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Advice from Fellow Undergrads

What do experienced undergrads have to say about succeeding academically at Northwestern? Read on for their reflections on what works, what doesn't, and how to keep improving.

Stephany Valladares

Stephany Valladares

Biology major, class of 2017

Focus on the little things.

Take NU day by day, and break workloads down throughout the week, or else you'll get lost in the shuffle. Also, the number of resources available at Northwestern for the purpose of excelling academically is amazing. Take advantage of them. Last but not least, never, ever, ever doubt yourself or what you're capable of. You are at Northwestern for a reason, and second-guessing will only make you feel insecure and uneasy. You are here, and you can succeed.

Kevin Russell

Kevin Russell

Political Science major, class of 2017

Keep an open mind.

Don’t have any expectations. If you go into something new with an open mind, you will undoubtedly learn something. This applies to classes, meeting new peers, or listening to a new kind of music. I have grown so much as a person since coming to Evanston because I’ve allowed myself to be exposed to things I would not have encountered had I kept a closed mind. With this approach, I can genuinely say I’ve made great friends, and I am a much more knowledgeable person than when I arrived.

Megan Burton

Megan Burton

Biomedical Engineering major, class of 2017

Don't spend all day in the library.

Spending your whole day in the library does not mean you will study better. In fact, you will study more efficiently if you take breaks and join clubs that allow you to de-stress. Of course there will be times when being at the library for hours on end is a necessity because of finals and midterms. But if you set goals for yourself, such as taking notes on three sections of chemistry in one hour, you will more likely be focused and complete your work more efficiently. This will leave you with more time to relax, and help you get your work done with focus and determination − and produce more quality work as well. I didn't think this was true until I tried it out myself, and not only did my grades rise, but I found extra time for myself in the process.

Ayo Olagbegi

Ayo Olagbegi

Communication Sciences & Disorders major, class of 2016

Live out your values.

Take time to reflect on your personal growth. Look at areas in your life that you'd like to improve in, and think of ways that you can help yourself do so. A lot of changes happen during undergrad, and you'll be surprised at how much you grow each year. Looking at the areas in your life that you'd still like to work on, especially non-academic areas, helps you look back and see the person you are becoming — and compare that to the person you would like to become. Think about what you value in others and in yourself, and try your best to live that out. You can't build a successful future without building yourself up first!

Nicholas Ahern

Nicholas Ahern

Class of 2018

Do something totally different.

No matter how much you love your major, clubs, or work, it's really easy to fall into a routine where you just don't feel like your life is going anywhere, even if you're performing well. It's important to take a break and do something totally different every once in a while. Head into Chicago, bake a cake, or attend an event you never would have gone to. Beyond clearing your mind for a bit, exposure to this newness will help you reaffirm why you're doing what you're doing — or even make you reconsider your current path — when you go back to normal life. Being reminded of your goals after not thinking about them is one of the best ways to either motivate yourself all over again or change plans and find a new direction.

Sam Elmi

Sam Elmi

Sociology major, class of 2017

Don't struggle on your own.

The key to finding academic success at Northwestern is taking advantage of all the resources available to you. As a freshman, you may find yourself taking a variety of intro-level classes. One program Northwestern has that I found extremely helpful was AMP. AMP is essentially a class based on your intro class, focusing mostly on what you’re struggling with. If you still find yourself struggling or your class doesn't offer an AMP session, I recommend going to your professor's office hours. They will help you a lot, and many teachers here are reasonable. If they see you working hard, only good things will come. There are tons of resources here at Northwestern; use them.

Alexi Stocker

Alexi Stocker

History and Economics major, class of 2016

Talk to your professors.

Alexi's comments are drawn from his expeirence as an Undergraduate Student Associate with the Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching.

As a Student Associate, I set out to identify the best methods of student assessment (tests, quizzes, homework, etc.) in large courses (meaning courses of 60 or more students). For the project, I spoke with seven faculty members – five from Weinberg, one from the School of Communication, and one from McCormick – about how they design assessments in the large courses they teach. From my interviews, I drew several insights that I believe all undergraduates can use to improve their experiences in large courses, especially in regards to assessment.

First of all, almost all faculty members are glad to meet with undergraduates and discuss what the purpose of their assessments is. This means two things; first, you (the student) can determine what kind of an exam, problem set, or paper you should prepare for. Some assessments are “punitive,” meaning that they’re designed purely to determine who has, or has not, done the reading, the homework, or gone to discussion section. Some are designed to help you learn and develop your own understanding of the material. Even if instructors don’t say it in class, they’ll tell you the purpose of their assessments if you just take the time to visit them during office hours. Understanding the purpose of assessments in your large courses will help you study. Memorizing facts isn’t going to help you prepare for a comprehension test in a history course, but it’s probably going to help you on a biology quiz. Learning the purpose of your assessments helps you determine how to study.

