. But one cannot rely solely on this term calendar for planning purposes, especially since weekly plans and daily plans can change. So how does one adjust accordingly and still come out intact (i.e. not succumb to immense stress)?

For me, three Learning Strategies tip stick out to me in particular:

1. Set goals and priorities. Not all assignments are “equal” and some courses will be more important or more difficult for you.

The notion of setting priorities extends to other aspects of academic life as well (for instance, deciding which questions to answer first on an exam), but when it comes to assignments, it is about managing your interests. You might notice after you’ve written down on your term calendar that certain assignments carry more weight, and they might be the “not so fun, yet have to put more effort in” assignments from your mandatory courses. If it happens that two assignments are due in close proximity, as they often will, choose the one that is worth more to do first, even if it could mean “eating a frog for breakfast” (doing your least favourite task first thing in the day or week). You’ll thank yourself later after you’ve crossed over the tough hurdle and can finish the race with a more “enjoyable” assignment.

2. Estimate your time realistically (i.e. pay attention to how quickly you actually read that Physics chapter).

This tip was and still is a toughie for me. As someone who likes to take notes by hand as I read through a chapter, the challenge arises near the end when there seems to be not enough time to fit in that last one or two chapters before an exam. To judge how much time to set aside for note-taking, time yourself! Realistically, it might not be possible to read a chapter twice (unless you’re referencing from it later on), so making good notes during the first reading is important. Writing/typing notes almost verbatim is not helpful if you don’t understand what it is you’re reading. For suggestions on how to tackle long and course specific readings, please refer to our module on Reading and Notemaking.

3. Create and revise a study schedule. Include classes, homework, eating, sleeping, exercise, sleeping, socializing, sleeping, clubs, down time. Each week has 168 hours.

Notice the importance of sleeping there! When awake, though, recognize that as new commitments emerge, one needs to adjust pre-established schedules to accommodate changes. For instance, making time to catch up with a friend could be a healthy change to your schedule if you are feeling socially isolated. In order to accommodate for changes, it is a good idea to build into your schedule flex time, time you could choose to do whatever you want: catch up, people watch, sleep, you name it. Building flex time into your schedule enables you to have freedom to deviate a little from an otherwise strict plan as the situation requires it.

Consider filling out our Weekly Time Use form to check how you spend your time every week. Will you meet your long-term goals with your current time use?

At the end of the day, we all have our own priorities to meet so sometimes time management is just a matter of getting to know ourselves a little better. At Learning Strategies, our role is to help you along in that journey by providing you with some resources to achieve those academic goals with a little more creativity.

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This learning strategy saved me in first year: Weekly review

By Kelli Cole, 2nd-year Life Sciences student

Something that I found astounding in first year was the amount of information into each class during a semester. In high school, teachers would give you days and even weeks to grasp a concept. Contrarily, in university, you are given 50 minutes. How in the world are you suppose to fully understand, apply, and remember all of this information throughout the entire semester?! Well, it took me until second semester to figure this out… and I haven’t looked back since.

The first step to managing what you learn in lectures is making sure to ask questions. If you are confused about what your professor said, ASK!  It is very important to get your questions answered right away, instead of allowing them to build up. By clarifying confusing concepts immediately, not will future lectures make a bit more sense, but it will also help you immensely when it comes to studying for exams. No question is a stupid question, so take advantage of your professor’s and T.A.’s office hours, you won’t regret it.

For the second step, here’s a scenario: It’s now Sunday night, and you’ve made sure to clarify all of the past week’s questions. You’re off to a great start! You understand and can apply what you have been taught this week… but it’s only week three, how are you possibly going to remember this until final exams?! This was precisely my problem in first year! Unfortunately, information seemed to be flowing out of my head just as quickly as it was flowing into my head.

To overcome this, I gave myself about an hour and a half every Sunday afternoon to review all concepts I had learned from the previous week. For example, by week five, I was reviewing week one, two, three, four, and five.  You are probably thinking, “Whoa, whoa, whoa!  That must take forever!” But, since I had previously reviewed week one four times already, it only took minimal time since I knew it so well! As you can imagine, by exams, what I had learned throughout the semester was relatively fresh in my mind. During the exam study period, I could focus on studying instead of learning material for what could potentially be the first time.

Creating a weekly review routine ensures that you are keeping up with what you’ve learned throughout the semester and helps to relieve exam stress. While studying, important information is gradually transferred from short-term memory into long-term memory. The more the information is repeated or used, the more likely it is to eventually end up in long-term memory, or to be retained!  So when exams roll around, you will be so much more prepared, as it will be possible for you to recall information, instead of having to encode it for the first time!

