How to Prepare for a New Semester

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For many, graduate school is an intense experience, very different from their undergraduate years. Whereas college is for many a four-year social experiment punctuated by academics, graduate school tends to focus almost entirely on the work.

Add to that the adult commitments many graduate students juggle – work, family and other responsibilities – and graduate school can feel like a place where you fall behind the day you start.

An antidote to that, say graduate school veterans, is to get ahead before classes commence. Summer is the perfect time to get the jump on fall semester studies.

1. Get Your Body in Shape 

Discipline is an important part of any academic program, and that is no less true about the non-academic parts of life. People who have succeeded in graduate school say it’s important to eat nutritious food, get plenty of rest and exercise regularly. These can be challenges during the semester-long grind, which is why it requires commitment and dedication. 

Daniel Island-based accountant David Kuczkir remembers cramming late night fast food into his mouth and drinking coffee to stay up and study. “It wreaked havoc with my sleep and left me tired all the time,” he said. “I would have been better served by making time for real meals and going to bed when I was tired.”

2. Get Your Life in Shape

Mike Klarberg, had graduated from Cornell University and applied to the MBA program at Stanford University, when he sought out students for insights into their experience. One student told him that if he was in a relationship he should make sure it was strong or break it off. “If your relationship has problems,” the student said, “you have to decide between fixing it or doing your school work. You can’t do both.”

That may be a bit of hyperbole, but the lesson is universal: make sure everyone in your life is prepared for the amount of time and attention graduate school is going to demand. In addition, square away the housing and rooming situation, transportation, meal options, child care, or anything else important to life, so that the only stress during the semester is academic.

3. Consider the Pre-requisites 

By summer of the fall semester it’s probably too late for this, but for those undergrads pointing towards a particular master’s degree, taking the required courses is a real time saver. Mitch Simon, a business continuity expert on Wall Street, learned that after he took the wrong economics course in college for his finance MBA. “Had I taken macro economics as well I would have gotten the economics requirement in my master’s program waived,” he said.

4. Obtain the Books 

A great way to fall behind is to wait until the start of the semester to begin purchasing books. Purchasing books in advance can save hundreds of dollars and ensure that you’re prepared Day One. This may require emailing a professor to determine if old editions are acceptable, and going online to find the best deals. It’s also possible to download some textbooks to a Kindle or the Kindle app on Macs and PCs.

5. Read the Syllabus 

Reading the syllabus – a rarity among students – can provide a sense of the course before entering, says Tom Fitzmaurice, a Goose Creek-based librarian. “Reading the syllabus in advance helped me understand what was going to be expected of me and allowed me to read ahead a little bit. It was a small investment of time when I wasn’t as busy that paid off in time savings when I was very busy.” 

Reading the syllabus in advance also allows students to research topics in advance. Reading the textbook and researching topics are great ways to offset some of the work during the school session.

6. Know Where the Help Is 

Does the graduate program use AutoCAD, Adobe Illustrator, or Liquid Planner? Tutorials abound online. If the MSW program stresses you out, a Facebook support group provides resources. Most schools offer Writing Labs and mental health counselors. It’s a good idea to become familiar with all that before classes begin, so you’re not researching them in a panic when you need them.  The Lowcountry Graduate Center provides to students pursuing studies at its North Charleston location free access to either online or in-person tutoring.  

7. Learn Time Management Techniques

Time is often the most valuable commodity in graduate school; wasting it is not a good option. Many students can benefit from a time management system, which are easy to find online. Here is a list of six well-reviewed systems. Even just reading the literature on time management and adopting some helpful techniques can position a student well for a grueling graduate school experience.

Sonia Donnelly, a married mother of two in Summerville and non-profit program manager, created her own time management system while earning her MBA. “I got my calendar and put deadlines on it, figured out when I was going to be out of town for work so I knew which weeks I would be staying up late for schoolwork,” she said.

8. Arrange Your Finances

You do not want to be dealing with this during the semester. Pay down any loans you can before the debt of a graduate program begins piling up. The North Charleston-based non-profit OriginSC offers subsidized financial coaching.

9. Prepare Your Living Space

Some people thrive spreading their books across the dining room table and studying amid the din of family or roommate life. For the other 90%, it’s helpful to designate a study space in advance and arrange it in a way that optimizes concentration. 

Like everything else in life, preparation is a critical part of success. Getting the jump on graduate school before the first day of school can pay real dividends during the semester.