Start Early, Finish Strong…Academic Success is NOT a Sprint

Written by Guest Blogger and Brilliant Tutor, Andy Stewart

When I was in high school, I ran cross-country.

Or at least I tried to run cross-country.

I always struggled toward the end of the race, though. Like, once I finished mile 2 (out of a 3.1 mile race, for the uninitiated), I was ready to die. I was looking for water, begging for help, questioning every life decision that had led me to that point. I trudged as quickly as I could in an attempt to end my suffering. My coach could tell by the look on my face not to even attempt to yell at me to “run faster” or “catch the guy in front of you.”

Simply put, I was bad. Real bad.

Finally, my coach sat me down and told me “don’t go out so fast.” As he explained it, if I could save some of my energy and not worry about how things went at the beginning, then I could finish stronger.

Alright, Coach, we’ll play it your way.  My next race, I was the last one to get going. I took my time and enjoyed myself on the run (or at least as much as someone can actually enjoy a run). My final mile was faster than my first mile, but my time was slower than it had ever been. Arguably, I started too slowly. (Even more arguably, I should’ve found a new sport.) However, I was determined to get better.

As the season went on, I found my groove. It included starting fast, but reasonable, keeping my pace, and then finishing as strongly as I could. My times steadily dropped as I managed to secure a spot on varsity and qualify for state.

This story is an analogy to how a semester in college can go.

There were times in college when I was super motivated and studied hard to begin the semester. I worked hard, attended every class, read every article about the subject matter I could get my hands on. As the semester progressed (metaphorically at about mile 2), I became uninterested in the class. Or maybe I just got busy. Or maybe I just didn’t care. Or maybe that cute girl over there…

You get my drift. Either way, I started fast and was burnt out by the time finals rolled around. Starting fast was nice because I knew I had a cushion in case anything happened, because something always happens. However, I could never sustain my obsession with my class as the semester drew to a close.

There were other times where I couldn’t care less how the semester started. I got off to a slow start and continued that pace until the panic of failure set in. Sometimes it was too late, but other times I was able to secure a decent grade with a lot of late nights and pots of coffee. Those semesters were often filled with regret as a high grade on the final confirms what could have been had I been wiser about the start of the semester.

When I found the sweet spot, though, those semesters were great. I got an early start, but did my best to balance all of my responsibilities for the semester. I made sure I earned a good grade on the first assignments and visited the professor’s office a couple times. Then I tried my best to keep the same even, steady pace throughout the semester so I could finish strong.

I think that’s the best combination. Start early and finish strong. When the semester begins with a good grade and a decent understanding of the class, you build the foundation that will be needed for the rest of the semester.

It also helps to get to know the professor when the class begins. Many professors talk about how their offices are empty until a few weeks before the final. By stepping in and getting to know your professor early, you can build rapport and a relationship with them that won’t seem rushed or forced, which they can notice. Additionally, by keeping a steady cadence of studying and attending class throughout the semester, you will be able to remain on par with how things are going.

Yet finishing strong is equally as important. I know how it feels when November or April rolls around. The desire to go to class plummets as the desire to hang out with friends or sleep in skyrockets. These desires must be battled, though, as you fight to maintain your grade. Keep visiting the professor and don’t be afraid to ask how you are doing in the class (or my personal favorite, “what can I do better?”). Working to end the semester like this will afford you the freedom needed for finals week—yes that means no need to cram like your life depended on it. If you spend the whole semester learning the material, you won’t have to learn it all at the end.

So start early and finish strong. Pace yourself, because a semester is not a sprint. Treat it like a marathon and you will have a chance to excel.