11 Tips for Success in University

By Max Li | Published: November 30, 2011

One of the goals of most university students is to be successful academically. Given that I have only (nearly) finished my 3rd term in university, one could argue that I have no business telling you what works well in university. If you choose to use that heuristic to stop reading right now, that’s fine. Otherwise, decide for yourself whether or not my advice is solid.

1. Strive for perfection.

Many people tend to compare their marks to the average; this is wrong. If you strive to keep yourself at or only slightly above the average, your best achievement will only be slightly above average. The solution to this problem is to set the bar high, very high. To illustrate, my personal scale for marks is: 90%+ is a pass, 95%+ is okay, 98%+ is pretty good, 100% is very good, and anything greater than 100% is excellent (I realize that it is typically up to chance that there is opportunity to exceed 100%). Of course, under this scheme, you’ll occasionally end up failing or doing rather poorly, but failure is very important. Complete satisfaction in one’s achievements leads to complacency, which in turn leads to poor marks and a lack of desire to improve. By pushing yourself hard, you will achieve much more than you could ever imagine.

2. Go to class.

Another error many students commit is skipping class. They typically rationalize this by telling themselves that the professor isn’t very good at teaching and/or they can learn the material faster themselves from the textbook. Typically, regardless of the truth of that statement, it leads to late night cramming before an exam. There are a number of problems with cramming (addressed in the next tip). In addition to getting more sleep, you will probably end up enjoying the class more if you actually go to the lectures (from entertaining lectures and/or a higher final grade).

3. Study throughout the entire term.

As referenced above, a sizable portion of students wait until the night before an exam to start studying. However, psychological research shows that long-term retention comes from repeated learning over a long period of time. This leads to two conclusions. One: even if you do successfully cram for an exam, later on, when you need to use the material again, you will have forgotten it. Two: Cramming is a form of procrastination. You’re putting off all the hard work of learning the material now to learning the material later. The problem is that the volume of work will only increase exponentially; you will have to relearn all the previous material on top of the new material. It’s a vicious cycle that you want to avoid.

4. Keep a calendar.

A calendar allows for constant reminders of both short-term and long-term deadlines. Most students are reactive to academic work. That is, they wait until the night before an assignment is due and then they work furiously up to the deadline to finish it (typically giving up sleep). Being proactive and developing a picture of your responsibilities which spans at least two weeks will allow you to better manage your time and minimize stress.

5. Do your assignments.

You will be constantly reminded (in math classes) that assignments are there for you to learn, and not for you to grab marks by any means possible (such as cheating). That is the reason why, the assignments tend not to be worth that much. Despite that, many students will dismiss an assignment because it’s only worth a fraction of a percent of their final grade (and many others will copy their friends’ assignments blindly). What they fail to see is that assignments help you realize tip #3, by forcing you to review the material weekly and thus ingrain the material into your mind permanently.

6. Go to your professor's office hours.

It can be difficult to tell if the typical student wants to make use of their professors’ office hours given that they typically procrastinate until it’s too late to go for help. That being said, I feel that some students are uncomfortable going to office hours. Personally, I was somewhat wary of going to office hours at the beginning of my university career; I felt that the professor would think less of me if I went for help. (If this were true, they’d think you were stupid when you failed the exam anyways. Pick your poison.) However, each time it was generally a helpful, pleasurable and enlightening experience. Your professors know what they are doing and will usually try to help you to the best of their ability. You should take advantage of this underutilized resource.

7. Do your readings.

The importance of this point tends to vary depending on the course (it is typically much more important in most arts courses than say mathematics courses). Doing your readings brings you a different perspective on the material; it further strengthens your retention of the material and may or may not present material not found in lectures.

8. Assess priorities.

There are two factors you should consider in determining the priority of a task: importance and urgency. Most people correctly see that something that is urgent and important should have the highest priority and something that is distant and unimportant should have the least priority. But then they typically think something that is unimportant but urgent should take precedent over something important but distant. This is wrong (to an extent). Importance should be weighed much more heavily than urgency. Why? Presumably, if something is important, it will have a much bigger impact on your life depending on its success or failure. (If this isn’t true, you should probably reassess its importance.) You will have to figure out for yourself exactly how heavily to weigh importance versus urgency, but realize that you should not let urgency take control of your life.

9. Relax.

Great achievement requires a balance of pressure and of calm release. Every once in a while, preferably after a long bout of hard work or taking an exam, take the time to relax and celebrate your achievement (or failure). Working extremely hard without break will simply lead to burnout. Giving yourself a break, ideally both mentally and physically, is absolutely essential to being great, actually enjoying your life and being happy.

10. Take classes you enjoy.

There are a large number of people who, for at least a fraction of their degree, take courses (or even an entire program) because it is “useful” (typically, these are either courses in business or engineering). They don’t take these courses because they enjoy them; they take them because they feel that they’ll be happier later on when they have a better life because of it. While there is some merit in the notion of sacrificing your current happiness for greater later happiness, this choice often does not pan out. You’ll likely be miserable while taking these courses, and very likely would end up doing worse because of it. In addition, in the future, you’re likely to commit the same fallacy of pushing off your happiness until you’re dead (which of course, by then, is far too late). It follows that you should take courses that you feel you will enjoy; any course will eventually prove its worth. You’ll maintain greater mental spirits both now and later on because of it.

11. Ignore all this advice.

These tips are only meant to be a guide. There is absolutely no need to follow these religiously if you want to succeed in university (or in life). In fact, I probably only closely follow half of these pieces of advice (of course, I still strongly believe in the merit of the other half). You should modify these, or even completely drop the ones you don’t think are working for you. Develop your own system; you can only learn so much from other people.

Many people would say that (most) of these tips are common sense. Yet most people don’t follow them. Hopefully, another iteration of this common sense will lead at least a few people on the right path. Of course, it’s likely that if you’ve read up to this point, you didn’t need to actually be reading this document; you’d probably do just fine in university. Anyways, I hope this advice will be useful to you as you continue on in your life.