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Academic Success Guide

Academic success is not automatic for anyone, and requires a variety of skills and supports. This isn't a complete guide to succeeding at UCSD -- and success means a different things to different people. But this is a good starting point to think about how to approach your learning and your experience at UC San Diego.

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In movies and on TV, characters who go to college have a great time and find their life-long besties, parties, and a great time. But the reality is, college isn’t always  a place where you fit in automatically. College can be weird and isolating for some students at first. College life assumes a lot about your cultural, economic, and academic background. It’s easy to find yourself suffering from imposter syndrome – the feeling that somehow you fooled a bunch of people into thinking you were smart enough to be at UCSD but you really aren’t.

Imposter syndrome is your brain lying to you. That’s disequilibrium, the feeling of being out of place and off-balance, and it triggers a lot of anxiety (a neurological reaction where your body tells you to fight, flee, or freeze) and depression (a neurological reaction where your body tells you you are helpless) and the two often overlap.

The way you counter those feelings of being out of place are to create spaces where you feel you fit in. This can happen by finding friends, joining clubs, or finding places on campus ( campus community centers, cross cultural center, veterans’ resource center, transfer center, etc.) where you find mentors, people who share your values, and positive experiences that remind you that you are not alone.

Co-Curricular Activities

School is not the only important activity at college. Doing things outside of class will help you develop leadership skills, teamwork, oral and written communication skills, and a sense of belonging by building a community of people with whom you share values, interests, goals, and experiences. The challenge of co-curricular activities is that they are often more fun than class, so they will require you to make a lot of hard decisions about how to organize your time.


Making decisions well is something that people assume just happens to smart people and is easy. In reality, making good decisions is a matter of developing skills about how to deal with information, how to identify options, and how to predict outcomes in complex situations. Making decisions well is seldom easy, and it often turns out that decisions have unpredictable outcomes in the best of circumstances. And decision making is affected by a variety of things from your knowledge, your experience, your past traumas, and even your neurobiology. So here are some tools to think more critically about how you make decisions.

Defining & Dealing with Problems

This is a cyclical process:

  • Define the Problem: Is it a challenge, goal, or opportunity?
  • Gather Information: What are the facts? Who is affected? What are your assumptions? What are people's opinions? What are the limitations on the situation?
  • Consider Alternatives: Brainstorm, identify criteria for evaluating options, identify constraints and advantages to each option.
  • Choose the Best Options: What is possible? What is feasible? What is suitable? Can you be flexible?
  • Implement Your Solution: Develop a plan. Inform relevant people. Compromise if necessary.
  • Monitor Your Progress: How is the plan being implemented? What are the results? Do you need help?
  • Review and learn from your experience, and revise your plan as needed.

Deciding with Reason and Intuition

Often, we tend to think of making decisions with either pure reason (mind) or pure instinct (gut feeling) as if the options are part of a binary opposition. In truth, you can and should use both in your decisions.

Reason considers

  • Facts.
  • What is probable, not just what is possible.
  • Risk and reward.
  • Pros and Cons.
  • What you do know and what you don't know.

Intuition considers

  • Does it feel right (deep emotions and memories.)
  • Does it feel consistent with your values and sense of self?
  • Does this feel impulsive?

Barriers to Effective Decision-Making

  • Insufficient information.
  • Too much information; it overwhelms you.
  • Too many people involved in the decision.
  • Someone involved has a vested interest in a particular outcome.
  • You have no emotional attachment to the outcome, making it hard to decide what is right or wrong.

If you struggle with decision-making, find someone you trust to talk through problems, like a mentor, an academic advisor, or a family member.

Getting Help

You are not alone in your experiences in college. There are a lot of people here to serve as your support, your community, and your cheerleaders throughout your time at UC San Diego.

Advising Resources

Wellness Resources

Academic Resources

Belonging Resources


Having clear goals helps you have purpose and directions. However, it takes time for you to learn how to make goals that are motivating and give you a sense of direction.

Setting SMART Goals

Developed for project management in business, SMART goals allow you to understand exactly when you have developed an actionable goal. A SMART goal is:

  • Specific: What is the exact thing you want to do?
  • Measurable: Can you track your progress to completing the goal?
  • Achievable: Can you articulate what you need to do to achieve your goal?
  • Realistic: What resources (internal and external) do you need to reach your goal?
  • Time-Bound: What is your deadline or timeline to achieve your goal?

