Encountering and Overcoming Princeton’s Academic Challenges: Stories From Learning Consultants

Princeton is hard academically. Some students encounter that difficulty in their first semester. For others they encounter it later when they take more courses, or classes on unfamiliar topics with little foundation, or for other reasons. But, for all students Princeton is hard. Even Princeton students awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, like Nicolette D’Angelo will need to embrace and adapt to Princeton’s academic challenges. She recalls calling her mother “during my first year of college, in tears, to say that I was finding my courses too difficult, that I feared I would never be able to succeed at a school like Princeton.” By facing these challenges directly and striving to adjust their approaches and adapt to Princeton's rigorous academics,  students build the learning skills, strategies, and mindsets that contribute to their academic success in future courses and independent work and in their endeavors beyond Princeton.

That fear is understandable and at times can be paralyzing. Sometimes we know something is wrong or isn’t working, but don’t know how to fix it. Reflecting upon what’s working, what isn’t, talking with others, and brainstorming solutions can be difficult and time-consuming—and requires courage. But, usually that’s what’s needed to meet a challenge and overcome it. How do students learn HOW to respond to and overcome these challenges? By using McGraw and other resources on campus and learning from the students who have preceded them. You can learn from learning consultant who faced challenges like the ones you are encountering. Look at the titles below for essays relevant to you.

McGraw’s learning consultants responded to the following prompt with the vignettes below: What is an academic challenge you faced at some point in your career at Princeton, and how did you respond to it? 

I had little experience in academic writing and reading literary research prior to Princeton

The biggest academic challenge I faced at Princeton was the transition period after I decided to change my concentration from a STEM field to an interdisciplinary field in the middle of freshman spring. Having spent all four years of high school studying STEM-related subjects, I had little experience in academic writing and reading literary research prior to Princeton. Writing seminar, unfortunately, did not resolve my anxiety but rather intensified some of my preoccupations as I was pressured by the constant wave of deadlines. I thought I would not need to write particularly well anyway, given that I was a "science person". But soon after I decided to pursue a different academic passion, I knew that I must confront my fear of writing and reading with a more systematic approach and a more positive outlook. I started breaking down writing prompts by asking smaller and more specific questions so that I would be able to work on one specific small question at a time and eventually came back to putting all my responses to the small questions together as a cohesive work. As a result, writing to me became less of a frantic ideological sprint right before the deadline but a steadier marathon divided into sections. I also tried to put myself in a field-specific scholarly perspective by actively deconstructing the development and argument of my assigned readings and visiting professors for clarifications. Other than that, I was very honest and realistic with myself during this time; I allocated more time to my classwork than before so that I could adapt to a new mode of learning. It is okay to not know it all from the beginning; that is why we learn!

How I could possibly improve without devoting so much time to a single class?

During freshman fall, I found prioritizing difficult because I lacked a clear idea of upcoming academic and other work. To remedy this, I created a system that would help me find, organize, and reason about what was coming and how long it would take. This way, I could balance things proactively instead of reactively, and I could ensure I was balancing my commitments to academic work, extracurriculars, and myself.

 

My solution was the creation of a weekly plan, done directly after my weekly review (part of GTD). This timing was particularly good as after the review, I was up-to-date on progress in various areas of life, so could plan from an accurate starting point. The system is as follows:

 

  1. List out all upcoming work (coming week and longer term) by looking at syllabi and other relevant schedules in a document or spreadsheet (latter preferred).
  2. Define all tasks that needs to be completed that week, both for longer-term projects and for more immediate due dates. Example tasks would be “MAT201 pset” or “CHI101 lesson 1 & lesson 3” or “HIS360 readings” or “McGraw Application”.
  3. Estimate how long each component of a task will take and sum them to get the total time for the tasks (e.g., CHI101 lesson: “reading: 30min”, “homework assignment: 30min”, and “making flashcards: 45min” for a total of 1.75hrs). For time estimation, historical data is best, or historical data for similar tasks if a particular task hasn’t been done before.
  4. Transfer all data from a spreadsheet into scheduled calendar blocks. This functions to reality check whether the time you’ve said you’ll dedicate is actually available.
  5. Prioritize if you find conflicts when looking at the full picture of the academic work you expect to do with everything else (extracurriculars, time with friends, etc.).

