Archive | November, 2008

How I Aced First Year University Science – Part 5: The Art of Test-Taking

Some students may think that you just study and go in and do the test. I don’t think it’s that simple.

While I have said that preparation is the hard part and taking the test is the relatively easy part, I would say that is true, but only if you have already mastered what I like to call the “art of test-taking”. For that reason, many students actually find taking tests harder than studying for it, even though it shouldn’t be that way.

Test-taking is as much psychological as it is mental and physical. The habits, mindset and attitudes of a successful test-taker are significantly different than students who have trouble with tests.

In this article, I explore those differences, and will try to show you some of the subtle yet important things myself and other successful test-takers do to maximize our test performance.

NOTE: I plan on writing in the future about tackling specific types of tests, such as Multiple Choice Tests, Short-Answer Tests, Essay Tests, etc. For now, this article focuses on general test habits and attitudes.

Getting a Good Night’s Rest

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How I Aced First Year University Science – Part 4: Studying for Tests

In science, you’re generally going to come across tests that require either the knowledge of facts/material or the understanding of concepts/problem types (and sometimes a combination of both). Biology tests tend to be based more on facts, while chemistry/physics tests tend to be based more on concepts/problem types.

Facts/Material – Memorization

For knowledge-based tests like those in biology, it doesn’t matter how great of a critical thinking, problem-solver, or test-taker you are – if you don’t know the material, then you won’t be able to answer a single question.

One of the differences between high school and university science is that your university courses require the consumption of more material. In addition, as the years go by, you will be focusing on more and more specialized courses, and therefore, more and more detailed material. The detail you end up having to study, with a slew of specific facts, names, and definitions, can make the material seem quite dense. But you have to know this material, and you have to know it all. You have to know it by heart.

Some students make the mistake of thinking that they just need to do their readings and they’ll be fine for the test. This might have worked in high school, when all you needed to know (even for subjects like biology) were key themes and ideas. Unfortunately, in university, professors love to ask you very specific questions that sometimes require knowledge of the most obscure detail. And think about it – can you really read through a dense biology passage once and remember all of the names and details? The vast majority of us, myself included, don’t have photographic memories – so we need to put in the time to memorize as much content as possible.

How I Memorize

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How I Aced First Year University Science – Part 3: Lectures, Readings, Note Taking, and Forming Study Groups

I have been a fan of mixed martial arts for the past two years. I think it’s because I am competitive by nature, and nothing can compare to the raw physical competition between two individuals just duking it out in a ring.

There is one quote from mixed martial artist Tito Ortiz that I have always remembered, which went something like this: “It’s the training that’s hard. The actual fight is the easy part.”

I look at tests the same way. A test takes only an hour, but you might spend hours, days or weeks preparing to write it.

All of the hard work happens in the preparation and studying – the test is the easy part If you are completely prepared for a test, then there is nothing to worry about. You just go in and do your best. In general, tests only become hard if you aren’t sufficiently prepared, both physically (the actual studying/test-taking preparation) and mentally (the psychological aspect).

In this article and the next, I focus on this preparation that I believe has made me successful in my university courses.

Approaching Lectures

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How I Aced First Year University Science – Part 2: How to Think

As a chemistry peer tutor for my past two years in university, I have had the opportunity to not only meet and mentor some really interesting students, but I have also been able to hear about how the first year science classes have been going on a regular basis. For one of this semester’s first year chemistry classes, the average on the first test was ~30% – I heard similar numbers for last year’s class.

Although I can’t remember if the class average for my first university chemistry test was that low, the average was supposedly a failing grade. So you can imagine what the impact of those types of results is like, especially considering that for many first year science students, this is the very first university test that they take. It can be quite the confidence crusher to go from a 90+ chemistry mark in high school to a failing grade on your very first university test.

I can still remember my own first university chemistry test, so much so that I could probably regurgitate the gist of the six problems we were asked to solve. I remember them pretty clearly because I recall reflecting about that test, and particularly, how and why it was different from my high school tests.

There were subtle differences – like the fact that lectures actually mattered (however, this tends to be more true for some university courses and less true for others). Two of the questions on my chemistry test were based on information taught in lecture but not available in the textbook. In my high school, there was never information or concepts taught only in class but not available in the textbook (you’ll find that professors have much more flexibility in terms of what they can choose to teach in university). However, this on its own is not that big of a deal – just go to class more if you didn’t the first time around. Another difference you will find is that there is significantly more material to cover in university than in high school, but I will address that topic in a future part of this series.

