Author Archive | Tarek G.

Image by julio.garciah, Flickr

Image by julio.garciah, Flickr

Having to read a novel that you hate for school is practically a rite-of-passage. As unbearable as it is, there is no escaping it. Whether a plotless depiction of a “tortured artist” or a “classic” ridden with superfluous writing, trying to pay attention while reading a bland book is hard. But don’t let it hinder your success: Here are some strategies on how to plow through a boring story and still get a good grade.

Adopt the Right Mindset

Think of it as a job. After all, you’re doing academic work, not reading for pleasure. Although it may be easy to confuse the two when reading material you like, it’s not recommended. We’re often told to read something for school because it is a “benchmark of storytelling” from which we can learn. Obviously that’s not always the case. But who said that you can only learn from reading good books? Reading the dreaded book in question is a great opportunity to learn what you might not want to do when crafting your own works. Analyze and examine any questionable artistic decisions made by the author that resulted in the final product. Think of it as performing an autopsy on a failed piece of art instead a corpse. Trust me; it’ll make reading more bearable.

Be Patient

Sometimes, things grow on you. Try reading at least half of the novel to see if it gets any better. While doing so, jot down page numbers for any relevant passages you come across. That way, in case you do give up on finishing it, you’ll still have cited passages of your own to fall back on. Ideally, the second act of any good story should be filled with exciting tension and conflict: if the middle of the book lacks that criterion, read it in a different manner than you would for leisure. This leads us to another method…


By researching your book, you can get a solid understanding of the its plot and themes that you may not have grasped when trying to slug through it. This approach does take a substantial amount of effort, but it will help your grades. Use websites like Enotes, Sparknotes, and Cliffsnotes to get a good overview of the book’s plot and themes. As helpful as these sources are, they often lack specific passages from books, which are usually required in any novel-based assignment. Take note of every passage mentioned in lecture and the professor’s explanation of its significance. You will have to formulate your own examples on top of this. Search through excerpts of the book to find relevant passages on your own. Use the summaries online and the page numbers from class as cues to where you should narrow your search down. A riskier approach is to aimlessly surf through the book to find any passage you think is significant. Upon finding one, examine it in context to the themes discussed by your professor. After finding enough passages, mix them up with ones already mentioned in class when writing an essay or on an exam.

Critique It

Congratulations – you’ve read the book from start to finish, but you hated every page of it. Feel free to critique it in tutorial. While doing a scathing analysis on an essay or an exam isn’t recommended, doing so in tutorial can garner participation marks. Just make sure you give an intelligent and structured argument with evidence. Bitterly complaining that Jane Eyre “sucks” isn’t going to win over your TA.

For your argument, cite any plot holes, inconsistencies, pacing problems, and weak dialogue as evidence. However, only state your criticisms if they are relevant to the class discussion; otherwise, it’s not worth derailing the tutorial.

All that said, proceed with caution if the novel you’re assigned is a “classic”. Any classical literature is inevitably going to be dated by today’s standards in terms of both form and content. Be wary of criticising it for what it isn’t rather than for what it is. Complaining that the prose in Paradise Lost isn’t in modern English will just make it sound like you walked into the wrong classroom. Although you may not like Homer, Virgil, Dante, or Milton, there is a reason why their works are still read and discussed hundreds of years after they were written. If you are brazen enough and determined to critique it, make sure to only do so in comparison to other works from the same era.

A Note of Caution

Ideally, you should read something for school regardless of its quality or how much it bores you. It is not recommended that you rely strictly on Internet research to complete these assignments. As painful as it may be for you to read Jane Austen, getting a bad final grade hurts even more. Power through it and just keep that final grade in mind every time you want to give up. We’ve all been through it – you can do it too!

Image by Mohamed Iujaz Zuhair, Flickr

Image by Mohamed Iujaz Zuhair, Flickr

Sometimes your best effort just isn’t good enough. You can pour blood, sweat, and tears into something, only to have it fail in the end. If this hasn’t happened to you yet, it’s easy to take the possibility of it for granted: I know I did.

It was a second year philosophy course. I passed, but with a measly final grade of 58 percent. It came as a total shock: I did well on the two assigned essays, and studied every last detail of the material for the exam. Infuriated, I contemplated filing an academic appeal. On the first day of my summer break, I commuted to my school registrar, carrying with me a binder full of my essays and short assignments. When I arrived there, the woman at the front desk informed me that all I could do was email the professor to ask if there had been an error in submitting my grade.

In other words, I could do nothing.

I couldn’t be bothered in wasting my time with such an email (“there was no error, that’s just the grade you got” would have been the response). On my commute back home, I tried to forget about it. And it was then, on that subway train, that I came to a realization. I had always heard about the importance of accepting failure from self-help books and lifestyle magazines, but never fully acknowledged it. Now I had to: I was living it.

From my experience, I learned different ways of coping with failure and how to learn from it. And what I learned, you can as well.

Assess yourself

Being bitter and shifting the blame elsewhere won’t change anything. Thinking that you’re infallible is not only unhealthy, it’s counterproductive. Be introspective: meditate on any possible mistakes you made that hindered your success. I look back and realize that I made four major mistakes in my philosophy course:

  • I came in late to most tutorials (sometimes not at all), with having not read the assigned readings
  • I major in English, so I’m assigned several lengthy novels which take up a lot of my reading time. I reasoned that I didn’t have enough time and only read select readings for the essay assignments
  • I caught up on all the course material in the days shortly leading up to the exam – a foolish mistake
  • As a result, I rarely contributed anything meaningful to tutorial discussions. This took a toll on my final grade as participation in tutorial made up 15% of the final mark

Since then, I have vowed to keep up with all the readings in any given course to the best of my ability. Recognize and correct your mistakes, because unless you do so you’ll just end up repeating them.

