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Anyone Can Get an A+ by Geetanjali Mukherjee

Anyone Can Get an A+

by Geetanjali Mukherjee

Giveaway ends January 14, 2017.

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Sunday, July 31, 2016

Take The Long View

Given that this blog is about improving your grades and doing better at school, this next sentence may be surprising. Grades aren’t everything. Sure, doing well in school gives you more options, and you may need good grades in certain subjects to pursue a path that is important to you. And I do believe that you can learn to master any subject that you’re struggling with. However, just because you can study anything doesn’t mean you should.

Many well-meaning parents put inordinate pressure on their children to excel academically, sometimes even deciding what subjects they should study, what grades are acceptable (and what aren’t), and what their future career should be. It is important to work hard and to strive to be successful, but how that success is defined should be something that you get to define for yourself (while remaining open to helpful advice).

And even when you do want to aim for certain goals, it is acceptable (even usual) to falter and take a detour on the path to your goals. A bad grade on one test or even doing badly in one year of school doesn’t determine your whole future, even though sometimes it might feel like that.

It’s important to maintain perspective, to take the long view.

Although it is surprisingly counter-intuitive, but over the long-term, you are more likely to be successful when you enjoy your subjects and give yourself room to improve organically. Hard work is important, but you don’t want to cultivate an all-or-nothing belief, that anything less than perfect grades aren’t acceptable.

I know we all feel the pressure to take courses that look good on our résumé, or will appeal to future employers. However, wherever possible, learning what we are genuinely interested in will make the studying a lot less painful and dare I say it, even enjoyable. Most of you won’t have a chance to learn a lot of new things after you leave the cocoons of formal education, and even if you do, it will be fractured and disjointed. School and college is a great time to experiment, take a chance, learn something new. It doesn’t feel like it when you are going through it – the stakes feel impossibly high. But trust me, it’s far more so in the real world; so it is relatively easier to try something new at this point. At no other time can you freely dabble in anything that is really interesting or learn a completely new skill.

Even if you have made up your mind to major in a field with a set requirement of courses, you likely have a little bit of leeway in a few extra courses. Choose areas that you are genuinely interested in, even if they are not commercially very useful or quite different from your career path, you never know how they might be useful later. If you're an art history major, take a course on computer programming or game theory. If you're studying business, experiment with a class on social psychology or Ancient Greek philosophy. Allow some time for serendipity – perhaps attending interesting lectures outside your field, or reading popular non-fiction in different genres. Research shows that going outside of your field and gaining some knowledge in different disciplines can be a great source of insights and creative breakthroughs in your work. Even if you don’t see how it can help you with your career, the course you take could prove interesting conversation fodder on a date or a job interview. It might also give you a different perspective on the topic of your major.

Being passionate about what you're studying - even though not always possible, should be something you feel at least occasionally. Being genuinely interested in something means you put in extra effort to master it, you do additional reading on your own, you watch a movie or documentary connected to the topic, you bring your enthusiasm to seminars and confidently discuss your opinions.

On the other hand, how do you get yourself to work on subjects that you don’t like at all, or ones that you are bored by? Find a way to make your work interesting - focus on aspects of it that are interesting, or focus on what doing well in school can help you to achieve. Remember to find your own reasons, not those given by parents or teachers. 

Getting better at a subject also makes it far more interesting. Read popular books on the subject, to get context. For instance, physics taught in school can be very boring, but there are some popular science books that describe interesting aspects such as quantum theory and can make physics fascinating. Similarly I read a book on astronomy that was so interesting it made me want to learn more about planets and stars, although I had never been remotely interested in the subject previously.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Focus On What You Can Control

There are many things in life that we cannot control – our family and home life, the teachers at school, having the most conducive environment to study in. You may have to have neat papers, and organized notes, but your life may be far from neat or organized. You could be holding down multiple part-time jobs, or maybe dealing with family members’ or your own health or financial issues. Maybe you share a room with siblings and don’t have a quiet place to study. In many cases, you may just be juggling a really full schedule, with demanding extra-curricular activities, a part-time job, or maybe you have other family responsibilities that leave you with far less time to study.

Of course, it is great to be able to have all the resources and help you can get, but what if for some reason you don’t? The key is not to give in to believing that your circumstances will hold you back, because they don’t have to. It would be nice to have "a room of one's own", but it isn’t necessary for good grades. All you need is to decide whether you will let your circumstances determine what you can or can’t do.

Maybe you think that being able to overcome discouraging teachers or a difficult home life in order to get good grades is doable, but what can you do in the face of challenges that affect your ability to learn? What if your mind works so differently from everyone else that you are always behind your classmates? What if your brain finds it difficult to translate the letters and numbers that you see into words and problems?

Dyslexia is a learning disorder that makes it difficult to read, spell, write or do math. You would think that being dyslexic would stop you from doing too well academically, and that it might even constrain the kinds of things you could study. In this case however, you would be wrong. 

Some of the world’s greatest scientists, inventors, artists and even writers suffered from dyslexia, but didn’t let it stop them from accomplishing great things. A short list of famous dyslexics – Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Leonardo da Vinci, W.B. Yeats, Andy Warhol and Richard Branson – shows us that even a learning disorder cannot stop us from success, if we choose not to let it.

