Cloistered and lost in their esoteric inquiries, professors generally imagine students share their passion for their subject matter, so that hours of dedicated study ought to come almost as naturally as breathing. Out of the ivory tower and down in the real world, college students understand that command of any subject lasts only until the minute after the final exam ends, and grades are the real currency of the academic economy. “Professional students,” the ones who make it their business to excel in college, plan and manage their study according to the requirements of exceptional performance, stressing, “If you’re not at college to kick some academic butt, then you may as well not be in college at all.” They seldom wrestle with motivational issues or self-doubt; they just do it. College valedictorians routinely say they took their performance as a matter of pride, character, and integrity, so that they seldom faced questions about how to get motivated. Pressed on the point, however, college valedictorians typically advise…
Face the cardinal fact of your college life: For the duration of your academic career, college is your job; and that part-time thing you do off-campus is just a hobby with a paycheck. Moreover, if you are enrolled full-time in classes, you ought to devote at least forty-five hours to studying every week. Add ten hours per week according to your university’s prestige; at Harvard and Berkeley, therefore, expect to study between sixty and seventy hours each week. “Turning pro” means setting a schedule according to your daily rhythms and practical obligations; and it means following that schedule as dutifully as you would comply with an employer’s schedule. Esperanza Canez, former valedictorian and now a psychotherapist, says, “The rules don’t change according to your mood. Although it's intensely personal, it's not an emotional thing. The top student in your class is studying whether she likes it or not, and she is challenging herself to ‘own’ the material.”
Manage your time, tools, talent, and tasks.
Make cold-hearted practical decisions about priorities, and balance short-term desires against long-term objectives. For example: You love “Introduction to Human Sexuality,” and you loathe “Advanced Organic Chemistry”; but organic chemistry determines your admission to medical school, and the scientific study of human sexuality serves simply as your spring semester infatuation. You know you must invest the majority of your effort, the best of your talent, and most of your time in perfecting the subtleties of “the oxidation reaction.” Therefore, study “O-chem” early in the day when you are fresh, and use every study tool and mnemonic device known to humankind as you master Nature’s molecular mysteries. You know you will score good grades in “sex class” simply because you are interested and engaged. O-chem requires hard work.
Match the method to the material.
First, develop “reading flexibility”: You do not read a classic work of literature in the same way you read a textbook. Textbooks are designed for your use of the old “SQ3R” study method; use it. Far more importantly, however, treat every study session as preparation and rehearsal for a test. Your professors want to see what you can do with your knowledge. Therefore, structure your study sessions according to the demands of your tests; and, at the end of each study session, test yourself more or less the way your professor will test you in class. Moreover, you must toughen-up: As you check your results, be brave enough to assess your performance honestly. If you really didn’t get it, then you know you must go back and do it again.
Study in two-hour blocks.
Then play. Cognitive psychologists say artificial intelligence mimics the real thing. As you write, compute, or develop code on your computer, if you do not save and back-up your work at least every two hours, you risk of losing everything; the same applies to your brain. If you do not allow your brain sufficient time for processing new information and integrating it with your prior knowledge, you risk confusion or forgetting. You must take a break every two hours, and “break” is a word which here means getting up, moving around, and looking at something other than your desk or your books. In fact, “break” really means “do something you really like. Flirt, watch television, take a long walk. Play!” Psychologists stress, however, you must time your breaks as scrupulously as you time your studies; if you stay away from your work for more than half-an-hour, you probably will have to begin all over again.
Develop a healthy system of incentives and rewards.
In other words, bribe yourself. Allison Newman, Arizona State alumna summa cum laude, confesses, “I rewarded every successful study session with a boyfriend chat, and I rewarded every ‘A’ with a new outfit. Funny thing: the more I missed my boyfriend, or the more I wanted an outfit, the better I did.”
Jennifer Hacker, an instructor at Ashford University, advises, “If you really are struggling with motivation, you must take it as a symptom of a deeper problem. Either you have chosen the wrong class, or you have selected the wrong major, or you are generally exhausted and depressed. No one ever will say that study is ‘fun’, but it should be rewarding in its own way.” Professor hacker routinely advises struggling students to meet with their advisors and work through the obstacles to their success.
Peter Harrington is a career counselor and content contributor for Topcollegesonline, a great source of top online colleges and information on expanding your education — from obtaining a pharmacy degree to how to become a veterinarian.