By Owen Henry
It’s Reading Period, and as all of you get ready to take your year’s final exams (and I sit on my porch drinking a handle of vodka a day because I AM DONE SUCKERS BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA) I thought I should render unto you some advice regarding study habits. By these principles have I managed to complete my four years here with a GPA that astonishes even me (surely I slacked off more than this…) and some fancy Latin words on my official-ish piece of paper. Pay heed, and you may even get some nice words, too!
1. Don’t take study drugs!
Newsweek has ranked Oberlin College as the fourteenth most rigorous undergraduate institution in the United States. In this ranking, we beat out not only relatively similar institutions such as Bard and Swarthmore, but also some of the (reputedly) most elite schools in the country, including Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. The workload here is TOUGH – as someone who managed to pull myself through honors, I can attest to that – but a lot of students take this the wrong way. It’s meant to be taken as a high standard, a bar set just far enough out of reach that you have to push yourself to grasp it and pull yourself through your four to five years here. But I’ve seen a lot of my peers panic at the idea of a challenge, or overload themselves to the point where they start buckling halfway through the semester.
It’s at this point that Oberlin’s pervasively permissive attitude towards drugs comes into play. My impression is that, as a whole, our student body does not believe that taking drugs is harmful or indicative of moral laxitude – it’s just something to do in your free time to enhance your time here. And this leads a lot of people to take study drugs, such as Adderall or Ritalin, in an effort to cope with the work or make more time for the things they enjoy. There are some people here who genuinely need these drugs. They have diagnosed conditions, malformations of the chemicals and receptors in their brain that make it impossible for them to muster the same level of focus as you or I. But a lot of my peers also take these drugs without prescriptions, seek out diagnoses from family doctors simply to sell off the pills, or even abuse their own prescriptions for a little extra staying power in the library.
It’s tempting to give in and pop a few Ritalin the night before a big test. Lord knows I’ve felt the temptation myself. But here’s the thing: you are being challenged here in preparation for taking on real responsibilities in the Real World. Outside of the Oberlin bubble study drugs aren’t always readily available, nor is prescription drug abuse looked upon kindly. Taking these drugs now hampers the development of good work ethic and study skills that you will need for the rest of your life, effectively hamstringing you when you try to become a respectable adult. Eventually, you’ll even start fucking with your natural brain chemistry and acquiring a tolerance where you’ll find yourself taking more and more just to get through classes – and by the time you graduate, you won’t be able to look at a page without popping a few pills.
And the worst part about study drugs? You never needed them in the first place. You were accepted here because you are smart enough to handle the workload, and there are SO MANY forms of academic help you can receive at Oberlin. The professors are accessible. There are legions of peer tutors just waiting to help you learn. Your own classmates are usually more than happy to give you a hand in studying or hammering out the finer points of the last lecture if you ask them.
I’m an Honors student graduating with something like a 3.7 GPA. I never once took any type of study drug in my time here, and on the whole I’m an abysmal natural student – I wasted my time, procrastinated, panicked and wrote entire papers the night before they were due, just like you sometimes do. But if I can make it out of here without relying on chemical help despite all my faults, you can, too.
2. DON’T OVERLOAD.
It’s easy to be tempted into taking 16 credits, a bunch of ExCos, and playing a sport or jumping into even more extracurriculars on the side. There’s a LOT to do here. But keep in mind: you have 4 years at least. You don’t need to take everything you want to take RIGHT NOW. By overloading yourself, you’re only going to end up burning yourself out part way through the semester, which is going to kill your GPA and your social life (if you even still have one).
Make sure you make time in your schedule to breathe and relax. I’m not sure how many credits you’ll need to take under the new system they’re instituting in fall 2013, but I still remember President Krislov telling my class, as freshman, that we only needed to take an average of 14 credits a semester to graduate. Shoot for that. Meet that minimum requirement, and then only take more if you absolutely have to – the most surefire way to have a shitty semester is to overwork yourself by biting off more than you can chew.
3. Get a study carrel in the library.
You’ve been to the upper floors of Mudd, right? And you’ve seen those funny looking cubicle type things littered among the shelves? Well, true story, but you can actually sign those out for entire semesters from the library. You can even sign out books for in-library use and leave them in your carrel and the staff won’t touch them. If you need a quiet environment to work and/or focus, or maybe just need a separate space outside of your room to get your act together in order to finish your big paper, try getting a study carrel. They’re there for you to use.
4. Don’t Panic.
Douglas Adams had it right. If you need to take some time and freak out about the fact that you have 50 bajillion pages of reading due the next day alongside a lab report for which you haven’t yet done the lab and a research paper that you’ve barely outlined, okay – scream and cry your head off. Let it out. But never let your workload intimidate you to the point where you simply refuse to do it. You might not get the best grades, or even get the grades you want, but you’re going to fail if you don’t even try.
Moreover, there are a lot of ways on campus to help you cope with deadlines that are simply coming too soon. The first and best way is to keep track of what’s-due-when and ask for extensions from your professors. This is especially useful when all of your professors have the brilliant idea that they’ll simply give you a midterm early so that you’re not overloaded. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had all of my professors in a given semester schedule things like this early and then have them all due SIMULTAENOUSLY.) Most professors will be sympathetic if you’re facing down a week of hell and will be willing to give you at least a few days, if not longer.
Additionally, if you just need extra time to complete a class (especially in cases where you did not pay heed to #2 above), you can take an incomplete. Usually these come up when some medical emergency arises that takes you out of school for some time, but it’s a little-known fact that you get two free incompletes during the course of your Oberlin career. They’re especially useful when you have a HUGE project you need to finish and you want to spend just a little extra time fine-tuning all of the details. Taking an incomplete has to be approved by your professor, but it will give you at least an extra TWO WEEKS to complete assignments after all your other work is due.
Take advantage of this!