“Go to college/university and get smarter they say. Work hard and you too can live the dream they told me. Now I’m retaking ______ for the third time and yet some of my buddies party three times a week and get straight As. What gives?”
Canadian universities purport to be places of higher learning. Their mottos and mission statements are often littered with sparkling phrases such as “lifelong learning”, “critical-thinking”, “broad intellectual experiences”, “striving to reach potential” “well-rounded student” and a few dozen more similarly vague-to-the-point-of-meaningless touchstones.
The Getting Smarter Part Almost Happens by AccidentWhat Canadian universities actually are, is a little bit of those things, but mostly they’re just a type of game that acts as a filter for certain professions. Should you need a 3.7 GPA or better to teach grade one? Is GPA even a good indicator of how you will do? No and no. Yet it’s a reality. Want to get into law? Too bad, that guy/gal next to you took similar classes in their initial degree, but with much easier profs, so even though you scored the same on the LSAT (a standardized test for those not familiar) they get in and you don’t. It doesn’t matter if it’s fair, the point is not to be fair, it’s just to thin the herd to a manageable level because not everyone can be pharmacist (although one could argue that with the right software program and a 6-month training course a whole lot of people could be pharmacists – that’s beside the point though, you need straight As to wear that white coat).
I’m being a little harsh on our institutions of higher learning here. While you’re at university you will have the opportunity to listen to some amazingly intelligent people from a broad spectrum of specialties. You can make friends that will teach you more than courses ever could. You can find books that are hidden gems on course lists that otherwise suck and become inspired. Individual professors can pull you in and teach you something you didn’t know you wanted to learn. All of those things can happen as great little accidents or by chance. There are many things you can do to improve your chances of having these positive experiences, but you know what has little to do with these scenarios – the grades you get at university.
Don’t Hate the Playa… or the Game!
You see achieving high grades in a university course and/or being accepted into specific faculties has really nothing to do with being smart – it has to do with playing the game correctly. There are three main ways to achieve your goals at university:
1) Don’t set your goals very high to begin with. If you just want a credential and some fun experiences, getting C+s and Bs in Arts courses really isn’t that hard.
2) Work extremely hard, and be extremely talented. If you really are the best and brightest you will rise to the top. There are many more people that think they fit this criteria (especially coming out of high school) than there are people who actually do.
3) Pick your spots, learn all of the shortcuts, make connections, and become a master at the game of university.
Out of these options, number three is generally the most effective for the greatest number of people.
Related: Using Linkedin To Network
Find a Sensei to Show You the Ropes
Perhaps the best way to navigate the choppy waters of university using the third option is to find a mentor of some kind. Someone who can provide you with course-specific hacks. For example, I often had to write history papers. Professors love it if you show that you did research using a large number of peer-reviewed sources (this is code for: papers that professors wrote in order to keep our high-paying jobs). Now some students would conscientiously spend weeks looking through thick library books, forming their own arguments, and then piecing together the evidence and editing the whole thing several times. I’m just stating facts when I say that students that performed this sort of in-depth process would rarely get higher marks than myself.
Now the fact that my professors usually knew my name certainly did not hurt my grades. I wasn’t a loudmouth, but if there was an opportunity to talk or ask questions, I’d speak 5-10 times a semester. I’d also attend any smaller sessions that the professor offered where they could put a face to my name and interact with me, even for just a couple of minutes. There is all kinds of psychology to back up why this works and it’s easily the quickest way to raise your grades by half a letter grade.
An Example of a Academic Hack to The Game of University
Finally, I’d always make an outline about 3 weeks before my essays were due, and then bring it by the professor’s office in order to get some feedback on it. Usually they’d just state some pretty basic stuff that I would make sure to regurgitate on the paper. Of course they often wouldn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know – the point of the meeting was never to get information (I can read books on my own) – the motivation for going to prof’s office for 10 minutes was threefold:
i) They got to know my name and face (see above).
ii) They associated my name and paper with someone who was really striving to do their best – after all, who starts a paper 3 weeks out in their undergrad?
iii) Most grades are not given based on the quality of information and argument, they are given on your ability to give the professor what they want. They will tell you this isn’t the case, but in the vast majority of cases it definitely is. The trick is getting your professor to reveal what they want to see, and then you can give it to them. That whole individual critical-thinking thing is overblown in terms of boosting your GPA.
Naturally, after stepping out of the office I wouldn’t look at my paper again for 2.8 weeks – but my prof never knew that. I could leave it until the last minute and still have a well-organized and thoroughly-researched paper because I had a great system. I simply found an online journal paper that I really liked, copied it’s basic structure, took several quotes from it, and then “mined the footnotes” to get the rest of my quotes (it doesn’t take long to skim 7-8 short journal articles). See, when it comes to most essays in university, it really isn’t about your thoughts. It’s about organizing other people’s thoughts so that they fit what your professor wants to see. That’s what I mean by playing the game. If you didn’t know that formula you would have had an extremely hard time getting a higher GPA than me and if we were competing for the same slot in a faculty guess how much your late nights of reading would have counted for? Zilch, nada, nothing.
Another little hack for the game of university is using the website Rate My Prof. We wrote a controversial post about this a couple of years ago and while many professors still hate it, the site remains the most effective screening tool available for steering clear of ultra-boring or very harsh-marking professors.
What Does All of This Have to Do With Money?
The reason this stuff saves you money is that it helps you get where you want to go faster. Maybe you don’t have to spend that extra year in your undergrad trying to bump those grades up, you can just get them on the first go round. You don’t have to drop those two courses with those profs that take a perverse pride in making sure only 3 people in a class of 150 get an A, because you screened them out a long time ago. Your GPA is better because you were much more relaxed on tests as a result of the knowledge that you knew how to play the game and consequently, your grades were already quite high in the course and the professor has already labelled you as a “good student” in their minds (Google: “Halo Effect”). Finally, you won’t skip classes because you’ll be taking stuff you’re somewhat interested in, with professors that don’t suck. This is key due to the fact that every time you skip a course you’re basically flushing $20 down the toilet if you consider what your tuition costs and how many classes there are.
The sooner you cast away your illusions about what university really is, the sooner you can learn how to play the game better than the people you are competing with. Whether it’s a matter of buddying up to an influential professor who can get you into that graduate program, making sure you attain that precious (and somewhat ridiculous when you really think about it) GPA, or meeting the criteria for that specific faculty that holds the keys to the job you’ve always wanted – it’s all just a game that some learn to play better than others.
On the other hand you could just choose option #2 and become a genius – in which case Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg would tell you don’t really need the credential anyway right?