WOOP: Maintaining Motivation when You Encounter Barriers

WOOP is an idea of positive visualization while also anticipating contrasting barriers to implementation. Cognitive scientists find that when individuals visualize success, this releases positive neurotransmitters as if they have achieved success already, decreasing motivation. But visualization of success while also imagining internal barriers that might prevent your success and how you will overcome them help you keep motivation in the face of barriers.

  • Wish: What do you want to achieve.
  • Outcome: Imagine what it would look like and what would happen if you achieve your wish.
  • Obstacle: What are the parts of yourself that stand in the way of your wish?
  • Plan: How will you overcome your own internal barriers?

Managing Your Time

Professors, administrators, and staff act as if everyone should just be able to manage their time well once they hit a certain age, usually some unreasonable age in their teens, when people are still developing basic self-awareness and critical thinking skills, and when even the adults around teens don’t spend any time helping them actually develop those skills. Time management is a skill set, and for some of us who are not neurotypical, time management is a real bear, since we might have a very different perception of time and how it flows than neurotypical folks. 

The problem with time management is that there is no one way to effectively manage time and your relationship with time and tasks. With that in mind, here are some ideas on how to try to manage your time better.

Tools You Need

When I talk about tools, I am talking about cognitive tools, not necessarily about physical tools. Cognitive science folks talk about a phenomenon called “distributed cognition”, a process where you use tools, relationships, or your environment to carry some of the work of thinking, remembering, and processing information (your “cognitive load”) to help your brain be free to do other things. It’s hard for most people to remember more than 3-5 things at a time, and harder to do this when those things are new habits or skills. A lot of things I will talk about are about distributing your cognition in ways to help your brain do its job better.

Managing your time in a way that frees your brain to do other things (like learn a lot of hard material), you need to make use of a set of tools that carry some of that cognitive load:

  • A Planner or Calendar: at the very least, you need one calendar. This can be a paper planner or an electronic calendar. (I use both for different purposes.) But you need to make sure that you track when you have exams, when assignments are due, and when you have events, plans, and commitments. If you don’t track those things, you will almost certainly miss deadlines or flake on commitments regardless of your good intentions..
  • To Do Lists: It’s helpful to have a daily or weekly to do list so you can track what you need to do, what you have done, and what you have not done each day to know if you are on track or not.
  • Syllabi: You need to use your syllabus to identify your deadlines and requirements in each of your classes.
  • Alarms: Use alarms to warn you of upcoming events, appointments, and to keep things like a regular sleep schedule. Most of us carry a little portable computer that we pretend is a phone to keep track of all kinds of things in our lives. Use those alarms to remind you of your commitments and deadlines.
  • Some time dedicated to setting this all up. You need to invest time to manage your time. Seriously.

Let's Do This Thing

At the start of the quarter (or before if you are extra), pull out your syllabi and your calendar. 

  1. Look at your course syllabi. Note the dates of all your assignments: finals, midterms, quizzes, homework, reading assignments. Note the due dates of every assignment. 
  2. Note when office hours are for class. If you are a daily or weekly planner aficionado (and I suggest you become one if you are not), note when your classes and discussion sections occur.
  3. Write down your other commitments: work, clubs, church, workout time, your volleyball tournament, appointments with your doctor or tattoo artist, date night with your sweetie, your weekly D&D game – anything you need to make sure you attend, put it down.
  4. Finally, go to the campus enrollment and registration calendar ( and copy down deadlines for key things like :
  • Schedule of Classes and enrollment appointment times available
  • E(eBill available continuing students.
  • Registration fee payment deadline (after this date, late fees apply)
  • Late registration fee payment deadline (to avoid being dropped from enrolled classes or wait listed courses)
  • First day of classes
  • Automatic wait lists officially end
  • Deadline for all students to change grading option (undergraduate and graduate students)
  • Deadline for all students to drop classes without "W" grade on transcript (undergraduate and graduate students)
  • Deadline for Undergraduate students to drop with "W" grade on transcript
  • Last day of classes before finals
  • Finals week

