How to Be a Dean’s Lister – Part 2

This is part 2of my 3-part series on how to be a dean’s lister.

How to Be a Dean's Lister

So how do you become a Dean’s Lister? Here I’ll share my personal tips on how I got on the dean’s list. Since the tips are quite long (almost 5,000 words), I have split them into several parts. Part 2 will feature the first 6 tips. 😀

1. Aim to be the best

Rather than think about “how to get on the dean’s list”, think in terms of getting the top results. That’s because dean’s list is but a corollary of achieving top results, and the cut-off for the list fluctuates every semester based on the performance of the overall cohort. That means the cut-off is only determined after the exams, when results are tabulated.  In an average semester, 4.5 or 4.6 out of a 5.0 score (4.5 is A-, while 5.0 is A or A+) gets you into the list. However, in a semester where all the students do extremely well, the cut-off may be as high as 4.7 or above. So if you start off the semester aiming for 4.5 score (average A-), you might not get into the list if everyone did well.

It’s much easier to aim for the top and end up within the top 1~5%, than to aim to be the top 5% which is a very subjective goal. How do you calculate 5% of the cohort anyway? How would you know who’s getting what grades? How are you supposed to set your targets if the context is fuzzy to begin with? And does it even matter? The most important thing is you are aiming for your best target.

If aiming to be the top is a little hard to stomach for you, then just focus on being the top student for each module you take. That isn’t so hard, is it? From my experience, if you get your coursework in place, understand the materials thoroughly and do your best, being the top performer is an inevitable outcome.

2. Plan your modules in advance

What I love about university is you are now in charge of what you want to study, right down to the modules for each semester. This also means you are responsible for your timetable and planning your workload across your 3-4 years of study. Some students like to have a heavier workload in the first 2 years of their study, leaving more room for other activities in their last year. Some students even out their course work throughout their semesters. I belong to the latter group. Ultimately it’s up to you and what you prefer. There’s no right or wrong way. You just have to make sure you are able to commit to the workload you have planned.

It’s not just about selecting what’s available when planning modules. Take note of:

  • Who’s teaching What. Some modules are taught by different lecturers in different semesters, who in turn have different styles of teaching. Subsequently, the materials and standard of exam papers are different. Some lecturers have open book exams, some have closed book exams, while some don’t have any exams. These information are usually available on the university site. You can also consult seniors or peers who have taken the modules.
  • Course workload. Each module has its own workload. Some require heavy commitment (I took a Japanese module which probably had heavier work load than any of my own Business modules), while some can be breezed through. You can get some indication from the course description.
  • Who’s taking the Module. Some modules are prerequisites for a higher level module. This means in a particular semester, there will be a lot more seniors taking it to clear their prerequisites.
  • Lesson timings. You need this to plan out your time table.
  • Exam dates. Different subjects have different exam dates. The dates can be any date within a 2-3 week exam period.

This means:

  • If the module has multiple lecturers, take the modules in the semester with the better lecturer and when the style of teaching is more suited to you. Personally I hate rote learning (learning through memorization and without understanding of the topic at hand), so I would pick modules during the semesters with open book exams, where students are tested more for their understanding of the subject. If there’s no exams it’s even better :D. It’s easier to manage your grades through projects/assignments, which are products of consistent work than exams, which is just your performance during 2-3 hours. I’m also a big fan of webcast lectures, since I can opt out of lectures and study when I feel like it.
  • Get an even playing field. If you are a junior and many seniors taking this class this semester (to satisfy a prerequisite), take other modules if you can. Competition levels tend to increase over the academic years, as the students up their game to get their best results. Also, seniors will have advantage in their baseline knowledge. Some of my third year modules were intensive, and if it was a junior taking the class he/she would have been squashed by the fellow seniors. Taking modules with peers evens out the playing field.
  • Plan your timetable well. Strategically planning out your time table gives you time for other activities, whether outside school commitment, studying or leisure time. I always arranged my classes such than I only had 3-day weeks. Factoring in webcast modules where I would skip the lectures, sometimes I would just have 2-day weeks. That saved me a lot of commuting time since it would take me almost an hour to get to school and another hour to get back. I could use this time for other stuff, such as project work, sleep or leisure.
  • Space exam dates apart (where possible). I hardly ever had exams crammed together in a few days. Sometimes, just having that extra have a day for revision can be crucial in the exam period. The further they can be spaced apart, the better (the time in between can be used to unwind and relax). I would have 3-4 exams spaced across 1.5 weeks. (some of my modules had no exams).
  • Have modules that balance off one another. Unless your schedule permits, don’t choose all your modules with heavy workloads. If you know a module you are taking for the semester is extremely intensive, pick lighter modules to go with it.
  • Pick modules with content synergy. This is more of a bonus tip. If you see modules with similar themes, take them up so you can cross apply what you learned. Since I was a marketing major, I took this technopreneur module outside of business school, which was about marketing, technology and entrepreneurship. It was a great opportunity to apply what I learned in my major. Subsequently I scored well in the module.

3. Know what you are evaluated on

Each module is graded on different components. Out of the modules I’ve taken before, these are the possible components:

  • Exams and tests – By far the most common component
  • Group project work – A staple in university, especially Business
  • Assignments – Tutorials or individual exercises
  • Lab work – If you study sciences
  • Presentation – Presentation skills and how well you handle Q&A
  • Participation in class – Your contribution to class discussions. It was the lecturers’ way of getting people to talk more. Asians tend not to speak up compared to Westerners.
  • Attendance – Rare. I only had this for a Japanese module I took. It seems Japanese are particular about punctuality, attendances and timely submission of work.

The components are assigned different weightage. A sample allocation can be 40% for exams, 30% for project work, 20% for assignments and 10% participation. All this information should be available on your university site or given out by your course coordinator. If it’s not, then someone is slacking on his/her job. Please ask for it from your university office.

Knowing what you are evaluated on tells you what you should focus your efforts on. Some of my coursemates spent a lot of time studying, when exams only contributed to 30% of the grade (the rest being project work, tutorials and participation). On the other hand, they never quite spent as much time on the other components. They don’t participate in class, don’t do much for their projects and finish their assignments in the last minute. I never really understood why, though now to think of it, it might be because evaluation from high school and junior colleges was 100% exams.

However, things are different in university. Coursework and engagement matter. Speak up in class, build a relationship with your teachers and apply your knowledge. If there is participation score assigned to the class, then speak up more. If projects have a high score, then do more preparation work. Reading textbooks is an overrated activity. I have classes where I barely touched my textbook and I scored an A or A+ on it. Read just so you have enough knowledge to understand and apply but don’t get stuck trying to theorize theory. Most of the times I read the text once to understand, and that’s about it. (Unless it’s a closed-book exam where memorization is needed.)

If your assignment is 10%, group project work 30% and exams 70%, then allocate your effort in that manner. Don’t spend some 80% of your time doing your assignment, 20% on your group project, and 0% studying for your papers. You don’t get extra marks for spending more time on a small component. The 80/20 rule applies in studies too.

4. Don’t hold back

Remember back in elementary school where it’s normal to get full marks for your tests? Well it’s no different in university. If you want to, it’s possible to score full marks, whether it’s for your project work or your exams. Why not? After all, if your work merits it, there’s no reason why the professors wouldn’t give you the best mark.

I didn’t start my university aiming to be the top student in my modules, but halfway through the semester I realized I was the top student in some of my modules, and it wasn’t anywhere as hard as one would think. I was just doing my own thing and getting my act straight, that’s all. No magic tricks, no hocus-pocus, no hard-core mugging or anything like that (more on that in other tips). That’s when I suspect a lot of common beliefs surrounding being the top are more self-created than anything else. I knew the other students who did well too, and they are real people like you and me. Just focus on putting your best foot forward, and everything else will fall into place.

