If you have ever felt stressed or anxious in school, you are not alone. Surveys have found that 3 out of 5 students in the US have experienced ‘overwhelming anxiety’ at some point during their college career. And 30% of students say they have felt it in only the last two weeks! The first cause is social. Leaving home and making new friends is difficult. But that tends to go away as you get settled in.
The bigger problem is academic anxiety. That can persist the entire four years of college. You arrive on campus assuming that studying will be the same as high school. You did fine there, so what’s the worry? You find out too late that there’s a lot more to do and it’s much more difficult. You get behind and start playing catch up. Now you’re struggling to find and learn new study habits while juggling an ever-increasing workload. Not a good combination. I know that feeling and I had it far worse than most.
I was pumping gas after high school
I was a horrible student in high school. I didn’t even graduate with my class. I had to go an extra semester and my GPA must have been close to a D. I spent my first six months out of high school pumping gas. I quickly realized that smelling gasoline every day wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. When my aunt and uncle in Omaha suggested I try college, I didn’t even have to think about it. I packed my backpack, hopped on my motorcycle, and away I went.
First semester was tough
I really struggled a lot the first semester of college. I really wanted to do well but studying was new and I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I had to work hard and it was often painfully frustrating. I kept finding myself in the library late at night wondering why I still wasn’t done. Something clearly wasn’t right and I was sick of guessing what that might be.
I read a lot of advice
I decided to get my hands on everything I could about the best ways to study. Lots of it was endlessly long and confusing – memory methods, speed reading, lots of pep talk, feel-good motivation, and other things that just didn’t click for me. I just wanted to keep it simple and practical. I was trying to find those things that could give me the best results for the time and effort I put into my studies. I wasn’t looking for shortcuts. I was deadly serious about college and had a passion for my college work. I just wanted to do it as efficiently and effectively as I could without all the nonsense.
I focused on time
One topic that stood out was time. Apparently it was a big problem for students because every book spent a lot of time covering it. It wasn’t hard to see why. Nobody had enough of it. People were constantly behind, cutting corners to catch up, and cramming late into the night. I got stressed just watching them and didn’t ever want to be in that situation.
The time I had
It was clear to me that if I wanted to do well, the first thing I had to do was to have complete control of my time. I developed a sense of awareness of how I was using it, or not using it. Everything was about time. When I got up and went to bed. How much time I used for classes, meals, working out, or just walking around campus. Then there was the social time. Hanging out with friends, going to parties on the weekends, and running races on Saturday or Sunday mornings. Everything took lots of time. Oh, and then there was the studying. I always knew how much study time I had available and I developed a sense of urgency about using it.
The time I needed
And the other side of the equation was how much time I needed. This involved a lot of guessing at first… Everything besides studying had a set time – my meals, classes, and workouts. I always knew when they would start and end. But my readings, problem sets, papers, and projects. I had no clue how long they would take until I got into them. Those were the single most important things I needed to do and I was only guessing. That was the problem I wanted to avoid.
The time it took me to do something
I found a simple tip to solve that in one of my study books – just time myself and make an estimate. When businesses do projects, they have to tell customers how much things will cost and how long they will take. They do that with estimates. They know from experience and keep learning every time they do it again. I started doing the same.
When I started reading a textbook, I just looked at my watch and wrote the time on the first page. When I finished I did the same on the last page. Within a few readings, I had a very accurate time per page estimate for any book that I read. I could predict the time I would need that night to do any reading with pretty good accuracy. Was I wrong sometimes? Of course, but that wasn’t bad, that was good, because I learned from experience. My new estimates would be even better! Once I felt like I was in control of my time, I also started developing some consistent study habits.
I started planning
I was good at separating my study life and social life. I was either on or off, there was no in-between. I started doing certain things to block out the distractions around me. I got myself well organized, set up a very tight schedule, and didn’t let anything or anyone interrupt it. I studied each syllabus at the start of each semester to understand the tasks I would need to get done to get a perfect grade.
I always knew exactly what was coming up and what I needed to do next. Every task I had was planned for a specific time and I tried to make some use of every minute that I had. I used all of the small blocks of time I had during the day to get something done, no matter how small it was. The more I did early made sure I had plenty of time in reserve to do things later, or do nothing at all!
I developed study skills
I also learned very specific study routines that gave me the best results for the time and effort I put in.
I read my textbooks in certain ways that I knew would help me review them later.
I did the same with class notes. My focus was always on doing things now in a way that helped me retain more and speed my review for exams later.
Studying for exams started on the first day of classes. I wrote my own test questions and self-tested every few days leading up to the exam. I never had to cram. The night before an exam was just a quick review and then off to George’s Tavern for a hotdog and a beer (the drinking age was 19 then). I knew I was getting a perfect grade the next day. I had done it before and knew I would again.
I didn’t understand it then, but I had a system. I did things the same way, every day, and always got the A. Once I was in control of my time and workload and knew how I was going to do things, uncertainty vanished. Success overcomes stress. Experience overcomes anxiety. When you know you can do well and you see it again and again, what do you have to worry about? Absolutely nothing.
If I can only give you one piece of advice in college, it’s this: Don’t wing it!
The minute you start feeling stressed and anxious, stop what you’re doing and get yourself in control. Invest the time to think things through. Know your time. Understand your workload. Know exactly when, where, why, and how you’re going to get it done. Build a study plan. That’s what saved my academic life and arguably my entire life – I never went back to pumping gas.