College: A System for Success from a Fellow Student

From a post entitled "How to Succeed at Berkeley".

Posted by u/johnnydaggers to r/berkeley on reddit 9/1/2021

Hello new Berkeley students!

Over the years I've written a couple of long comments on posts here from people who find themselves struggling part-way though the semester. People seemed to think they were pretty helpful, so I thought I would try to give you all a leg-up and frontload the advice now.

For context, I did my undergrad at Berkeley in engineering and I'm finishing up a PhD at Cal. I have been a TA and a GSI and have seen courses from the "other side."

Obviously a lot of this may have to be adjusted to adapt to the hybrid system we're using right now due to COVID-19, but the main themes still apply.

Getting straight A's is not as hard as people say once you learn "the system". Most of the 4.0 students I knew used the system. I was a solid B/B- student for two years until I figured it out the system myself and then I had a 4.0 every semester after that.

One caveat first, this advice is for students in engineering, math, and the sciences. I don't know how relevant this advice will be for students in the liberal arts.

Here's the system:

  1. Never skip lecture. Even if you think they're not helpful, boring, or whatever, you still must go. It is way easier to stay up to speed on assignments and exam material if you're actually going to class. Professors tend to drop huge hints that aren't in the course notes or books.
  2. Do whatever you need to be mentally present in lecture. It's really important to be mentally present during class. Turn your phone off and physically separate it by giving it to a friend during class if you have to.
  3. Do not skip discussion sections, but bail on bad GSIs. Again, be mentally present there. Put your phone away. Take really good notes in section because this is where they present tips that will be on the exam. If your GSI is bad at teaching or you can't understand them, find another section if possible. Give yourself every reason to stay mentally present.
  4. Actually do the readings before class. You don't have to "read read" it, but you must know ahead of time the core concepts that will be covered in lecture. The second/third time you see something is usually when it "clicks" and it is way better for your grades if that happens while you're seeing the material how your professor presents it.
  5. Treat unfinished assignments like you're playing Russian roulette. Unfinished assignments should make you very uncomfortable. Every day you postpone finishing a homework is like adding a bullet to the gun. Sure, you might be able to finish it the night before, but what if something unplanned comes up? That cute guy/girl in your class wants to get boba but you have a homework due tonight at midnight? Now you have a tough decision that leaves you feeling bad the next day either way you choose.
  6. If you are struggling with a problem on an assignment or practice exam, move on and revisit in office hours. Math and physics majors may tell you otherwise, but in my experience there is actually very little to gain in terms of learning by hitting your head against the wall. Get in front of the professor or GSI at the earliest available opportunity (office hours or discussion) explain your difficulty and what you have tried so far, and then ask them to help get you unstuck. If you're following Rule 5 you should have no problem finding a time to talk to them before the due date.
  7. If you are doing Rules 1-6, you probably don't have to study much for exams. This was the most surprising thing to me. "Studying" is the biggest pyramid scheme in college that wastes your time. Being in a library reading will not magically make your grades better. Instead, what you should be doing is "practicing." If you have been keeping up with the class properly, then you probably just need to do a practice exam or two before the real thing and you'll very likely get an A. Review solutions only after you have finished completely and go back through the solutions to problems you missed and think about whether there are any strategies in those problems that you could add your arsenal. Once I started following the system. I would spend maybe 3 hours reviewing before midterms and finals and still ace them after I was on the system.
  8. (Bonus) Ask your GSI/professor to help you understand why you got exam/homework problems wrong. This is a really nice way to discover holes in your knowledge or any misunderstandings you have about concepts. This is the stuff that kills you on the final exam, and reviewing missed points on assignments and exams with experts on the material is the most time-efficient ways to stitch up those holes.

At Berkeley you will learn that "working the hardest you have ever worked in your life" will still not be enough to succeed. You have to work better than you have ever worked in your life in order to achieve true success in this world.

 

Success = Effort x Effectiveness

Becoming really effective means taking on a growth mindset and actually putting in consistent efforts to strengthen your weak spots. The system I presented above is really good at helping you find and address those weak spots.

Finally, I want to address mental health issues. This system is not incompatible with learning disabilities and/or depression. I know this because I was diagnosed with dysgraphia, ADHD, and depression and implemented the system in my life while dealing with all three at Berkeley. Everyone draws a unique hand in life and it's up to you to figure out the best way to play it.

However, no matter who you are, Berkeley is naturally going to be stressful. I think college is stressful for just about anyone at any institution. Stress does all sorts of weird things to people's mental state, so if you're not proactive about it you can succumb to apathy and depression pretty easily. Instead of being reactive to the challenges that school throws at you, you have to be proactive and make sure you are keeping your brain healthy so it can resist self-destructive behaviors. Here's my advice to kill the stress and succeed in a difficult undergrad institution:

  1. Make getting 7+ hours of sleep every night your #1 priority. I know this sounds like an impractical thing to make your #1 priority, but sleep is the absolute top thing that allows your brain to resist stress. If you can achieve solid sleep you will be 2-3x more productive during the day and actually spend less time working to get the same results in your classes. Even when you have something due the next day you must follow this rule because otherwise you will consistently not get enough sleep and procrastinate your work up until the last minute. It's a deadly cycle that will destroy your productivity and mental health and put you right back in this position.
  2. Eat at least 3 (healthy) meals per day at reasonably spaced intervals and drink lots of water. Your brain needs the proper nutrition and hydration to function. If you're skipping meals because you're late to class, you're sabotaging your brain's ability to function properly.
  3. "Relaxation time" must actually be relaxing. Watching tv/movies or using social media is actually very mentally exhausting without us realizing it. Visual entertainment is extremely stimulating for our brains (which is why we get the "gooood chemicals" when we watch it.) If you need to relax after a long day of class, go to the gym, do yoga, meditate, draw a picture, or go for a walk instead of watching Netflix. You'll be amazed what 15 minutes of mindfulness can do for your ability to get a lot done afterwards.
  4. As soon as a reading/assignment is assigned, work your butt off to get it to 80% and then put it down. This is the key to getting straight A's at Berkeley. You have to give yourself enough time to mentally "chew" on material and seek out help in office hours, which is absolutely impossible if you're rushing to finish it before a deadline. Following the Pareto Principle, getting 80% of an assignment done should only take 20% of the total time. Skim through the reading/notes before class to get to a retention level of about 80% of what you would get in a real reading of the material (this means you understand the main points and can write a rough outline of what is discussed). In class you'll get the other 20% filled in for you or at least have an idea of what sections to go re-read. On homework, if you get stuck on something, put it aside and work on the next part of the assignment until you have about 80% done. Then go to office hours and ask for clarification/hints on the parts that didn't come quickly to you. You will find the material in your classes much more interesting and motivating if you work this way.
  5. Never, ever skip class unless you really can't help it. This is the other thing that truly unlocks straight A's. Stress largely originates from uncertainty and the fear that comes with it. "What will be on the exam? What if I didn't study that thing? What if I fail the exam? What if I don't get a good internship because I have a bad grade?..." The easiest way to combat this is to just go to class and be mentally present. Professors will tell you exactly what they expect you to know in class and lectures push you to think in ways you would not alone. There's a reason that university lectures did not go extinct after books were invented. Trying to catch up after just one day of missed class is a killer headwind to overcome so do everything in your power to avoid giving yourself that handicap. It really kills motivation to go to the next class if you missed the previous one.

The key to college is doing less work but doing it consistently as opposed to chaotically scrambling from one task to the next while taking liberties with things that help you maintain mental health. Optimizing for short-term gains over long-term gains is what gets students sub-optimal results.