Second, all students really should do homework. Faculty members don’t give out homework, especially something that’s going to be graded, if they don’t think that it’s going to help you learn in some way. Even if you can get away with copying answers from your friend, that doesn’t mean that you should. Homework, practice problems, readings, and all other assignments that might not be worth a whole lot of points, or may not be worth anything at all, are assigned for your benefit. Remember, the same professors and lecturers who are assigning you these practice problems and readings are also writing your exams, your labs, and your paper topics.

The most important insight I gained from this project was this: Ask your professors and lecturers questions. This doesn’t mean asking questions about the material (although you should, if you’re confused); it means asking questions about the assignments you’ve been given. Many faculty members are more than happy to answer these questions; students just don’t often ask.

Xavier Kirkham

Xavier Kirkham

Communication Studies major, class of 2016

Don’t view dropping a class as a defeat.

I thought dropping a class meant that I was admitting defeat. As a freshman, I thought it was the end of the world. I believed that if I persevered, I would make it out just fine. However, that was not always true. Sometimes, yes, you are able to pull through, but sometimes it’s not possible. I learned that dropping a class does not tarnish your ability to succeed whatsoever. Rather, it is you acknowledging that maybe you do not have enough time to dedicate to a certain class. You always have the option of taking the class later, and that is usually beneficial. Dropping a class can help you do better in your other classes and could alleviate some of your stress. Don’t view it as a bad thing, but instead as a way to reduce your overall course load.

Chu Yu

Chu Yu

Economics and Math major, class of 2014

Make connections, help others.

Chu Yu (class of 2014) was a GSW mentor for calculus courses.

Upon entering college, I spent most of my time with other Chinese students who are within my comfort zone. Joining GSW (the Gateway Science Workshop program), and becoming a GSW mentor, though, “forced” me to reach out to experience the diversity of the campus. GSW is a vibrant community with peers who are passionate about learning and teaching. I made a lot of friends through GSW mentor meetings and through my own workshops. One quarter I had a student from Bulgaria. Other than talking about math problems and solutions, we also talked about family values in different cultures, life as international students, and economics problems, etc. in our spare time. In this sense, GSW is definitely more than just a workshop that trains my teaching and communication skills.

As a mentor, not only have I helped dozens of students become more confident and perform better in their calculus classes, but personally, being a GSW mentor also allowed me to build a more solid foundation in math and get to know more people.

GSW allowed me to get to know the faculty members in the Math Department and work on worksheet problems. This enabled me to understand the basic math concepts at a deeper level, which helped me to be better equipped for higher-level math classes. Although I have facilitated Math 230 for many quarters, I still get some new sparkles every time I facilitate a new group of students. The faculty member who worked with us was very patient and made sure we understood each concept completely. His instructions were closely related to the higher-level math classes I was taking, and I felt that I could understood my own lectures better after I reviewed the basic concepts with him in the weekly meetings. In short, mentoring other students with their learning offers a real benefit for the mentor, too!

Liliana Bonilla

Liliana Bonilla

Psychology major, class of 2015

Be supportive.

Be supportive of your peers! There tends to be a highly competitive atmosphere on campus when it comes to grades, professional life, and student groups. Empower and uplift one another! Everyone will have their time to shine at some point, so it's important to be there when your peers have theirs (or don't), and to constantly encourage each other to do your best.

Dan Lesser

Dan Lesser

Economics major, class of 2016

Don't overdo it.

Like nearly everything in life, balance at Northwestern is key. Overdoing anything, including studying and academic preparation, is harmful. College is a time to experience all sorts of things, but if you want to enjoy any of the things you're sampling, be judicious in choosing what to sample. My second piece of advice would be to strive towards open-mindedness. College is not meant to be a simple extension of high school. It's meant to expand your interests, beliefs, and horizons. To capitalize on the opportunity, you must be open to trying new things − even things you previously thought you would never try. My last piece of advice is to do things well ahead of time. Unforeseeable events pop up, and to handle them properly you have to expect these unforeseeable events. You may have been able to do things last-minute in high school, but that work style won't transfer well to college.

Melina Yeh

Melina Yeh

English Literature major, class of 2015

Stop comparing yourself.

Stop comparing yourself to others and believing that life is a competition. You end up fighting and hurting yourself more than succeeding. Focus on your own goals and your own strengths rather than peeking over at someone else's grades to see if you did better or worse than they did. This way, you can organize yourself and set a study schedule for yourself without the pressure of needing to "beat" someone. Challenge yourself to make your own rules.