Exercising Body and Mind

I’ve been writing lately about some of the strategies that support university students’ success by helping all the hard work and studying pay off.

In a New York Times blog, Gretchen Reynolds writes about “The Right Dose of Exercise for a Longer Life.” She gives details on a large study published recently in JAMA Internal Medicine.

The study examined 14 years of data from over 661,000 adults. Here’s what death records for that period showed:

“They found that, unsurprisingly, the people who did not exercise at all were at the highest risk of early death.

But those who exercised a little, not meeting the recommendations but doing something, lowered their risk of premature death by 20 percent.

Those who met the guidelines precisely, completing 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise, enjoyed greater longevity benefits and 31 percent less risk of dying during the 14-year period compared with those who never exercised.

The sweet spot for exercise benefits, however, came among those who tripled the recommended level of exercise, working out moderately, mostly by walking, for 450 minutes per week, or a little more than an hour per day. Those people were 39 percent less likely to die prematurely than people who never exercised.”

Wow. Reducing your chance of dying by 31% just with 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week! That seems worthwhile, to say the least. Most of the adults in the study were middle-aged, so the exact figures may differ from those of the average reader of my blog. Nevertheless, the results are striking.

University students can become intensely focused on their studies, often to the point where they ignore their health. They don’t sleep right, eat right, or exercise. For a few days before your finals this might make sense, but not over the long term. After all, we work hard in university to build a successful future, and nothing can derail your future plans more quickly than dying.

Keep in mind, also, that exercise doesn’t just reduce your chances of death and illness; it also gives you energy, helps reduce stress and keep you calm, and improves focus.

And don’t abandon your plan to exercise because you’re more in the mood for a walk than something more strenuous. Another recent JAMA Internal Medicine study that Reynolds comments on explains that moderate exercise like walking will give you most of the longevity benefit from exercise. Try to have about one-third of your exercise time be “vigorous” if you can, but remember that a nice brisk walk is still doing a great job of helping you stay healthy.

“Resume” Virtues and “Eulogy” Virtues

Being a university student, or aspiring to be, can consume all your physical and mental energy. Applications, marks and references seem like the centre of the universe. And they are, in a way, but you can’t lose sight of the fact that university life is just one part of a bigger picture.

In The New York Times recently, columnist David Brooks wrote about his moral “bucket list.” He laments the fact that so many of us lose track of core values as we pursue academic and career goals:

“It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?

We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.”

I like Brooks’ article as a reminder of the multifaceted nature of accomplishment and fulfillment. An excellent career is only strengthened by paying attention to the things that make you a deeply good person, too. Remembering that academic life is not everything also helps you stay strong during the inevitable setbacks in your studies. There’s always more to life than that which seems most pressing at the moment.

Brooks also reminds us that fulfilment comes from looking beyond ourselves:

“Commencement speakers are always telling young people to follow their passions. Be true to yourself. This is a vision of life that begins with self and ends with self. But people on the road to inner light do not find their vocations by asking, what do I want from life? They ask, what is life asking of me? How can I match my intrinsic talent with one of the world’s deep needs?”

It’s alright to focus entirely on your studies. You need to sometimes! But in those quiet moments between exams and papers, contemplate whether you’re doing all that you can to improve not only your academic self, but also the core virtues that make everything else worthwhile.

POSTSCRIPT: I have to mention that applicants who can show the sort of well-roundedness Brooks advocates are much more likely to wow admissions committees.

Avoiding Common Student Mistakes — Timing Your In-Class Exercises

Imagine the following scenario….

There is one hour left in your class. Your professor asks you to do two things. First, spend 30 minutes reading a few of the many posts from a blog she recommends. Then, in the final 30 minutes, practice your writing and thinking skills by creating a short blog post on the same general topic and then email your post to the professor.

You start at 11:00 and at 11:40 you email your blog post off to your professor.

