Fall 2008 Semester Review

I'm back home after ending my first semester at Claremont McKenna College. I was pretty unhappy on the drive home, but when I put the whole thing in perspective I think I had a great semester. You wish you could have had it. Positives: Social scientists and economists recently have made breakthroughs into learning what makes us happy, what makes us productive, and what attracts people to each other. Learning to use time efficiently, to avoid emotional rollercoasters, and to deal with people are probably more important than the academic material. In no particular order: I learned how to brew beer and started learning the tango, waltz and polka in two hours a week of dance instruction. We brewed three batches and I finished 5th place in an open tango competition. I learned how to use the weight room to become stronger and put on weight. I gained eleven pounds but stopped working out when finals approached and lost five. Good grades are the result of a good process, not any inherent measure of intelligence. Some things that helped me get good grades:
  • I kept organized for the whole semester. I wrote down due dates and appointments in a planner, and used it to plan out schedules of when I would get things done. I kept a binder for every class, with dividers for lecture notes, homework, handouts, and tests and essays.
  • With a few exceptions I didn't work for more than 2 hours at a time; when I wasn't getting work done I went to bed or did other things. I studied no more than 4 hours a day as finals approached, and scored above 95% on every exam, just by starting studying earlier and working efficiently.
  • I sat in the front row for every class. I would estimate staying organized is worth half a letter grade, and sitting in the front row is worth a quarter of a letter grade.
I aligned my desire to earn money with my desire for good work habits. When I wanted to ensure I got something done I would tell a friend I owed them a donation or a sandwich if I didn't finish an essay on time, or go to the gym. I also bet my parents that I would wear my retainer for 18 hours a day. The retainer makes me look and sound a little childish but it's straightening my teeth and I only have to wear it for half a year. These sort of bets are extremely cheap arbitrage - good grades and straight teeth are worth more later (in the job/marriage market) than they are now, so a small incentive now can pay big dividends later. Often these bets were win-win propositions - if I won I got my essay done on time, but if I lost I created a social opportunity, having to buy someone a sandwich. I tried out for, and failed to make, the varsity basketball team. I was in the gym for nearly three hours a day for the first six weeks of the semester, lifting, shooting, running sprints, and playing pickup against the other varsity players. I wanted to make the team so that I could have a group of friends, signal quality to others, compete every day, and improve my basketball skill. My fitness was excellent and I improved at defense, dribbling, and driving. Fortunately, by the time the tryout came around I had enough other things going on around campus that I was (I told myself, anyway) indifferent between making the team and getting cut. The coach wanted me to become a student manager but I refused - I am slowly learning that just because someone wants me to do something doesn't mean I have an obligation to do it. I would have probably accepted the offer a year ago. While I was trying out for the basketball team I was sober for six weeks. My mantra was constant competition; every time I saw a player drink I was winning. I learned for myself that the social benefit from alcohol is imaginary, and that having a good time is based more on your attitude than your state of inebriation. I maintained good spirits and a social attitude well into December, which I hadn't done in my previous semesters at college. I learned to be more careful about the signals I sent to others. Claremont McKenna's small campus was a big help. I couldn't help running into people that I knew. I tried to call friends ahead of time to get meals so I wouldn't eat alone, which worked when I remembered to do it. I did not waste too much time. I had a rule not to check my email or RSS before noon. I let feeds, emails, texts and friend requests accumulate, dealing with them in my own time, rather than read and respond instantly to everything. I started writing againafter two years of Penn lecture classes (Total writing output between May '07 and October '08: 2 crappy application essays). The only way to become good at something is to practice (with feedback) as much as you can. Writing is no exception; the more I write the easier it becomes to write. I blogged for my Gov 20 Honors class nearly every day, and when I started to get a "You should write about this!" thought bubble for non-political topics I revived my own blog. Every essay or short paper I write starts from an outline, which helped me stay focused and get work done. Negatives: The negatives are of the "idle Tuesday" variety and don't merit mention, which is something I've learned this semester too.

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One thought on “Fall 2008 Semester Review

  1. Pingback: Spring 2009 Semester Goals – Kevin Burke

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