So don’t hold back. With every component you are evaluated on, aim to get the maximum marks. It’s possible, but first you have to set that as a goal first. If you subconsciously place a mental limitation on what you can achieve, you’ll only reach that height because you are holding yourself back. But if you recognize you can indeed get full marks, you will set yourself to achieve that.

5. Learn the content immediately when it’s taught

If you are taught a new concept on the day, then understand it before the class ends. Finish reading the materials before packing up. if you don’t know what the teacher is talking about, then ask your friends. Or better still, consult your teacher. There’s no better way than to seek out the source directly. Make sure you know what he/she is talking about before you leave. Don’t leave it hanging in your mind.

This is important because otherwise, you are creating extra work for yourself. Some of us may say we will study later when we get home, but how many of us actually do that? I know I wouldn’t. I would just hit the sack or go play games. At home, there are a lot more distractions, compared to in the school where the environment is conducive. You have to overcome a lot more just to study. What’s more, even if you do overcome the distractions and study, what’s to say you will understand the materials fully? The professor isn’t there, your friends aren’t around you, and it’s just a drag to have to wait till another time to consult them. All this work which can be prevented if you just finish learning the content right when it’s taught, with the resources at your perusal.

The burden of not understanding the content will weigh over you. It might not seem significant, but multiply this over the stretch of your entire semester, along with other modules. As the burden becomes bigger, you build up a larger resistance toward catching up on your materials. Whereas initially the thought in your mind is “there is this concept in this module that I don’t understand”, it eventually generalizes into “I don’t know this module well”, to “I’m not good in this module”, to “There’s no point studying since I’m not good in this”.You keep saying you will catch up on it when you go home, but you never do because the weight of the work overwhelms you. All this while it’s just the mental fear built up in your head. And so much energy wasted on your part trying to overcome that mental fear and get to the actual reading, which brings in a whole load of other work because you refused to learn the materials during the best moment. There’s really just a thin line that separates the strong performers and the ones who lag behind, and this is the difference. Learning the things as they are taught, rather than deferring to an infinite time.

In lectures and tutorials, whenever there is something I don’t understand, I’ll make sure I clarify on the spot. Get all the issues zapped immediately so I don’t have to deal with it later. Consequently, I rarely needed to study in my free time. I found out many seemingly complicated questions can always be easily addressed on the spot. In fact, the complications are more mental than anything else. Some of my classmates often lamented about all the chapters they needed to catch up on. They said the same thing week after week, saying they would read up on it but never doing so since the thought of catching up on the materials overwhelmed them. They procrastinated on the work, then they would anguish over their procrastination. All this, when it could have been avoided at the onset. Seriously, don’t create unnecessary problems for yourself. Get your stuff right the first time, and you spare yourself a whole lot of pain later on.

6. Prepare for your tutorials

Lectures are meant for theoretical understanding, while tutorials are meant for in-depth discussion and application. If you go to your tutorials unprepared, you are going to be lagging behind. Not only that, you can’t fully benefit from what is discussed during class. Make sure you study your materials and do your tutorials before you go to tutorial sessions. It will go a very long way.

Back then, I almost always prepared for my tutorials. And because of that, I was able to gain maximum learning during the short 1-hour sessions. Subsequently, I never had to revise much afterward. I had a module where I participated actively during the classes, but didn’t read the textbook. I only read the text for the first time on the night before the exams, and even then I skimped through the text. I eventually scored an A+ for the module. (The exams were 40% of the final grade).

How much you prepare for your tutorials and how much of the content you understand during tutorials is an good indication of how you’ll perform for the exams. The exam questions are usually similar to what’s discussed during tutorials too. If you prepare well for your tutorials, that’s already more than half the battle won. The remainder is doing well for your project work and occasionally revising to keep the content fresh in your mind.

Continue on to: How to Be a Dean’s Lister – Part 3 🙂