Habits To Develop

  • Once a week (like on Sunday evening) review your awesome, detailed calendar you made at the start of the quarter following my instructions so you can look at your commitments. Don’t stress if it looks busy. You got this.
  • Make a to do list of all the stuff you need to do this week.
  • Prioritize all the stuff you need to do as: A (Must do it); B (Would be nice if I did it; and C (Total icing on the cake if I did it, but no big deal if I didn’t.}
  • Review your planner and to dos every day.
  • What did you do? Check that stuff off.
  • What did you not do? Do you need to carry that to tomorrow’s to do list or are you really not going to do it. Adjust the priority as needed if you carry it over

Breaking Tasks into Manageable Chunks

  • When you have a big task, break it down to smaller tasks. For example, “study for midterm 1” is a huge task. But you can break it down into reviewing notes, making flashcards to memorize vocabulary, reviewing homework sets, going to your professor’s review session, etc.
  • Identifying Procrastination
  • Procrastination is a normal response to feeling overwhelmed and unmotivated. That said, procrastination is a warning sign that you are struggling with motivation and learning.
  • There are a lot of ways to procrastinate. My favorite is focusing on doing a lot of small bits of work that are unrelated to the task I am doing so that I can tell myself I am being productive, but really I am just avoiding a big task I hate doing.
  • When you are procrastinating, you need to try several approaches to re-engage:
  • Take a timed and specific break. Like take five minutes to clear your mind and envision what you need to do, or write down a to do list that breaks the task you are procrastinating about down into smaller chunks.
  • Bribe yourself with rewards if you finish a smaller chunk of a task you have been procrastinating about.
  • Call on your cheerleaders. Text someone responsible about your trouble focusing so they can remind you that you can do this.

You Can Do This

  • In my experience, trying to manage time is particularly hard if you have ADD, ADHD, ASD, chronic anxiety, or chronic depression. It takes work, and you will slip up a lot, but you can do it!
  • Customize any time management system to your individual needs. Your neurology is going to shape what works for you. My chronic depression, for instance, works well with patterns and schedules when I am not in a depressive episode, but when I am struggling with a depressive episode, I have a hard time doing much without external cues and having people to help me.
  • You have to plan ahead every day. Winging it is more likely to go wrong for you if you struggle with time management. Some habits that may help:
  • Have a planner that fits your way of thinking.
  • Set aside the things you need when you leave the house. Keys, wallet, and backpack  by the door and clothes set aside for the next day. Plug in your cell phone in the same place so you don’t spend the morning spiraling into anxiety and leave late.
  • Set timers and alarms, especially if you lose track of time due to distractions or monomania.
  • Assume you will underestimate the time it will take for you to do something. If you think it will take five minutes, budget 10 or more. Some of us, particularly if we are neurodivergent, have a very different relationship with the perception of time. Don’t fight it! Don’t feel crappy about your relationship with time! Anticipate the issue and build it into your planning!
  • Remember that you will get distracted, and factor that into your study environment and time management. Try to make your study space chill and organized (at least when you are facing the work surface. If your clothes are all over the bed and your desk looks clean, I count that as a win.) I also keep some sort of fidget toys around to help me manage my own attention issues (you may find that distracting, I find it helpful when I get the inevitable urge to multitask when I should be focusing. Having a fidget cube, worry coin, or Slinky nearby calms my nervous energy and helps keep me more or less on task.
  • Work on your all-or-nothing thinking. You will have good and bad days.  If things go south, don’t give up on being able to manage your time ever. Even the most type-A students screw up their time management some days!

Study Skills

Being a good student is a set of skills, not an inherent trait. That means you can be a good student in one moment or in one subject, but not in another; and if you aren’t a good student now, you can be a good student in the future.

Writing  Notes

Several studies suggest that hand-writing notes can be a much better tool for you to reinforce and recall information than typing notes or listening to lectures. The speculation is that the mechanics of writing help reinforce the information in two ways: that you must identify information from the lecture to take note of, and that you must make an effort to think about and write down the information. Of course, you may need to type due to a disability, or you may do your writing on a tablet of some source, but the general idea here is to engage and, if you are able, to write by hand to keep your mind and body engaged. 

