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Early trouble in undergrad (Please advise)

  1. Apr 11, 2014 #1
    So I am currently a physics major at a large US university.
    My grades last quarter: A C in multivariable calc, B- in Integration and infinite series, B in physics.
    It's not that I didn't understand what was going on. MV Calc was actually my favorite class, but I panicked before the test. I had the other two finals back to back, and completely blanked out on the second one(math) for some reason(I don't know whether I can attribute this to the lack of time between finals). I wanted to switch to math for my major, but I've clearly ruined everything. My academic counselors speak of 'you can apply to grad school as long as you get your GPA above 3.' My aim one quarter ago was a top grad school for math/EE/CS/physics(as you can see I am undecided).
    Now I'm taking MV Calc(the integration), Physics EM and Diff Eq along with a humanities class, so my workload is more intense. However I can't seem to get over the past quarter...I know I am the only one who can take control of it. I really enjoy mathematics, and it's not like I have some alternate major I secretly wish I was. Is this hiccup too large to ever overcome? People seem to have lost respect for me. I have severe test anxiety(I always had it, I just think it is worse now), and I am terrified that I will mess up my academic life. I have historically demonstrated good intuition/insight in the sciences, and have (rather ironically) taught my peers, who ended up doing better than me in the finals. Till mid-quarter, I had an A in all my classes, and then I either slacked/appear to burn out. Come finals, and I'm at/below average on my tests. I don't know what went wrong, but I can't let it happen again, and I really would appreciate it if any of you have advice/stories that will help? Any tips on how to study these subjects/take tests/overcome anxiety? Or honestly, do I have to toss all plans of a good grad school out of the window? If someone could take the time to analyze the observed pattern and help me correct what is wrong. Please, any and all help is much appreciated, I really need all the help I can get.

    (Also, if it helps, the MV Calc final had a very high average. I lost points on absolutely stupid computational mistakes as well as a question on a topic I neglected to read. Other math final I blanked out completely. Sorry for the bad ordering/ranting)
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 11, 2014 #2


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    You're fine. You need to finish your quarters off strong. Fizzled out? Don't do that again.
    You need to improve your study habits and work ethic. You learn how to better in college as you go.

    Lots of room for improvement. Work harder and improve next quarter.

    Your grad school dream is still intact. Chill.
  4. Apr 11, 2014 #3
    I did that in high school a little bit. Usually, I did sort of well in math, but at one point, I was getting a C in my trig class with my 3.0 gpa, but I was helping people with 3.8s who probably had an A in the class. Just goes to show you, grades aren't everything.

    I never had very bad test anxiety, but I was a bad test-taker, due to being slow.

    I can relate to that, too. I usually understood things perfectly well, but I was just so darn error-prone when it came to calculations. Seemed like every step there was a possibility of leaving something out or flipping a minus sign or something trivial like that. I think I got a little bit better because I tend to double-check myself as I go along, but that can slow you down. Some people might say, you're just making excuses, and you either know it or you don't, but it really can cost you a lot of points, if you are absent-minded about calculations, even if you understand the subject perfectly well. You just make a lot of mistakes that you would recognize instantly if you knew you were doing it. It's not that anything is truly missing--just a little absent-mindedness at work. Anyway, when I got to proof-based stuff, I started getting perfect scores on a lot of stuff because it only relied on my reasoning ability, rather than my ability to not forget the minus sign.

    I was sort of the opposite. I would do badly at first and then get all worked up and worked really hard to save the day, and I always managed to escape with at least a C by the end, if not an A or B.

    So, I had some similar problems and I was able to get a PhD in math.

    I ended up being kind of a failure as a mathematician, but part of it was that I lost interest in it (and didn't really find a place where my interests and way of doing things fit in), and part of it was that I was terrible at teaching.

    Anyway, as long as you improve, you're not out of the game, yet. Even if things were going fantastically, though, going to grad school should be considered bordering on insanity, though, so it's good to have a back-up plan, regardless.
  5. Apr 11, 2014 #4


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    One issue that a lot of students encounter in the first or second year of undergrad is one of transition into a new and more challenging. For many students, earning good grades in high school can be done with bad habits. In fact there are some students who are even proud of how well they can do with how little they study. This, of course, tends to fall apart when you get into university and you cover more material that's more advanced (and often not as intuitive as a lot of high school material), in less time.

    So first, you have to really ask yourself, do you really want to be where you are and headed where you're going? (Sometimes it can take students a while to figure out that they don't really have an interest in what they're studying.)