Yet there was one question in particular on the test that many students got wrong, which made me realize what the difference between high school and university science was; it’s a difference I have continued to notice in many of my university science courses. All our professor did was take a certain problem type but turn it backwards; that is, he took a problem type he went over in lecture and simply asked us to solve it in reverse. It was kind of like being taught how to determine the force due to gravity on an object in class, and now being given the force due to gravity and asked to find the mass of the original object on the test. Obviously the question was a bit longer than that, but the general idea was the same.

University: Learning How to Think

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How I Aced First Year University Science – Part 1: The Jump from High School to University

When it comes to the transition from high school to university, an oft-quoted line is that “student averages tend to drop about 10-15%”. Looking at the basic numbers, this initially seems to be a pretty fair statement. For example, at York University, you need at least a mid to high 70s average to receive admission to one of its science programs, such as Biology (e.g. 77+ or so).

Considering several factors, such as the fact that fewer students probably got a 90+ average than the number of students who achieved a 77-89 average, it is probably safe to assume that if we computed the average of the final high school grades for a first year York science class, the number would be around 85. And I would imagine that most first year university science classes are made of students with similar high school marks.

Looking at the first year university science courses I have taken so far, the class averages have generally been around the ~65 mark, so it seems that on average, student marks do drop about 15%, and possibly more in some cases.

However, keep in mind this doesn’t mean that all students tend to drop 10-15% in their course marks; it just means that on average, students seem to achieve lower marks than they did in high school. Initially this seems to make sense: if a university class still needs to maintain a class average of 65, then obviously an entering class with high school averages of 85 should see a drop. As a matter of fact, however, the issue is much deeper and complex than this.

Consider the fact that there are actually some students who do better in university science than in high school. There are also some students, unfortunately, who do worse. And there are students who do about the same.

Moreover, there isn’t an obvious correlation between high school marks and university marks. For example, I know a student with a 95 high school average who now maintains a mid-80’s average in university, and can’t seem to break the 90 barrier. On the other hand, I know another student with a 95 high school average who completed first year university science with an even higher average. Myself, I had about a 94 final high school average and my first year university average was somewhere close to that.

NOTE: Universities generally use a GPA system which does not involve the averaging of numerical grades – rather, each numerical grade for a course is first converted to a value on the GPA scale, and these GPA values are then averaged. I’m just trying to make a point with my previous few statements.

Clearly, at least for science programs, the transition between years within high school (where students maintain the same type of marks) is very different from the transition from high school to university.

The Simple Reason: Marks, Difficulty, and General Academic Program Delivery Vary from School to School

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Video: Tips for the Scholarship Application – Millennium Excellence Awards

Series: Tips for the Scholarship Application
Name: Millennium Excellence Awards
Length: ~31 minutes
Requires: Adobe Flash Player
Important Links: Scholarship Website, Application Form

NOTE: It may take a minute or two to load depending on your browser.

Additional Info. on the Challenging Task / Project Essay

I had a bit of a brain fart when thinking about good examples to use for this section during the video (see the pause when I start talking about “designing a machine” =P). But to be clear, I’m not saying that you need to have discovered a potential treatment for attacking cancer cells or anything to that degree to do well in this section (I surely didn’t have an example like that!) – it was just an example of a science project that was in my head at the moment. Any type of science fair project or business you’ve created would be good examples, along with many other things.

The key thing to realize is that you want to talk about a challenge that is relevant to the Millennium application – so your challenge should deal with leadership, innovation, and/or community service. So while a personal hobby like learning to play the guitar might technically answer the question, I don’t think it would be a strong answer. The reason why a science project, for example, works better is that although conducting a novel science project is also a type of hobby, successful science projects are usually original and innovative to some degree – so it is at least relevant to a criteria of the Millennium scholarship.


If you have any further questions about the Millennium Excellence Awards, please leave a comment, and I will do my best to answer them!

Strike Update

Well, I guess there’s not much to say about the teaching assistants strike at York University, except that it’s still going. The university administration and the union have met a few times this past week, but both meetings apparently were very short, and the two sides are quite far apart in their demands/proposals. I’ve heard that the strike is expected to last at least four weeks, and other similar stories, but I don’t want to make any vacation plans, just in case =).

I have a geography assignment and philosophy essay I should really start cracking on… but, as has always been a problem of mine, I just can’t seem to do homework if there is no looming pressure of due date a few days away (actually, it usually has to be due the next day!).

