Wednesday, August 21, 2013

How To Get Into An Animal Behavior Graduate Program: Getting Good Grades

There's a strategy to doing well
in college courses. Image by
I showed up to my first year of college wide-eyed and ready to take life by the horns. It was the first time I had lived away from my parents’ rules and I was surrounded by an exciting new world of dorms, Outdoor Clubs, new friends and parties… Oh, the parties. Needless to say, I was distracted. And by the end of my freshman year, my grades showed it. If I was going to get into a graduate program after I graduated (which was already my goal), I was going to have to turn things around.

Getting good grades in a rigorous college course requires more finely-tuned study skills than getting good grades in a high school class. Simply showing up to classes and skimming through your notes the night before the exam may have gotten an “A” in high school, but it’s barely enough for a “C” in college. Unfortunately, many of us get into college (and sometimes a few years in) without having learned these critically important study skills that in the end will make you less stressed, more prepared, and more impressive. Here is some advice on how you can get the most out of your college classes and get good grades while doing it (That is, after all, why you’re paying all that college tuition, right?).

There are two essentials to getting good grades in college courses, and no, being a talented genius is not one of them. They are simply to be organized and put in the time.

If you haven’t gotten one yet, go and get yourself an academic planner (at any bookstore or office supply store). There are many different types, but my preference is for a monthly/weekly planner, which has monthly calendars followed by sections for daily notes. Once you get your planner, fill each week out with your scheduled obligations: class times, work schedule, club meetings, etc. Don’t forget to include workouts, meals and sleep (which can be as important to your grades as studying).

An organized planner is your secret weapon to achieving your goals.
Photo by electrictuesday at flickr.
Once your “fixed” schedule is written in the planner, you should be able to see blocks of time that are still available (if you don’t, you should consider cutting back on work hours, cutting back on the number of clubs you’re participating in, or dropping a class). These are the blocks of time where the real course work happens. For each course, calculate roughly how much weekly study time you should be putting in. Each college and course is a little different, but a general rule is that you should expect to put in 3 hours of time per week for each college credit. That means that for a 4 credit class, you should put in 12 hours per week. It may seem like a lot, but full-time students generally take 12-14 credits in a semester, which would translate to 36-42 hours per week, which is roughly equivalent to a full-time work week for any job. Subtract the time you spend in classes and labs (yes, that counts) from the total time you should spend on a class per week to get the amount of time you should schedule to study for that class. Now, find blocks of time to schedule your studying time for each course. You can make those blocks as long or short as you like, depending on your studying stamina. Just make sure that the total for each course adds up and doesn’t include time spent on Facebook or watching ridiculous YouTube videos.

Now the question is, what should you do with your studying time? Most professors give required or recommended readings to accompany their lectures. It is a good idea to read these before the lecture they are paired with. This will allow your brain to process the topic and the concepts and will often generate questions. Don’t expect to memorize or even understand every word, but do jot down the parts that you find confusing or have questions about.

In class, take notes. Even if the professor gives you handouts or printouts of slides, it is important for you to write down terms, diagrams and concepts. This is because the physical act of writing these down will help you remember them (Remember in elementary school when the teacher would make you write down vocabulary words over and over?) Also, now is the time to ask about the parts that you found confusing in the reading.

After you have been exposed to the material is when the learning really takes place. This is the integration phase. Using your notes from class, your readings and any materials your professor may have given you, reorganize and rewrite your notes in a format that makes sense to you. You may want to do this as an outline, a set of flash cards, or in diagrams. The most important thing is that it makes sense to you and includes everything the professor says you need to know. As you run into concepts you discover you don’t fully understand, look them up in your assigned readings, in other books or on the internet (But go to credible sites only – There’s a lot of misinformation on the internet). If you still need clarification, ask your professor.

A good way to test your understanding is with a study group. Going through the concepts with friends can help you find out if there are still details you don’t understand. And if there are details a friend doesn’t understand, nothing will help you understand the material better than teaching it to someone else.

By the time the exam comes around, you will have read the material, been lectured to about the material, studied the material and taught the material. You should know it pretty well. Now you just need to look over your notes one last time and maybe test yourself on some memorization or practice questions, but you don’t need to have a major pre-exam cramming session. Just eat well, work out and get 8 hours of sleep.

If this is all new to you and you have some semesters of grades you are not so proud of behind you, don’t think the graduate school doors have closed on you. There are two stages in the application process when grades are important. Your application is first examined to see if you meet the program’s basic requirements. At this point, you must have met their minimum GPA (and perhaps minimum GPA for science and math classes by themselves). If your current GPA does not meet this minimum (which is generally announced on their web page) you need to take more courses to get that GPA up before it will even be worth your time and money to apply.

If your application passes the first round of cuts, it will typically be given to the professors/researchers you would like to work with. They will usually assess what courses you have taken and how well you did in them. They are often looking either for consistently high grades or a strong pattern of improvement. This means that if you have some less-than-desirable grades in your past, they could be tolerated if your grades dramatically improve and remain high. If you apply these study skills to your courses from here on out, you could make yourself a major contender for one of those prized slots for incoming graduate students. Whether you’ve been distracted by the social aspects of college like I was or you’ve just realized that you want to pursue a graduate degree in a subject that has caught your imagination, these study tips will help you get there.

Good luck!

Did I miss your favorite study tip? Write it in the comment section below! And for more advice on applying to graduate programs, go here.

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