Succeeding as a STEM major

academic advice academics STEM study skills
By Phil R.

So you’ve decided to major in STEM. Congrats! If you haven’t already, you’re probably going to hear all about how there are certain courses that are absolutely horrible in your major, whether they’re meant as weed-outs, taught by, well, let’s call them distant professors, or just plain hard. This post is meant to give you a few tips for how to come out the other side of these courses with your GPA and pride intact, and maybe even get some real learning too.

1. Build a Study Group

Typically in STEM courses, you’ll feel overwhelmed from the start. There’s a ton of reading before every lecture, homework that is either impossible, interminable or both, and the lecture moves at a frenetic pace. How is one person supposed to do it alone? Simple: Don’t. On the first day, look around to see if you know anyone. If you do, great! There’s your study group. Start a group chat that night and you’re off to the races. If you don’t, you might have to embrace a little bit of awkward. Introduce yourself to someone nice and mention that you’re looking to work with some people on the homework. More often than not, people want to work with others. 

Once you’ve got your group, make sure you’re working smartly. If you’ve got a big assignment due at the end on Friday, schedule a meeting on Tuesday where everybody looks at a portion of the assignment beforehand. That way, people can run into pitfalls, make mistakes, and learn the problem they tried, and then they can teach the group how to do it too! Same goes for test prep: groups can help chew through the bulk material faster, distilling the important stuff down for people to study independently.

A word of caution with groups: you get out what you put in. If no one preps for group or wants to divvy up responsibilities seriously, that’s a major red flag and a likely waste of time. But, if you can get a group going early in your major, you and your group can take future courses together too and conquer the major, one course at a time.

2. Use Your Resources

This one sounds simple, but it’s ignored often, probably because of its simplicity. If your professor has office hours, or your TA hosts a recitation, or if there’s anything optional on the schedule, consider it mandatory, even if you’re the only one who does. Oftentimes, the optional time is when professors and TAs cover the assignments, saving you time and teaching you relevant information. At the very least, it helps you build a rapport with them, so that when you email them late-night with an assignment question, you’re a person they know and you’re someone that they know cares, not just someone looking for an answer after procrastinating the assignment.

3. Respect the Course, Don’t Fear it

This one is most certainly a personal pitfall: when I was going through hard physics classes, I went into them with a survival mentality: I did whatever I had to do to get the homework done, oftentimes late at night, after flipping through books, looking for examples that matched the homework, and praying for partial credit. The strategy worked out, but oftentimes I’d forget an entire semester’s worth of material in my first long nap after finals week. That didn’t serve me well in grad school, when I found myself reviewing tons of undergrad material that I had just crammed and dumped.

Oftentimes, the hard courses in a STEM major are some of the most important ones in terms of material covered. When you take them, it’s important to focus on learning the material in a deep and intuitive way, so that later, if you’re called upon to use those skills, you can actually reap the rewards of all those hours of studying, not just re-hash material you know that you knew like I did.

In review

I hope this has been helpful! I know the tips I’ve given are pretty general, but the most specific advice I can give is to find what works for you. If a group isn’t working out, change groups! If the textbook doesn’t make sense, find another or look up the topic online! Your education is your responsibility, and thankfully there are plenty of tools to help you succeed. You just have to find the ones for you.

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