The bottom line is, not being afraid to ask questions when you are struggling with a concept and making sure you review what you’ve learned weekly will most definitely decrease exam stress levels and improve your overall academic success!  For more information and helpful tips check out memory strategies brought to you by the Learning Strategies!

It’s never too late to start a review routine — try it out for the next few weekends, and see how much time it saves you during finals!

Photo courtesy of John Morgan under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

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When your eyes are bigger than your stomach

The trial and error of a student who bites off more than they can chew

By Taylor Wilson-Sipkema, 3rd-year Engineer

A recurring topic between my housemates and I has been how many students feel the pressure to be ridiculously over-achieving at Queen’s. By “overachieving,” I mean the impossible drive to get good grades, be an executive member for 5 different clubs, participate in athletics at a varsity level and still squeeze in the odd Tumbleweed Tuesday or Alfie’s Throwback – all the while making it look effortless and completely attainable. So much pressure!

We’ve come to the general conclusion that Queen’s leads to this kind of pressure because of the personal statement of experience required by every high-school applicant, as well as the school’s extensive alumni network.  Now that’s not to say that everyone feels this kind of pressure to perform at an elite level in all of their pursuits – but it is definitely pretty common here. And it can lead to feelings of low self-worth and unfair comparisons to others.

Before you continue reading, I want you to stop for a minute and congratulate yourself on a job well-done just for being here. You’re at university and your future couldn’t be any brighter. If you’ve ever felt that, since you came to Queen’s, you’ve lost that golden-child flair you had in high school, then you are like many other students.

After researching this topic, I found the term was coined as “Big Fish in a Big Pond.” Students often experience enormous pressure to be the perfect student in order to compete with their peers. But even the biggest of fish can bite off more than they can chew.

Ironically enough, the inspiration for this blog came from a realization I had that maybe I myself had in fact took on more than I could handle. I’ll admit that I came to Queen’s as one of those students that had a long track list of achievements, wide-eyed and full of confidence in my abilities. Being the ambitious student that I was, I also chose engineering as my undergraduate degree…just to keep things interesting.

I’m sure you can tell by the tone of this blog that things maybe didn’t go according to plan. After my first year I had lost all confidence. I constantly compared myself to others and felt like I wasn’t as capable as the rest of my classmates.

Fortunately, instead of letting this pressure get the best of me, I learned from my experiences. In my second year, I sought out the help of Learning Strategies. This ultimately saved my academic career and also brought me to becoming a Peer Learning Assistant. I gained back the reassurance that I once had in high school and felt I was capable of getting involved in extra-curriculars.

Always remember that quality is better than quantity. It’s better to only bite off what you can chew and really excel in those areas of your life as opposed to just doing things for the sake of competition. Although it can be a hard decision to give things up, there are only 24 hours in a day. For your health, it’s good to prioritize — and Learning Strategies has information on prioritizing and making those decisions stick.

All of this talk about getting involved and doing well in school can be overwhelming, but if you’re feeling overwhelmed, know this…

There is a light at the end of this 4 (or more) year tunnel.

Research also uncovers the effect that pressure may have on students when they graduate. You’ll be ready to take on the real world, where we are not all perfect and we can’t do it all. I hope we learn to understand our capabilities and limits, and be happy with who we are.

Stress is normal and sometimes even helpful, but if you’re feeling overwhelmed, there are resources available. You might start by reading our tips on coping with exam and/or academic anxiety.

Feature image courtesy of hikingartist under the Creative Commons license.

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October 30, November 4, 5: Writing an English Essay

Writing a first-year (or any) English essay can be daunting. This workshop will cover the essentials of writing a successful English paper: titles, conclusions, and everything in between.

This workshop will be offered

Wednesday, October 30, 4:30 p.m. – 5:30 p.m., Walter Light 205

Monday, November 4, 4:30 p.m. – 5:30 p.m., BioSci 1102

Tuesday, November 5, 5:30 p.m. – 6:30 p.m., Dupuis 217

All English 100 students are encouraged to attend; the workshop is also open to any English students who want to review strategies for writing successful English essays.

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The importance of rewards

By Brigid Conroy, 2nd-year Life Sciences student.

You emerge victorious from a power study session or writing a paper, feeling relieved to be done, only to find the yet-unfinished tasks on your to-do list staring you in the face. And to make matters worse, their deadlines have only been creeping closer while you’ve been hard at work. You’ve been here. It’s easy to feel like there isn’t time for anything but a sigh before starting in on the next job. Unfortunately, this negative cycle leaves you feeling like you’re winning every battle and still losing the war. The good news: there’s an easy route to help break this cycle, and it’s paved with brownies, cute animals, and good feelings.