What do you suppose the professor thinks when she receives your email 20 minutes early? “Wow, that student is fast!”??? WRONG!

No, your professor will not admire your speediness in a situation like this. Rather, you’ve sent her a clear message that you’re not putting your best effort into your work. If you completed this one-hour task in 40 minutes, you either didn’t read for as long as requested or you spent very little effort crafting your written submission. Instead of finishing early in a situation like this, you should revise your submission to make it longer and stronger. If you finish that, then read more of the assigned material.

If you truly want to succeed at university, put your maximum effort into everything you do. Use all the time allowed whenever you’re assigned an in-class task. You’re at university to work hard and spend your time improving, not to do the bare minimum on assignments and then spend the rest of the time texting your friends.

At university, as everywhere, effort is rewarded.

The Last Question of the Academic Interview

Performing convincingly during your in-person or online academic interviews requires careful preparation.

In this first post on the topic, I want to share ideas for what is often the final question from the admissions committee during an academic interview: “Do you have any questions you’d like to ask us?”

This question is especially important since it generally comes at the end of the interview.  Your interviewers are most likely to remember the beginning and end of your interaction (due to what’s called the “primacy” and “recency” effects, respectively), so you want to make sure you have an especially strong answer for this question about questions.

My first and most important suggestion is to NEVER ask about anything that you could easily find on the program’s website. One of your main goals during the interview is to demonstrate that you have selected the program for the right reasons. That means showing your awareness that the program is an excellent match for your goals and interests. Convincing the interviewer of this requires proving that you have researched the program carefully. So the last thing you want to ask is something like, “Is there an internship in this program?” or “What kind of courses will I need to take?”

Ending your interview like that could be a fatal mistake, no matter how well it went up to that point.

The best answer to “Have you got any questions about the program?” is to ask about something that relates specifically to you and that shows you’re considering the program an important part of reaching your specific educational and career goals.

You could say something like, “I’m interested in your program in part because you take very seriously the project of helping students build a network. As a future entrepreneur, this is very important to me. Your website mentions the alumni networking event and two other networking social events. I was wondering if there are other ways you support students in meeting their networking goals?”

This is a great response, because it shows you are thinking carefully about your future in the program, and it demonstrates that you have researched the program thoroughly.

You could also consider asking what sort of jobs recent graduates have accepted. Or, if it’s relevant to you, you might inquire about any special support provided for international students. As long as the answer to your question is not readily available online, and the question relates specifically to you and your needs, then it will be a good one to ask.

My final tip is to always take a paper and pen to your interview, and write your questions on the paper in advance. This prevents you from forgetting them. Make sure to write at least three, because sometimes the answers to one or two of your questions will be covered during the rest of the interview, and you don’t want to be left at the end with nothing to ask about.

Good luck! More on academic interviews soon.

Obtaining Highly Convincing Reference Letters

It’s important to understand that good grades and intelligence are only part of the achievements highlighted in the most convincing reference letters. The ideal reference letter also provides a clear picture of the student’s (or job applicant’s) other abilities. Strong references allow the reader to imagine vividly what it’s like to have the student, or referee, in the classroom or workplace.

In his book, Intelligence and How to Get It, social psychologist Richard E. Nisbett explains that:

…above a certain level of intelligence, most employers do not seem to be after still more of it. Instead, they claim that they’re after strong work ethic, reliability, self-discipline, perseverance, responsibility, communication skills, teamwork ability, and adaptability to change.

I would add creativity and leadership to the list.

The bottom line is that if you hope to obtain reference letters that attract employers and admissions committees, you need to work hard to develop a comprehensive range of skills that reaches beyond the core of intelligence. And developing these skills is only part of your goal. You must also clearly demonstrate them to your professors and instructors.

This means that you must showcase your enthusiastic participation, ask insightful questions, and help motivate your peers during group work. Just being in class every day and doing well on your tests and papers doesn’t guarantee you excellent reference letters. Intelligence and hard thinking work are absolutely vital, but it takes more to become the type of student who receives stellar  references that open the doors to great jobs and university programs.

