Back in Time – 5 Things I Wish I Could Tell My Freshman Self
“You know, I wish I could just go back in time and KICK MYSELF for being stupid. I honestly wish I could sit myself down and drop some serious advice.”
I told this to my academic advisor while picking out classes for my last semester of my undergraduate career. Brad (my MCB advisor who every pre-health student will come to know and love as our MCB 150 professor) paused for a bit and then asked me to describe how I was my freshman year of high school.
High school? Freshman year was seven years ago! I said that I tried to be as outgoing as possible, joined a freshmen-only concert band, volunteered with my school’s community service club, and took all honors-level classes for the first time. When asked about my freshman year grades, I cringed, because I did okay by all standings, but didn’t really hit my stride with the honors/AP curriculum until my junior and senior years of high school. I wasn’t lost, but just not comfortable with high school yet, especially with the amount of homework I had to do for my classes and trying to keep up with the coursework. I earned leadership positions in the clubs I participated in and successfully completed the college application process during my senior year.
Brad laughed, and that’s when I realized the same thing was happening to me in college.
I did okay my freshman year. I joined my clubs and made new friends, working to transition from high school to a large, public university. I started blogging at the beginning of my freshman spring semester. Sophomore year saw me earning leadership positions and getting a lot of my physician shadowing experience and hospital work hours in. However, I really didn’t start seeing “results” with successful studying and mastering coursework until now—my junior year, as I’m getting ready to apply to medical school this summer.
I’ve seen a lot with blogging, working Admissions events, and being an MCB Leader. Few things tend to surprise me about the transition from high school to college. I even thought of myself as being confident because of the advice I’ve written in this blog. However, when I made the connection between four years of high school and four years of college, I was truly stunned. There’s not a lot of novel advice I can give, especially because of the 150+ posts I wrote during my freshman and sophomore years. However, I can “kick myself” for my freshman year experiences by reaching out to the future freshman again, who probably don’t even remember me because I haven’t been posting much this semester. However, I promise that more medical school application posts are in the future because I start applying this summer (HOW CRAZY IS THAT?).
So, here are some pearls of wisdom that this 20-year-old junior wishes to bestow upon her 17-year-old self (yes, I was 17 years old my first day of college).
- You’re actually kind of lazy — I never thought of myself as being lazy as a high school student. Yes, senioritis did hit (and it feels like it never actually left, to be honest), but I maintained schedules, completed all of my work before the wee hours of the morning, and even had time to relax with family and friends. However, the unsupervised college freshman Sivani discovered Netflix and seriously fell victim to 45-minute long episodes of Gray’s Anatomy, House M.D., and Private Practice (to give you the short list).
Underclassman Sivani, what have you done to warrant wasting three hours of prime studying time on two episodes of a TV show? Did you create a reward system that lets you watch a YouTube video after 30 minutes of flipping flashcards? No. Did you make sure to study in distraction-free areas like silent sections of Grainger and the UGL? No—you would try to get work done with friends and end up distracting yourself. Oh, you must have only watched TV when finished with all of your work as a nice way to relax at the end of the day? NOPE.
Now that I’m in the process of studying for my MCAT while balancing the hardest semester of classes I will have at Illinois, I’ve come to realize that I do need mindless TV-watching, vegging-out time. However, to keep my grades from slipping, I restrict Netflix and YouTube to meal times and typically for about one hour before bed.
- There is a HUGE difference between knowing the material and being familiar with the material — In high school, it was often sufficient enough to be familiar with the material for many multiple-choice tests and fill-in-the-blanks with word banks. I did have serious essay-writing courses (looking at you, AP History courses!), but with the repetitive nature of units of coursework in high school, I’d end up seeing the names and dates so many times (with homework, lecture five days a week, projects, and studying for exams), that I was able to commit them to memory.
College requires more effort because you are tested on a huge wealth of knowledge (to put things in perspective, the material studied for an AP exam is equivalent to a semester’s final exam for one course), but you don’t have the same amount of exposure to the material as you did in high school. Lecture can be two or three times a week (that’s if you have lecture at all, because some courses like Organic Chemistry I are online!). If you are not making a conscientious effort to study and review material, you will not be doing as well as you could be.
I regret to inform you that over the hundreds of posts I have written where I honestly thought I was doing the best I could, I didn’t learn this lesson until this semester—and it kills me. Here’s how I broke the barrier: For my psychopharmacology class, I made flashcards with all of the material needed to study for our first exam. I mark all of the material the professor states will explicitly be on the exam with a capital letter E, all of the material I need to memorize with the letter M, and topics I’m confused about with a question mark.
I turned off my laptop, went to a quiet cube in the library, took out a sheet of paper, and flipped all 207 flashcards (because I made them by hand, as I like working with physical material). The quiz-and-recall system was so effective because it forced me to think of concepts in seconds while helping me to be unafraid of exams that cover extensive material.