    If the answer is yes, what you have to do is figure out how to make your studying work better. Is it a question of putting in more time? Or are there ways that you can study more efficiently. One of the mistakes I made when studying for my calculus final in first year undergrad was that I spent too much time reviewing stuff that I already knew. I wanted to be thorough, but I didn't account for my limited time very well and ended up skipping over the review of some of the harder concepts that were covered towards the end of the semester. The final ended up being weighted a lot more heavily on the latter, more challenging stuff and though my mark wasn't nearly as high as I would have liked, I learned some valuable lessons about studying: learn to recognize what you know and move one, learn to concentrate on the stuff you'd rather avoid, and get better at predicting exam questions.

    Some other tips I might offer include getting rid of this idea that you have a "hard" course load. Unless you're overloading you have a standard course load. It may be challenging, of course, but if you wake up every moring believing that the deck is stacked against you, you're going to have a hard time doing anything. Try instead to see this time in your life as full of opportunity.

    Tips for dealing with test anxiety:
    1. Take care of yourself. Eat well. Exercise. Get enough sleep. You'd be surprised how much of a difference this can make.

    2. Prepare. Prepare. Prepare. Take a break. And then prepare some more. Anxiety often arises out of a feeling of not being prepared.

    3. Study under conditions in which you will be examined - or as close as possible. Go to the test room ahead of time and (if permitted) try solving some problems there. Go over previous years' exams and check your work against solutions. If these aren't permitted or available, there should be some sample questions floating about online somewhere.

    4. Once you're familiar with the course material, try to think up the questions that you would ask on an exam. One big tip for this is to read ahead. Try to figure out how the material in this course leads into the next. Often it's THAT material that will be drawn on for the more challenging questions on the exam.
  6. Apr 12, 2014 #5
    Thank you for your replies everyone. Choppy, I do agree with your first point. I came from a very competitive country during high school and I do think that I clung on to that inkling of hope that I could pull off everything with a last minute push. And I do think that after I got my grades for the first midterms back, I became rather inwardly complacent (at the same time kind of gave up because I could have been in the top 5 if I hadn't made ridiculous computational errors/crossed out the things I wrote correct, etc).

    The truth is, I really don't know what I want to do. I really love CS and math, but I can't transfer to CS cause it's in a different school within college. I also am interested in cognitive science(maybe human computer interactions later on). I enjoy physics, but that is also motivated by the fact that I may want to go to grad school for engineering and not math/physics, and I assumed that phy + math(applied+computation) would give me a better background. Within math, the only field I know as of yet(I don't know much about higher level math) that I really like is probability theory/number theory/combinatorics(I have published a paper in chessboard domination). But right now, I am stuck with the question of whether I can do well after such a mishap so early on. Also, as ridiculous as it may seem right now, I want to aim at top grad schools after undergrad, but not only am I not sure if this is even possible now nor do I want to ruin my love for the subject by obsessing over the future.
    With regard to the workload, yeah I do have a negative mindset towards it which should go. Honestly, I am being challenged for the first time in a long time and I find it thrilling(if it not for last quarter looming large...). My friends who mocked me for taking just three classes last quarter dropped the classes they are in and opted for easy humanities classes for some reason too, so it makes me kind of nervous.
    Also, would looking through the solutions manual be a big no then(I look at the problem, formulate the idea of how to approach it in my head, check if it is correct and move on)? I adopted this habit rather recently in interest of time. It worked back in the days when I had to understand mechanics(I ended up doing a good job of that) so I was wondering whether this is a bad plan or not.
  7. Apr 12, 2014 #6
    I'm also in the same boat as you. In my case I messed up my first tests worse than you did, first tests EVER. I feel really bad since I want to go to a top 10 CS programme for my masters. My course load is Maths, Applied Maths, Physics and Computer Science. I love all of these so I decided to do them all in my first year. I'll probably drop Applied Maths next year. I'll do Quantum Mechanics next year and that's the part that interests me in Physics. My main objective is Computer Science and Maths which I hopefully will major in 3 years from now. If you really love CS and can't do it, I suggest you get a major in Maths+something else. With a maths major I'm sure you can move to computer science later on. I'm not sure how, but I've seen loads of people doing in(Source: Internet lol).
  8. Apr 12, 2014 #7
    I don't understand the motive to go directly into graduate school. Get a job, pay off your student debts and spend some time thinking about what you want to do. Perhaps your employer will offer education assistance as well as an inspiration for a graduate thesis/project.
  9. Apr 12, 2014 #8
    A bit easier to get in. Recommendation letters, not having them think you're out of the loop, etc. Taking one year off school might be okay, but beyond that, I think it starts to get more difficult. Plus, more continuity. Personally, I try to learn in a such a way that I actually retain what I learn, but a lot of people don't bother to learn that way, so for them, they ought to keep things moving, although I think they can learn more like I do, if they really apply themselves and do their homework in terms of figuring out how to use their minds.
  10. Apr 13, 2014 #9
    So my method of studying math/physics isn't actually a good idea? Because I want to understand it thoroughly, I only do this in the interest of time...
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