Dismantling the Toxic Myth of Graduating Late

Walking through almost any campus building at any time of day, you can spot at least one tousled and bleary student hunched and staring at a shockingly expensive textbook while clutching a highlighter and grimacing. If you could read their mind, you would hear their fretful anxiety: "What am I doing here? I haven't learned anything. I am never going to figure this out, never going to graduate, never going to land in a real career." Maybe that poor soul is one of your classmates, or your friends. Maybe it's you. It's unpleasant, but it's not uncommon.

When you feel adrift and unproductive in college, it might seem like you are the only one who's struggling, and that there's something wrong with you.

When you consider shifting your major or career goals, evaluate adding a minor or certificate, or work to rebuild from a rough term, it might seem like you're falling behind your classmates, missing opportunities, or screwing up.

When you hear the ticking of the time-to-graduation countdown and you can't figure out how to fulfill your requirements before the buzzer, it might seem like you're losing an expensive and confusing game--one in which the rules are always changing.

When you feel that way, remind yourself that the project of college involves uncertainty at every step, and it's normal to feel lost some of the time.

You won't be "late" to your graduation, no matter when you complete college, because you can't be late. There's no such thing as being "late" to your life. There's no clock to beat. Some people finish their requirements for a degree in four years; others take longer. Some people start college immediately after high school. Others start, step out, and start again--maybe several times. Every single person follows a unique and unpredictable path through their education.

Your expectations for your journey from knowing very little to knowing more to knowing quite a bit are probably unrealistic. People frequently underestimate the time it will take to complete a task or learn new information. Feeling bad about how long it is taking you to figure out a complex process or to memorize new vocabulary or to make a decision is a burden that you do not need to bear.

Write this down and stick it in a place you'll see it every day: "I am learning. I am on my own path. I will go at my own pace." It is possible to set an agenda for your learning, and it is essential to stay flexible when you do so. Here are my suggestions:

-Commit to spending three hours studying and reviewing material for every one hour you spend in the class. This is a good guideline to follow to make sure that you're devoting sufficient effort to class materials. You can spend those hours reading, doing assignments, and engaging with your notes. Recopy lecture notes, type notes you took by hand, make a "key concepts" document where you note essential ideas and explain them in your own words, with references to the class dates when they came up, the readings where they came up, and the ways you might use them in an assignment or remember them for a test.

-Keep a paper planner and put every assignment (big and small) from every syllabus you have into it. Then work backwards from due dates to determine what kinds of internal deadlines you need to set for your best efforts. That will help you to decide when you need to start your work and how much time you need to allocate for the assignments in order to meet those deadlines.

-Keep an Accomplishment List along with your To-Do List. Note every thing you do, like laundry, satisfying meals, contact with friends, reading for pleasure, exercising, self-care, and showing up somewhere you said you'd be. Acknowledge how you are spending your time so that you can recognize all of your efforts. It can improve your sense of mastering your life when you see your completed efforts add up, and it can help you to witness your strengths.

-Stepping away from school is not a disaster, it's a decision. If you are struggling with a situation that is taking all of your focus and all of your energy, you might benefit from dropping a class or withdrawing for a term. Talk to your academic advisor and financial aid office before making a final decision about what you will do, and get confirmation of the information they offer you in writing. Save hard copies and digital copies of what they tell you about the process you need to follow and what you need to plan for when it's time to come back. Your well-being and your ability to focus on learning are both more important than your graduation date.

-Ask for help when you need it. Don't be shy, don't feel weird. That's why you went to college: to get help with learning hard things. Speak to your professors, your RA, your classmates, your advisor, your counseling staff, your research librarian, your teaching assistant, and your friends to get guidance, support, and suggestions for resources to help you with your efforts to learn.

The experiences that you have in your life and the things that you learn, in school and out of school, all belong to you. New possibilities will open up for you as you gain new knowledge, new skills, and new awareness of your priorities. You'll get there when you get there--just keep going and be kind to yourself as you go.

You're in the midst of your life right now, learning right now, and you're right on time.

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