Tutor Mike’s College Advice, Part 1: Study Routines

Hello everyone. It’s been a while—my final semester here at the University of Arizona ended up being unexpectedly difficult (albeit rewarding). I plan to write a lot over summer and slowly release material, month by month. I imagine graduate school won’t afford me much free time, so we’ll see what I can do over breaks.

But right now, as I reflect on the last four years, I thought I might share some academic advice for incoming college students. I originally wanted to put all of it in a single post…but I’d rather make shorter posts that you guys actually read, so this will be a series. And no, I won’t wait months between posting them. Not yet, anyways.

Every student is different, but the advice I’ll share over the next few weeks isn’t just from me and is consequently worth consideration: it’s been collected from professors, other undergraduates, graduate students, and just all-around smart people. An advice scrapbook, if you will. And while this advice is naturally STEM-focused, most of it translates nicely to other fields of study.

There will be one unifying theme: education is a marathon, not a sprint. Success in college is most attainable when you:

  • Have regular and focused study routines
  • Make understanding the goal, not grades
  • Seize opportunities and make connections
  • Take care of yourself, physically and mentally

Enough introduction: let’s talk about study routines.

Study routine: regular and focused

Some of you I’m sure cruised through high school. If you attended class, that was sufficient for the grade. To those of you who had to work for grades in high school—you’re actually the ones with the advantage starting college. The diligent study routines you developed in high school are invaluable, and the transition to the hands-off style of college will be much smoother (even though your courses will almost certainly get harder). Good job. Now to the cruisers: college is a different game. In many (not all) of the courses you take, lecture is far from sufficient for you to really get the material. The burden of learning switches from the lecturer to you—now, for real long-term learning, you have to do more homework and outside reading. It’s more freedom, but more responsibility, and it’s important that you handle it well.*

Now—what does that actually look like? There’s two main components to a successful study routine: it must be regular and focused.

  • Regular
    • By regular, I mean that you literally write down on your daily schedule time for each class and stick to it. Break these times into two components—homework and understanding.
    • Homework is for assigned work. This means day-to-day work and long-term projects. Work happens on longer timescales in college, often with less reminders.
      • Read the syllabus! Some professors will sneak stuff up on you, especially major tests.
    • Understanding is for everything else, ranging from re-reading notes to extra homework for comprehension. I recommend starting with something on the order of a half-hour a day per course. You’ll almost surely have to adjust that number to make it smaller or larger depending on the course (my C programming course required no time, while abstract algebra required around an hour or two a day). You should have a good feel for it within about 3 weeks of the course (or 2 if your professor doesn’t have a fluffy syllabus week).
  • Focused
    • The zone: The zone is where everything gets done. You’re present, thinking carefully and absorbing insight from a barrage of problems, asking important questions about the concepts and their relations. 5-10 minute study breaks every hour for bathroom, snacks, and a quick browse for memes. The zone is a beautiful thing.
      • The zone usually requires a quiet space (or decent headphones, trust me, they’re worth it) where you won’t bump into people you know, disconnection from your phone and closed entertainment tabs, and sufficient healthy snacks and beverages (refillable drip coffee and water for the win). The zone is different for everyone, but these three seem to be pretty standard. Without the first two, the zone is only theoretically possible. The third primarily serves for making zone access more consistent and longer.
    • The in-between: The zone is an ideal, and reaching the zone consistently is extremely difficult. It’s just going to happen—the material is dull, your roommates are terrible at Fortnite and can’t stop yelling, your mind just isn’t working…it’s all natural, and in fact common. The best you can do is try to set up the zone and trudge ahead. Ideally, do the mentally intensive work first, then switch to more brainless assignments towards the end.
      • The biggest danger here is connection to the outside world. I’ve had study sessions where I just spent 5 minutes/hour working and the remainder texting my roommate videos of hawks attacking small animals. I’ve also had study sessions where I did nothing but read Phineas and Ferb lore. While clearly of great importance, distractions like these are huge time hogs, and you should take any course of action that leads you away from them.
    • The terrible: Sometimes, you’ll just be useless. Barring major life events, it’s due usually to freak chance or sheer exhaustion. It’s on these occasions that I recommend taking an L and putting it aside—trust me, it’s worth it. Just make sure it’s rare, because if this happens with any regularity, you need to assess the source, be it diet, sleep, attitude, or mental health.

One final word: make sure you take breaks! Mental lifting is absolutely exhausting—for me, 3 hours of focused mental work is more draining than 8 hours of average workday. Every hour, take a 5-10 minute break, and after multiple cumulative hours, take longer breaks, ideally with hobbies, exercise, or friends. Without breaks, you eventually become useless and churn out garbage.

Small study groups: 2, 3, 4, but no more

Last year, a few friends invited me to the library to “study” for an impending circuit theory test. When I arrived, I found a herd of 8 people gossiping and complaining about the amount of effort demanded by the course. In the 45 minutes I was present, I saw a cumulative 5 minutes of effort expended on the problem set—suddenly it was clear to me why everyone in the course seemed lost and constantly behind on work.

In stark contrast to the small town of gossips, my real analysis study group of three yielded some of the best results in my college career. We would first independently sketch solutions for every problem, choose a couple difficult ones to fully work on our own, then convene to look at and critique each others’ work. In addition to checking our own work, we also got to see different insights to many of the problems, adding to our arsenals for tests and solidifying the material. While I did most of my college studying on my own, this approach worked marvelously for myself and others, and I highly recommend it. Just make sure you aren’t resting on your groupmates for understanding…actually, let’s save that for next time.

Next week, I’ll talk about why we want to make understanding, not grades, the focus of our efforts. And yes, I mean next week.

Food: Our family finally made it out to Italy! Pictured moments before topping with caramelized onion and red peppers, this is a simple dish driven by delicious ingredients: underneath that garlic oil-drizzled arugula lies the tastiest sun dried tomato, salami, and parmesan I’ve ever had. So if you find yourself in Florence, hit up the Mercato Centrale and grab some. Those guys know their cured meats and cheese. Photo credit to my wonderful sister Madison.


*You will see other students who, against all odds, continue to cruise throughout college. Sometimes it’s because they grew up interested in their major and learned much of the concepts earlier. Sometimes it’s because they are good at giving the impression of cruising. And sometimes, it’s just because they naturally get that subject. Whatever the reason, know this: it is an utter waste of time and emotional energy comparing yourself to your peers if your intent is to “rank” yourself. It will drain you, destroy your confidence, hurt your relationships, and impede your growth. Instead, look for beauty within the subject and compare yourself to your past self to measure growth. This tip is really more life advice than academic. And yes, this one is from my personal experience.

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