Sunday, December 29, 2013

Your Job Title: Educated Person

Lots of buzz on campuses these days about careers.  Everyone, it seems, is eager to graduate with a job title in their back pocket.  Across the country, enrollment in computer science, business, engineering, and nursing programs is booming; on the flip side, the number of students majoring in liberal arts shrinks by the minute.

Given the economic disasters of the past few years, it's hard to fault students for trying to increase their chances of finding a job after graduation.  Majors that translate into "hot" careers seem to make sense in a tight market. 

But besides careers and paychecks, college can (and should) prepare you for other rewards, including some that can impact far more than just your future earning power.  If you let it, college can widen your world.  It can help you gain a better understanding of yourself and inspire an appreciation of life's richness and complexity.  A college education may sometimes be about finding correct answers, but it's also about asking questions--the same questions educated people have been wrestling with for ages.

Engaging the world is as important a part of your education as preparing for a career.  And interestingly, the two activities are not at all at odds.  If you're well informed--if you're curious about life and (as one of my students recently put it) "know about things"--you're more likely to make better choices, including those about your work.  And more often than not, the most successful people out there are knowledgeable not just about their field but about the rest of the planet.  As always, knowledge rules.

This isn't a pitch for the liberal arts, business, or any other curriculum, but instead for the importance of being open to learning and the promise and possibilities of college.  Clearly, you should study what you enjoy and find interesting.  And you should, now and then anyway, look at the link between your coursework and careers.  

But it's a mistake to go through college with your head down, focusing only on courses and knowledge you think will make you marketable and ignoring everything else.  Doing so shortchanges your life big time--a terrible thing.  Whether next semester is your first or last at NCC, work on becoming a well-educated human being, by far the best job title of all.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

A Look Back, A Look Ahead

Over.  Done.  Finished.

The curtain has officially fallen on the fall 2013 semester.  And unless you're taking a Winterim course, you've a good month to kick back and relax before the spring semester gets rolling.

Good deal?  You bet.

But while fall 2013 is still in the rear view mirror, take a moment to give it one last glance.  Think about what was satisfying about this semester . . . and what wasn't.  Think about the smart decisions you made this fall and the choices you wish you could take back.  Chances are you've items in each column.

If your pluses outnumber your minuses--if you liked your classes, did well in the grade department, met people, and (all in all) enjoyed college--you're definitely doing something right.  Stay the course and you can expect more of the same.

But if the fall semester wasn't exactly what you'd hoped for--academically, socially, or in other ways--time to figure out how to make the next term better.

Start with a "Next Semester's Goals" list.

When I finished my first semester in college (which was okay but far from perfect), my Next-Semester's-Goals list looked something like this:

  • Work smarter
  • Meet people at school
  • Find an interesting major
  • Join something
  • Worry less  

I can't tell you I managed to accomplish all of these goals right away, but I did use my list to make plans.  And getting started--and making plans--felt good.  It felt good to move forward and to work on filling in the previous semester's gaps.  It beat standing still and feeling helpless.  It certainly beat writing off college as a disappointment.

So whatever you want to "fix" about your Nassau experience, the intersession is a good time to give that some thought.  Better grades, new friends, a more interesting social life, a major that inspires, a happier outlook: maybe these are among your possibilities.  But good things rarely happen on their own.  You have to set some goals, make some plans--and act.

Have a great intersession.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Essay Exam Coming Up? (Don't panic)

"I don't mind multiple choice tests," a student told me the other day, "for at least you know the answer is somewhere in front of you.  But essay exams are another story.  You have to know the topic really well, be organized, write fast, and hope it all makes sense when you're done.  It's tough."

He's right.  Writing a good essay, especially under test conditions, IS tough.

But not impossible.

Preparing for essay exams is in most ways like getting ready for any other test.  If you've done all of the right things--paid attention in class, kept up with readings and assignments, reviewed your notes, stayed interested in (and thought about) what you're learning, and anticipated test questions--you're already more than halfway there.

But since writing about a topic is different from answering short answer questions, knowing some essay test strategies also can't hurt.

Here are some quick tips to keep in mind for your next essay exam:

  • Read the question carefully.  Essay questions call for different kinds of information.  They may ask you to focus on similarities and differences; explain the how or why of something;   discuss a sequence of steps or events; argue a point; or summarize something you've learned.  A good way to determine a question's intent is to look at its action verb (words like compare, contrast, evaluate, explain, describe, summarize, trace, and so on).  Each communicates a specific "request." Paying attention to these words can help you understand the question and begin planning a response.

  • Answer only the question that's been asked.  If an essay question asks you to compare two short stories, discuss the symptoms of a disease, evaluate the effectiveness of a law, or examine the causes of a social problem, answer that question and that question alone.  Don't feel you have to provide tons of background information or anything else that's secondary to the question at hand.

  • Plan your answer before you begin writing.  Taking a few minutes to outline your answer can help you see your essay's content and direction.  Your outline doesn't have to be fancy: a simple list of the points or pieces of information you wish to include (maybe in the order you want to discuss them) should work just fine.  Once you've sketched out your answer, you can use the outline to guide your writing.

  • Introduce your main idea early in your essay.  Most essays have a thesis or main idea: a statement that responds directly to the question and that sets the stage for the rest of the discussion.  It's a good practice to state that idea early on, preferably in your first paragraph.  Whether you're telling your reader that film X is better than film Y; that four factors contributed to a revolution; or that being a vegetarian has many health benefits, make sure you share your thesis early in your discussion. 

  • Make sure your essay has enough content.  A good essay has not only a clear thesis but good content to support it.  Content may include facts, reasons, examples, research, data, definitions, and even personal experiences--all aimed at expanding and elaborating on the discussion's  main idea.  When answering an essay question, don't skimp on substance.  If a piece of information helps to advance your thesis, chances are it belongs in your discussion.

Essay exams can be challenging, but they can also be good confidence builders.  They give you opportunities to stretch yourself academically and to practice organizing information into a thoughtful discussion.  That's an important skill--and one that will pay off not only in your classes but in most careers, where your ability to make and support a point effectively will surely get you noticed. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Showing Your Grit

Okay, so here it is, thirteen school days to the end of the semester.  Lots to do: papers to write, projects to finish, tests to prepare for, loose ends galore to tie up.  If college were a football game, this would be the two-minute warning, with the season on the line.

Time to show your grit.

Even if you've been on top of your classes from day one, the final weeks of the semester can be tough.  You may have done all the right things--kept up with required reading, reviewed notes, completed assignments, really given college your best shot--but the end of the term can still be busy and stressful.  It's a fact of college life.

Here's another fact: The most successful students not only put time and work into their classes throughout the semester but also push themselves at crunch time.  I'm not talking about pulling all nighters, staging marathon study sessions, medicating yourself to stay awake an extra two hours, or doing anything equally dumb.  But I am talking about pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone to do your best, especially at those moments (like now) when your performance matters.

I know students who just give up when school gets really busy. They miss classes at the end of the semester, let studying slide, and don't finish papers because they don't want to work any harder than usual.  "I never like to exert myself," a student told me last spring.  "If things get too intense, I just shut down." 

This attitude baffles me, especially given the evidence that suggests that the people who do best--in school, on a job, in a game, or anywhere else in life--are usually the ones willing to stay focused and push themselves at the end.  They're the ones who have the grit to keep going, despite being tired.  They may not always be at their best, but they hang in there nonetheless.

And so should you.  As the semester winds down, remember the importance of focus and tenacity. These qualities alone won't get you straight A's, but they might make the difference between knowing that you gave school your best effort and realizing that your semester could have turned out better, if only you'd shown a bit more grit.