As simple as it sounds, this system helped me realize the error of my ways and fix my studying patterns. I can be real lazy on some days (see above), but knowing that studying just 15 flashcards an hour or another arbitrary deal I make with myself can help me immensely.
- Having a set schedule will change everything — I was so proud of myself at the start of this semester. I created a rudimentary schedule that helped me finish all of my work, not feel completely exhausted while doing it, and have some downtime almost every day! The key to a good schedule is to hold yourself to it. I try to wake up around the same time every weekday and eat something substantial (oatmeal or peanut butter toast) before heading off to my morning classes. I have two hours as a lunch break between my morning classes and afternoon classes, so I really make it a point not to study in that time unless I have some upcoming exams. My lunch break is for eating, Netflix-ing, calling my mom, and sometimes even napping (don’t hate me for my sleep schedule).
Afternoon classes commence, and before I know it I’m done for the day (but not really). I typically have club events scheduled in the evening, and I make sure I mark them down in my calendar in advance so I never forget a commitment. However, I try not to pack up and head to a library before I eat dinner because proper nutrition is important (see below).
What I’m really proud of is my ability to free myself from distractions by heading to a library by myself (or with a friend that I know will help keep me on track and not be social), and working through all of my material every single day. I hate studying on Fridays, so I like to leave them free of work, but that can only be true if I’m reviewing course and MCAT material every single day. I know it’s a lot of effort, but I really want to succeed in college and my future career. Laziness cannot be an option, or at least it can be built in to a schedule!
- You’re not invincible — You’re actually the opposite. Sivani, you’ll get an ear infection freshman year, sinusitis a couple of times your sophomore year, the flu during fall of junior year, and bronchitis during the spring. You’ll also be sure to catch the common cold about three times in an average semester and have to buy more tissue boxes than pencils during midterm times.
You may think you’re eating healthy, but in reality you’re doing a lot of harm to your body and need to step up your health game. As a culmination of all of the mac and cheese lunch and dinner days, slices of pizza from around campus, lattes and mochas and drinking all of Starbucks, and a childhood of Wisconsin cheese curds, you’ll actually become lactose intolerant during your junior year. It’ll be horrible at first because you feel like you can’t eat anything, but health-wise it will probably be one of the greatest things to happen to you. You’ll start to actually listen to your body and become aware of the foods you eat, working to break a vicious cycle of binge-eating while stressed.
Yes, college is a time to enjoy and indulge, and the amazing ethnic restaurants in Champaign and Urbana will be so tempting, but you should really watch what you’re eating. In time, you’ll learn to eat foods that help strengthen your immune system, but be careful of the midterm eating sprees you like to take part in. OH, and Vitamin C supplements are ALWAYS a good idea!
- Learn to ask help — This is going to be the hardest lesson for you to learn. You’re President of an RSO, a TA, an MCB Leader, and a blogger since you were 18. Everyone typically asks YOU the questions, and that’s what you thrive on – being able to help others, like you will hopefully do as a physician one day. But over the course of your college career, you too will be looking for help and afraid to seek it out.
Sivani, you like to carry your stress silently, sometimes being too afraid to share it with even your parents because you fear their disappointment. You hate looking “weak” to others and you maintain a façade where no one can ask you questions about your state of mind. I wish I could tell you about the family tragedy you will experience during the end of fall of junior year. I wish you had some warning about the leave of absence you will be taking for 20 days from school, missing midterm exams, a serious portion of MCAT prep, and really leaving a part of yourself behind at school.
For the first time in your life, school will not be a priority—and that pill is going to be very hard to swallow, as the details still hurt a little bit so I’m not going to tell you more about this incident. But when you do swallow that pill, Sivani, you’ll discover a new life for yourself—you are capable of SO MUCH MORE than just being stressed 100% of the time. You’ll stop listening to the “pre-health talk,” where other students who plan on applying to health programs like medical school can brag about their grades and test scores, making you feel horrible about yourself. You’ll start taking classes that you genuinely love and fall in love with neurology all over again. You’ll start doing amazing things in your classes, shocking yourself with how much you’ve been studying material. And with the help of Kaplan’s MCAT class, you’ll work harder than ever to be ready to take that exam and get into medical school. I guarantee it. But, none of this would be possible unless you sought out help resources—like professors, academic advisers, faculty and staff, and friends—to help you through this process, because trust me when I say that completing coursework and scheduling makeup exams is a horrible process when you’re halfway around the world.
This semester hasn’t really let me blog as frequently as I’d like to. However, I feel like the posts I can write now can offer more advice about the path I’m on as a student who will be applying to medical school and as a student who’s nearing the end of her college career. I’m thrilled to read posts by new bloggers who are offering amazing fresh takes on their Illinois experiences.
Hope to write more soon in the future!