I did go to the C.N. Tower two Friday’s ago, which I guess I forgot to mention. It was my friend Joyce’s birthday, and apparently she had never been to the C.N. Tower before. So myself, Joyce, and our two friends Shirley and Andrew headed up for a nice meal at the 360 Restaurant before enjoying the evening checking out the rest of the tower. All four of us went to the same high school, and we actually all go to York University (though I don’t see all of them on a regular basis, which is what made the evening kinda nice). Here’s a picture we took at the top:

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Scholarship Interview Advice: Loran Award

A lot of people have been asking me about advice for the Loran Award regional interviews that are coming up in a few weeks. I decided to compile a lot of the things I have been telling students into an article here. Keep in mind that I did not move on to nationals when I went through these interviews two years ago.

NOTE: I’m not claiming to know anything in detail about the selection process or how the judges are trained to assess the applicants, so this is just my opinion, and you should take it with a grain of salt.

Regional Interview Structure

This is the structure for the regional interview I had in fall of 2005. It could have changed since then, but I highly doubt it.

The students in each region were divided into groups of about 10 students. Each group was associated with a panel of four judges.

In the morning you have two 15 minute interviews, each of them a 1-on-1 with a judge from your panel.

You then have lunch with a third judge from your panel, along with one or more of the other semi-finalists from your group.

In the afternoon you have a 15-20 minute interview with all four judges on your panel – so there’s one judge you won’t meet until the final panel interview.

I’m not really sure how the selection process goes from there, but I would imagine something like two students from each group move on to nationals, but I’m not really sure.

Interview Questions

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What would you do if you were financially set for life?

I have been writing a lot recently on work, careers, and happiness, and I feel like I may have come off with sort of this noble attitude that people should not be working for money and that if you are working for money, you’re an awful person. I apologize if it came off that way, and that could not be further from the truth.

All of these ideas revolving around work, income, and happiness are concepts I constantly struggle with, and it’s hard to come up with an overall generalization that works. I do think that being able to support yourself financially is important – in fact, it is necessary to survive. At the same time, I believe that if you want to live a long and happy life, you need to be doing things in your life that make you happy – and really, there’s nothing greater than being able to do work that you love and get paid for it.

On the other hand, maybe the type of work you love doing does not support as well as you’d like financially, so you don’t do it – that’s a legitimate concern. If a physician was paid minimum wage, would I do it? The quick answer would probably be no (assuming I had no other source of income). And it’s not because I love money, but it’s because I would love my family more (if any career of mine was bad for my family, I would quit in a second) and would want to support them in ways where getting paid minimum wage for the type of work and hours a physician does would not be enough. It would also hinder other aspects and interests in my life because I would have to constantly worry about my financial situation, paying all of my bills, etc. The thought of being able to deal with the stress of both say a career in neurosurgery at work, and then the financial stress while home is pretty scary.

So it is absolutely a more complex situation than maybe I had written about earlier, and I can understand many reasons why people may do the work that they do. On the other hand, some of you are in a situation where you have opportunity to choose among many possible types of work to pursue and finances may not be as much of an issue – and you are really fortunate to be in this situation, and should really take advantage of it.

Assuming you are in such a situation, here’s one exercise that may help you figure out what you really enjoy doing, and what type of pursuits would make you happy.

Imagine you had an unlimited amount of money right now. What would you be doing?

Would you still be going to school?

Would you be traveling the world?

Picking up a new hobby?

Working with a certain charity?

Running for government?

Producing your own music?

Playing computer games competitively?

There are no wrong or right answers, but it’s definitely something interesting to think about.

If the type of career you are working towards is not one of your answers to this hypothetical situation, maybe you should rethink the career path you’ve put yourself on – not saying your current path is wrong, but it’s definitely something interesting and worth thinking more about.

Why Medicine?

When I think about the word “career” nowadays, I try to stray away from associating it with the idea of a “job”. Because the word “job” is usually concerned with the idea of “working for money”, which is a concept I am slowly moving away from. In that sense, I don’t ever want to get a “job”.

I’m not saying that having a stable source of financial income isn’t important. But I think there is a problem when you end up working solely for money instead of for the sake of the work. Either the problem is that you are in a truly unfortunate situation where you are forced into a survival mode and have no choice but to work for money, or the problem is that you have somehow entered survival mode even though you don’t necessarily have to.

A Dream Career

When I think of a dream career, I think of being able to get paid for doing things that truly make me happy. And the fact is that not one type of work alone makes me happy. So if you were to ask me what I envision myself doing for a career, it would have to be many things. I would love to write – being able to publish a book would be amazing. I really enjoy teaching and speaking – so given the opportunity, I would jump at the chance to lecture a class or deliver a talk. I also like trying to solve challenging real world problems – I would be really interested in sitting on committees or boards that make crucial decisions concerning things like education.

So while I don’t see my “career” only encompassing medicine, I think being a physician would truly make my life happier than not. Like teaching, writing, and solving real world problems, I feel that medicine would be an important component to my long term happiness.


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