Even if you type your notes, writing notes is cognitively more helpful than only  listening to or re-watching recordings of lectures again because when you write, you are actively reinforcing information in your short-term memory by choosing what to focus on and writing it down in your own words. Passive watching gives you a false sense of understanding. Your brain is not a tape recorder, It works best when it’s working.

Some of you may not be able to pay attention to the lecture and write at the same time. If that’s true for you and the professor records lectures, listen when you are in class, then take notes again later based on the recordings when you can pause the professor any time you need to so you can actually write. 

If a lecture or a textbook makes sense to you, it is often because the  clarity of the presentation gives you a belief that the concepts make sense, but they don’t really make sense unless you can restate the concepts on your own. Repeating someone else word for word is not understanding.

When taking notes, make sure you:

  • Make note of things that seem important to know; your job is not to transcribe everything, but to pick out the important ideas and make note of them.
  • Write things down in your own words; don’t simply copy the text word for word. Write it to explain the concept back to you in the future.
  • Leave room for you to correct and annotate your notes later.
  • Write clearly. Future you will thank you for leaving them readable notes.
  • Think of your notes as your guide to the class that you will use to prepare for the midterm or final later on.
  • Number the pages of your notes, make note of the date of your notes on the top of the page, and what the notes are about (“Physics 1A lecture, March 5, 2024”) 
  • Review your notes regularly, preferably within a day or two, to identify questions, problems, missing information, or stuff you wrote but now don’t understand what you wrote down.

Reading to Prepare for Exams

When you are assigned readings, most students markup the book or article with a highlighter and some notes in the margins and call it a day. This is an ineffective way to study. This might help you make it through the article as you cram it just before (or after) the reading is due, but it will not help you use the reading as a guide to prepare for future exams or papers. 

When reading a textbook (as opposed to a novel or a history book), you should read each chapter by starting with the introduction and reading it fully. I usually skip to the conclusion section of the chapter and read that fully (so I know what I am supposed to be reading, and what they assume I should know), then I skim every paragraph in between. I am looking for the following cues to important information:

  • Definitions
  • Dates
  • Names/Key people
  • Ideas and Concepts
  • Examples
  • Formulas and Equations
  • Illustrations and Diagrams

When reading a journal article, I typically start with the abstract, the introduction, the discussion, then the methods and data analysis, with a particular eye to whether the methods and data analysis make me more supportive or skeptical of the discussion. The guidelines above also apply to identifying important information.

When reading a novel, history, or book of philosophy, I tend to read beginning to end, but sometimes skim when I find it too dense to get through on first reading. Most of my focus is on people, events, definitions, technical language, and themes that I notice.

Most importantly, keep notes on your reading. Note what page your note is referring to, write your notes in your own words unless you are pulling a quote out for a paper later on (and even then, make a note of what you understand it to mean) and leave room for more clarifying notes. Keeping thorough reading notes with page references also helps you cite properly when you write to avoid accidental plagiarism (and to find that juicy quote you need when you are writing your paper.)

Lecture Notes to Prepare for Exams

No matter how dry and boring your professor is, attend lectures. Get a sense of the instructor, what is important to them, and let them see you as engaged. If you have to miss a lecture, then spend some time on the podcast or recorded lectures. But don’t be the student who just downloads the professor’s powerpoints and thinks that’s enough. It seldom is, and often means you miss a lot of cues the professor is giving about what they think is important for you to know. 

Students often  assume that listening and re-listening to lectures will be enough to learn the material. In general, this doesn’t usually work. Learning is more complicated than just listening to a lecture and letting it soak into your brain. 

In reality, most human beings can’t remember things faultlessly. Your brain is not a hard drive. Instead, you have to spend some time actively listening, reflecting, and taking notes. Your brain works best when it is working. Either during the lecture or when you listen to a podcast or recording of the lecture, you should be taking notes. 

