Monthly Archives: October 2011

The “World´s Best Colleges”: No, thanks?

“I am sorry, I can’t, I have debate…” used to be my friend’s favourite saying. He used to do a million (plus one) extracurricular activities, get decent grades and Skype with his girlfriend from Israel. Three months later, we accidentally met again. Not only did he look as if he had not slept or eaten for the last few days, but he also sounded utterly unhappy. He refused to have coffee with me and with a “I am sorry, I am sending college applications…” went home. What the heck was going on?

I figured out that a lot of college applicants (even when being the most hardworking people you can imagine) freak out each autumn with a single thought haunting their mind: “What if Oxford/MIT/Harvard/plug-in-any-name-of-a-supercool-university-here rejects me?” And since last year – quite frankly – I was also one of them, I wondered whether a) the “best” university for you is always “the best university according to XYZ rankings” and b) what is it about these “best” colleges that makes them (seem) superior to all other choices you may have.

Do not get me wrong. THE “Ivy League Degree” clearly opens up a world of opportunities. You are a demanded employee, get high social status almost by definition and once you find your first job, you will probably never have to eat those 20-cents-noodles again. Right? But the thing is – do you know more about, say, linear algebra than people from less well-known universities? Are you prepared for your particular dream job better than from any other school? Does a Diploma from a prestigious school means something else than that you survived a stressful application process and aced your SATs (A-Levels)?

Let me give you an example how terribly misleading university rankings can be. In February, one Czech newspaper published a university ranking (subject: economics). The winner was the Faculty of Economics at the University of Economics in Prague. So far, so good. However, if you took a closer look, you would have discovered two major problems with this statistics: Firstly, it is misleading due to very unusual methodology and secondly, it did not even take into account the perhaps most important criteria: Teaching quality. Reality check: My friend who studies there (1st year Bc) has no idea what derivatives are or how to use them – which, if you study economics, is rather embarrassing.

On the other hand, this was an extreme case. But even if we assume that university rankings are more or less accurate, what does that really mean? In my opinion, in the era of Internet the courses cannot be that much different content-wise. It is rather all about the way you are treated as a student and what opportunities you are given. And frankly, some small (read: unknown to rankings) universities can excel in that. However, because they can’t boast about their 600-and-something years of “tradition of excellence”, they are not among the TOP.

One more reality check: One of my best friends currently studies at Yale. A dream came true, you would say. Well, from my perspective it is rather a dream where you yourself are not allowed to dream. Whenever we Skype, he sounds exhausted and frustrated. Peer pressure (“you gotta challenge yourself”) and his student advisor pressured him into something that is (even among the Yale students) perceived as suicide: Directed studies. Yet the worst thing is not the immense pressure and workload, nor the lousy grades he (sometimes) gets – it is mere knowing how deeply unhappy this pressure makes him. Is it worth sacrificing his interest in chemistry for which he now has no time? Is it worth the shiny Yale stamp? Doubt it.

So now we know that prestigious universities can suck not only money but also joy out of your life – not to mention the difficulty to shine – and hence derive some pleasure from hard work – among a hundred or more extremely smart ambitious students at a top college, I say: Why suffer? I don’t think it’s “ok” not to sleep for three years, just like it is not “ok” to study somewhere just because you need a fancy Diploma and suffer from depression and once or twice seriously consider killing yourself. I think that unless you know that this is what you have always wished for, you should allow yourself to breathe from time to time.

Finally, a piece of advice that would have saved me many tears one year ago: If you want to be successful, forget the rankings. Find a college most suited to your needs and dreams – care less if it is in the Top 50 or not. Remember, you are looking for your new home.

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Posted by on 27 October, 2011 in Education


Last-minute studying for exams: THE survival guide

At first, a semester feels almost like eternity. You keep telling yourself something like: “I will study later, there is plenty time…“ Unfortunately, the “later“ never comes. Once you are too busy finishing a project, then you simply need to attend the coolest party ever  (and recover from a hangeover for the next two days)  and then you fall asleep after opening the book for the first time. If this rings a bell and you find yourself in deep sh… trouble, than this article is for you: How to survive your exams (i.e. pass) and not to go nuts in the process.

