Hacking Your First Semester


Article by Dale Stephens

Founder of UnCollege.org I dropped out of school when I was 12 years old, and it changed my life. Had I stayed in school, I would not be where I am today. At the time, dropping out was a temporary thing — I planned to go back when it was time to go to college. So, I did everything I needed to do to get into a “good school” and, in the process, became an expert in how to learn. Getting straight As feels good, but here’s a dirty little secret: showing up for hour-long lectures and taking tests is not how your brain learns most effectively. We’ve known for a while (at least 60 years) that in order to learn, your brain needs to be actively engaged — this is the basic reason that teachers encourage you to take notes, for example. However, it’s much easier and faster to learn when you engage beyond just taking notes — in an ideal world, every student should be defining their own problems and solving them. This is called constructivist learning. College is a great environment for some people, and if you go to college, you need to ensure that you’re making the most of your time because it’s an expensive investment. Student loan debt is staggering: as a nation we owe well over a trillion dollars. The average college student finishes their degree with $29,400 in loans to repay. The unemployment statistics are depressing: just over half of recent college graduates are underemployed or unemployed. Nevertheless, the pressure to go to college is strong. If you make the right choice of where to attend, the considerable investment can even pay off given enough time. To make the most of your investment, here are nine ways to hack your first semester of college:
  1. Be engaged.

    The brain learns when you’re actively engaged in what you’re learning. As you’re reading a book or listening to a lecture, you should constantly ask yourself “How does what I’m learning apply to me?” The brain records information when your neurons fuse — quite literally, as you make connections between ideas, the neurons in your brain literally fire and wire together, creating physical pathways of information. The more of these you create, the more you’ll recall in the future.
  2. Don’t be stupid.

    Some argue that doing stupid things is one of the best things about college. I’m all for stupidity, but in moderation. Sleep and exercise have been proven to be two of the biggest factors in learning. Throw in healthy eating and you’ve got the tripod of setting yourself up for success. Sleep is when we incorporate our short term memory, which is really important when you’re trying to learn — so staying up till 4 every night is probably a bad choice. The same is true with eating — late night burritos are amazing, and please enjoy them, just don’t be stupid all the time. Your college will have a workout facility, use it. Exercise helps to improve our brain cognition, lowers stress, and increases endorphins.
  3. Talk to your professors.

    Go to office hours. Speak up in class. Get to know them. They are here to help teach you. When it comes to internships, opportunities, or recommendations, you will need them for it helps if they know your name. Nothing bad will come from developing a relationship with your professors.
  4. Use the Resources Available to You

    You can insert your favorite cliché here about seizing opportunity. Colleges have so many resources designed to help their students and yet a small fraction of students use them. Go to everything! Stop by your career center, counseling center, and student life center. Show up to events and join organizations. If you join a gym and never go, you won’t get fit. The same applies to college—if you pay tuition but don’t show up, you’ll never learn.
  5. Take Breaks

    We’ve known for more than 100 years that the brain learns more when you take breaks. It’s one of the oldest findings in psychology, and it’s true across disciplines and cultures. The basic finding is this: if you take a 5 minute break between two 15 minute study sessions instead of studying for 30 minutes straight, you’ll recall double the information the next day. Next time you’re in the library cramming for a test, take a little break every 15 minutes – you’ll recall more.
  6. Find an accountability buddy

    It’s easy to convince yourself that you don’t want to do things that are uncomfortable or hard. We are amazing at justifying, rationalizing, excusing, or just plain old talking ourselves out of doing things. Having an accountability buddy increases your likelihood of doing something significantly. Find someone you trust and keep each other accountable and choose a time to meet every week to go over your goals. Together you’ll help push each other to improve and grow.
  7. Build your social capital

    There will probably never be another time in your life where you are surrounded by so many people your age. Take advantage of this. Meet people. Say Hi. Smile at people. Join teams. Go to events. These are the same people who will get you jobs, make introductions, and seal business deals in ten years – make friends with them now.
  8. Develop a routine of reflection

    College goes by fast, and life goes by faster. You will be able to retain more and better track your progress if you document it. That doesn’t mean you need to make spreadsheet and log how you feel every day. Try taking 5 minutes each day to think and write about what you learned. Reflecting on what you learned will help you retain information and meet your goals more quickly.
We support all forms of learning, and if you’re going to take the time and spend the money to go to college, please make the most of your experience. You’re young, and despite the feeling that you have too many choices to make, you have to start somewhere. You’ll make mistakes, and that’s part of the journey.
About the Author
Dale Stephens is the founder of UnCollege.org and the author of Hacking Your Education (Penguin 2013). For his work in education he has been recognized as Thiel Fellow and Forbes 30 Under 30. This Fall, UnCollege launched an initiative to pay back student loans of first-semester freshman who choose to pursue a self-directed path.

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