Pandemic Advice for Students this Fall
Updated: Jul 21
5 steps to succeed this semester from a college student
No matter how we slice and dice it, school this fall is going to look different. Different in the sense that even if students are going in-person, I’m sorry to say, it’s not going to feel normal. A majority of classes are now online, masks required, social distancing police at the ready (half kidding), and sporting events will likely be put on hold.
"I don't think there's any scenario under which it's business as usual on American college campuses in the fall," says Nicholas Christakis, a sociologist and physician at Yale University.
Alas. In the shadow of the virus, colleges are finding creative ways to encourage social distancing—from online networking events to virtual fitness classes. Princeton University says you must be one tiger apart at all times. Where I live in rural New Jersey, the other day, I saw a sign that read, “Stay one cow apart!” Maybe that's taking it overboard.
Top students persevere through challenges, and they are adaptable. They take advantage of opportunities when most won’t. They are go-getters, doers, movers, shakers, and, as I like to say, stubborn optimists.
So, how do you become a top student in the middle of a global pandemic?
Take it from me. I’m a Penn State student who was cruising through sophomore year. And then———BAM! In a matter of a week, life turned upside down. It went from studying swarmed by passionate and energetic peers to feeling like my only faithful companion was my computer.
I will never claim to be perfect because I know I'm not, but despite the rumble and tumble of transitioning from in-person to entirely online, I emerged from the semester unscathed. I finished with a 4.0 and my sanity in-tack (mostly).
So here are my tips.
Step 1: Befriend Your Teachers/Professors
Professors are the gatekeepers of knowledge—research, internships, fellowships. They are the kings and queens of the land of academia but don’t be afraid of them.
Don't worry. They’ll still have office hours this fall, even if it’s virtual. Show up! Unmute yourself. Wave to that little camera that sits hidden atop your computer. Now here’s the trick: ask questions and raise your hand. If there’s no one else on the call, don't run away. Instead, ask for advice/mentorship—book recommendations, tips to be less stressed, how to get involved in research. If you’re feeling lonely, imagine what they are feeling.
Step 2: Manage Your Time
It’s hard to manage your time when distractions are everywhere. From the dog barking, parents asking you to help bring the garbage out, the lure of the fridge downstairs, loud music from the next-door neighbor, it sometimes feels like the 2020 classroom is a circus.
To do well, you need to try your very best to limit and remove all distractions. Lock your door, plug your ears, and get in the zone.
Next, create to-do lists before you start the day. Oh, how I love crossing off to-do lists. You know how Steve Jobs wore the same clothes every day? It’s the same deal—it’s about making your life easier. As someone wise recently told me, "Hard work doesn’t always beget results. Many are successful who make things easy."
And then time block, which means—on a calendar or old fashioned sheet of paper—write out the task and how long you think it will take. This level of discipline will help you become more efficient with your time. Efficiency is everything when it comes to becoming a better student.
Step 3: Don’t Let Your Phone Hop Into the Driver’s Seat
In an online world, it often feels like we are accessible 24/7—continually being assaulted with emails, phone calls, and pesky little texts. It doesn’t need to be this way. I like to set my phone on airplane mode when I’m working. I even tuck it into bed for the night, and kiss it before tucking myself into bed. Out of sight, out of mind.
Step 4: Take Breaks and Schedule Your Free Time
This may sound counterproductive to becoming a better student. But, believe me, caring for our mental health is one of the best things we can do to improve productivity and efficiency as students. I personally like to go for walks, hikes and get as far away from my screens as humanely possible. When you have a clear head, you can approach work with less mind clutter and more drive.
Step 5: Get Excited About Something New
There’s this big misconception that as students, we must always be studying if we want to do well.
As a naive, scrawny little freshman, I asked a mentor of mine (now studying at Yale Law School): How did you do it? How did you become so successful?
“Ethan, forget about the GPA,“ he told me. “Get involved, find something that keeps you awake at night. Something that gets you energized and excited for Monday mornings.”
That following summer, I took his advice by getting out of my comfort zone. I hopped on a flight to India and lived there for a month, where I volunteered with a non-profit.
A full year later, I had thrown a birthday party at an art gallery, gotten involved with biomedical research, and became the proud father of an aloe vera plant.
Now is the time to pivot and try new things. Learn a language. Whip out that guitar that’s collecting dust in the attic. If you like to write, start writing. If you've always dreamed of singing, start singing.
If anything my 4.0 GPA is a failure. Okay, yes, I’m proud of it, but what if I had gotten a 3.5 or 3.6? I often wonder about the other things I could have invested that time and energy in. Maybe by this point, I could be a bilingual world-famous marathon-running soccer-playing musician. Ethan, don’t kid yourself.
If my psychology degree has taught me anything, it’s that we are social creatures. We like to be surrounded by company. Being around other people makes us physically and emotionally healthier, according to research. Physiological markers of stress (namely, the hormone cortisol) decreases when we are around other people!¹
On the contrary, if my pre-med coursework has taught me anything, we are in for some trouble. In my anatomy and physiology class, I learned that our immune systems are imperfect machines. And, in organic chemistry, I learned about molecules like hydroxychloroquine, which made me appreciate just how sophisticated the engineering of medicines are. Right now it feels like we are in a war zone, as public health whistleblowers continue to warn of the virus's stubbornness.
And that is why this upcoming semester will be stressful and confusing. I’m not going to lie. I'm disappointed too. I was scheduled to be studying at Oxford University, roaming around Europe on a student budget, and living my best life. But that got put on hold, unfortunately.
I don’t mean to paint a picture of doom and gloom, but I intend to be realistic. That’s precisely why I’ve composed these five take-home steps, so we students can be smarter, safer, and happier this fall.
Please—always remember—to be kind to yourself.
Do you have any tips for students in the virtual world? If so, send me a message. I'd love to hear from you.
If you'd like one-on-one help this fall, please don't be a stranger. My team and I are helping students apply to colleges, receive scholarships to fund their experience, and learn strategies to succeed in college. Please click here to learn more.