What does ‘Top Student’ mean anyway?
Updated: Jul 23, 2019
Over a week has passed by since I got back my undergrad graduation results. I was over the moon when I saw the 95% overall mark for my dissertation module and eagerly calculated my overall average. It was 84.29%. I know - it is not 85%.
Just a gentle reminder to the UK marking system - above 70% everything is classified as a ‘First’ (A) and below it is a 2:1, 2:2 degree.
On the day of our results, I was talking to friends about our results and celebrated. An hour later, I received an email that oh, ‘you’re the Top Student’ and got the ‘Top Project Award for a BSc Student on an RSoB Accredited Scheme ’ awards from the Royal Society of Biology. Meaning, I got the highest overall mark and the highest dissertation mark amongst all RSB-accredited sciency courses.
Naturally, I said ‘wtf’ loudly in the library followed by just pure joy. A few minutes later, I just saw the last 5 years pass by, the people who helped me and felt humble. Seconds after, I was double-checking whether that the email was sent to the wrong person.
A week later I still make faces thinking about being ‘a Top Anything’. 🤷♀️
I would like to think that people who know me, know that I feel like an impostor 24/7 and have a hard time (or if it is not indeed possible) being proud of myself to any extent. During the night I like to psychoanalyse myself. Fun stuff. I just keep on working and going, like horse with eye blinders, towards something that feels right but have no idea what it actually is.
I have not opened a textbook nor tried learning definitions word-by-word for 5 years. Every year, I received alerts that my attendance is dangerously low. I started prepping for exams 3 days beforehand.
So why and how can anyone call me a ‘Top Student’.
The only skill that I may have mastered is Google-ing and knowing how to learn, write and design things quickly. And how to get away with everything else.
In a recent TedTalk, Tim Urban talked about procrastination. How people like to imagine that work can be spread out over months but never start, only a few days ahead of the deadline.
I think this is the only thing that I cracked. I start on essays and assignments as soon as possible. Not the actual writing of it but prepping the literature, making up lovely illustrations, printing articles and hiding them in a locker ‘until it is time’ to attack them with highlighters.
In case a worrying undergrad student stumbles upon this blog - let me make a case for starting group projects and essays early and how to prep for exams in the weirdest way possible but get above 80%.
Making a case for starting early
E.g. Group exercise
We had a group exercise at uni - we had a ‘field trip’ (on campus) straight after Easter break and we would have one week to write up our group project and submit it.
That’s not really my cup of tea…
So even though I might have come across a bit… Teacher-like/strict/tiny bit pushy with a hint of enthusiasm - I told my group that it’d be great to do a pilot study just before the break.
It might have been a Friday, we met 10 am, grabbed a quadrat and went off to sample asymmetrical leaves. Everyone picked one task/measurement, we sketched stuff down, formed two groups. It was going really well so we might as well do other quadrats. And other sites. And even more quadrats. Okay. Let’s just finish the whole sampling after some lunch. So we did, by 5 pm we had over a hundred measurements and pictures for a bit of image analysis. Everyone wished Happy Easter and we were off.
When we came back to uni for our ‘field trip’, our group had the data. It was replicated many times. Our course leader tried to… be clever and said that we could do more replications. I showed him our data, my analysis and our group went to have some cake and started to write up the assignment - while other groups were still figuring out their project.
By the end of that week, everyone in our group had all the analyses, written up most of the assignment and was just chilled. This kinda sums up…. Well, me. If I can start anything asap just to keep calm without fearing the deadline and have proper time to think about the stats and understand our results - I might as well!
The best part of this group project was that my classmates totally got it, were chill and in the end said that it was totally worth it, getting everything sorted before the break. 😎
You can read the assignment under Ecological surveying on my website - it got 97%. For anyone who knows stats - you’ll spot that I did things to the data that is BS, just so I can use GLM stuff.... The reason for that is - my course leader was not a stats nor an R person. I asked him if I can do this and he said sure…. [Nods her head in a disapproving manner]
E.g. An essay is due in 6 weeks.
DAY 1 (usually the first weekend at the start of the semester!): Read the assignment. 🧐
DAY 7 (next weekend):
Spend 2 days just searching for publications (Web of Science Scopus, GoogleScholar), download the cool ones (based on titles and figures) or save them into a referencing software.
