Hey out there all you premed students and budding scientists, you concerned parents of struggling college kids, you high-schoolers figuring out what the heck to study at university. Biology is a great field to be in; if you are in this major you have made a wise choice. I can tell you from experience that challenging, good-paying jobs abound. You get to collaborate with some of the most driven and interesting people in the world doing work that you care about. The trouble of obtaining a Biology degree is worth it.
But let me warn you upfront: science majors are hard. Getting through my program is the most difficult thing I have ever done. If you choose to embark on this course of study, you will have low points. You will cry in the bathroom after bombing an exam, you will freak out at how much work you have to do and how little time you have to do it, and you will have moments when you cannot do this for One. More. Day.
During these inevitable dark times, take heart and remember: You can do this. You can
dominate your Biology program, including the dreaded Organic Chemistry, and below I have formulated ten tips to help get you all the way to graduation day and beyond.
1. Consider taking your first two years at community college.
Community college has four factors that make it the ideal environment for someone starting out in a Biology major:
• Most community colleges don’t have dorms or large sports teams, which means no frat parties, Saturday night football games, or any other big, raucous social events to distract you. If this sounds like a downside, keep in mind that you are in college to secure your future, not to get swallowed whole by the party culture. You can party after you’ve graduated and landed a good science job.
• Instructors at community college don’t conduct research. This is great for you because it means your instructors at community college are solely focused on teaching you and helping you succeed. They are far more likely than a university professor to know your name and face, and they have more time and energy to devote to one-on-one mentorship with their students, which is helpful to students who are still new to college.
• Community Colleges attract non-traditional students. Non-traditional students are older people going back to college to pick up a new skill, break into a new industry, or even take classes for the enjoyment of learning. Studying alongside people who are old hands at taking college courses can be immensely helpful for a young person starting out. Non-traditional students have long-since learned how to budget their time, study effectively, and contribute their fair share of work to group projects. But more than this, they can offer networking opportunities. Non-traditional students are already established in the workforce, and making friends with them can be the foot in the door you need to get an internship or even a job offer.
• A final enormous benefit of community college is its affordability. Tuition at a community college is a fraction of the cost of a four-year university, which means starting out at community college can reduce your total student debt by as much as half.
2. Organic Chemistry is Overblown
If one course in a Biology program frightens people from even trying, it is Organic Chemistry. The boogeyman of the undergraduate world, Organic Chemistry (aka Orgo or Ochem) has a terrifying reputation as a breaker of students and a filter that washes out the weak.
This is ridiculous. Orgo is challenging but by no means insurmountable. You can slay this dragon with the following techniques:
• Do the homework, all the homework. Organic Chemistry is a language, and the way to get better at any language is to practice, practice, practice. Your professor will go through each chapter in the textbook and then assign you a subset of the problems at the end as homework. Don’t just do the problems you are assigned; do all of them. Answer one problem at a time and immediately check your answer after each one. This will give instant feedback about which chapter sections and which concepts you need to review. When an exam is coming up, go back and do all the homework for every chapter all over again. This technique is time-consuming and tedious, but also the best way to master the language that is Organic Chemistry.
• Take advantage of online educational videos. Concepts stick in your mind more easily when learning from a human than from a book. Educational series on YouTube are great for connecting students to tutors. Most Organic Chemistry textbooks are structured the same way, so most video series that teach it will follow your textbook. My personal favorite online tutor is The Freelance Teacher.
Lance is a brilliant instructor who breaks down problems step-by-step and delivers lessons in a relaxed atmosphere. To find his videos, type freelanceteach in YouTube’s search bar or go to his website Freelance-Teacher.com. He suggests that you could pay him if you want to, but he doesn’t demand it. You can get the most out of his videos if you follow along as he sets up a problem, pause before he gives the answer, try to answer the problem yourself, then resume the video to see if you were right. Go through the videos as many times as necessary, Lance won’t judge you.
3. Your Core Bio Classes are Also Vanquishable
Though Orgo is the class that is most infamous for giving undergrads tremors, Biology courses also have a reputation as weeding-out classes. The secret to these classes, though, is that their exams all have similar layouts: a combination of multiple choice, short answer, and labeling diagrams. Armed with this knowledge, here are two simple studying techniques will let you sail through your Bio exams:
• Label diagrams like a master with sticky notes. One of the first diagrams you will have to label in your Biology major is glycolysis. Depending on who teaches the class, your professor will give you a partially or completely blank diagram. You may have to fill in the enzymes for each of the ten steps, the names of each product, the steps at which ATP is invested or harvested…yikes. Fear not. You can conquer glycolosis. First, print out a copy of the diagram your professor used in lecture. Next, take a bundle of sticky notes and cut them to the size of the labels on the diagram.
