Learning How To Learn Is the Most Important Thing I’ve Done In College

in February 25th, 2022
College student studying

by Gabriella - a student at Cornell University

This is part of a series of guest posts by students and recent college graduates


Introduction

December 12th, 2019, I was bursting with excitement and anticipation after being admitted to my dream university. Certainly, I thought, this meant I had done all the right things in high school, and I was destined to continue my academic success. Little did I know, college would present all sorts of new challenges that would make me question if I even belonged. After a chaotic first semester navigating online classes, COVID protocols, and an ADHD diagnosis, I learned the hard way how to learn. I figured out that how you approach learning is arguably more crucial than simply intelligence or even hard work (working hard is good- but working hard in the right ways is vital). Taking the time to understand my internal holdups and set myself up for academic success helped me go from nearly failing multiple classes to earning straight A’s the following semester.

Fortunately, I can now identify the changes I made, the resources I used, and the learning science behind how I became successful in college. I now feel confident that I have developed the study skills, self-discipline, and adaptability to pursue my academic goals both in undergrad and in a doctoral program in the future.

I figured out that how you approach learning is arguably more crucial than simply intelligence or even hard work

These are six things I learned my first year of college:

1. Knowing How to Ask for Help 

I was admittedly one of the many students who come into college thinking I’ll get through my classes working alone, just like I did in high school. However, like virtually all college students, I faced a brutal reality check. Courses were more challenging and self-driven, and I eventually realized all the most successful students acing notoriously difficult classes like general chemistry weren’t just natural geniuses. Instead, they were spending hours every week going to office hours, utilizing our university’s free tutoring services, and academic resource centers (a.k.a. student support offices), and forming study groups. They knew how to do college, not just how to attend college.

It became clear that asking for help wasn’t something to be ashamed of or an admission of any intellectual shortcomings, but rather a wise investment in my academic performance. Furthermore, I realized the classes I was taking were designed with the expectation that even bright and hardworking students would need support, and most of my professors and TAs were more than happy to help.

2. Knowing Myself and My Limits

As a self-proclaimed overachiever and perfectionist, I prided myself on stacking my high school schedule with so many advanced classes that I didn’t even have time for lunch. Figuring out that this intensity was unnecessary or realistic in college was another lesson I had to learn. The combination of more challenging classes, more competitive peers, and a desire to have a social life I neglected in high school all helped me conclude that I couldn’t- nor did I want to work myself to the bone in college.

I’m still an advocate for hard work, of course, but figuring out the number of credits I can handle, the courses I do or don’t need to take, and how to separate school and rest has been among the most beneficial changes I’ve made. Knowing my limits has allowed me to work hard and continue my record of high achievement. In addition, not overextending myself has preserved a reasonable amount of free time for my hobbies, friends, and mental health.

3. Staying Organized 

This is probably among the most common studying tips I’ve heard. While it can get annoying hearing your parents parrot about the importance of planners, I have to confess there is a lot of truth to how foundational organization is. Discussions and advice regarding the transition from high school to college often highlight the amount of independence you gain. While this is true, there seems to be much less advice regarding how to adjust to the massive amount of time and freedom you gain. This adjustment was especially critical as someone with ADHD and a college student in the age of remote learning.

The use of physical planners, digital planners, calendars, reminders, and color-coding are all great tools for creating routine and self-discipline in college. Although I knew of these tools going into college, I did not utilize them nearly as much as I do now. Part of this change is because my ADHD is now diagnosed and treated, but an equally significant change I made to get organized was starting to shamelessly try different tools. In my high school, nearly everyone used the same petite planner provided by our school, but this simply didn’t fit my large handwriting and many daily reminders I needed. In college, the first planner I used didn’t work well for me either. However, after a couple more trials, I found a physical planner and calendar combination that appeals to and engages my neurodivergent brain in a way more popular planners hadn’t.

