me studying for my first freshman year gen chem midterm the night before (WHAT NOT TO DO)

Science 101 is Bwog’s weekly advice column for Columbia and Barnard students studying STEM. In this week’s edition, Bwog Science Editor and junior-year biology/pre-med major Alex Tang brings you advice he wish he knew as a freshman.

Class of 2022, welcome to Columbia! You’re currently confused, excited, nervous (and probably way too cool to admit it)… we’ve all been there. There’s a huge learning curve at any college, but especially so at Columbia, where students seem especially independent and campus just so happens to be in the biggest (and probably most stressful) city in the nation. Here are some things I wish I knew as a freshman, in my experience as a STEM student.

1. Take care of yourself first. Your friends might have your back, but the only person who knows how you’re truly doing is you. These next few years, you’re going to experience sleepless nights, stressful exams, and personal/social/professional challenges. While it never seems like it at the moment, everything always just happens to turn out okay. Get enough sleep, eat regularly, and go out once in a while. Try not to talk about schoolwork too much at dinner. Call home once in a while! Always remember that Columbia provides 24/7 support if things don’t seem to get better.

2. Make friends in your classes. As a STEM student, you’ll tend to see the same faces in your lectures, recitations, and office hours. You’ll soon recognize the same classmates in whatever it is you study – in other words, your fellow pre-meds, civil engineers, physicists, etc. It’s always good to have a few trustworthy friends with whom you can study, get notes from, ask to turn in your homework when you’re sick, gripe about exams with, etc. These classes are always easier with a friend.

3. Do all the problems. In my experience, the best way to guarantee a good score on a science exam is to simply do all the assigned problems. Doing this is way more important than reading the textbook and (in my opinion) even going to lecture. This piece of advice has helped me through a whole variety of STEM classes at Columbia, in math, chemistry, physics, and biology. [edit: you should still go to lecture, nice try]

4. Start research early, if possible. I started lab research during my last month of freshman year. Since then, research has become one of the richest, most rewarding activities I’ve been involved in. If research sounds like something you’d be interested in doing, don’t hesitate to reach out to professors early on, even during your first semester! While you’re definitely busy acclimating to college life during your first semester, it’s always possible to start with a lower time commitment in lab, just to get a feel for it. Science professors actually love it when undergraduates start research early, as an earlier start means more time to grow as a researcher. If you start during freshman fall (as opposed to late freshman spring as I did), it will also give you more time to collect great recommendation letters and open up more summer research opportunities. Check out our tips for getting into science research here. If you’re really busy your first semester, you can also start in the spring, or even sophomore year. It does tend to get tougher (but is still not impossible) to get started with research your junior and senior years.

5.  Look into summer programs EARLY. This is related to the last point. If science research sounds like something you’d be interested in, start looking early! Summer deadlines for Columbia SURF and other research programs in New York City and around the country tend to fall around February 1 (at least for the biomedical sciences). You should plan ahead and get your recommendation letters and essays sorted out ahead of time, around winter break.

6. Choose your professors wisely. Most intro science classes at Columbia offer multiple professors, each of whom has a different teaching style. Read CULPA to get a sense of how each professor teaches, and to see if their style appeals to you. For example, my physics professor sophomore year (Shaevitz) gave us weekly quizzes, which then accounted for a large percentage of our grade. I preferred having weekly quizzes to a few significant midterms, as the quizzes helped keep me on top of the material, and tended to create lower stress than midterms.

7. Keep your goals close at heart. Especially as a freshman, you’re going to be in lecture with hundreds of people. You’re going to feel like a number at times. Make sure you stay passionate about science by doing the things that inspire you. Volunteer to teach health in NYC public schools, design a formula one race car, or work in a lab where you can apply the concepts you’ve learned in class (all possible at Columbia)! In other words, get involved outside of the classroom.

8. Read our previous Science 101s. Last semester, Bwog compiled advice on a variety of issues related to STEM at Columbia. Learn how to do well in large lecture classes, find out what exactly an MD/PhD is, see what makes for an effective science interview, and more!

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