Let me share a story. In grade 8, I heard my English teacher say that we’d be done English 12 one year early. For those of your not from BC, English 12 is the only course requirement you need before you can graduate highschool. This meant that I could finish highschool by grade 11. I never let go of that dream. In grade 9, my English teacher told us that our accelerated English program would no longer be accelerated. My dream was crushed. That same year, I persuaded a teacher to let me take a grade 11 accounting class. I got 95%, higher than all my classmates. I was the youngest by far, and that would just be the beginning. In grade 10, I took grade 11 physics and chemistry. In grade 11, I took university level physics and calculus. I got the highest mark in my class, passed both AP exams, and got the university credits. I had finished all requirements for highschool graduation—physics, chemistry maths, social studies, geography, and even some 1st year university—in grade 11. In order for me to graduate, I just needed that one English credit. I’d say that my greatest achievement was understanding how the system works, and knowing how to hack it. You might be surprised to hear that education is a system where you compete against other students. Fortunately, the level of competition is usually super low. For example, in the AP exam, a certain percentage of students, at least 40%, are bound to get a college credit. In any case, I found a way to get my English 12 credit, I got my highschool diploma, and I went off to college. transcript I really had no idea what I wanted to be, or what degree I wanted to get. Initially, I wanted to get an engineering degree at UBC. By this time, I had already been moved by the blogger Steve Pavlina, who graduated college in 3 semesters. I couldn’t bear watching myself rot away for four years at UBC. I had to find a way to get out of university faster. I got to SFU, which I feel is a great school for undergraduates when compared to other universities. It provides more flexibility and freedom than other universities. Good decision. My first term in post-secondary was a cake-walk. Other students found it difficult. Perhaps I was taking five courses to their six (thanks to that AP credit). But even those who took five courses were moaning and stressing out. The first test gave me a dose of reality. I got 73%. The class average was 69%. How was everyone doing so poorly? Better question, why was I doing so poorly? It turned out to be small, petty mistakes. I devised a hypothesis—most students find college hard because they don’t pick the easy apples. As long as I picked the low hanging fruit, I would be guaranteed at least a B+. You might ask, what are these easy apples? Let me list them out:
  • Completing assignments
  • If you can, don’t hand in assignments late
  • Hand in assignments even they are late
  • Know the criteria of what is being marked, and what isn’t
    • 1) If it’s a knowledge class, write down everything you know
    • 2) If it’s an opinion class, always have an opinion even if you don’t agree
    • 3) If it’s a pattern recognition class, connect things to class concepts even if they don’t make sense
  • Don’t make obvious mistakes in your assignments
  • Speak and write clear English
  • Get bonus marks
  • Speak out in class for participation marks
  • Go to class if attendance counts
  • Study for tests
  • Don’t miss tests
  • Study what the teacher tells you study
  • Understand the core concepts
  • Ask for help if you don’t understand an important concept
If it boils down to one thing, it is don’t wait until the last minute. Some students spend 2 hours a day studying, 4 hours deciding what to study next (or whether to study), and 6 hours stressing over what their mark will be. That’s why games, YouTube and social media are so popular for students trying to destress. In the list above, I purposely left out two items: go to class, and pay attention in class. Let me elaborate. In my experience, there are two types of classes: those that are worth being at, and those that aren’t. Always go to the first few lectures to find out which one this class will be. If the teacher releases his or her slides, and or copies notes from the textbook, it’s the former. I’d say this is 90% of classes. If the class requires abstract pattern recognition that’s not in the textbook, then it’s the latter. Unfortunately, some of the classes in the first group have attendance or participation points. The key is to sit in class, work on other projects, and make productive use of the time. You don’t need to pay attention to the professor’s story of her vacation. Sometimes before I test I would feel nervous. But I knew that all students felt nervous. I was aware that I had more knowledge about the subject matter than the nervous person beside me. I knew that I had more knowledge than 90% of the other students in the class, because I understood the basic concepts and patterns, while they didn’t.  The students who attended every lecture were always more confused than I was. The key to acing school isn’t to aim for perfection. You won’t achieve it. You’ll end up stressing for three hours over one word in an essay when you could be done the essay in the same amount of time. The key is to be better than 90% of your classmates. In the first term, I took 5 courses. Second term, 6 courses. Third term, 9 courses. Fourth term, 13 courses. Last term, 9 courses. I graduated with a GPA of 3.74, and never had a grade less than a B-. transcript In many ways, it was less stressful for me to take 13 courses than students who took four. There will always be 20% of teachers who always give out low marks, and 20% who always give out high marks. If you need to maintain a high GPA every term to continue receiving scholarships, you want a small percentage of your courses each term to have bad teachers. If you only take 4 courses a term, getting one bad teacher will have a large effect on your grade. One bad assignment or one bad test will definitely stress you out. If you take 13 courses, that stress is diluted. One last word: I also had a bit of luck on my side. As Malcolm Gladwell says, it’s better to be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond. I’m lucky I went to SFU and not Harvard. If I did, I’d probably never graduate.