DAY 9: Copy the assignment details into a Word doc and try coming up with a title to begin with.
Make up headings. PRINT the most relevant articles. Paper is recycled and having printed articles to scribble on and highlight is far more motivational than trying to read articles on a laptop (for me).
DAY 10: Flick through the articles and write key words on the first page, highlight stuff.
Get a locker and hide all the stuff.
Next weekend either print more stuff and highlight OR start the process for the next assignment.
A month has passed by - with some sort of knowledge what the assignment is going to be and there is no need to freak out when lecturers start talking about it - articles are printed, now just waiting on some inspiration.
To get into the mood - what illustrations/graphs would be good to tell the story? Spend a day at some point just on pictures and illustrations - they need to tell the story.
2 weeks until the deadline
Let’s get that pile out of the locker and have a look.
Word doc in front along with Post It notes.
Now it is time to read, look up references within the articles and continue printing if needed.
Stop at 5 pm. Now write. How could these things be linked. Synergy (Ref 1, Ref 2, Ref 3). That’s what all lecturers want. There were 3 studies quite alike. DO NOT WRITE one-by-one that Ref 1 did this, Ref 2 did that.
Continue writing. There isn’t much of a rush since there are still kinda 2 weeks left.
The whole aim is to have it written up the weekend before the deadline and then harass friends and online grammar softwares to proof-read it.
You may stumble across classmates who have not even read a paper a week before the deadline.
While I have all the respect in the world who can write an assignment overnight without any prep and get a First - that’s not really learning I think.
And now we can go back to the TedTalk and how people plan to start early but then they never do…
E.g. Exams in January/May
Lecturers, please look away. I do not mean to hurt you. But… 😢
I do not look at a single presentation from lectures. I have taken notes during lectures (to which I went to) but luckily there are always patterns in former exams, giving us clues what questions and topics may come up. I only look at those.
I do not like exams - I’d rather spend 2 months perfecting an essay and get 90% so I can go into an exam thinking that I’ll still get a first if I get 60-65% in the exam. Takes a bit of pressure off.
If the exam is to write 2 essays from 5 questions or 3 essays out of 6 questions - I figure out what those two or three may be. I hit the library and print piles of articles.
These may or may not be real examples of exam questions - but let’s look at the process.
Discuss the key challenges associated with EITHER grazing management or silage making, highlighting recent research and identifying key research questions that need to be addressed.
Discuss the potential of EITHER legume based forage OR arable systems in the UK, highlighting their environmental impacts and the key research questions that need to be addressed.
Outline the key challenges associated with climate change facing EITHER forage OR arable crop producers in a specified crop growing environment, highlighting a range of possible adaptation mechanisms.
First of all - imagine an elderly Welsh guy shouting at you before exams:
What do you do first? Read the bloody question!
What do you start with in an exam? Read the bloody question!
It was probably the most helpful and effective method of teaching me how to prep for exams.
Read & highlight key words in the questions.
In the above example, you can pick either arable or forage stuff. To make life simpler - pick one and stick with it for the other questions. I have learnt a lot about cows eating grass so I’d stick with forage.
They want us to tell them what are the problems and what could be solutions. 💡
That resembles every introduction of every paper - what’s happening, what’s wrong and how their publication is going to change the world. Pile the articles according to possible topics (grazing systems, legumes, climate change and grazing).
Write down a few sentences from the introductions. On one piece of paper.
Find stats! How many cows are out there, how many we will need, how much GHG they emit, how many are within rotational systems, in what countries…
Get another piece of paper, write the ref in red, then the highlights (this could be 5-8 detail) in black. I use very tiny fonts at this point - I’d like these miniature fun-facts to fit onto one or two A4 pages. So you have one with full sentences, and the other one with ‘fun-facts’.
Then I usually move into a lecture room around uni with colourful marker pens and about 40-50 articles. Let’s find some logic.
We need a broad introduction. I like to write the first sentence I would like to use. Simply because the first sentence in every essay is a nightmare - you try to scribble it out, you get anxious, it’s exam time etc. So practice the first sentence - it will make you feel confident.
I like to finish the short intro with one sentence at the end that ‘in this essay I will 1) do this, 2) do that and 3) show how it’s done’. Just to remind myself what I’m doing to be honest.