Once all the labels are covered, play Jeopardy with yourself. (For added fun value you can do this with your class-mates.) Guess what is under each fragment of sticky note before pulling it back to reveal the answer. By using this technique, you will never be intimidated by diagrams again.
• Write down the questions you think will be on the exam, and then answer them. I cannot take credit for this technique. My tenth-grade chemistry teacher taught it to me, and it works so well that I have been using it ever since. Look at the slides of each of your lectures and pretend you are your professor for a moment. What questions would you put on the exam?
Now open up your notebook. On one page, write down all the questions that might be on the next exam. On the next page, write down the answers. When you are finished you will have a practice exam that you can take as many times as you like. I have never seen a better technique to prepare for multiple choice and short answer types of exams.
4. Wait Until the End of the First Week of Class to Buy Textbooks
Freshman are easy to spot on the first day of class; they’re the ones coming out of the university book store carrying piles of brand-new textbooks still in the shrink-wrap. Upperclassmen commonly don’t buy books at all, and if they do they never buy from university bookstores. Those places scalp unsuspecting students like no tomorrow.
When you look at your class schedule, you will notice that most of your classes have book titles that say “required” next to them. Take this with a grain of salt, because you can get away with not having the textbook in a lot of classes.
Wait until the end of the first week of class to make your final purchasing decision. Textbooks are like cars: they are terribly expensive new and depreciate like crazy as soon as you drive off the lot with them. The professor will tell you the first day of class how much they use the textbook. If your program is like mine was, most professors put everything they want you to learn in Power Points and the book serves as an eight-pound reference source.
Once in a while, though, you will have to buy a book or two. Here are three ways to get a better deal than buying them new from the bookstore:
• Shop online. All you need is the ISBN and you can find copies of new and used books on digital markets like Amazon and eBay.
• If you don’t care about keeping the book after you have completed the class, another good choice is renting from sites like chegg.com. Their rates are reasonable and always better than the bookstore.
• Buy the required textbook one edition out-of-date. (For example, if you are supposed to buy the eighth edition of a particular book, get the seventh edition instead.) Remember how I said textbooks depreciate fast? Buying a book even one edition out-of-date could cut the cost by half, and is nearly identical to the one your professor will reference.
5. Make Sure YouHave Something Besides “Starbucks Barista” on Your Resume Before Graduation
Today’s job market is highly competitive. When a prospective employer looks at your resume, chances are they will glance at the education section to make sure you have the appropriate degree, and then focus most of their attention on your work experience.
Everyone who applies for the job you are interested in will have a college degree, and if your degree is the one thing on your resume you will be overlooked. To stand out from the pack you need to get some work experience before graduation.
Here are three ways you can go about it:
• Volunteer in a lab. Probably the easiest way to get experience is to find a professor who is researching something you are interested in and ask if you can volunteer in their lab. You won’t receive money for your services; the experience is your payment.
• Find an internship at a research institute or research hospital. Opportunities exist in every city; go out and find them. A lot of times your professors will know of some of these places since they have probably collaborated with one or two of them at some point. Internet searches are also good for unearthing these kinds of opportunities. Some internships pay, and if you can get one that does that’s great, but paid internships are rare and the competition for them is stiff. Most likely your internship will be unpaid, but the experience is invaluable. You will also expand your networking opportunities outside of the university.
• Hunt around for student jobs. Universities commonly have low-skill part-time jobs reserved for students. These jobs pay and can open a lot of doors if you can land one. During my senior year I got a student job working in my university’s greenhouses. It mainly involved watering the plants and sweeping the floors for $8/hr, but that job changed my life. Even more than my degree, my year’s worth of work experience gave me the springboard I needed to nab full-time jobs in horticulture after graduation.
Keep your eyes open; you never know when one of these opportunities will present themselves. In my case, I was reading through the Biology department’s newsletter when I saw a single line written at the bottom in small print, almost as an afterthought, which read “Job Opening for Greenhouse Assistant”. I had no experience working with plants, didn’t feel that I was qualified for the job, but I had nothing to lose, so I emailed a copy of my resume to the greenhouse manager. Her response came twenty minutes later: “Can you come in tomorrow for an interview?” So in summary, be on the lookout, and don’t be afraid to make the ask because you don’t think you would be qualified. Let your potential employer decide whether you’re qualified or not.
6. Naps are a Highly Under-rated Resource
College is stressful and requires you to stay awake for long periods of time. Studies have found that new parents and college students are the most sleep-deprived people in the world. I myself had to subsist on an average of 6 hours a night, which was not nearly enough. I spent most of my waking hours drifting through a fog of exhaustion. My emotions ran high when I was feeling sleep-deprived, and there were times when my overloaded brain wanted to give up and move into my parents’ basement.
