Strategies for academic and social excellence

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I distinctly remember entering the University of Pretoria as naïve as a first generation university student could be. I harbored doubts about how many modules I was going to pass or even the lack of sleep that I was going to encounter. Needless to say that over the four years that I had spent at the University of Pretoria, I began to realize just how unfounded all of my doubts were. Over time and through observing some of the most impressive students, I began to realize that they had all adopted certain strategies that enabled them to become top students as well as leaders and agents of change. Once I had started implementing these strategies, I found myself performing at an exceptional level not just within the classroom, but also outside of the classroom, through the various activities that I had been involved in. Therefore, in this blog post, I aim to share these strategies with you and hopefully help you achieve all of the goals that you had set out for yourself at university.

1. Find your passion and study it

This point may seem rudimentary and somewhat cliché, yet so few people really study what they are passionate about. There are a lot of reasons for this for example; family pressures, bursary opportunities and degrees that promise a lucrative pay check. However, you need to push against these forces and follow your passion relentlessly.
I was fortunate enough to have found my passion for Economics at a young age. Economics appealed to me because it encompassed my passion for entrepreneurship, mathematics, politics and psychology. I found myself being so engrossed by all of the topics that I had covered in class that I found myself thinking about them at a much higher level and applying what I was learning to various real world scenarios. Instead of studying being a chore, I found it to be quite pleasurable. I woke up every day extremely excited about what I was going to learn and achieve next.

2. Believe in Yourself

This point is equally important and I cannot stress it enough. Believing in what you are doing and saying is a fundamental part of success. I found that by doing what I loved and succeeding in it my self-belief was vastly improved. It was this self-belief that I had used within other areas within my life which helped me stand out as a leader and change agent. Belief isn’t something that someone is born with. Rather, it is something that needs to be cultivated and reinforced on a daily basis. Self-belief can be, writing your goals on your wall, befriending confident people or even listening to rap music. Believe you can and you’re already halfway there.

3. Understand opportunity cost

The opportunity cost of an activity is the cost of the best foregone opportunity. To elaborate on this topic further, let me use a hypothetical example.

If I were to skip my Calculus class on a Friday at 7:30am in order to sleep for an extra half an hour, the opportunity cost of sleeping that extra half an hour is two percentage points on my final Calculus mark.

The relevance of opportunity cost is that it allows you to understand that every decision you make has an equivalent cost. Therefore, by understanding that, you are able to approach the decisions you make on a daily basis in a more mature way and one that maximizes your limited time and ensures that you’re able to adequately prioritise your daily tasks and activities. You’ll have a clear grasp of the concept, there is a time and a place for everything and in a world with an array of temptations, that you’re able to make the best decision.

If they have a meeting with a multi-millionaire, the opportunity cost of not meeting him would be one percentage point? What would you do?

The best students understand that there is a time and a place for everything. They understand the concept of opportunity cost and it underpins their daily decisions.

4. Comparative Advantage

Comparative advantage is another important concept that needs to be understood by all. Basically what it means is that, if there are two people who provide two different services, the person who is more efficient, has a comparative advantage in providing that service. By leveraging off one another, they can both benefit.

When you are studying and trying to balance various extra mural activities, your time will be severely constrained. The best students are able to acknowledge their strengths and weaknesses respectively and use comparative advantage in order to save time and improve understanding of certain concepts. Moreover, it will improve your communication skills which will prove invaluable when you are in a position to explain complex concepts.
An example of the application of this concept is:

Assume that you’re very good at Economics and can study a chapter in 1 hour and take 3 hours to complete a chapter of Calculus. Moreover, assume you have a friend who can do a chapter of Calculus in 1 hour and Economics in 3. Therefore, it would take you and your friend 4 hours to cover two topics. By understanding comparative advantage however, you can save an hour by studying the module at which you are better in and asking your friend to explain Calculus to you and vice versa.

Throughout my four years at university, my friends and I continuously applied this principle to great avail. Ignore this concept at your own peril.

5. 80/20 principle

The 80/20 principle was first conceptualized by Vilfredo Pareto in 1896. This principle states that 80 percent of the effects can be achieved by doing 20 percent of the causes. Put another way, 80% of the results can be generated by 20% of the work.

The best students have either willingly or unwillingly applied this rule to their studies and life in general. They’ve used Pareto’s principle by understanding that 80% of the results can be achieved by 20% of the work. They understand that a lot of the groundwork is done in the classroom, their interactions with their professors, homework and practicals.

They understand the importance of group studying, getting advice from students who have done the module before and practicing past papers.
It is important to note that every module or task that you will take at university is different. That said, there is still a system that needs to be understood in order for you to make the most of the principle. Why study the whole textbook when only 20% of it is relevant? Understand what is expected of you, ask for advice and use the system to your advantage. By doing this, you’ll have a lot more time to enjoy your university career.

6. Network, Network, Network…

Networking is something to be taken very seriously. You are an average of the 5 people you spend the most time with.

Over time, I had noticed that people tend to associate with those who have similar interests to theirs. The best students however, understand that they need to have a diverse group of friends. By this I mean, they understand what it means to network with intelligent students, entrepreneurs, artists and leaders. They understand the value that these networks can bring and the wealth of ideas that can come through interactions with these people.

Choose your friends wisely. Acknowledge the importance of your networks. I was fortunate enough to have a vast network that I still keep in touch with today. I have learnt and developed a great deal through my interactions with all of these people. Moreover, they have enabled me to have access to various opportunities and ideas that I would never have known about had I not made a concerted effort to develop and maintain my friendships.

7. DO NOT JUST STUDY… Get involved in activities and societies that interest you

It bothers me when people continuously complain about being so swamped with their studies that they don’t have time to do anything else. One can no longer distinguish themselves by getting good grades anymore. Companies and scholarships are now looking for people who not only achieved academically but those who were involved in social outreach and leadership initiatives. They are looking for the complete individual.

I suggest that you continuously get involved in societies and initiatives that interest you. The benefits of this strategy includes; developing a diverse network, learning new skills, CV building and fully exploring the vast range of opportunities that your university presents you with.

In conclusion, remember that you are extremely privileged to be able to go to university and further your studies. Take this seriously. You owe it to yourself and your country to use this opportunity in the best possible way. Learn as much as you can and continuously strive to expand your experiences. When you become successful, do not forget to share it with the people who are not as fortunate as you. Our country needs ambitious and skilled young people who take initiative in order to help take South Africa to where it could and should be. That is, at the vanguard of all emerging economies.


About the Author

Carlos Baeta
Proudly South African. Masters student at Fordham University in New York. Entrepreneur, young leader, coffee addict and an avid Liverpool fan. Let's change the world.

2 Comments on "Strategies for academic and social excellence"

  1. Firstly, I am recommending this not only to first year students but also to students at any level of their academic careers. I like how you emphasize the crucial importance of prioritizing with appropriate tools such as understanding the concept of opportunity cost. Great stuff

  2. Great article! it does not only apply in our academic career but definitely should be incorporated in our every day life. For a while, I did not agree with the 80/20 principle of Pareto but once applied it brought a huge positive difference in my performance.

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