A senior’s guide on the college hacks you can take to achieve more with less stress. Published on 2014.
Due to my previous feature on InternSG, I regularly receive emails and messages on my Facebook asking about university-related advice such as what modules to take and questions about applying for internships.
To answer several common questions I receive, I came up with this small guide on how to hack college and make your four years in university an easier one.
This is written entirely from my own perspective and experiences. I am sure that not everyone will agree with all of my practices and advice. This is because some of you may be taking courses which are very different from me or we may have different objectives we would like to achieve from entering university.
I understand that perhaps everyone has a different purpose of pursuing a university education and perhaps my objectives and yours may not be aligned.
Before entering college, I did my homework and research on what would be important. I learnt that for the fields I wanted to enter, grades weren’t super important. For many career paths, others factors mattered more like CV, connections and personal branding.
After knowing how things worked, I set my goals. My goals in college were basically to have a very strong portfolio/CV where I could specialize on a few fronts, sustain a romantic relationship and to do reasonably well in my studies. I also wanted as much free time as possible to blog; travel and do community work.
Once I got my objectives laid out, I devised my strategy accordingly to achieve what I wanted.
Here are some tips I have on how you can achieve more with less stress at university:
1) Plan the courses you take strategically
Hence, when I saw that my institution offered an interdisciplinary major and I chose it because…
A. If you are taking a general degree, your major doesn’t really matter as much as you think
B. It would help me get a better GPA easily. To acquire an interdisciplinary major, I had to take 8 prescribed electives (major electives) but the school did not specify how many lower or upper-level modules I should take or how many easy and hard modules I should take. I had the freedom to design my own curriculum.
I did my research and realized that nobody really cares about your college transcript during a job interview. An overall GPA is more important compared to the courses you took.
So, I just took all the lower level modules and cleared higher level modules during my exchange in Switzerland.
As I had cleared all my major/prescribed electives by Year 2, I had a lot more freedom and autonomy to pick modules in Year 3 and 4.
An “Easy” module is really subjective and depends on your strengths and weakness. Thus, I recommend when choosing your other modules, know your comparative advantages and strengths.
Personally, I have an inclination towards humanities due to my good memory and being able to understand concepts quickly. So, I chose humanities courses for all my unrestricted electives.
Also, it is good to know which methods of assessment you perform the best in. Is it projects? Term papers? During your first two weeks, you’d receive a syllabus of the course. If the mode of assessment is not aligned with your strengths, you may wish to choose another course which you can excel with lesser effort.
2) Try to go for academic exchange
If circumstances allow, try to go for academic exchange because you can freeze your GPA during that semester and also see the world.
The prestige of the institution you attend doesn’t really matter. What is most important is that you can clear HARD courses.
The definition of a hard course differs from people to people. For me, tough courses are WKWSCI modules because the people in my school are rather competitive and would often go the extra mile for each course they take.
The courses offered are also generally rather time consuming and project intensive. As such, I specially chose an institution which was communications-based and cleared FIVE prescribed electives in Switzerland in Year 2.
3) Don’t be afraid to ask for favours
A lot of Singaporeans fear failure and rejection but my advice is, don’t be afraid to ask for favours. I achieved a few things because I was willing to ask.
When a tutorial I wanted was full, I would register myself in name for another but ask for permission if I could turn up for the one which had a more suitable timing for me.
When the public policy faculty started their new major “Public Policy and Global Affairs”, the minor name remained unchanged. I wrote into the dean to ask if he could and explained the ways the name change will be advantageous to both the school and students. It was approved and now I have a more marketable sounding minor than “Minor in Public Administration”
I realized that American universities would allow students to claim extra credit for internships. So I asked the school if I could do so. I knew that those who were up there within my faculty were either educated in USA or from the USA so they would be very familiar with this and accepting towards this new idea. As a result, I managed to clear 8 UE from my summer internships in Year 1 and Year 2. This did not count towards my S/U and enabled me to freeze my GPA and build up my portfolio at the same time.
Bottom line is: don’t be afraid to ask, at most you would get a “No” and life goes on!
4) Build a good relationship with your professors, based on sincerity and curiosity.
Strive to build a win-win and mutually-beneficial relationship with your Professors. It has to be two way whereby two people give to each other in terms of skill transfer, knowledge exchange, help, and basically, the more you add value to the connection, the better.
One very useful thing to do before making a connection is to firstly find out information about them. Before I take each course, I will read up on the background of each professor and make an effort to know them on a personal level. I will tell them about myself and what I am doing based on their interest and try to strike a common ground.
Aside from recommendations and references, this type of friendship can be very rewarding in terms of broadening one’s mind. Most professors are not Singaporean so knowing about the country they come from helps and is a very good starting topic as many people usually miss home.
