Executive dysfunction: Moderate to severe. Developmental delay: Moderate to severe. Anxiety: Severe for over a year. Autism: Frequently visible. Grade point average: 4.0.
With barriers like that, how is it possible to nail such a near-unattainable GPA? There are strategies, my friend. Sit with me a while while I bounce repetitively on this therapy ball and tell you all about it.
I can’t guarantee you a 4.0, but I can tell you my secrets for making college easier.
The stuff you can’t control
I’d like to add a disclaimer that there is no guaranteed way to get a 4.0 in college. Some people will have advantages like:
- Supportive families
- Intellectual giftedness
- Forgiving or lazy graders
- A school setup that gives you more than a 4 for an A+, meaning that an A+, an A+ and a B+ average out to an A
- Lack of learning disabilities
I have most (not all) of these advantages and this influences my college experience.
If you have something like dyslexia, or a horrible family, or really tough graders, that’s going to make good grades harder to get.
You define what “good grades” means for you, and you should keep in mind what’s realistic and wise for your own life. Nobody knows your circumstances better than you do.
I’m hear to help you figure out what you can control and use it to your advantage.
The stuff you can control
Take notes, my friends (or just bookmark this page) because I am about to share some awesome secrets.
Starting out strong
Set up for success with a few helpful strategies:
- Choose a major that plays to your strengths and isn’t something you hate. (For example, if you loathe and struggle with math, then computer science is not for you.)
- Try to pursue treatment for any issues or illnesses you have. (I’ve been undergoing anxiety treatment and it’s way better controlled than it used to be.)
- Don’t overwhelm yourself with too much work. Can you do it? Maybe. Will you hate your life? Probably. Try to make your life easier by prioritizing stuff and cutting out what doesn’t work for you.
Here are my priorities, in order:
- Staying healthy
- Urgent short-term homework (avoid creating this by starting early)
- Getting enough sleep
- The rest of my schoolwork
- Down time and recharging
- Other stuff
Health comes first. If you neglect it, things become unsustainable and your other priorities will crumble. Put your basic health and safety first. Yes, even if that means letting some schoolwork slide.
Sleep is also high-up on the list, higher than fun. You need 8+ hours. (Some people say they can get by on 5. These people are fools destined for destruction if they do not change their ways.) A well-rested brain is working optimally, ready to learn and stay as mentally healthy as possible.
Next is whatever recharges your energy. Maybe it’s Netflix or dog pictures or writing fiction. That stuff is important, so make time for it when you can.
Everything else is optional.
Kicking butt in class
Actually showing up
Step one is to always show up to class unless you are definitely sick. Like, some people just start skipping class halfway through the semester. They miss all kinds of advice and answered questions. This is how Fs are made.
If I can make it to every class all semester, I call it a “perfect semester.”
I used to get anxiety attacks in class. If this happens to you, treat it like an illness. Step out and go to the bathroom to try to calm yourself. If you are able to calm down enough that you believe you can listen (even a little), go back to class. If not, maybe you need to go back to your dorm and recover.
Most professors like people who raise their hands. Yes, even if you say something “wrong,” it’s still right. The fact that you tried and you cared is more important than whether you were perfect.
I sit front and center. I ask questions. I answer questions, sometimes but not always accurately. I volunteer to do homework problems on the board and usually (but not always) get the right answer. And professors love me.
I know some people feel self-conscious about speaking up in class. If you can, try to face that fear. Seriously, it’s worth it.
And remember: if you have a question, someone else is probably silently wondering the same thing. They will be happy if you speak up.
Do your best to take notes in class. I recommend typing because you can edit what you wrote much more easily.
Sometimes professors post notes online. I like to review these notes in my seat before the lecture starts. If they are Power Point files, I edit them to make the colors look pretty.
Just do your best with notes. It helps you learn and it’s useful to review before an exam.
Kicking butt at homework
I hate homework. You hate homework. Everyone hates homework.
Seriously, this is a huge part of college success. Start your homework early!
- It gives you more time so you can relax a little and space it out
- You have plenty of time to email the professor to ask for clarification
- You can go to the tutoring center early on, instead of later when it gets flooded with your classmates who are all stressing about it
- You’re more likely to be able to sit back and be calm while all your classmates panic because they procrastinated
- Often you get to turn it in early and go to bed at a reasonable hour, and boy is that satisfying!
I get that starting can be hard. I struggle with that too. Even creating a document, putting a title on your name on it, and hitting “Save” is better than nothing. I promise.
My first-year engineering professor told us that study breaks are very important. I forget the scientific words he used, but basically your brain gets stale and it needs a 10+-minute break now and then.
If you feel like you want to throw your homework out the window or if you are exhausted, that means it’s break time. Take a walk. Grab some food and turn on one episode of your favorite show. Look at cat pictures. Do something that restores your sense of well-being.
This is one reason why starting early is so awesome. You get to take breaks and chill without feeling guilty. Break time is important for your brain and it’ll help you do a better job when you go back to work.
If you worry you’ll end up going on an eternal break, set a timer. Try a 5-minute warning timer too to help you adjust emotionally to the fact that your break is ending.
NEVER do all-nighters. Seriously, don’t. The quality of your work will deteriorate before long and you will barely be coherent in the morning. Go to bed and study in the morning.
Seriously, college homework can be hard. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Here are good ways to get help:
- Go to the tutoring center. Many schools have free tutoring centers for different subjects. Check the hours before you arrive.
- Email your professor or TA with the question. They’ll probably get back to you anywhere between 5 minutes and 2 days. (Occasionally never. But worth a try.)
- Attend office hours. You may feel shy about it, but professors actually love it. They will probably be willing to walk you through it and give you hints if you get stuck. There may also be other students there working on the same homework and you can buddy up.
- Try studying with a friend or group. Help each other with the tough parts. Just make sure you don’t cross the line into cheating.
Colleges HATE cheaters. Seriously, cheating can destroy your reputation. It isn’t worth it.
Make sure you read over the policy about what counts as cheating. You do not want to mess that up.
Protect your homework. Don’t let friends copy directly from you. (Even if they’re making minor changes to variable names and stuff, professors can tell. They have magic brains.) And don’t leave your laptop open in public with your homework open. Someone could copy it and then you’d get in trouble with them.
When in doubt, it’s better to turn it in late or take a worse grade. Partial credit is far better than an F and getting reported.
Defeating the evilest classes
You may hear people talking about which classes are the most horrible. Remember this information because it’s useful.
If you can, try to schedule horrible classes alongside easier ones when you plan your semester. This way you’ll have extra free time for the evil class.
Even gifted kids who soared through high school are likely to get challenged and frustrated in college. This does not say anything bad about you. It is normal, and trust me, all your peers are panicking too.
Just try to get through. Remember that it’s normal to struggle. Eventually you’ll look back on the memories and they’ll feel foggy and you’ll say “yeah, I hated that and I’m glad I’m done.”
I recognize that my advice may not be realistic or suitable for everybody. Please feel free to take what you can and leave what you don’t want.
And you don’t have to be neurotypical to succeed. I’m autistic with serious developmental delays and executive dysfunction. I’ve battled anxiety and depression, which used to be severe, especially when I was new to college.
This stuff is challenging at first and easier as you get used to it, especially if you follow the steps above. I got pretty darn good at it, and now I’m graduating.
It’s your turn to shine.
And feel free to comment with your own college survival tips!