Say you have three days left. Suppose you haven´t studied at all so far, but you have at least attended (most of) the lectures and have (at least some) notes (hey, nobody says that these need to be your notes). How to deal with the immense amount of information you need to understand for the exam?

First and foremost, plan. Make a schedule where you clearly indicate the time dedicated to studying, eating, sleeping and relaxing. There are a couple of rules you should follow.

  • Study in blocks and take breaks between the blocks. You cannot reasonably expect to be able to focus for six hours straight. That´s insane.
  • Sleep at least 8 hours per day. If you are tired, you do not learn as fast.
  • Eat – and eat healthy stuff. Even if you would prefer having three hamburges for each maths exercise you finish, a salad will not make you drowsy(/sick). As for drinks, I heartily recommend green tea.
  • Little treats (Twix bar, anyone?) are fine! (In breaks only.) In reasonable amounts, right?

Now that you know how much you can dedicate to each subject and have it planned, start studying. Remember to learn the theory first, then go and do the exercises. It does not make sense to do it the other way around – but you would be surprised how many people fail to follow this simple rule.

The second often neglected rule of thumb is revision. Always revise what you have learned on that day so that you do not find your mind completely blank once you get the exam questions.

The third thing people usually forget about is natural procrastination. If you tend to check Google+ every time you turn on your PC, BLOCK that site for the next few days (I know, so painful). Alternatively, designate a ten-minute block for social networking sites during the day so that you do not suffer from withdrawal symptoms.

And finally, do not panic. It does not help, really. If you know there is no way you can learn everything, focus on the more important concepts and make sure you know how to solve the most important examples discussed in class. Remember that even if you do not know every detail of a particular theory unlike the unpleasant know-it-all who sits in the back row, it does not mean that you cannot get a decent pass.


Posted by on 12 October, 2011 in Education


The Importance of Being…”peer pressured”

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a “good“ university is a good place to be. Demanding courses, interesting extracurricular activities, an honours programme and strict, yet enthusiastic professors who know what they are talking about. You´d be forgiven for thinking that “this is enough“; this alone does not make a university “good“ and does not guarantee that you will truly learn something.

Why? Consider one extra element, in 100% of cases neglected in the Top university rankings: Peer pressure. – Who are the people around you? How motivated are they to study? What do they do in their free time? Why have they chosen this course?

If you say that such concerns are immaterial, you are wrong. Let´s face it: Students are social animals (even mathematicians feel the human need to communicate with others, right?), so they care very much indeed about their peers and do their best to “belong“. Suddenly not partying can become a less free choice than it at first seemed.

Since we all are pretty familiar with the drawbacks of peer pressure (do not pretend that you haven´t heard countless warnings from your parents concerning youth gangs, free sex, drugs, alcohol and rock´n´roll), let´s look at the benefits of peer pressure: How can it help you challenge yourself?

First and foremost, your classmates are your drive to be active at the university. If they ask thought-provoking questions, always do their homework and even have an interesting job, it is natural for you to (sometimes unconsciously) to do the same. You study together, work on extra projects on conduct your own research in small groups and hence “go deeper“. Better grades (and thus better career prospects) almost surely follow.

Second, motivated people keep you going. If you are struggling, feel desperate before your midterms or simply are deterred by an assignment, ambitious peers can do miracles. Not only that they can help you with the given problem, but also their positive energy nudges you not to give up. Besides, just knowing that “it can be done“ helps a lot.

Third, high-flying classmates will give you invaluable tips: How to solve exercise 12.31, why is it a bad idea to work for the XYZ company and what did the professor say regarding the final exam at the tutorial you were unable to (did not bother to) attend.

Believe it or not, all these “little“ things make a huge difference. If the “norm“ is to bury yourself in the books and work like a dog for three (four, two – depends on the degree) years straight, you are likely to do so. However, if it is “normal“ to get terribly wasted every Thursday evening, always come late for lectures and not to make any notes, then even the best professor in the world cannot do much to make you successful.

At the end of the day, if you want to get the most of your education, make sure that you are always under the “good“ peer pressure; otherwise you would be rather “peer depressured“ to work – which could make you very (peer) depressed at the end.

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Posted by on 4 October, 2011 in Education


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