Establishing a common ground really helps. This semester, I wanted to get into a course to ensure I only have a one day week- Wednesday. There was a long waitlist of students and I felt that I may not end up with the course after all. As such, I went to ask the school admin who the professor was and wrote him a heart-felt email explaining why I wanted to take his course.
From my Google searches, I saw from his profile that he was passionate about China and language policies which were in line with my personal beliefs and interests. I sent him a video of my speech in Hokkien on the dialects policy in Singapore and some articles I had written. Within an hour, I got the course I wanted.
I reciprocated by teaching him how to reduce his powerpoint slide file size.
5) Be nice and sincere to your school admin
Say thank you for things, praise them for efficiency, be grateful and smile. Try to build a relationship- let them know your name.
In any organization, everybody counts and can look out for you. Administrative staff who work for your faculty can be useful when you need to do things like broadcast messages via email or social media.
By making yourself known and developing a good relationship, you’d also be given opportunities to speak or be featured in publications. all of these helps in your personal branding.
6) Find the most efficient way to complete assgnments
To me, group projects are a pain because they can sometimes be very ridiculous like seven people writing an essay and many are very time consuming and inefficient.
From my experience, division of labour always works best. For instance, if five people need to do a report, instead of meeting to write it together, everybody can do one part and the best writer in the group (usually English lit or journalism student) will edit the whole thing to make things flow.
Another tip about assignments is that you must know how much effort to put in and learn to tell in situations whereby more efforts do not lead to a significant increase in reward.
In university, not every assignment requires your 100 percent effort. For instance, in some course, they set 10 percent as weekly commenting or sharing of views on Edventure (our blackboard portal).
For this type of low weight-age, labour-intensive reports, all you have to make sure if that you are on time and write something reasonably logical. Usually I like to agree with someone else in the thread and just rephrase their ideas and add a bit of my own. You need to know that even if you put in your best every week, it is just ten percent in the end and you are going to get the mark as long as you don’t write something too out of point.
7) If possible, avoid double majors
If your objective is to just get the degree and not pursuing your interest, I advise against double majors because they require a lot of work and have very little returns on investment. Sometimes you might even have to delay graduation or overload each semester just for a double major.
A lot of students have this misguided formula for being impressive: Difficult Course/Activity Load ==> Impressiveness ==> Interesting Job and Grad School Opportunities ==> Enjoyable Life
However, the truth is people are more impressed by your ability to be a star at something than they are by your ability to juggle lots of hard things. Ability rules. No one cares about your diligence. Everyone is hardworking in Singapore. It is nothing special and a basic requirement.
In my personal view, taking a double major comes at an immense opportunity cost. You can use this time to write a book, start a business, launch a project, do a part time internship at a good firm etc and all these will be more impressive than a student with double majors.
Of course, this differs from school to school and I know that in other institutions, doing double major doesn’t really require any additional workload.
8) Don’t take too many CCAs
If you are passionate about what you are doing and looking to receive intrinsic rewards, then go ahead and have multiple CCAs.
However, if you just want to build your portfolio, then perhaps school CCAs are not the best way.
Many undergraduates are still having the JC mentality that taking more than one CCA is good for them in university. They take up multiple roles in hall, help organize events within their school etc.
The point of extracurriculars are to DIFFERENTIATE yourself from the competition. However, The truth is school-based extra-curriculars do not really differentiate you much. Every club has a business manager, a vice president and a sports secretary. For instance, if the school has 50 clubs, there will be 50 people with the same post as you. Since Singapore has six universities (including private), there will be 300 people with the same position as you in a mini school club. Besides, school-based extra-curriculars are very very time consuming and you will have little control over your time. Events are often held every year, it is nothing special to put on CV.
I would advise students to tap on the opportunities available outside school with real world organizations or start your own projects.
Ending off, I think one of the most important things to know about not just college but also life in general is that you cannot expect things to be the way you think they should be.
Instead, before you enter any sector, learn the rules (both written and unwritten), so you would know how to navigate around them. Some of the rules are written in black and white. However, there is also a lot of grey areas and loopholes. These are the platforms which you can use to achieve your objectives.
Another very important skill to have is adaptability and flexibility. You need to learn to unlearn and relearn. Know that the world is never fair. Hardwork never leads to success directly and there are tons of other factors involved. Good grades and CCA would get you a scholarship in JC but not the best job after college. Just keep being FLEXIBLE, and willing to challenge existing assumptions you have.
Most importantly, you need to realize that in your life, time is a very very scarce resource. Once you use it on something, you cannot earn it back.
So, be very careful with what you spend your time on and in anything, learn to ensure that you can reap the maximum rewards with the least possible time.