 

This strategy makes clear roadmap of the upcoming week, which helps one keep low stress levels and make informed decisions when unexpected opportunities emerge. Aside from day-to-day help, making the weekly plan is also a good indicator of over-commitment, as making the plan becomes more and more difficult when calendar space starts running out. This is a key time to think about “why’s” for different activities, which helps re-sync activities with their motivations and make prioritization decisions clearer, or helps one realize that something is no longer aligned with what one wants, and start unwinding their involvement with it.

Overall, the weekly plan is useful for keeping on top of all of one’s commitments, as well as stepping back to make big-picture decisions about what work you want to be in that weekly plan.

I started going to office hours but they could be a bit overwhelming

A recent academic challenge I faced at Princeton was in my Introduction to Quantitative Social Science (POL 345) class.  I was really struggling to understand the material in lectures, as practically everything that the professor was saying was going over my head. My friends also told me that they were struggling but I would get frustrated because they would still do much better on the quizzes and problem sets than me. I started going to office hours but they could be a bit overwhelming as there were often many students there and the preceptor was not able to control the classroom. I finally decided to go to a McGraw group tutoring session which saved me and my grade. There was always more than one tutor available who would circulate the room and were great at answering my questions. I liked being with students who had taken the class in the past because they knew how difficult the material was and were supportive with my academic growth. They guided me and asked me helpful questions that led me in the right direction, and I am incredibly grateful for their help.

When I got my midterm came back, I was completely disappointed and felt trapped

One of my academic challenges at Princeton! An academic challenge that I faced at Princeton is directly connected to a class. The class was MAT 103. I had to take the class since I am interested in quantitative politics and calculus is an useful skill to have in that field. I have never considered myself a ‘math person’ and so taking the course was tremendously challenging for me, both practically in terms of understanding the concepts and getting through the homework, and also emotionally, as I felt that how well I did in that class would be proof of whether I was or not a good student able to meet new challenges. When the first quiz, and then the midterm came back with results lower than my expectations, I was completely disappointed; and felt trapped, unable to make progress in the class.

Even before I started the class however, I knew that it would be difficult for me, and that I needed a network of support, that could guide on me on how to best approach the class. So I started accessing that network comprised of Nic Voge, Jennifer Johnson and the MAT 103 McGraw tutors. Nic was crucial for keeping me grounded and enthusiastic about the class. He invited me to explore studying strategies that helped alleviate my anxiety both for the everyday classes and also for the required examinations. In addition, he pushed me to see that a class or my performance in one single class is not a moral reflection of who I am as student or as a person. Professor Johnson’s willingness to meet with me during her office hours, but even outside of them in order to ensure I was getting an answer to my many questions was not just incredibly helpful, but moving; knowing that Professor Johnson truly cared about my understanding of the material vastly increased my comfortableness in the class. Finally, McGraw tutors were helpful in both, helping me navigate the concepts, and helping me apply them to the problem sets. Although the class was hard, the invaluable network of support I had throughout allowed me get the most out of it.

The expectations from high school and Princeton are completely different

I walked into my first Princeton course, MAT201 Multivariable Calculus, with my head held high. I had already aced Multivariable Calculus and Linear Algebra during my senior year of high school, so this course was going to be a breeze. However, I soon faced the lofty demands of Princeton academics, and more specifically, the high expectations of the Princeton math department. I struggled to acclimate to Princeton’s style of teaching math, which I could only describe as fast-paced and abstract. Math was no longer a simple application of formulas and concepts; I had to add complications, going beyond what the textbook taught. In high school, if I put in time and completed what the teacher asked of me, success in a class was guaranteed. Here at Princeton, that was no longer the case. I knew my past habits of attending class, completing daily assignments, and studying for a few days leading up to the test would not suffice.

