The Academic Mindset: Part 2—Make It Pretty

This is the second part in a five part series on working on developing an academic mindset to get you through the college years. The goal of such a mindset is to give you principles with which you can take on any kind of academic challenge that you’re going to face when you get to Illinois. While I wish that I had all of this down when I got to campus as a freshman, the truth of the matter is that I learned a lot of this the hard way, and even today, I don’t do all of these things perfectly. That being said, I think that these five principles that we’re looking at are beneficial not because they are rigid things that we have to check off, but rather ideals to strive toward, and in that striving, we find ways to better ourselves. So to recap, Part I was about trying in college. We’re going to continue in that line of thinking with the next big principle: Make it Pretty.

Make what pretty? Your work. Make what you do gorgeous. All of your work. Study guides, re-writing notes, homework, powerpoint presentations. Strive for beauty in everything you do academically. This doesn’t mean you have to be an art major. But this does mean that if you’re making a study guide, that needs to be one gorgeous study guide, not something scribbled on the back of some RSO pamphlet you found in the union.

What’s the logic here? Well, making your work beautiful involves one big ingredient: time. If you need to make something look good, you’re going to need to put a lot of time into it. You need to plan where things go on the paper. You need to write as neatly as you can. Strategize color coordination. The fact of the matter is, your ability to understand something is directly related to the amount of *quality* time you spend with it. Time alone isn’t enough, and that’s why the students who “study” for five hours by reading over notes over and over will fail out of their first classes when they get here. The high school playbook gets outdated very quickly.

Making an effort to make your work pretty means that you have an opportunity for something else: creativity. As STEM majors, for example, we can lose out on the creative aspect of work, since much of our studying is memorizing mechanisms of some sort or using some degree of analytic reasoning. While this is certainly a *kind* of creativity, it is not the type of creativity cultivated by the other majors on campus. What I’m arguing is that if you really want to be on a different level in college, you need to integrate the best parts of other academic concentrations into your own. Making your work pretty gives you an opportunity to make the learning process your own.  You have to think and spend time when you want to make your work look pretty. Yes, it will take longer! Yes, it will take more attention! But this is one of the best ways you can make the time that you spend on the subject count. 

So, what does this look like? Well, for me, I used to do all of my work on lined paper. It took me some time to realize that lined paper probably works best only for writing, and not really great for math or, say, organic chemistry. So I made one of the best investments I’ve probably ever made: I went to the Green St. Walgreens, and I bought a 400-page pack of computer paper, and a 3-hole puncher. I threw that paper in a binder, and that became my new notebook. After lectures, I would neatly re-write my chemistry notes as if I was submitting it to an art gallery. I was doing things I had never, ever done before. Like color coordination. By the time I was done, even my friends were complimenting me. Now, I like to joke that my handwriting can only be deciphered using the Rosetta Stone. So hearing such compliments was beyond high praise. Spending time to make my re-written notes pretty let me process the information better, and it was just fun to look at. The re-written notes were so good that I ended up using it to study for my DAT. Of course, a huge shoutout to Dr. K for providing the award-winning content. I still have the 3-hole puncher. I think I named it Steve.

“But Mark”, I hear from the back of the room, “I like using a computer to type everything up. Isn’t that neat enough.” So, yes, if you want to play that game, it is technically neat enough. But I would challenge you to make it look beautiful on a Word doc. For example, why do you do everything in Arial or Calibri? Go play with the fonts, find one that you really like, something that you wouldn’t mind reading for hours. Type your notes with that. Color code everything. What’s a rule? What’s something you have to memorize? What’s a skill? And as for your notes: With a laptop, you can always make it look better. So make it look better. Have good formatting. The idea is to make something that you actually want to look at.

So make it pretty. See yourself as a craftsman honing your skill. Make something you could sell, or more importantly, make something that you would buy. The best thing you can do in college is learn to enjoy the process, whatever it may be. Might as well get a head start on that now!



Class of 2020
I was born and raised in Naperville, Illinois. I’m a pre-dental student studying Integrative Biology, and I’m trying to pursue minors in Chemistry and English. My posts are for students who want to know what college is actually like and how to survive once you get here.

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