Your notes are going to be a study guide for the exam, so take organized, readable notes. Leave room for you to fill in things you missed or need to correct or add to. Don’t try to transcribe everything the professor is saying or copy their powerpoint slides. Instead, look for things that might seem important:

  • Definitions
  • Dates
  • Names/Key people
  • Ideas and Concepts
  • Examples
  • Diagrams
  • Formulas
  • Any time the professor takes time to solve on the board
  • Any time the professor solves an equation or problem from the homework on the board (seriously high chance that or something like it will be on the exam)
  • Anything the professor repeats the same topic
  • Subtle hints like when the professor says “this is really important”, “you should pay attention to this”, or “this will probably be on the exam.” (Seriously, you would be surprised how many students are surprised when the thing the professor says will be on the exam is, you know, on the exam.)

Practice Problems

Particularly in math and science courses, you will only learn the subject matter if you end up solving a lot of problems. Want to understand calculus? Solve a lot of problems. Want to understand organic chemistry? You have to push a lot of molecules. The thing about doing practice problems is that it helps expose your misunderstandings and limits much more than lecture and reading do. You can read and listen to lectures and look at all the examples in the book and think you understand something, but when you actually sit down to do the work, it still doesn’t calculate right. 

The place where you learn from solving problems the most is when you are attempting the terrible , have-to-swear-at-the-professor homework problem. It usually involves having to understand in more depth either how to set up a problem or how to solve a problem by hammering on the kinds of things that people usually misunderstand. So do a lot of problems, and take notes on the side about the stuff that killed you trying to solve them.

Studying for Exams

Homework sets, reading notes, and lecture notes are your study guide for the class. If you keep them organized, fill in things you learned in office hours asking questions, and order all your reading notes, lecture notes, and practice problems by date, you should have a nice catalog of all the stuff you learned. Break out your highlighters, color code stuff to help you find things you need to know. Make flashcards out of definitions, terms, dates, and formulas, and review problems. Think about what the professor might include on the exam based on your notes. Then get some friends together and quiz each other. Help each other solve problems or correct their notes. And start this at least a week before each exam.

Get Some Sleep

Sleep deprivation will dull your cognitive abilities, including memory, reasoning, and language. REM sleep, on the other hand, is important in the process of converting short term memory into long term memory, reducing stress hormones, preventing illness, and healing from injuries.

People around age 16-25 typically need 8-9 hours of sleep opportunity (restful time in the sleep cycle) per night. Without it, you end up having trouble focusing, remembering, organizing your thoughts, and controlling impulses. So if you want to do well in school, make sure you have a fairly regular sleep schedule, and get enough sleep. All-nighters are the enemy of good exam performance.

Taking Exams

Exams all are a bit different, but some general tips:

  • Get a full night’s sleep the night before. (Just in case you skipped the section above.) It’s good for your mental and emotional functioning. Coffee and energy drinks do not make up for lost sleep!
  • If possible, arrive a little early for the exam. It keeps you from feeling rushed and tense at the exam, and to have a little time to focus.
  • Visualize yourself relaxing and taking the exam.
  • Read the instructions on the exam fully and look at what kind of questions you need to answer.
  • Make a plan to manage your time. Figure out how long you need to spend on the hardest parts and make sure you leave yourself enough time for those sections.
  • If possible, clear out the quick and easy sections of the exam first. Typically true/false questions are the fastest, then multiple choice, short answer, then long answer or equation solving, and finally essay questions. Plan accordingly.
  • If you are not penalized for wrong answers, make educated guesses. Try to reduce your options to 2 or 3 possible answers, then go for some  points.
  • If your professor gives partial credit, attempt problems and do as much as you can to show your understanding of the material.
  • When you are anxious, take a moment to stop what you are doing, close your eyes, and take a long breath (count to 3 slowly) and out through your mouth. Do this 3 times while visualizing yourself answering the questions calmly, then get back to the exam.
  • When you get the exam back, review what you did well, and what you did not. Go to your TA or professor to discuss where you made mistakes and figure out where you went wrong with your answer to learn before the next exam.


Wellness really just means taking care of your body, mind, and spirit. At the very least your wellness should be focused on taking care of your physical health, your mental health (including stress!), your need for connection to others people, your need to strive for higher values (whether religious or secular), and your need to address ongoing health or disability issues by seeking accommodation where needed.

We have several resources for your support including the Student Health, the Zone, Counseling and Psychological Services, and the Office for Students with Disabilities to make sure your wellness needs are met and the barriers that can arise if your wellness needs aren’t met can be addressed to help you thrive.