3 Tips for Starting Your Semester Off Right

At the start of a new semester (or new school year), we all have every intention of being the best student we can possibly be. We buy our textbooks and tell ourselves we’re going to start our reading early; we make sure we have folders, highlighter pens, and every note-taking accessory needed; and we even promise ourselves that this is the year we stop procrastinating. Yet, all of those things are easier said than done, especially when the school year hasn’t quite begun. Once our academic, social, and work obligations begin, suddenly, all of those promises we made to ourselves become that much more difficult to keep. That’s why we’re sharing tips for starting your semester off strongly (yes, even during a pandemic), so that you can maintain all of that positive momentum and earn good grades.

Tip #1: Actually read your syllabus.

You know that piece of paper or PDF your professor distributes at the beginning of the semester with all of the due dates, assignments, and class rules? Yeah, that’s your syllabus, and yes, you should definitely read it. In fact, we recommend reading it multiple times. Your syllabus helps you keep track of due dates, but it also helps you understand what your professor’s expectations are to earn that A. Oftentimes, if you have a question about the class, an assignment, or a rule, the syllabus is able to answer it for you. You’ll want to reference your syllabus throughout the semester, so keep it accessible (and safe).

Tip #2: Make sure you are aware of every deadline and due date

Depending on your professor and syllabus, you’ll know when every one of your assignments, exams, and essays will be at the start of the semester. That is some pretty valuable and important information — you can see into the future! And you should use that information wisely. Utilize a digital planner (like your calendar app or a productivity tool) or a good old-fashioned paper planner and start marking down all of those due dates and deadlines.

Just as importantly, you’ll want to also mark down when you have other obligations as well, like your work schedule, club or organization meetings, that weekly call you have with your parents, or even some time for self-care, even if all of these things are virtual for the near-future. This will ensure you know how to manage your time properly amidst all of the things you have to do. You’ll be able to plan when you need to get work done, and also when you need time for recharging.

Tip #3: Get help as soon as you need it – not just before test day

In a perfect world, you’ll be able to understand all of your assignments and the content of upcoming test materials and complete them without any questions or difficulty. Unfortunately, when you’re learning new materials and juggling a full course load (on top of any other extracurriculars), that doesn’t typically happen. This is why you need to utilize the resources you have available to you when something becomes too challenging for you to tackle on your own. Whenever you reach a point in the semester where something just is too confusing or you’re having trouble completing an assignment, ask for help — don’t wait until right before the due date when it could be too late. Asking for help doesn’t mean you’re “giving up” or that you’re a “failure” for needing help; it means you recognize when getting another perspective, or having someone help you review your work can help you overcome any hurdles of understanding.

Make sure you know what resources are available to you at your school’s library, and look into whether your school offers tutors in various subject matter. Many schools have things like math or writing centers whether other students and professors can help answer your questions. Another excellent resource is your professor’s office hours. They dedicate time each week that’s exclusively for helping their students navigate their class and assignments. If you have a TA (teaching assistant) for a class, reach out to them too. All of these resources are there to ensure you aren’t struggling through a class; they can help you feel confident that you can understand class material and tackle assignments. If you do this throughout the semester ahead of your assignments and tests, you’ll be better positioned to earn a good grade at the end.

How to Crush Your Next Group Project

Though it might not always seem this way, homework and class assignments do have a practical purpose outside of your time as a student. Writing essays teach you the importance in formulating an argument. Taking tests reinforce discipline and preparation. Then there’s the oft-dreaded group project.

Group projects elicit divisive responses because of the challenging nature of combining different personalities, different levels of understanding of class material, and different levels of work ethic. Yet, group projects are incredibly important in preparing students for what to expect when they enter the workforce post-graduation. In most job settings, it’s important to know how to work with people different than yourself to get a job done.

Because you’ll inevitably end up with a group project at some point during your college career, we’re sharing some advice for navigating group challenges and securing that A grade.

Designate a leader

In a perfect group project, every group member would agree on all elements of completing the project, do the exact same amount of work, and turn in what they need to the group on time. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen, and with multiple personalities involved, it can be difficult to wrangle the group in terms of figuring out who does what, and coordinating everything needed to complete the project. This is where a group leader comes in.