I first sought out my professor for help. However, office hours with my professor were only helpful for clarifying concepts that I already had a grasp on. It was then that I realized that I needed to seek help outside of class. Through searching, I came upon the plethora of support and resources offered to MAT201 students. After attending a learning consultation at the McGraw center, I started to attend weekly MAT201 review sessions held by preceptors, McGraw group study hall sessions, and individual tutoring sessions. I found the individual tutoring sessions instructive when I didn’t understand a concept from the textbook, because the tutor would explain the concept in simple terms. In addition, I reached out to multiple upperclassmen who had taken the course. Taking their advice, I prepared for the final exam weeks in advance, taking every practice exam available. Ultimately, after many slip-ups and adjustments, I was able to finish the course successfully.

I feel quite grateful for the course: not so much for the content I learned, but more so for the ways it prepared me for future Princeton courses. Through this course, I completely shifted my way of studying. Rather than expecting to learn everything from the instructor and the assignments, I started to preview and review material on my own and plan for exams weeks prior. From the experience with MAT201, I grew accustomed to asking people for advice with the class and seeking out all the resources available. The course taught me how to strategize for different types of courses. My greatest takeaway from the experience was that while you must be self-motivated to learn at Princeton, you should not try to do everything on your own. The expectations from high school and Princeton are completely different, and it’s difficult to navigate those expectations on your own. As difficult as Princeton is, there are so many people that are eager to help you, if you just take the initiative to ask.

The cultural and language barriers were very strong and the teaching methodology extremely different

My first semester in Princeton was probably the most challenging I have ever faced. I was coming from a gap year in which I really did not do too much studying and, on top of that, it was also my very first time in the US. The cultural and language barriers were very strong and the teaching methodology extremely different from what I had been ever exposed to. The result was a terrible C- in my first math exam. What added anxiety and fear to this situation was the pressure both the coaches and teammates of the track team were putting on me. Everybody was trying to persuade me to PDF the class and give up on my idea to major in physics caused Princeton was going to be much harder than I thought and for both my mental and physical well-being it would have been better that way. I don’t blame them for that, I know they had good intentions, but I was not ready to give up yet.

The toughest challenge to me was admitting I had a problem. As most of Princeton students, I was one of the best at my high schools, so I had never needed a tutor or help from a professor or peer. It was hard to admit and accept the fact that, at least in that moment, I was not able to achieve my goals by myself, I needed help. I decided I would have taken advantage of any resource Princeton offered until my grades would have gone back up again. From that on, for the rest of the semester; I went to every office hour and homework session; I emailed the professor everytime I would feel I had a doubt on a concept that was introduced or a problem we encountered in class; I attended all the study hall sessions offered by Mcgraw plus I booked a couple of individual sessions the week before quizzes and the final exam. It was a lot, maybe even unnecessary, but I would have accepted another failure only if I could look at myself and know that there was really nothing more I could have done.

My final exam went incredibly well, I had a 94%. Most importantly though, all that work didn’t simply teach me those math concepts: being exposed to so many different people and ways of tackling problems (professor, TA, Mcgraw tutors, other students) helped me to develop my own method and gave me a lot of confidence to become more independent from the following semester.

I’d accepted my own learning needs instead of feeling ashamed of them

The biggest academic challenge I faced during my career at Princeton was my first semester of Organic Chemistry. I came to Princeton with only basic chemistry information (my school didn’t have AP Chem), so I struggled so much all throughout General Chemistry. When I walked into my first lecture of organic chemistry, I felt insecure and completely unprepared. I think the way I was able to respond to this was by committing to moving past my insecurities instead of hiding behind them as I’d done in the past. In precept, I asked a LOT of questions even if I felt they made me look ‘stupid’ or ‘annoying.’ I accepted that I had less prior knowledge than others. I wouldn’t be able to understand a lot of things completely on my own. After doing really badly on a midterm, I reached out to one of the student preceptors and she was kind enough to meet with me every week, guiding me through each non-mandatory pset for practice and reassuring me when I got frustrated. This amount of practice was helpful. I learned to get questions wrong and not chastise myself but, instead, see each mistake as a learning “event.” A lot of the time, I gained knowledge from doing things the wrong way and then applying that understanding to similar problems. I went into the first day of class feeling extremely inadequate, and I definitely got my final exam back knowing that I hadn’t done ‘well’ by typical standards. But I knew that I’d worked hard and I’d accepted my own learning needs instead of feeling ashamed of them. I hadn’t caused any miracles. But I left the class feeling victorious.