Feel good about your effort

Putting a lot of effort into something doesn’t alone guarantee a high grade. In my case, my initial outrage stemmed from putting in so much time and effort into studying for the exam. I soon realized that the amount of effort invested doesn’t mean anything if the final results are unsatisfactory to whoever is grading your work. The same applies even more so to jobs in the real world.

All this said, don’t let it get you down. Failure due to laziness is a legitimate source of shame, but failure in spite of trying hard isn’t. Even geniuses make mistakes. When inventing the light bulb, Thomas Edison made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts until finally succeeding. When asked by a reporter how it felt to fail 1,000 times, Edison replied,

I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.

Don’t look at your failed attempts as efforts wasted in vain: even a wasted effort is an invaluable learning experience.

Learn to study smarter

Reconsider your study habits. If you already work hard, focus on readjusting the ways you study rather than the amount of time you spend studying. It wasn’t that I didn’t study for my exam; I laboriously did so in the two weeks leading up to it. My mistake was that I crammed in the material within that short period of time. Had I studied in small doses over the course of the entire semester, I would have received better results for both my exam and my tutorial mark. No matter how hard you work within a short amount of time, finishing things at the last minute will only cheapen the results.

Halfway through my self-assigned two-week study period, I realized that I had forgotten to check the format for my exam. Once I did, I was shocked to find out that I had wasted time studying course material that wasn’t going to be included on it. Instead of first carefully going over the exam format, I dove straight into studying. As a consequence, I wasted precious time studying material that I wasn’t going to be quizzed on. Don’t just study hard, study smart.

Look forward

After you re-evaluate your strengths and weaknesses, don’t waste any more time dwelling on your failure. Move on by focusing your energy on new work at hand. Not only will this take your mind off of it, it’s also an opportunity to demonstrate that you have learned from your mistakes. So long as you actively avoid the traps that doomed your last effort, concentrating on current work will provide you with results that will more than make up for your previous failure.

Be at peace with liability

Get comfortable with the fact that the possibility of failure will always be there. Be at peace with it, because once you are, you’ll be better prepared for when it strikes again.

My pieces of advice aren’t instructions for foolproof protection against failure; no matter how religiously you follow them, there will always be that lingering chance. Nevertheless, you can still avoid it. School is like a game of cards. No matter how thorough you may think you play, there will always be a chance that you lose the game. But like any skilled player, you can still increase your chances of winning.

Image by Samantha Marx, Flickr

Image by Samantha Marx, Flickr

Here’s a situation that may sound familiar to you. You walk into a library hoping to get some work done. You find an empty seat, sit down, and open up your textbook. But then it happens. Seated nearby are two or more students yapping amongst themselves, constantly interrupting your flow of concentration.

Now, if you happen to be the culprits in this scenario, you might claim in defense: “But we’re not talking out loud, we’re whispering”. Believe it or not, my ears have the ability to detect low-level sound. So, no matter how low you whisper, I can still hear you gossiping about Sally’s relationship problems.

Not only are you wasting my time, but yours as well. So, here are some productive things you can do in a library instead:

Beef Up Your Assignment By Doing Research

Excelling in education requires a strong work ethic, and having access to the right resources can influence the outcome of your work. Luckily, your institution’s library can help you in this respect.

University libraries are filled to the brim with scholarly material, making them invaluable assets. One can spend dozens of hours sorting through rows of books filled with information on any given topic. However, for convenience, you can decide beforehand what books you will take out via a library computer.

When logged onto a computer, open a browser, and it will show a search engine for finding material within the library catalogue. When typing in your topic, make sure to include important keywords pertaining to what you are researching. You can narrow your search down by decade of publication, name of the subject matter, and academic discipline. Following these steps will garner search results more relevant to your topic.

Upon finding a catalogue entry you want, you will notice a little boxed symbol situated underneath the title of the book. If the symbol is green, the book is available. If it’s red, it’s currently unavailable. In the case that it is available, jot down the book’s catalogue number, i.e. “HD6072.5”, and the floor it’s shelved at. The shelves are arranged in sequence by code; this will help make your search easier. For example, if you’re searching for a book that’s numbered “HD6072.5”, just go to the shelf titled “HD2532-HD7000” to find it.

Search for Online Resources

When browsing the library catalogue, you can also refine your search to online entries, and even narrow it down further to EBooks or Journals, Magazines, and Newspaper Articles. Your university will also grant you access to a number of online academic journals from a variety of academic disciplines. Another useful online resource your university may provide free access to is Jstor, an incredibly helpful tool for finding articles pertaining to the Liberal Arts. If you are a science major, on the other hand, online resources are perfect for finding the most up-to-date scientific research.

Hold Group Meetings – Without Disturbing Others

At any library, there are group study rooms available. Make sure that you only work on such projects inside a study room. Group meetings are not allowed in the main study hall so as to not disrupt other students who are working. Book one of the rooms online or through the front desk. Before doing so, be aware of the booking policies. Each library has its own set of rules, so make sure you go over them via the library website. Generally, a room can only be booked by a group of 2 or more students. In addition, your booking may be forfeited in the case that you arrive 15 or more minutes late, and you may not book a room for more than 3 hours nor for less than 20 minutes. Make sure to abide by these rules when utilizing this service.

Study Quietly

If you’re not researching or taking out any books, there are other measures you can take to avoid disrupting everyone else in the library. One method is to simply not sit at the same table with your beloved “BFF”. That doesn’t mean that you have to ignore them; you can still meet up with them after studying at a designated hot spot via text. There, you can gossip about the inner-workings of Sally’s love life.

How you utilize the resources made available to you will be a deciding factor in your academic success, and using the library effectively is a great habit to get into right from freshman year.