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How to Prepare for Classes You’re Unprepared for

Getting out of Calculus I sounded like a good idea before they put you in Calculus II.

I generally consider myself to be relatively conscious of my privileges.

Plainly put, there are a variety of ways in which my being white, male and heterosexual give me systematic advantages over minorities. With the risk of trivializing these rather weighty privileges, I’d like to point out one more inherent advantage I have experienced: attending the same school system for my entire primary and secondary education.

Despite its subtlety, attending grades K-12 under the same superintendent has given a flowing, lucid feel to my education, as opposed to others who have constantly moved around the country, jarringly changing schools and therefore curricula and academic climates. Others have vacillated between public and private schools, sometimes having to change entire grade levels to meet the standards of their new environment.

But not I. For me, Algebra II picked up right where Algebra I left off. Middle school geology covered the very same topics my high school earth science teacher treated as review (although I personally wanted to devote more time to real sciences). And, naturally, I didn’t read “Lord of the Flies twice, as two private school-bound friends of mine did in 9th grade.

Thus, it was only when I arrived at college that I observed the gaping discrepancies that can exist across different school systems and the effects such discrepancies can have on an individual who experiences multiple curricula. Some of my friends had been required to take 8 semesters each of English, math, science, history and a foreign language in high school, while others had never read any of Shakespeare’s plays.

But one such discrepancy that had a lasting effect on me was that my high school Calculus course didn’t sufficiently cover my college’s idea of Calc I. It didn’t help that, before stepping into my first day of Calc II in college, I hadn’t done any calculus whatsoever for 16 months.

The result was that I scrambled to prepare myself for Calc II during the final couple weeks of summer. In doing so, I was amazed at the volume of online materials and programs, college-provided resources and other boons that helped me fill in some gaps in knowledge. If you’re in the same position this year, or if you simply want to find some review material to use alongside your textbook, read on.

WARNING: Heeding the following advice involves doing actual schoolwork (as opposed to talking about schoolwork with friends, procrastinating or any of the other activities that sometimes count as work in your mind).

Sometimes, preparing for a class ahead of time is necessitated because you don’t possess background information that the course might require. And curriculum discrepancies don’t only occur because of the transition from high school to college. The academic transition from college to college can be just as tough, and transfer students have it rough anyway.

If nothing else, emailing your courses’ professors and asking about the background knowledge the course assumes could be important. With luck, your professor may also be able to indicate online resources that will get you up-to-speed. Ordering a textbook ahead of time and skimming it may help increase your familiarity as well.

Transfer students should get in contact with as many peers, advisors and administrators as is necessary to make sure they’re on par with their new school’s expectations. The process to choose a major, as well as sign up for classes, can be extremely disparate between colleges, whereas high schools usually have fewer and simpler enrollment options and graduation requirements.

High schools typically also offer less freedom for the students to choose their courses, instead covering standard courses deemed universally important such as biology, geometry and U.S. history.

When students arrive at college, however, they can easily use lose requirements to avoid taking classes they’ll eventually need, especially for a minor or concentration, while they instead focus on taking courses for their majors. And squeezing in classes is made more difficult by the fact that many colleges forbid students from taking more than 4 or 5 per semester. All of a sudden, it becomes a momentous challenge to recall information that you haven’t applied in a semester (or two, or three).

How to Prepare for Classes You’re Unprepared for
Photo via LaRoche College

To combat forgetfulness, I’d suggest finding fun ways of staying familiar with the material. If you couldn’t squeeze in a Spanish class for your minor this semester, why not read the “Harry Potter” series in Spanish in your spare time? I’d also suggest looking online for games revolving around concrete subjects. Educational video games were actually a popular teaching method of my high school calculus teacher, and political simulation games have real applications to history and economics.

But if you’ve already gone too long without using the subject you want to learn, simply picking up educational materials and digging in will be slow going for awhile. But you can still have fun. One of the first study methods I used to rekindle my knowledge of calculus was to read cheesy calculus jokes online and explain why they were funny.

Eventually, though, I ran out of jokes to read and it was time to get serious.

Luckily, college library websites often have resources that reflect the needs of courses offered at the school. And for classes whose material isn’t subject to change much over time, online textbooks, generously uploaded by professors at prestigious universities, can often be accessed for free.

If all you need is a quick review, online “cheat sheets” can integrate must-know info from several chapters of standard textbooks into a concise, easy-to-read review. Just be sure that those “cheat sheets” come from a reliable source. For future reference, it couldn’t hurt to keep personal class notes and other important papers, from which all “cheat sheets” are derived.

When in doubt, I’d suggest reaching out to professors, peers and administrators, as they are ultimately here to help you adjust to college both academically and socially. And the social aspect will come in handy when you finally get around to celebrating all your hard work.

Writer Profile

Andrew Mikula

Bates College

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