Tips to Survive the Summer Semester

If there is one thing every new student at the Institute for Advanced Analytics can expect upon arrival for their summer semester, it’s to hit the ground running. When we received details about our first group project before the first day of orientation had even ended, I felt entirely overwhelmed. The ramp up into an intensive schedule that I had anticipated did not exist, and I had to adjust quickly to not fall behind in the six-week stretch that is the summer semester at the Institute. Now that the summer is behind us and we are firmly in the fall semester, I have had time to look back on and learn from the experience. I am happy to share with you five crucial tips to crush your initial semester at the IAA.

#1: Expect To Grind From Day 1

You have heard about the 40+ hour work weeks while in the program, but you need to expect this to apply from Day 1. Assignments and group work begin immediately at the Institute. Before you arrive at orientation, mentally prepare yourself and expect the level of work from the very start of the program – it will help your transition into the swing of things. The initial workload was more than I had expected so early in the semester, and it took me some time to truly adjust.

#2: Find Organizational Tools That Work For You (And More Importantly, Utilize Them)

I have spent most of my life considering myself an unorganized person. I kept events scheduled in my head, used one notebook for multiple classes at once, and generally did not follow much of a daily schedule. I realized continuing these practices would leave me in the dust at the Institute. I quickly began experimenting with different organizational techniques, and immediately found that my productivity skyrocketed. 

Here are three things I would recommend for each and every incoming MSA student

  • Use OneNote to keep track of everything for your classes. I was skeptical at first, as I never have used an electronic note-taking system, but it changed everything for me. Creating books and pages for each class or lecture in OneNote allowed me to effectively organize all of the information that was thrown at us over the summer. Uploading slide decks into OneNote and writing directly on them ended up leaving me doing the most effective note-taking I had ever done, and with OneNote’s global search feature you can find any term, definition, or code example you need in seconds.
  • Ensure you are utilizing an effective daily schedule. Using Google calendar, I blocked off 30-minute to 2-hour time blocks for almost every waking hour of the work week for certain tasks (including non-school-related activities), mainly outside of the already scheduled class times. This kept me from being left with extended periods of downtime where I had no real plan, and it allowed me to spend that time more purposefully and productively. I immediately found that I was much more intentional with my time and was getting much more done. An example of what a given day may look like with this technique is attached below, with light blue calendar items representing blocks of time outside of the classroom.
  • Create an agenda. Each day I write down all tasks and goals I have for the day, then every few hours, I check it and mark off anything that has been completed. This greatly helped me keep accountable for the things I set out to get done each day.

#3: Know When To Clock-Out

The constant workflow at the Institute can quickly become very taxing. Eight-hour days on campus followed by homework/project work to be done at home can lead to some long days. I found myself struggling to put my computer away on nights when it felt I was making progress and did not want to stop, or when I was stuck on something and wanted to make a breakthrough before calling it a night. While this persistence may sometimes be a positive, it can quickly become a negative on your mental health. I found myself constantly thinking and stressing about school. 

To help with this, I began forcing myself to find stopping points in my work, where I told myself I would close my laptop and not dedicate any more time to school for the night. Doing this allowed me to spend time doing other things that I enjoyed, such as going to the gym or spending time with my roommates. I could feel myself mentally disconnect from the stress of constantly working, and my mood, energy, and drive all improved throughout the rest of the summer.

#4: Learn To Lean On Your Peers

The Institute makes it clear from the start that the program is designed to create a collaborative environment for its students. When the workload begins to pile up, it is important to remember that your peers are also facing the same challenges. Do not shy away from reaching out to classmates and asking for help or guidance. In all likelihood, someone else either has the same question or knows how they can help you out. Like Dr. Rappa says at the start of summer, this program is NOT a competition, so it is important to rely on and help each other.

#5: Get Ahead Where Possible

One of the most helpful things to me throughout the summer was working ahead on assignments whenever I had free time during the work week. If I completed one in a timely manner, instead of taking off the rest of the time block I had dedicated to working on the assignment, I would begin reading the next chapter in the textbook and begin the next assignment if time permitted. Doing this allowed my schedule for the rest of the week to become much more flexible.

There is always an element of unpredictability in your weekly schedule. One morning your computer may not connect to the internet. Your practicum group may need to meet unexpectedly during the time you set aside for working on assignments. An assignment may be much more difficult than you anticipated and take you longer than you planned. These are all real possibilities that will happen to you at one point or another. By being ahead of your work, you allow yourself flexibility for these inconveniences to happen without causing your work to pile up and overwhelm you as deadlines approach. Plus, it keeps you productive early in the week, while allowing you to relax some once Friday hits.

While the summer semester was challenging, it was far from impossible. Maintaining a positive attitude and employing these strategies improved my ability to move swiftly and effectively through the summer semester.

Columnist Eric Drew