The good news is that with some focused effort you can quickly make impressive changes to how professors perceive you. One great strategy is making sure to ask one or two questions every class. And raise your hand to volunteer answers when the instructor asks the whole class a question. Make sure you’re not the team member slumped wordlessly onto the table while everyone else shares ideas. And if you’re given twenty minutes for an exercise, put all your energy into it for twenty minutes. If you work on the exercise for twelve minutes and then browse around on your cellphone, you’re displaying the exact opposite of the qualities you need to impress reference writers.

Don’t let the range of important skills in Nisbett’s quotation above overwhelm you. Remember that you CAN gain all of those skills and qualities, and all it takes is working on it a little bit every day. Then when you’re ready to ask for references, you’ll have professors who are eager to tell the world about your achievements!

Books on How to Write Well

The best books to read when you’re seeking to improve your writing depend on your immediate goals and your skill level. I’ve compiled a list of excellent books about writing with various goals in mind.

1] If you want a quick and accessible book to increase your grasp of the writing basics and help you avoid common writing mistakes and weaknesses, try How to Not Write Bad by Ben Yagoda. (The awkward title is Yagoda’s way of pointing out how jarring bad writing can be.)

2] If you’re confident about your writing skills and want an advanced exploration that incorporates information about how our brains work, I strongly recommend Steven Pinker’s book, The Sense of Style.

3] For a quick and sharp mentorship in convincing business writing, check out the HBR Guide to Better Business Writing by Bryan A. Garner. (The “HBR” stands for “Harvard Business Review.)

4] If you want to put your writing into perspective by understanding trends in academic writing, like what percentage of journal articles in your field use the first person (“I”, “we”), you’ll appreciate Stylish Academic Writing, by Helen Sword.

5] To improve your research skills, look for the detailed explanations of research strategies in The Craft of Research, by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb and Joseph M. Williams.

6] When you’re interested in an acknowledged classic book on writing, look for The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White.

7] To explore how literary techniques can enhance your non-fiction writing, I recommend Voice and Vision, by Stephen J. Pyne.

Not everyone enjoys books about writing as much as I do, but they can quickly help you enhance your skills. Please leave a comment if you have any other books on writing you’d like to recommend.

Good luck with your writing!

Increasing Self-Control so You Can Study

In his new book, The Marshmallow Test, psychologist Walter Mischel explains how our self-control is determined by the “hot” and “cold” systems of our minds.

The hot system threatens self-control. It’s impulsive, instinctive, desirous and emotional. It gives us cravings for foods we shouldn’t eat and activities that throw us off our study schedule. It’s the mental system that can make it almost impossible to study when your Xbox is sitting there practically begging you to pick up the controls.

The cool system is slower, rational and thoughtful. It allows you to set aside your urgent emotions and desires and think things through carefully.

Imagine you desperately need to study for your mid-term, but your hot system is giving you powerful cravings to play video games instead, and you’re finding it impossible to sit still and do your work. You might think the cool system is the only way to free yourself from your cravings. You could use the rational cool system to ponder your study goals and calculate the mark you need on the mid-term to get your A. This is a good strategy.

But, when you need to boost your self-control quickly so you can start work before it’s too late, you might even be better off putting your hot system to work for you.

Try imagining logging onto the site for your course and looking up the score for your mid-term and finding it’s 58%. Picture how this torpedos your average and how you’re going to have to re-think your applications to those great grad schools or forget about the big scholarship. Imagine as vividly as possible realizing that your awful mark was caused by playing video games, and picture how stupid you’ll feel for letting yourself waste your valuable study time.

Now your hot system is working for you. You’ll be feeling powerful emotions and instincts that will help convince you to toss the Xbox in the closet and get down to work! The hot system can derail our success, but when used skillfully, it can also boost your self-control and get you right back on the track to excellence.