4. Help-seeking: Finding and Using My Resources 

Finding and using my resources is closely related to, but distinct, from my first point about asking for help. Mentally accepting that I would need help in college was one accomplishment; however, finding all the learning resources available to me was an entirely new task. Once I accepted that I wanted help, I still struggled to identify how I could go about help-seeking. At the time, I did not realize that help-seeking is an established term for a critical academic and personal skill. I started my help-seeking journey and subsequent academic growth by reaching out to professors and TAs. At first, I was intimidated by the brilliant minds instructing my courses and was scared of being judged or perceived as dumb for needing help. Still, once I forced myself to go to office hours once, I realized this was far from reality, and instructors were incredibly supportive of students communicating with them and utilizing their help. Asking for help made my classes infinitely easier; content became more digestible. I felt comfortable asking for clarification on content or assignments when needed. When I was stuck on particular problems, I could work through them with TAs.

Additionally, my ADHD diagnosis resulted in my university providing additional support. Most notably, I was referred to the Learning Strategies Center, where I met 1-on-1 with an academic coach. We went through how to redirect my mind when I get distracted, study engagingly and realistically, and study for specific types of courses (i.e., how to study for bio versus math versus English). I later found this same center provided study groups and tutoring for several of my classes. I also received additional advising for specialized guidance, such as for pursuing undergraduate research opportunities.

Although I am fortunate enough to attend a private university with abundant student support resources, I have also utilized online, and usually free, resources such as additional lessons/examples and ADHD coaching videos. In addition, online platforms like StudyBot can even provide an academic coaching chatbot that makes support like what I received even more convenient and accessible.

5. Being introspective and resilient 

Being resilient is easier said than done- but, in my experience, it is very much worth the effort.

By becoming self-aware of this mindset, I could talk back to my negative thoughts and train myself to address academic challenges directly rather than by shutting down mentally

I’ve found my mental blocks to be one of the most common barriers to completing academic tasks. In particular, when I felt like I “failed” by whatever metric- could be anything from not getting the grade I hoped for to being frustrated at myself for procrastinating an assignment- I used to shut down and temporarily lose the ability to be productive. However, I realized my reactions to my self-proclaimed failures were more detrimental than the setbacks themselves. By becoming self-aware of this mindset, I could talk back to my negative thoughts and train myself to address academic challenges directly rather than by shutting down mentally.

Before college, it did not occur that my emotional development would play such an essential role in my academic success. In addition to this increased self-awareness and improvement, using all the resources I described in my previous point was also crucial for changing my academic mindset.

6. Forming positive habits 

This last point of mine is somewhat of an accumulation of all my previous issues in that I’ve found all of them necessary for forming positive habits. However, it is essential to elaborate on the last key to my success: sustainability.

Studying well, being organized, utilizing academic resources, and all the other ways I improved my grades are all important. Still, they would all be wasted efforts if I couldn’t maintain them. Moreover, the overarching strategy I have continuously used throughout my college career has been doing what works for me. I never force myself to study or plan in a way that feels unnatural because I know if I do, it won’t be an effective habit for very long. So, while I value planning and strive for self-improvement, I also avoid pursuing positive habits that are either unrealistic or unreasonable for me.

Conclusion

While my adjustment to college was a difficult and often overwhelming ordeal, I figured out how to be gentle with myself by keeping in mind that learning how to learn is an inherently imperfect process. I certainly haven’t done things perfectly, but I have worked hard and successfully taken (and continue to take) steps to better myself and my academic pursuits. If one strategy fails, I am no longer deterred from trying something else.

Finding reliable friends and developing my social support system has also made this process infinitely easier. Even if I felt like I could always work alone in high school, I learned in college that growing with my peers is an invaluable asset for my success and wellbeing. Often I remember feeling like I was the only one struggling to keep up with the academic demands of college, but since then, conversations with friends have revealed that most people seemed to feel the same way. Even if they weren’t struggling in the same ways or for the same reasons, nearly everyone I know struggled to adjust academically, either with learning how to study, managing their time, or simply figuring out their academic path.

Although I’m sure I have plenty of mistakes ahead of me, I know I have the drive, confidence, and support systems in place to tackle whatever I face in college and beyond. 


Guest writers were compensated for sharing their experience

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