During school when I struggled with how much I had to do, or felt that my efforts didn’t seem to correlate with my results, I watched inspiring movies and read books that gave me courage. Something specific I remember reading that really inspired me was the following lines from the poem “Invictus” by W.E. Henley (also quoted in the movie of the same name, starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon):

          It matters not how strait the gate,
          How charged with punishments the scroll,
          I am the master of my fate:
          I am the captain of my soul.

The reality is that not everyone has the same advantages or circumstances in life, but most of us can do a lot with what we do have, if we have the determination to succeed.

This is a great time historically to be a student, with lots of wonderful study materials available online, many for free. If there is something you want to learn, chances are that there are books, videos and even courses available that are perfectly tailor-made to teach you. Don’t use others as an excuse to not achieve your goals.

This is an edited excerpt from my book "Anyone Can Get An A+: How To Beat Procrastination, Reduce Stress and Improve Your Grades".  It makes the perfect back-to-school purchase or gift. Click here to buy this book from your preferred retailer:

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Don’t Compare Yourself To Your Peers

A recent article in the New York Times describes how smart, talented and outwardly successful students are falling prey to depression and mental health issues, some even taking their own lives because they feel overwhelmed by the pressure to be perfect. According to an organization that spreads awareness about mental health issues among students, more than half of all college students have had suicidal thoughts, and 1 in 10 have seriously considered ending their life. Every year in the United States, approximately 1,100 college students commit suicide.

These statistics are chilling, but what is worse is that they stem from feelings of isolation, of being alone, and of not being good enough compared to their peers. In an age when we are just a click away from knowing everything everyone is doing, we can’t help but constantly compare ourselves to others and fall short in our own estimation.

All around us people are accomplishing incredible feats – starting companies, landing record deals, becoming internet celebrities. It’s become pretty common to be intimidated by all the seemingly amazing things others can do, and to doubt ourselves. Sometimes it feels like anyone who isn’t doing something out of the ordinary must be lacking in some way.

In the New York Times article, the writer describes how a student contemplating suicide compared herself to her classmates and found herself lacking. “Friends’ lives, as told through selfies, showed them having more fun, making more friends and going to better parties. Even the meals they posted to Instagram looked more delicious.” Social media compounds our natural insecurities, showing us in glossy images and excited punctuation that exactly as we feared, those around us are living far more exciting and meaningful lives. And we start to think that this reflects poorly on us.

The thing is, though, we don’t really know everything everyone is doing. We only see the perfect, happy, filtered images. We don’t see the struggles and mistakes and sacrifices; we see the end product, the moment of happiness, the rare triumph. And from that we assume the rest – this person is happier, prettier, more successful, and by extension, we aren’t good enough.

And make no mistake, most of us go to incredible lengths to preserve this image of perfection. When I was in high school, my peers would habitually exaggerate how hard they were working - telling me how they had already completed going over the syllabus several times, and how many hours they were studying. I believed them, and got nervous, and stepped up my own studying, thinking that the amount I was doing wasn't enough to pass the exams with good grades. I tried to imitate my classmates' habits, even though it was only much later that I realized that they hadn't exactly been telling me (or each other) the truth.

When we look around us, or read about successful people, the primary message that comes across is how talented someone is, and how inevitable it was that they would succeed. Success is shown to us as a straight line, heading in one direction, up. There are no detours, no turn-arounds, no missteps allowed. Faced with intense competition for spots in top colleges, scholarships and jobs, in an increasingly less-certain world, young people today face even greater pressure to have perfect resumes and transcripts. When you aren’t allowed to fail, either due to the expectations of others or yourself, although it may seem like you are being pragmatic and focusing on how to succeed, you are actually making it that much harder for yourself.

In her influential book Mindset, renowned psychologist Carol Dweck describes research that shows that the way we approach learning makes a difference to how much we learn. Allow yourself to make mistakes, to stumble a little while you learn something new, and eventually you can surpass someone who is incredibly bright but is too afraid to try something in which they might do badly and risk looking dumb. There are also some students who work hard, but put themselves under such intense pressure to succeed at all costs, they can end up burning out, or doing poorly simply because they succumbed to stress.

In The Pursuit of Perfect, Harvard psychologist Professor Tal Ben-Shahar says that those with an overly perfectionist outlook have unrealistic ideas of success – believing that they can’t afford to make any mistakes or show any weaknesses. They focus on the destination more than the journey. Someone who has a more realistic outlook on the other hand, sees failure as “an opportunity for receiving feedback.  Because she isn’t intensely afraid of failure, she can learn from it – when she fails at something, she…learns what set her back. She then tries again…” Doing something badly then is how we learn to do something well.

Looking at peers and how they do things may not necessarily be optimal.  A little friendly rivalry doesn’t hurt; in fact it can actually spur you on. However, if comparing to others is pulling you down, it does more harm than good. The smartest strategy sometimes means simply ignoring the others completely and doing what works for you. Instead of comparing yourself to what others around you are doing, focus on what you can do, what you're good at, or what is possible for you.

The years of being a student are short; they go by in a flash. Would you rather spend your time pursuing things that matter to you, things that you have always been curious to explore, things that you may not necessarily be good at but would like to try; or would you prefer to be bound by the path chosen by others, wondering if you are measuring up to accomplishments that you haven’t even asked yourself if you really care about? The poet Mary Oliver summed it up when she said, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

This is an edited excerpt from my book "Anyone Can Get An A+: How To Beat Procrastination, Reduce Stress and Improve Your Grades". Click here to buy this book from your preferred retailer: