Most of you who are in Imperial College have been referred to as “smart”, “intelligent” or “talented” in the past. While this might be true and indeed you should give yourself a metaphorical pat on the back, it is worth drawing attention to the less obvious side of excellence which is the mind-set. This article will try to give you an idea of a successful mind-set that should keep you afloat on your wonderful yet arduous journey at Imperial College. Whilst I would encourage you find what works for you, use the wisdom here as a sort of reference point. Surely knowing these is better than not knowing. For the few who are already privileged with this information, reading this article helps to reinforce the concepts.
Expected outcome at Imperial
Often students don’t have a clear objective of what to expect at Imperial. I aim to give a broad overview of what to expect. At the end of your degree (MEng or BEng), you would have a very good understanding of engineering principles and will be able to design fairly complex systems. However since most major projects in the world require as much as 1000 experts working on a problem, do not on average expect to be on par with the expertise of top companies. If you follow my advice, you will have the necessary skills to begin life as a junior engineer so you will be of great value to any company.
At Imperial College, expect hard-work and healthy competition. You will make lots of sacrifices, experience triumphs and failure as you grow into a young professional. The change from a-levels or International Baccalaureate can indeed be very hard on many as the work load and number of hours required to study will be greatly increased. As a result, do not expect anything to be easy. In fact, if anything appears easy you are either doing it wrong or misinterpreting the instructions. There will be no easy victory.
Seek mentors and protégés
In your first few weeks at Imperial, it is wise to join many societies so as to explore as much as possible what the university has to offer you. Also, you may not have as much time in your later years because work load increases. As you explore societies and attend events, you get to meet as many people as possible both in your year and above. Those in your year group can provide social support and those above you can provide guidance. Trust me, you will need some guidance. Thus, seek out mentors and people who have been through your situation. Seek out those who can inspire you to be better. These people will be invaluable to you. Also, as you advance through your degree, help others as much as you can. Let others benefits from your knowledge.
Don’t compare yourself and believe in yourself
It is easy to feel intimidated at Imperial College. After all, it is home to the best of the best students from their respective high schools. These people can sound really impressive that it drowns your own inner voice. It is easy to forget that you too are qualified to be at the university. Your first two years will be the toughest on average because you are just getting used to the system. The work load can seem so impossible to accomplish and trust me, you will get frustrated more times than you care to keep track off. The trick is that you just have to believe you will make it through like others before you. You just have to believe in yourself and your abilities (You were given admission for a reason!). It also helps not to compare yourself with others because you really don’t know their story. Okay if you have really close friends then you can establish a form of healthy rivalry and this is good. But don’t ever get discouraged. You have to keep on fighting…err... I mean working hard.
Find meaning in what you do
While in my second year, I became frustrated that I was not learning fast enough. You see I thought that by the first year, I would know a lot more and have more skills than I did. This led me to think that university education is a waste of my time. Now the only reason I had this feeling is due to a chasm between reality and my expectations. If I had read an article like this before I started then I would most likely have thought differently. Anyway, for me the second year was the toughest. Now when the going gets tough, you begin to question why you even bother with this difficult environment at all. You wonder if it is all worth it. The answer as you have guessed is that it depends. To not only survive but thrive, you need the will to succeed.
Firstly, I would advocate doing what you love because I believe to be truly good at anything (even hair cutting), it takes a lot of effort and hard work. Now if you are going to work hard, you might as well love what you do. Secondly, I would suggest you find meaning and purpose to your life. This second point is even more important than the “Do what you love” advice. Viktor Frankl, author of “A Man’s Search for Meaning” says that life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose. This is really gold if you can seat till for a moment and ponder upon this. It means that any circumstance is bearable as long as its purpose is worth it. We are free to give meaning to our extremely demanding work load at Imperial. You might want to be amongst the greatest of scientists or engineers, standing at the bleeding edge of innovation and pushing the boundaries of possibilities. You might want to be qualified for the best jobs on earth. Whatever your meaning is, I really strongly suggest you find one. It will keep you smiling when you have been working continuously for 28 hours or more or when you have unrealistic deadlines to meet (and I believe this is inevitable!).
You are not special
While this may sound down-putting, it is pretty liberating… and as I thought, eye catching. No one becomes excellent by accident. You will need to work on yourself so it is really your choice to excel. A wise person once said, “It is not your fault if you are born poor but to remain so, that is on you”. Similarly, by realising that you have the choice to create a life that you want, you can take responsibility for your actions. Like every other excellent person, you will need to put in the time. There is no short cut not even for talented people.
