When I started my undergraduate work at Colorado State University, I committed myself to trying to maintain a 4.0 GPA. At the time, I didn’t understand what it would take to maintain that level of excellence for the duration of the coursework, nor did I find much in the way of best practices to light the way. Now that I have completed my coursework and graduated with a 4.0, I though it would be worthwhile to document those practices that helped me reach my goal for other students who choose to commit themselves to academic excellence. I have organized the practices into three categories, a) building a support system, b) organization, and c) intellectual curiosity.
Building a Support System
Every journey in life is worth sharing, and the decision to pursue a college education is no different. It’s a journey, and as such, requires a support system to help along the way. A strong support system includes family, friends, employers, and the university. In addition, it is important to seek out a mentor that can guide you through the journey.
I began by talking with my family, to make sure they understood the value I placed on academic excellence and the sacrifices that we would have to make as a family. In addition, I used Facebook, Twitter, and a WordPress blog to communicate my progress to extended family and friends, finding the social network tools a great way to keep everyone informed of my progress and share my work. After each term, I posted the grades for my classes and a credit countdown. In turn, friends and family gave me the encouragement I needed to keep going when things got tough.
In addition, I talked to my boss and co-workers about what I was doing and learning throughout the journey. My employer was incredibly supportive and allowed me to use what I learned in the work environment, helping me to synthesize the knowledge.
I also made extensive use of the University support system, including the librarian, professors, the administrative staff, and my academic advisor. Colorado State’s staff was excellent, insofar as they appeared to care as much about my success as I did.
Finally, I had an excellent mentor. Tom Tonkin, a friend and colleague of mine was pursuing his doctorate while I was working on my undergraduate degree. I was able to bounce ideas off of him, run my rough drafts by him, get guidance on research, or simply vent. His support and guidance was invaluable.
Building a viable support system was likely the most important step I took, and there is little doubt in my mind that they were critical to my success.
Staying organized is another critically important practice that includes planning for success, time management, understanding expectations, and keeping your research, citations, and academic work managed and accessible for future assignments. Staying organized assures that you understand what needs to happen, and build the infrastructure and tools that support your academic efforts.
The first step in getting organized is to work with your academic advisors to build a realistic degree plan, that takes into account all of your obligations and responsibilities. Of course, the plan is simply that, a plan. As such, you should be comfortable adjusting it to changing life circumstances.
Second, I recommend using calendar tools to build a schedule that includes assignments, writing time, and research time. Pad the schedule with extra time.
Third, go through the ALL of the course material before starting, paying particular attention to the syllabus, rubrics, and the grading scheme. The grading scheme will tell you a lot about where to spend your time and energy.
Finally, keep your work organized, including research, citations, and all of your academic work. I use End Note, a software package made by Thompson Reuters to managing citations and research. I organize the End Note library by class and then citation. I also make sure every citation includes a hyperlink to the material where possible. This way I can always come back to it. In addition, I post all assignments on my blog. This is important because it makes it easy to cite myself (which you need to do to avoid plagiarism); thus, I am able to build on my earlier ideas in future work. Finally, I save all of the original assignment documents in a local folder structure.
Intellectual curiosity and engagement
The most important advice I can give is to engage seriously. It starts with an intellectual curiosity. I try to provoke my curiosity by suspending my natural attitude—the ideas we take for granted—to look upon a subject with fresh eyes. In addition, I always go to original sources rather than simply using the text. The texts are typically great summaries, but the original material is much richer. Finally, I try to be provocative—not for provocations sake—to engage in positions that I may not normally take or that nobody would take, to explore other positions in the spirit of intellectual inquiry. Unpopular positions make for great debate, the soul of interaction. It isn’t about beliefs, rather the point is to learn and grow.
In summary, I attribute my undergraduate success to more than just hard work. Hard work is necessary, but not sufficient condition. Graduating with a 4.0GPA also requires a great support system, great organization, and a genuine curiosity for how people and things work.