As I end my undergraduate journey, it’s hard to not feel nostalgic, especially amid this sad pandemic because of which this journey was shortened by nearly 3.5 months. It was, in many ways, the best time of my life but, most importantly, I developed a better understanding of this world and of myself. A lot of these lessons helped me navigate through my undergraduate years and I wish to offer some suggestions to my juniors who are starting out and to those who are curious about how they can do better.
I also give some personal notes below, wherever possible, on how I specifically applied the advice that I’m offering.
- Don’t wrongly associate more time (at the expense of sleep) with more productivity. If you sleep enough, you’ll be more creative, efficient and energetic.
- Use the sleep to gain that extra mileage that your brain needs to solve difficult problems.
- Personal note: I’m a big fan of sleep, and I recommend it to everyone. A lot of times, when I’ve faced a difficult problem in coursework, programming or projects, I’ve read the relevant content again, made an attempt or three and when it was still not solved, I went and took a nap. Most of the time, the solution just popped up magically in 20 minutes.
- Whenever you face a similar problem 2 or 3 times, just make a note of it and start finding a solution i.e., more specifically, a skill that you can acquire to solve it. Let’s say, you’re unable to understand some algorithms based on eigenvalues in a course, go and find videos, tutorials, visualizations, etc. on eigenvalues and grind till you get it. Idea is to develop skills that help you solve problems and get them out of your way as soon as possible.
- Personal note: Sometime in my second year, I felt that my Python programs were too slow and full of bugs. I read and played with code snippets from the official SciPy stack tutorials in about 20 hours over 5 days, covering all major libraries, and I read the book ‘Clean Code’ by Robert Martin to improve my coding habits. Needless to say, I improved a lot and I kept adding new techniques to my repertoire of knowledge over the years.
- Focus on the following soft skills while participating in extracurriculars: presenting/speaking in front of an audience, making a small talk, cold emailing and cold calling, managing teams and working with event timelines.
- Make sure you’re not sacrificing your academics at the cost of doing extracurricular activities. Set the standards you wish to abide by (GPA, number of courses, academic projects, etc.) based on your personal interests, constraints and future plans. For example, if you plan to apply for graduate studies, you will need a very high GPA.
- Keep a to-do list of things for each project, including new things that you need to learn for the project. It’s very important to make extensive notes of project discussions and to responsibly assign work to each member.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help from others. But don’t overdo it, use Google (or your favorite search engine) or whatever resources you have as far as possible while you are not feeling stuck.
- Meet your advisor periodically. Never go without talking to them for more than a week. Even if little work was done, you should share that information and discuss the next steps.
- Can’t stress this enough: attending classes is super important. Even if you don’t like the content or the professor or whatever, you should attend those lectures, pay attention and make notes (or make sure a friend is making them, with their beautiful handwriting).
- If there is anything more important than good sleep, it’s attending lectures. You’ll be ahead of yourselves just because you’ve absorbed half of the content in class itself. Yes, understanding even 50% of the lecture is good enough.
- Personal note: Out of self-respect or fear or some other reason, I just can’t sleep when I’m sitting in the front row. So I used that to my advantage and sat in first row in every single class. Even I was surprised initially by how quickly I could finish reviewing material before exams.
- Attend as many tutorials as possible, especially the ones taken by professors, especially the ones just a few days before the exams. You’ll get a lot out of discussions because TAs and professors have unique insights on problems, some of which are difficult to share in class time. Also use this time to ask questions you have about material covered in class.
- Graded assignments need to be done on time (of course!). For the ungraded ones, make sure you solve them at least once before exams, ideally as soon as they are released or the relevant material is covered. The ideal time for the lazy among us will be before they are discussed in class or tutorials.
- Your professors love teaching all of their content but they have some favorite parts that they love asking in exams. There are 3 ways to find them:
- Listen carefully in the class. Some professors just light up or speak loudly out of excitement or laugh too much when they’re teaching that part. This may sound crazy but take a note next time you see that. Some of them will say it out loud when an important topic comes.
- Make sure you realize the concepts and ideas being stressed in the assignments and quizzes. They’re coming on exams too.
- Most direct way is to find question papers from previous offerings of the course by the same instructor. Make sure you solve these papers. Even the ones by other professors are helpful sometimes.
- Make a cheat-sheet i.e. a list of definitions, theorems, formulas, etc. that come in handy while solving problems. Make this as soon as possible. Use it to solve problems when you’re doing practice. This is super helpful in training your brain to detect patterns in problems and to find the right approach when time comes. If cheat-sheets are allowed in exams, even better! (Please don’t take them otherwise.)
- In the exam, attempt the easiest questions first. That will boost your confidence and build momentum in problem solving. Make 3-4 passes if required as you solve more and more difficult problems. There are two types of difficult questions: ones that need 10 pages to solve and others that need 10 minutes to think. With experience, learn to realize what you’re dealing with and approach the problem accordingly. Also, write as neatly as possible, everyone likes to grade a well-written systematic clear answer. Your TAs will reward you for that.
- Value the friends that you study with. Respect that nerd kid in class. They’ll not only teach you concepts at the last moment, they know the hidden secret sources of ‘previous year papers’ and ‘the book your professor uses’. And they’ll give you their notes too.
- Start self-studying a week before the exams (midterm and finals). Discuss the most difficult topics and problems with your friends. Ping them, meet them in tutorials, after class, whatever works best for your group.
- Give back to your friends as well by sharing your resources, insights and ideas. They’ll value you more and you’ll also learn better by teaching others.
Other Important Topics
- Always play by the rules. Never ever cheat. You’re the only person who’ll remember that little number called your CPI/GPA for a very long time, make sure that you deserve every last decimal of it.
- If you don’t play fair, you’ll face consequences which can vary from a little warning to a permanent suspension leaving you far behind in your career. If someone fails the first time and then succeeds by working hard, people start believing in them. But they will never trust a person again once they are labelled as a ‘cheater’.
- Cheating is not fair to those who play fair. It is discouraging for fair players to know that someone has surpassed them by foul play. As a TA or otherwise, make sure that no student ever feels that discouragement.
- You may have certain beliefs in relation to things like alcohol, drugs, etc. which might be attempted to be influenced by your peers or seniors. Don’t let anyone else change your habits or preferences. A part of the reason these ‘influencers’ do that is because they are looking to validate their own beliefs by imposing them on others. Beware of ‘influencers’ around you.
- You have to think for yourselves. Responsible people explore and allow others to explore these ‘potentially’ destructive activities only in safe environments. Unless you are completely comfortable with the environment and the idea of, say, consuming alcohol, don’t do it. If you don’t feel sure about your comfort level, you are not comfortable.
- Everyone around you is probably really good at something. Everyone has a different story and you can only live yours. So don’t compare your struggle with others. And people like to hide their struggle, so comparisons that you make can never really be fair anyway.
- With a different starting-point, comes a different standard. Plan to achieve what is challenging and feasible for you. For example, a person with a GPA of 7.5 (out of 10) may aim for an 8.5 next semester, and another with 9.5 may aim for 9.8. YOU only have to look out at where YOU are and where YOU want to go.
- In college, people around you come from very different backgrounds. They might be really good at things you have never done in life before. You might feel sad about being bad at something (like table tennis or programming) but remember that it’s just your ‘t equals zero’. Over time, with effort, you can and will improve.