I thought I had figured out my best way to study and brought that with me to Princeton

All throughout high school, I was a self-studier. I was far more productive studying by myself and could only ever do homework on my own purely because I became far too distracted when working with friends. This worked great for me because I didn’t have much trouble with my assignments in high school and it was far more efficient for me. I thought I had figured out my best way to study and brought that with me to Princeton. However, when I got to Princeton and started taking classes like EGR 191/192 (Math and Physics), I was hit with the realization that I couldn’t do the psets on my own. I struggled with the psets on my own for a few days and got nowhere with them. I slowly began to feel discouraged, feeling like I couldn’t do any of my assignments at Princeton. However, a friend of mine in the class asked to work on the pset together and I hesitantly agreed. I ended up going to a large pset session where a bunch of us worked on the pset together and it was incredibly helpful. I found that bouncing ideas off of other people, working through problems together, and trying to explain concepts to another person was very helpful for me. I realized that the tactics I had used in high school could only work there because it was such a different environment and level of difficulty than Princeton was. I completely switched the way I studied and worked on assignments, becoming far more open-minded to new study habits and techniques. Now, I am constantly at office hours and always working on psets with a group of people (given that I can by the class). Of course, I still get distracted by my friends sometimes, but I’ve found a good balance between working on psets so that we can help each other and having fun socializing at the same time.

I thought any time I spent outside of lecture was extraneous and I didn’t really need to be doing that

By fall break last semester, I already felt burned out. Things I’d supposedly learned so far in my classes felt like they were just randomly floating around my head, and I didn't feel confident in having learned much at all. Last semester was a significant challenge for me for several reasons. I was taking 5 classes, which included 3 really technically difficult, time-consuming ones. Because of academic and time pressure, I started to let good study habits slip, and became hyper-focused on completing assignments for the sake of having them done.

I tried to figure out why I was feeling so rushed and stressed—and somewhat defeated because I felt like I wasn't learning things the way that I wanted to. One of the reasons was because I physically didn't have the time to devote to learning. I had overextended myself, both in terms of time and in terms of the difficulty of my classes. Two of my classes were topics that were really challenging for me (probability and algorithms). And even though I enjoyed the challenge, it was holding me back from a deeper understanding of the concepts in those courses. It also held me back from learning in my other courses because I needed more time for the challenging courses.

The other reason I felt I wasn't learning was that I wasn't studying the way that I needed to. My study methods are a bit tedious but really effective for me. I usually read the textbook, make detailed study sheets, and come up with questions about the material to make sure I'm engaging with it. But last semester, I felt—from the first week—so pressed for time that I decided my methods were too time-consuming and that I should just do what other people seemed to be doing. To me, it looked like other people were doing all their learning in lecture. I thought any time I spent outside of lecture was extraneous and I didn’t really need to be doing that.

I became really frustrated by mid-semester because I wasn't learning much. I also felt like I was lagging compared to other students because what I thought they were doing to study wasn't working for me. Because of that comparison I had made, the fact that I needed to put in more effort seemed like a negative reflection on my intelligence and ability to learn. But I accepted that it didn't really matter; even if other people weren't putting in as much time (doubtful in retrospect), it didn't matter. If my goal was to learn, then I needed to put in my own time and learn my own way.

I ended up pdf'ing one of challenging courses. I put in the time for that course whenever I had some extra time because I did want to learn the material—now I could learn it at my own pace. I also was able to spend more time on my other courses and study the way that I felt best helped me learn.

Once I did that, I also realized that my study methods are very time-intensive at first, so it makes sense why I would feel a bit behind if I were to compare myself to other students. But once I started consolidating material early on, I realized it was much easier for me to retain it and use in in quizzes, psets, etc. It actually saved me a lot of time down the road.

