Succeeding in School: Advice from a Teacher
Get involved in extracurricular activities, but remember they are extra. Your grades, health, and religion come first, but what you do as extracurricular activities can make a huge difference in your life. The robotics club or volunteer work at the battered women’s shelter gives you connections and experience you can’t get in the classroom.
The following is a countdown of five pieces of advice for students in high school and university, although some apply to people of all ages. Some of these are particularly applicable as we approach the end of a school year for many students reading Islamic Insights.
5. Talk to each of your teachers/professors/TAs during their office hours at least once a quarter, and more often if you have questions or problems. Don’t be intimidated or worried about how they will judge you, no matter how basic you think your questions are. A small step toward building that relationship and making yourself a little more memorable than other students can make a huge difference when it comes to needing the benefit of the doubt, needing letters of recommendation, or any number of other things you might need from them some day.
4. Get involved in extracurricular activities, but remember they are extra. Your grades, health, and religion come first, but what you do as extracurricular activities can make a huge difference in your life. The robotics club or volunteer work at the battered women’s shelter gives you connections and experience you can’t get in the classroom. You will enjoy yourself more, you will get a head start in what might be your future career or passion, you will learn about and develop yourself more, and you will be more likely to earn scholarships and awards as well. You will also be able to make a difference in others’ lives through certain activities now, instead of always waiting until you’re an adult to do something that matters. If you want make a difference as an adult, those skills and habits start now. If you keep waiting, you may very well still be waiting when you’re forty. Extracurricular activities are also where you build the most lasting relationships and the dearest memories with colleagues and mentors. Ask ten people over the age of thirty what they remember most fondly about college or high school, and chances are that all of them will choose to talk about an extracurricular activity or a relationship developed through an extracurricular activity.
3. There is no scholarship/award application you might be eligible for that isn’t worth your time. Even those going straight to work after high school are likely to be entering fields in which there are awards available. In the grand scheme of life, few will really care that you won any particular award, including yourself, but at this particular time in life, those scholarships and awards can be keys to opportunity. Many students choose not to apply, because they think the competition will beat them out, the application takes too much time, or the scholarship doesn’t pay enough money. To the first point, I serve on some scholarship committees, and the sad truth is that many great scholarships receive few applicants. As for the second, if you win that scholarship and work out your pay in dollars per hour of time you put in to apply, it will be in hundreds if not thousands of dollars – probably the best pay you will ever make! Even if you put all the time for applying for all the awards you don’t get into the mix, it will still make economic sense. And to the third point, small awards add up, and every little bit is that much less you or your family has to pay.
But take extreme care to avoid grammatical, spelling, and punctuation errors in all your paperwork. Get someone else who knows grammar, spelling and punctuation rules well to proof-read, then get a third person, and even a fourth. Write a good essay that has a strong thesis, good support, shows your interest and personality, and answers the question asked. And type it; don’t write by hand unless specifically requested. By the way, if it is specifically requested that you write something by hand, you can expect that your handwriting is being analyzed, so you might want to Google graphology and analyze your writing yourself first. If your writing bears a trait that suggests something particularly negative, you might want to change your writing style. Psychology studies suggest that even if you really do have that negative trait, changing the handwriting trait associated with it can help you change your ways. Similarly, if you desire a particular positive trait, adopting handwriting habits that are associated with that trait can help you build that character trait in your personality.
If an interview is involved, show up on time, dressed well. The most common mistakes young men make in dressing for interviews is showing up in tennis shoes, wearing a suit coat that they’ll roast in during the interview, or wearing wrinkled or ill-fitting clothes. Young women tend to either dress too casually, wear heels they can’t walk in, or wear clothing that is slightly immodest.
The second interview tip is to show up prepared. Being prepared means you have done research about the organization and know who they are, what they are about, and what they are interested in and show that during the interview at appropriate times; you bring with you several copies of transcripts, resumes, letters of recommendations, and work portfolios; and you ask them a few questions that show insight and interest and aren’t just about salary, scholarship amount, or something similar. I’ve been on interview committees, and being highly prepared for the interview is the number one thing that can do to get the award or job aside from your basic qualifications.
2. Do not skip class and do not be tardy. Ever! No matter how easy the class is, or how boring, or how early, or how far it is from your last class, there is rarely any excuse for you not to be there. It WILL hurt your grade, your learning, and your reputation with teachers and professors. And being there is usually much easier than trying to make up later for missing class, both for you and your teachers. While most teachers want you to succeed, some will resent being asked to give you special one-on-one time or repeat something in class to help you catch up from skipping or being tardy. Why should they have to make special accommodations for your irresponsibility?
And when you’re in class, BE there. Your cell phone, your other classes, and your plans with your friends for later can wait. Few things affect learning or reputation with teachers more than creating distraction or failing to pay attention and participate in class. Apply this same principle to everything you do in life – your job, your social engagements, your appointments, your family time. Be there, be on time, and be engaged when you are there. You will be more successful, and people will appreciate your engagement and promptness as a sign of interest, respect, and good manners. Too many people are going through life never fully present or engaged with the moment and the people, instead always distracted by something. This not only hurts relationships and shows disrespect, it prevents true enjoyment and learning as well.
1. Be in school to learn. And if you’re not in school, create some way to learn anyway. Find something to be curious and inspired about in every class. You’ll enjoy it more and get a lot more out of it! The grade is an artifact, but the real goal of education, and perhaps life itself, is learning. Grades and learning are associated with each other, but a grade in truth is not necessarily a proof of learning. The true proof of learning is being able to actually explain, apply, and use the content in some future context, and that matters more than a letter.
Believe your teachers when they say that the things they teach might be important to your future – they’re not lying to you. Granted, maybe some of you will not need to remember how to simplify radicals when you are 50 years old. But there are at least two benefits to learning just about anything:
A. If you learn it, you will keep open doors to different possible futures that might need that skill or knowledge. If you don’t learn it, you start shutting doors of possible futures for yourself. Shutting one door while you are young shuts countless other doors as you age that all depend on that first step. For example, deciding to drop biology class in 10th grade shuts the door to chemistry in 11th grade, since biology is a prerequisite at your school. And then later, the doors for becoming a nurse, doctor, EMT, fire fighter, fishery manager, chemical engineer, high school home economics teacher, or preschool childcare provider may all be closed to you (or you may have to take a more circuitous, inconvenient, and expensive route) when you find out they all require biology and/or chemistry. At your young age, you really cannot properly judge what you might want or need to know in your future – it is too early to cut things out unnecessarily. There isn’t time to do everything, but do as much as you can. The opportunities you have in terms of time and money for learning now will never come your way again.
B. Learning different kinds of things trains your brain and gives you skills and experience that can be applied in ways you have no way of anticipating now. For example, learning computer programming can help you make basic life decisions in your future about everything from cooking to relationships to managing a business – the knowledge, critical thinking, and problem solving skills you develop will help you even if you never write another computer program. Also, medical research is showing that learning as much as you can throughout your life may keep you healthier and more capable in your declining years.
If those two reasons aren’t enough, then also consider the extreme importance the Prophet and his Household (peace be upon them) placed on seeking knowledge – don’t forget religious knowledge and knowledge of self, which may be more important than all other knowledge. I’ve never met anyone who regretted gaining knowledge or skill, but I’ve met plenty who regretted not learning something. So whatever reason works for you, find passion for knowledge and engagement in learning, and nurture them.