On the whiteboard itself - I’d write bullet points, every paragraph in different colour - but reserving colour red for references. Hopefully this takes only about 2 hours per question, to make up the flow, write the references. You either need a big lecture room with at least 3 whiteboards OR. 😶
If you are a fan of Sherlock Holmes BBC series with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman - hopefully you already Googled ‘mind palaces’. (#NEEERD)
[If I have lost anyone just for starting a sentence with 'Wikipedia says' - I am sorry. But this is how a 'Top Student' does things, you know]
So. What I do - I find lectures rooms in a hidden part of the uni, somewhat close to each other. I ‘assign’ each room to each question. Oh yes. This gets better.
I go into ‘Question One’ room. Write the whole stuff on the whiteboard. Then. Close your eyes. Pick up your hands. Point to the intro part of the whiteboard and yes, mumble it to yourself. Count your bullet points on your hands. Open your eyes. In red: reference. Pronounce it. Close your eyes. From the beginning start again. 🤨
Yes, at this point everyone is convinced that I’m nuts. And yes, I am. But it bloody works.
After 30-40 minutes you should be able to re-mumble everything that is on the board without opening your eyes. Go to the other board. Only write the references in red this time. Learn the first names (which are the authors last names…). Then the year. Again. Close your eyes.
Go back to the board and with closed eyes point at sections and say which reference belongs to what paragraph.
After another 20 minutes - sit down and write only the references on one sheet of paper.
I usually have about 30-40 per question. This means that even if my brain is half dead on exam day, I will still remember 20 which means, I’m already between 75-80%.
Rotating between rooms, closing eyes and pretending to be a magician for 3 days.
This is how I got between 87-92% for essays in exams. If you wanna strengthen the differences between rooms - change pen colours, drink different things (switch from coffee to tea and then tea to water). The only thing I have not done is getting different scents to induce olfactory senses (^^).
And once again - I apologise to all the lecturers who spend their super valuable time to put together presentations… Lectures are lovely introductions. But in exams - just remembering slides will not get anything above 70%.
On the exam day itself, I do not drink coffee 2-3 hours beforehand. It’s cringy, but I do search for a ‘motivational video’ on YouTube and listen to some strangers telling me that I can rule the world.
So the exam starts. Remember someone shouting at you ‘Read the bloody question’, copy the question word per word into the exam book, before your introduction, make notes before your essay and keep on using colourful pens for references so the marker himself/herself is going sh*t themselves how prepared this student is.
There was one occasion when one of the exam invigilators came up to me at the end and said that it was just fun watching me write the essay - I kept closing my eyes (visualising the whiteboard) and switching between colourful pens… My secret was out.
So what is this 'Top Student' thingy mean?
I’ve been told that exams and essays are every student’s opportunity to shine. To show how much we care. Or how much we want to prove a lecturer wrong.
These three sentences sum up my high marks.
I care 😇 and I have fun proving people wrong. 😈
There are tons of people out there who are waaay smarter than I am but they might be leaving things to the last minute. There are tons of people who are incredibly smart but do not really know how to write essays and prep for exams.
I just hope that my ramblings above are helpful to someone or at least were a bit entertaining.
I shall continue to feel like an Impostor, stumbling through life, and I hope to raise a (non-alcoholic) glass of something at the RSB 'Top Student Award' ceremony next spring (at the khm.. Houses of Parliament) for getting away with murde.... I mean. For graduating with flying colours. 😉
Random, personal stuff below
Minutes after posting this blog onto FB - I got the kindest reply 🙈
So while I am waiting on my bus after being in the library for 13 hours, I might as well add....
Anything that I have ever dare say accomplished is because of the incredibly kind, smart and brave people who put up with me.
Random scientists who came up to after my presentations at conferences or at the poster session and said 'keep going' may not remember me now but it meant the world to me.
Last week, I saw my former classmate and best friend at the National History Museum and I would like to have it officially in writing so I can tell her 'I told you so': Leah is going to be the future Director of the National History Museum. She may never read this but in 10 years, this blog post will be worth gold.
Huge, huge thanks for everyone! At the beginning of this blog I wrote that:
I just keep on working and going, like horse with eye blinders, towards something that feels right but have no idea what it actually is.
Well, we'll see where I'll end up! 🌿🌎🍌