Ask if anyone in your group would like to take the lead. Being the leader means keeping the group on task, collecting the elements needed for the assignment, and overall being in charge. Being the leader does not mean that one person takes on more work, and it’s important to make that distinction. Select a leader who is organized and conscientious, and who isn’t afraid to call out group members when necessary.

Delegate tasks and roles

Once you’ve determined a leader, now you have to determine everyone roles and contributions for the project. The leader will help assign each individual an element to complete for the project and the group will agree to the tasks and what’s needed for that element.

For example, if the group is working on a developing a business plan together, your group might have each member complete one of the following: company description, market analysis, competitive analysis, financial summary, etc. Each person would be responsible for that entire component. In something like a group paper, you might assign each group member to research various aspects of the paper topic, but then another person might be responsible for pulling the research into an outline, and then others with drafting different elements of the paper, and finally, another person would review and make sure everything flows.

The important thing is ensuring that everyone has equal roles and feels that they have equal responsibilities so that no one person is doing more work than the others. Make sure that each person’s responsibilities are clearly outlined so everyone agrees on the expectations needed to complete the assignment as a team.

Set deadlines within your group

Okay, so your professor told you the due date for the overall assignment – but your group needs its own set of deadlines prior to that due date to make sure: each member has time to complete their work, that your group can compile individual work into the single assignment, and your group can review that work ahead of the due date. You’ll need to figure out what are reasonable deadlines to complete each component of the group project, taking into account that your group members do have other courses, and obligations outside of class.

Additionally, your group members likely have different ways of doing things, so try to agree on deadlines that work for each person individually, but still leave your group enough time to check your final work and add any necessary finishing touches.

Try using Google Sheets, or a project management tool, like Asana, as ways to maintain transparency into deadlines, tasks, and responsibilities within your group.

Determine ways to review each other’s work

Though each individual group member might be responsible for a particular aspect of the group assignment, there still needs to be checks and balances within the group. Everyone should be responsible for reviewing and checking each other’s work to ensure that their part meets the standards and expectations pre-determined by the group. This is not solely the leader’s responsibility. At the onset of setting roles and responsibilities, and after determining deadlines within your group, you’ll also want to think about when and how you’ll review each other’s work. You might want to do it via email, meet in person to review, or find some other method that ensures that everyone has given their approval to move forward with each group member’s individual contribution.

Plan times to meet with your group and stay on-task

Even if your group plans to do some of the work to complete your project individually, it’s still important to maintain communication with your group in-between. For some groups, it makes sense to meet in-person a few times (or however many times you think is necessary) to help with the project’s progress and ensure the group has an opportunity to discuss any issues, questions, or roadblocks they’ve encountered. If your group finds it difficult to meet in-person, consider scheduling a time when everyone is online and working at the same time, and can communicate via Google Hangout or iMessage (or some other sort of method that works for the group). This allows group members to communicate in real-time and ask questions.

It’s important to keep in mind that while your group meets – whether in-person or virtually – the group needs to stay on-task. It’s great if you are friendly or even friends with your group members, but too much chit-chat and not enough work time means that you won’t be able to optimize that time you have together to complete your work. Give yourself a time limit on how much “small talk” you’re allowed to have at the beginning of your work session, and then move on to collaborating. Save time to chat again at the end, or maybe even suggest grabbing a meal together after your group meeting is over.

Hold each other accountable and speak up when you need help

As much as your group will do its best to distribute the workload evenly among its members, there will of course be times when some people do more work than others, or some members fail to do their fair share. It’s important to speak with your team members about this in a non-confrontational way and first, ask what sort of challenges they might be encountering that are preventing them from getting their work done.

If it’s a matter of their not understanding the assignment or struggling with the material, your group can work together to determine a way to help them so they can complete it on their own. If it’s a matter of work ethic, you’ll again want to discuss with your group a way to ensure their part of the assignment doesn’t go unfinished. Many professors will allow an opportunity to review your group at the end of the project, so if someone does fail to contribute equally, then that will be your moment to share that information with your professor.

On the other side, if you’re having trouble completing your part of the assignment, don’t suffer in silence. Let your group members know! Ask them for their insight and let them know what’s causing you issues as you complete the assignment. They are there to help you, and that’s one of the great parts of a group assignment — and something that will become incredibly beneficial as you enter the workforce after university.