I should clarify – brownies and cute animals are simply examples pulled from my own list of favourite rewards for hard work. A good reward is all about what works for you. For some, going to the gym is a reward while, for others, the gym warrants a reward. Anything from a short walk to wandering into a common room to talk with friends can be a great reward and, once in a while, a dessert or some time on Facebook doesn’t hurt either! The most important part of a reward, however, is taking the time during the activity to congratulate yourself. Positive self-talk and reflecting on the good work you have done is the difference between these activities being breaks and rewards.

Rewards not only keep you positive and motivated when you’re dealing with multiple deadlines, but can make it easier to break the cycle of procrastination. A highly effective strategy for dealing with procrastination is the STING method:

Set a goal
Time yourself
Ignore interruptions
No distractions
Give yourself a reward

(For more information on STING, visit our online tips about procrastination and motivation).

The final step in this strategy is Give yourself a reward and it’s one that shouldn’t be skipped. This is not because STING won’t work those first few times if you do; it’s the negative habit that forms when you continually skip your well-deserved reward. Overcoming procrastination is so difficult because it involves accepting delayed gratification. This difficulty is only compounded if that gratification is only a few seconds of feeling proud and relieved to have finished before beginning to stress about or work on the next task. By rewarding yourself and taking some time to appreciate the result of the work you put in, you will begin to connect positive feelings to the experience of overcoming procrastination.

One of my favourite strategies is creating a list of accomplishments after an intense week of tests or weekend of assignment writing. Taking the time to jot down or think through everything I accomplished puts me in a positive frame of mind and frees me from the feeling that I can’t win against the never-ending work. In reality, we win every time we hand in a lab or assignment, write a test or exam. So focus on those black lines through your to-do list instead or do a little happy-dance after a big exam. You deserve it!

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Make the Midterm Dream Your Reality

By Kelli Cole, 2nd-year Life Sciences major

The first month of university has come and gone, and academics mixed with the craziness of being a Queen’s student is starting to catch up with you!  Midterm season is here!  (A.K.A. Late night studying, frantic cramming, microwavable dinners, and a complete loss of control)!  But perhaps, just maybe, this midterm season won’t be this way!  Imagine a world where you could keep on top of your courses, take time to have fun, AND feel confident while walking into those “not-so-dreaded” midterm exams!  What if I told you that this October this dream could be your reality!

Midterms definitely don’t have to be frightening and stressful!  So take a deep breath and check out my top two tips for success this October!

1. Attitude is everything.  Going into midterm season with a positive attitude will not only make you less feel more confident and relaxed, but it will also help you to study more effectively!  It’s definitely not necessary to jump for joy because you’ve got a final coming up.  Nevertheless, try and be conscious of how you respond mentally and physically whenever you think of the upcoming exam! Let’s be honest, every time you mention the exam, you probably are either complaining or stressing about it! Perhaps, maybe just maybe, you tried to go from negative thoughts and reactions to slightly more neutral ones?   It might be a good idea to think to yourself, “I’ve worked hard in this class. This exam is a chance for me to show everything I’ve learned. In fact, it’s going to be a good feeling to prove that I’ve learned a lot.”

Whatever positive thoughts you may tell yourself, altering your attitude (even somewhat) towards midterms might help relieve some tension, which in turn may help you to stay calm and focused when studying!

2.   Take control!  Start by going through your notes and assignments and create a plan! Design a study schedule for yourself based on which subjects need the most work! In fact, Learning Strategies offers a fantastic online resource that contains all the steps to follow for a rockin’ study schedule — our 5-Day Study Plan. This 5-day study plan will walk you through the different stages of studying to make sure that you are as ready as you can be when you sit down for the test. Finally, although it may feel great to study and practice topics you are confident in, focus on topics that may be tricky if they were presented to you on the exam! If you do need to seek help from a prof, T.A., or friend, do so ASAP!  The sooner you get a grasp on what may be troubling you… the better.

Lastly, I just want to remind you not to give up! University is tough, not doubt about it!  Remember that you were accepted to Queen’s for a reason! It is totally normal to feel discouraged at some points during your academic careers, but also don’t be afraid to reach out for help!  There are MANY resources here at Queen’s, the Learning Strategies being one of them!  If you need help drafting a study schedule, advice on how to read for effectively, or even tips on motivation and procrastination… we are the place for you!  Even if we don’t have the specific resource you are looking for, we will match you up with the right one!  Start by following my top two tips for success and help the midterm dream become your reality.

For even more strategies and habits to develop regarding exams, visit our online resources on Exam Prep.

Photo courtesy of Tim Swinson from Flickr Creative Commons.

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