I also used winter break to make up for some lost time that I spent with the wrong approach during the first half of the semester. This was a challenge in itself, because I started to feel the same way I felt in the first half of the semester: like I had too much work and not enough time. But this time, I told myself to do it differently. It was an excruciating exercise in self-trust. This time, I didn’t rush everything without actually putting in the time to learn. Instead, I worked through things really (really) slowly, but steadily, knowing that even if I didn't get through everything, at least the things that I did get through, I would fully understand. And in fact, I didn't get through all the material—how could I? Princeton consistently gives us more than we can humanly absorb in 12 weeks. But I felt good about the things I did get through and that was important to me. In the end, I learned to trust myself and take the time to do learn the material for myself.

I decided that such a mental state and way of working would not be sustainable, and that I needed to make changes

Rather than any particular course at Princeton, the biggest academic challenge I faced at Princeton was something I would call burnout. Having spent more than one year at Princeton, I started to feel like I had used up my energy at the end of last semester. As the semester progressed, it become harder and harder to stay on top of everything - not because of any one course but rather because of an overall feeling of being overwhelmed and lacking motivation. Of course, this mental state impacted my academic abilities, and seemed to evaporate any joy in learning. Eventually, I was no longer producing work I was proud of. Over break, and with the new year, I decided that such a mental state and way of working would not be sustainable, and that I needed to make changes. In particular, I focused on small changes I thought would help me stay afloat mentally, and consequently help me deal with Princeton stress. Rather than trying to change my whole life at once, however, I focused on only a handful of new routines I wanted to establish, including daily meditation, using a handwritten calendar, journaling, and rearranging my dorm. Whereas none of these practices have to do directly with academics, they are helping me on a daily to keep a clear mind, find motivation and remind myself of purpose. Most importantly, they have helped me become less stressed and more balanced. They create a sense of accomplishment when I stick to them. They ground me on days when life seems chaotic. The way I think about it now is this: the fuller my schedule is, the clearer my mind needs to be.

I learned that most engineering students arrived on campus with advanced science coursework that my school didn’t offer

        The realization that ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’, is a reality that hit me like a brick wall when I started Princeton. I started the journey to become a chemical engineer with an expectation of hard work ahead as well as the assumption that I was adequately prepared for it. The first few weeks of class quickly disavowed that belief, as the faculty rapidly ‘reviewed’ material that I had never seen before. In my calculus class the girl next to me said incredulously, “I’ve seen all this material before in Calculus BC and I’m still not doing well!” That’s when I learned that most engineering students arrived on campus with advanced science coursework that my small, faith-based school didn’t offer. I simply couldn’t keep up with the pace and as I progressively started skipping meals and reducing sleep to get extra hours of study, my anxiety grew to a full-fledged crisis: a certainty of academic failure and an impending ‘nervous breakdown’. In a panic, I called my dad asserting the only way out was to leave; to start again someplace else that didn’t hold Princeton’s impossible expectations. He was shocked because I had never quit anything in my life. In an attempt to calm me down, he reminded me of the many obstacles I had overcome to date and inquired whether I had sought out help at the school. Upon my admission that I hadn’t, he pushed me to reluctantly agree to postpone decisions until I did.
        I reached out for help and Princeton responded emphatically. My Director of Studies, immediately provided me a personal tutor as well as a meeting with a learning consultant, an older student who taught me time management and how to balance my academic schedule. The Master of my residential college, helped in my defeated state: she took me out to lunch and ice cream, and checked in often. I somehow survived my first semester, but mere survival was an unhappy state of affairs and I needed to find a better balance. Ironically, I did so by adding more activity; I had always loved learning French and decided to take a course in the spring to counterbalance the engineering stress. When Princeton’s first-year engineering pre-requirements did not leave room for a French course, I rode my bike undeterred to night classes at a nearby institution once a week.
        Slowly but surely, I began to learn the language of Princeton. I went from surviving freshman year, to struggling sophomore year, to thriving the last two years achieving a 3.9 GPA in senior year. Along the way, many doors opened. My Director of Studies recommended me for the position of learning consultant, so I could share my story and alleviate the anxiety of others struggling through Princeton.