Moments like this are the perfect time to take a nap. Naps are the human equivalent of turning your computer off and turning it on again; it solves an array of problems. If you are tired to the point where nothing you study sinks in, don’t fight it. Have a snooze. During your college years naps can mean the difference between slogging to the finish line and burning out.
Everyone’s sleep needs are different, but I personally have found the ideal study nap to be between 20 and 30 minutes. Libraries are good places for these quick time-outs. I would typically find a desk in a quiet corner, pull the hood of my sweatshirt up, and pillow my head on my arms. Unless you are going to class soon, I wouldn’t recommend setting an alarm. Your body will wake up on its own when it feels sufficiently refreshed.
7. Light Exercise is Great for Your GPA
Your brain is a tape-worm buzzing inside your skull. Thirty percent of the energy used by your body while at rest is devoured by your hungry brain. Powering this voracious organ requires large amounts of oxygen and nutrients. Since this is the organ that is storing the information you need to pass your classes, seeing to it that your brain is well nourished is in your best interest. And the best way to make sure your gray matter is getting what it needs is to get your blood flowing.
I’m not suggesting that you need to run on the treadmill and lift at the university’s gym for an hour every day. Only jocks have time for that. What I am suggesting is to make moving around part of your normal routine. After an hour or so of studying your mind will begin to wander and you will lose focus. Five or ten minutes of gentle exercise between each hour of studying will send a shot of blood to your brain and help you absorb the information you are trying to learn. Here are five suggested exercises:
• Walk around the floor of the library (if the library is a large building)
• Walk up and down the steps in the library’s stairwell
• Take a stroll around the block
• Ride your bike for a while
• Do some yoga
Anything that gets your heart pumping and your blood flowing is beneficial.
8. You Need to Eat
This one should be obvious, but I learned it the hard way in my freshman year. Tuesdays were terrible for me my first semester: I had class all day long starting with a 9am lecture and ending with a lab that ran from five in the afternoon to eight in the evening. Finding time for lunch was difficult, so for the first month I skipped it. By the time that 5pm lab came each Tuesday I was ready to curl up on the ground and cry.
After a month I realized that most of my Tuesday misery wasn’t caused by overloading on classes; I was miserable because I was hungry. Upon this realization I started stuffing my book bag with emergency snacks: granola bars, mixed nuts, apples, gummies, whatever I could eat while walking to class. It made all the difference in the world. Now that I wasn’t starving I had the energy to power through the last block of class time.
Food is important; you won’t learn anything if you’re too hungry to think straight. Try to come up with a regular schedule for your meals. I know you are busy and stressed, but make time for food. It’s that important.
And don’t try to live on snacks for days on end. Granola bars are band aids to get you through until you can sit down for some real food; they are not meal-replacers. Even on my hellish Tuesdays I was able to fit in breakfast before my first class and dinner after my last one.
9. Pick Up a Hobby to Preserve Your Sanity
Everyone needs a break from studying. You are not a robot that can absorb information 24/7, and you will get to the point where you can’t even look at a textbook or a Power Point anymore. This is where a hobby will save you from going insane.
Hobbies offer a mental change of gears and give you the emotional satisfaction of doing something for the simple enjoyment of it. Ideally, your hobby should not need a large amount of space or materials. Your hobby should also be something that can fit into small stretches of time; you want something that lets you take a break from studying without consuming your entire day. Personally I favored origami, but here are a five other good study-break hobbies:
• Jigsaw puzzles
• Playing an instrument
10. You Will Fail an Exam at Some Point
Every college student on Earth is allergic to failure. Making mistakes and failing are considered to be the absolute worst outcomes you can have in today’s ultra-competitive world, but the truth is everyone does it. Life happens. You can study your heart out, put your blood and sweat into preparing yourself, and still get an exam back with a failing grade on it.
When this happens to you, and it will happen, pause for a moment and breathe. Even though it feels like it now, the world will not end. You won’t die, your family won’t disown you, and your future will not crumble to dust before your eyes.
What does one do when bad grades happen to good people? First, take a nap. In your bed. After something as emotionally traumatic as this, don’t settle for a cat-nap in the library, you deserve a full-length nap in the privacy and comfort of your bed. When you wake up, eat a big nutritious meal, take a nice long walk to clear your head, and then devote an hour or two to your hobby. You will still feel shaken and ashamed at your exam grade, but after this self-care regimen you will have calmed down enough to get back to work.
Because that’s what you have to do. You fail, you do an autopsy on the exam to figure out where you screwed up, and you plow forward. College is not a sprint to the finish, it’s a marathon littered with obstacles designed to trip and impede you. No matter what problems you run up against, you have to keep barreling ahead. When you reach the end, and you can reach it, you will be a stronger person who has lost their fear of adversity.
I hope this list helps. Good luck!