I once had the notion that I don’t need to do much to pass. While this might be true at high school level, at Imperial College you are competing (healthily) with people at your level of abilities. At this point, being smart counts for little advantage. You will need to work harder than most. You will need to get allies in form of mentors, and friends. This is captured in the beautiful anecdote that says, “If you are the smartest person in a room, you are in the wrong room”. So again align yourself with people who can improve you and try to improve others as well. The idea is that if you are hoping to get a first class degree, then you should prioritise your friendship with people of similar aims. The reason is that believe it or not, your friends do influence you and both your energy and attention are limited resources so it is better to have friends with similar aims as you. By doing so, you can both encourage yourselves towards your aim. If you know the Pareto rule (see 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey), I would suggest spending 80% of your effort on your top 20th percentile of friends. Also, read books outside academics such as "7 Habits of Highly Effective People". Seriously, that book changed me.
Speaking of the seven habits of highly effective people, there was one principle that really helped me. You see after setting aims, always do the most important things first and not what interests you first. For example, if you have to choose studying between two courses that have the same marks, do the harder one first. Do first the things that give you the most mark.
Remember to rest
Resting is very important. Do not do all-nighters where you study throughout the night! Yes while you may find some of your mates bragging about this, there is no honour when it is done unnecessarily. All-nighters leave you lethargic in the morning so whilst you may have gained some progress in the night you will lose your thinking abilities in the morning. It is better to work according to your own personal preference and body clock. Perhaps you are a night owl then work till around 2am latest. Remember the aim is not to work hard but to work smart. Off course there will be times when you have no option but to do all-nighters. But when you can avoid them, do shun them.
Shoot for the stars to land on the moon
Aim to be perfect but in order to keep your sanity realise that perfection cannot be attained. The idea is that if you want to get a grade over 70, aim for 80. To do very well, you will have to work hard and I have a few tips to get you started a good enough direction. Aim to cover everything in a topic. Do read wide and deep so that everything seems clear to you. If anything is vague or not distinctly clear in your mind, this is a point of weakness the experienced examiners know all too well to exploit. To read wide and deep without exhausting yourself, you will need a lot of time. Ideally, you should not feel rushed in anything you do although this will be unavoidable especially in your first two years where you are still getting used to the system and thus may not be able to plan appropriately.
To allocate time, you may need to make sacrifices in your out of academic activates and focus on the most important tasks. You can read in your holidays and reduce time spent on none academic activities. With this time, track your academic progress aggressively. So read up and understand materials every time before the related lecture. By reading, I mean read deep before the lecture and learn to use lectures as supplements to your reading as opposed to using your reading to supplement your lectures. Let your lectures serve to refresh and affirm the reading you have already done. By doing this, you will gain more from lectures because you are not seeing materials for the first time. As a result instead of struggling during a lecture to merely understand concepts before lecture time elapses, you are now struggling to tie the concept to the larger framework of the entire course and how you may be examined. This is a very good place to be. During the lecture, follow the material actively not passively. Think about the concepts taught, the implications and disadvantages. Note that you can only follow this recommendation if you had a good night’s rest and had not done an all-nighter.
However, there are situations where your progress will be stalled such as when you are not able to understand a topic. In such a case, it would be wise to resolve this problem as soon as possible and then go back on track with your studies. You can ask friends for clarification during break and after lectures. You can also ask lecturers or consult textbooks for clarification. Whatever you do, try to resolve issues very quickly because you don’t really have much time.
Use your “holiday time” wisely
Your holiday time at Imperial are not really for holidays. Sorry to burst your bubble! They are opportunities to expand your horizon, to supplement your learning and to grow. Yes, I know. No one tells you these things explicitly. You see while classroom or lab-esque education is important, it can do little to replace real hands-on experience. These are what your holidays are useful for. So seek internships, participate in competitions, volunteering work, travel abroad, etc. Whatever you do, do not rely on university alone to give you all the experiences you need. Granted, universities may try their best but you need to be out there to really appreciate your craft. You can also use this time as an opportunity to learn about a different area. For example, if you are a chemical engineering student you might want to learn website design to help with presenting your projects to the outside world.
Another important use of your holiday is to prepare ahead of the next year. There will never be enough time to study everything so you might as well grab every opportunity to get ahead with the course material. The summer holiday is a good time to read without all the pressures of deadlines and other university obligations to think about. Try to complete whole courses in the summer starting from the most difficult. Read deep and wide. Solve past questions as if you will be tested in two weeks’ time. Yes I know summer is a beautiful time to do anything but study. If you are doing a four year course, you only have three summers. Think about it. You will have more than 70 summers in your life time (hopefully). Wouldn’t it be wise to sacrifice three to gain a good career foundation that would go a long way towards the rest of your life? Your degree is forever and any pleasure that you may gain from doing anything else but studying is ephemeral. You will thank me later for this insight.
Finally I hope this gives you some idea of how to hack Imperial College. It is not an easy task but it is definitely worth it. I would urge you to not only read this and feel like you know better but apply and practice. Also do find what works for you and think for yourself. This article merely provides some materials for a good start! Good luck!