I tried to brace myself, but it didn’t do much good.
At first college seemed almost like an intensive summer camp. Within a week, however, the focus shifted from get-to-know-you activities and scavenger hunts to problem sets that took hours and 50 page readings. More than the amount of work, what really took getting used to was figuring out where and when to do the work, for how long, and how much depth and understanding was really necessary.
Unlike high school, college professors don’t necessarily remind you about upcoming assignments. There are fewer things to turn in, and in some classes you have no idea how you’re doing until you get your midterm exam back. With no set schedule for each school day and less transportation, you have much more freedom in terms of deciding when to do your work. This makes procrastination easier than ever, and due dates have a way of sneaking up from two weeks in the future to tomorrow.
Sometimes the sheer amount of work is overwhelming. The week feels like a whirlwind, and I’ve felt like I don’t have the time to ever process and really understand what I’m learning. It’s easy to get confused, get behind, and feel like you’re just barely treading water in one or more of your classes. This is where I will repeat a piece of clichéd but important advice: ask for help before you need it. It will be easier to learn from your mistakes if you ask about something confusing as soon as you realize you don’t understand it.
After going to Reed’s academic support center about three days a week, getting tutoring, and studying ten days in advance, I still failed my first test. I realized that taking detailed notes and doing all the assignments wasn’t enough. The depth of knowledge and speed of recall I needed for tests would require a lot more preparation than I first expected.
Disappointed and hungry for advice on how to do better next time, I visited my professor during her office hours and asked for some tips and extra resources. I had never imagined I would do such a thing, but my new strategy involves creating extra homework for myself: extra practice problems, extra review, extra notes. Hopefully the next test will go more smoothly.
Besides office hours, something I’ve come to realize is that colleges really go out of their way to set up support systems and student resources. Find a tutor, create a study group with your classmates, sign up for any workshops or talks and get involved with your learning outside of class. Take advantage of all the resources available to you, and if you can’t find one related to what you’re struggling with, ask professors or older students for guidance. Sometimes resources and help aren’t obvious or easy to find, especially in the labyrinthine tangles that are large public university websites.
At Reed, there are students you hardly ever see. They are the people whose academic work is the top priority, and the problem is that at this school, you could spend every waking hour doing homework and still always have plenty more to do. There is a point where you have to decide how much is enough for you, and stop.
One of the first critiques I heard an older student make of Reed was about “stress culture,” where people brag about how much work they have, how little sleep they get, and compare stress levels with their peers constantly. I recognized this phenomenon from high school, but being on campus alongside students who are all extremely smart, able to understand equations at a glance or write brilliant essays without doing the reading, it was hard not to feel inadequate or just plain dumb in comparison.
At Reed, academics are sometimes terrifyingly hard. I feel under-prepared and incompetent a lot of the time. Somehow, though, I’ve found I really like it. Taking the time to get engaged and talking about the material helps a lot, even in classes that aren’t my cup of tea. They say you’ll get whatever you put into an experience out of it. I came here for a challenge, and boy did I get what I asked for.