Advice for Ambitious Students

Hey. So you’ve decided to attend university. Or you may be attending one now.

Like many others hoping to get the ultimate university experience, you probably want to make the most out of this seemingly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity without any regrets in your latter years.

Advice from books, online and real people flood you. This article is one in many, but this one’s written for those whom I term ‘The Ambitious’, especially those who are prone to over-thinking and worry.

I use this term quite loosely: generally defines those who already have some sort of plan and goal for their time in university.

Their ideal vision is to reap the maximum benefits of a university education such as exploring new skills and knowledge, preparing themselves for their future career, possibly meeting new people as well as engaging in some personal growth for the least input of precious resources such as time, money and effort.

University offers a myriad of opportunities to learn, explore and network that we may not encounter so easily once we’re older. Receiving a university education is also expensive. Sometimes, there’s the impulse to sign up for an activity or event because it seems like a chance we’ll never get again and well, we’ve paid so much already to be there, so the thinking is to get our money’s worth, even if indirectly.

However, for The Ambitious, this can be a headache.  We feel the Fear Of Missing Out so strongly that we try to participate in everything and end up achieving nothing of consequential impact.

We soon realise that it’s not possible to try out everything because of clashes in timings or that as humans, no matter how motivated we may be, at the end of the day we still need a break. To wind down, relax, do nothing.

How then, are we to judge what event/activity (mostly outside the formal academic curriculum) to participate in? Do I go or not go? Do I join this or that? Is this something worth missing out, or should I just let fate lay out surprises for me? If I sign up for this, am I just wasting my time? If I don’t sign up for this, am I limiting myself and my opportunities?

And the torrent of thoughts while assuaged at moments of calm, unfortunately never dies down entirely.

Some people say it’s best to step out of your comfort zone and try something new, for you’ll never know what unexpected gains you may get. It’s a meaningful rule, but I believe that it shouldn’t be applied to every activity.

Follow this thinking and you’ll find yourself flooded with too many things to do, courtesy of the insidious question ‘Why not?’

However, at the same time, you can’t be rejecting every activity/event because you’ll inevitably end up narrowing your world views and capabilities.

The conclusion, then, is finding a good balance. But again, easier said than done.

There are probably many systems or philosophies out there on this, but one method that has worked remarkably well for me in deciding whether or not to join an event/activity is this:

I consider three main questions on Timing, Gains and Costs.

Timing: Does it align with your daily lifestyle?

The first is Timing.

For instance, having slept at mostly 9pm-10pm and awakening at 6am-7am for most of my life, it is difficult for me to adjust to the cycle of university life, especially when so many events/activities organised by clubs, societies or hall committees can run up to 10pm.

Timings of such sessions are usually late as that’s the only common period of time in which most students are free from lessons or lectures.

This is somewhat good news for night owls, but not so for early birds like me. While it is true that I have to learn to adapt to a later schedule, it may not be feasible for me in the long run for my body is used to waking up early in the morning despite how late I sleep the previous night.

This causes me to feel sleepy in the afternoon when I have classes, severely affecting my learning.

Hence, I tend to avoid events/activities exceeding 8pm in university (which, unfortunately, is a whole lot of them, weeps) in order to have enough time to prepare for bed.

So the first question I ask myself when I see an interesting activity/event (assuming it does not clash with any other things going on) is: Does it exceed 8pm?

If no, I sign up for it. If yes, I proceed to the next question on Gains to determine if it’s worth attending.

Gains: Is it Knowledge-based or Action-based?

Knowledge-based simply means that attending such events/activities allows me to gain new ways of thinking, extra info, and relevant details, and so on. Usually if the knowledge gained is something that I can easily learn by myself through books or online, I will skip the event/activity.

Meanwhile, Action-based refers to networking, learning technical skills (not so easily learnt without a mentor), the creation of something, meeting up with friends or family, and so on. Here, the gains require actual presence and are not so easily replicated in books or online, so I will usually attend the event/activity.

For instance, as a member of the NTU Entrepreneurship Society, I attend their weekly sessions which can last till 10pm at times. This is because sometimes external speakers or former alumni are invited to share their personal insights which are not so easily gleaned from books or online.

However, I would need to compare the Gains and Costs side-by-side before coming to my final conclusion on participation, for sometimes the price paid, depending on your current context, may be higher than what you get in the end.

Costs: Are they justified by the Gains?

For Costs, I consider: Does it require high commitment? By doing this, what other activities am I giving up (sleep, revision, leisure, exercise, etc.)?

If it’s something that’s just a mere curiosity, I am likely to skip the event/activity. But if it’s something that enriches the quality of my life or aids in my supposed future career and personal growth, I am likely to say yes despite the high commitment needed and trade-offs with other activities.

One example for considering Costs is this: the cost of joining a casual event/activity during an exam period or when you are already severely sleep deprived is extremely high compared to the gains, so you should not attend it in order to revise or get more sleep.

The key thing is that you can shape your own questions, creating your personal ‘algorithm’ in deciding whether or not to join an event/activity.

All this may sound terribly calculative, but it’s what keeps my sanity and peace in a world where there are so many opportunities and ignoring them seems so wasteful and ungrateful on my part. However, while we aim to do the best and most we can, we must remember that sometimes it’s okay to do nothing once in a while and let just let a chance slip away.

Stop planning too much for the future and live a little in the present, becoming stronger to be able to stare at an opportunity passing by and know that you’re doing so because something else is more important right now than the supposed gains of that opportunity.

Then, have no regrets if you ever change your mind on a path because you accept responsibility for your choices in exchange for the freedom in being able to make them. Moreover, it’s not impossible to do something else or reconsider your earlier decisions; just a little more tedious or difficult but as long as you have the desire and will, you can still reach it.

So, to The Ambitious, I hope you worry less and enjoy your time in university while still achieving your goals!


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