15 Ways to Get Motivated at College

May 13, 2019 Lynn F. Jacobs

The following is an excerpt  The Secrets of College Success, 3rdEdition by Lynn F. Jacobs, Jeremy S. Hyman (c)  2019 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved.

Motivation; noun. That which 'moves' or induces a person to act in a certain way;  a desire, fear, or other emotion, or a consideration of reason, which influences or tends to influence a person's volition.  (Oxford English Dictionary)  

Whether you're new at college, returning to college, or have been there some years, it can often be difficult to get motivated to do the various college tasks. Some seem boring, others pointless, still others impossible to do. But motivation is what gets us to do what we need to do to reach our goals even when it seems, in the present moment, that we don't want to do it. Here are fifteen ways to get your motivation up—and to keep it up—throughout your college career: 

1. Figure out why you're there. There are as many reasons for being at college as there are college students. For some students it's the prospect of a better job, for others it's to improve skills at an existing job, and for still others, it's to learn a new field or just for the love of learning. But whatever your reason for being at college, you'll have a lot easier time doing the various things you need to do —even the less-than-fully pleasant things such as homework, tests, papers, and projects—if you remember, and keep in mind, the reason you had for signing up in the first place. Long-range goals are excellent motivators.

2. Decide how you work best. Some people are self-starters and love to get their work done without being slowed down or distracted by other people. Others can't function unless they're part of a team and get ideas and support from their peers. Figure out which you are. If you're a rugged individualist, plan to study on your own and forget about what your cohorts at college are doing.  But if you get more motivated when studying with others, set up a study group or find a study buddy the very first week of your courses. If you're at a large college, there should be plenty of potential takers.

Extra Pointer. Your study group need not meet in person.  Skype now allows free video-conferencing with up to nine participants.

3. Get the big picture. Often, seemingly meaningless tasks make better sense when considered in the context of a larger whole. The tiny, waste-of-time weekly quizzes might make better sense when you understand how the information you've memorized allows you to write the essays later in the course. The tedious Spanish language courses might seem less boring when you realize that a health-care professional needs to converse with many of his or her patients in Spanish. Motivation comes through meaning, and meaning may come from some larger purpose. 

4. Plan to do all the pieces. College has a definite structure to it. On a day-to-day basis, there are classes and homework, and at regular intervals, there are tests, papers, and other sorts of projects.  Yes, it can be a lot to keep up with, but when you get out of the structure—missing a few classes, blowing off some of the reading, turning in papers a little late, not remembering when the test is scheduled—things start to go downhill fast.  And it's very hard to keep up motivation when you're playing catch-up with double the work to do. 

Extra Pointer. You might be more motivated to make all your classes if you figure out how much you've (pre-) paid for each one of them. 

5.  Don't put yourself down. Some students come into college with long-standing, deeply-engrained myths about themselves: "I'm just not good at math," "I'm just not the academic type,"  "My sister is the smart one in the family."  Such doubts will sap any motivation you might have for college, so if you have them, put them aside. Each course is a new opportunity to do well and fulfill your potential. So instead of telling yourself you can't do it, tell yourself you can. If your college didn't think you were "college material," they wouldn't have admitted you.

 5-Star Tip. Avoid the "naysayers." If some member of your family or (apparent) friend is always putting you down, avoid him or her like the plague. The last thing you need is help in constructing defeatist myths.  

6. Divide up the tasks. There is nothing more demoralizing than being confronted with what seems to be a huge and insurmountable task. The 200-pages of reading, the 100-word-long list of terms to be memorized, the 20-page term-paper: How's a mere mortal supposed to do all this?  Well, the secret is breaking the task into smaller, easily-digestible pieces. Do the reading in 20-page units, break the terms into lists of 10, write the paper in 5-page sections. Not only is it easy to get your mind around smaller tasks, but you'll also feel better as you complete each of the pieces which will build up your motivation for the remaining pieces.  

7. Take the first step. In any project, the hardest part is getting started at the real work. Sure, it's fine to make a schedule, prepare a "to-do" list, search for a good place to study, go over the lecture, collect your thoughts, and other preparatory tasks. But if the task is to write a paper, the real task is to start writing some words. This is where motivation is often at its lowest because resistance is at its highest. But what you'll often find is that once you get started—and get a few words or even paragraphs onto your screen—your motivation will actually increase, because you'll find yourself having some success and also because you're getting nearer your goal.  

8. Try to enjoy what you’re doing. OK, college is not all peaches and cream. There will be times when it doesn’t seem like any fun at all—especially the five minutes before a killer final exam (and maybe also the 120 minutes of the killer exam). But do look for, and savor, those moments of great pleasure that you will experience along the way—maybe after you just finished an incredibly good novel or solved a mathematical proof you didn’t think you could do. Remember these moments and let them refuel your motivation when it seems to be running dry.    

9.  Don't give up too soon. In many projects, there are going to be moments of uncertainty, even doubt. You're just not sure how to solve a problem, what idea comes next in a paper or report, or how to prepare for a midterm or final. But wait! Some things at college are meant to be more challenging. So before you throw your hands up in despair, think a little harder, and realize that periods of less-than-100-percent comfort are actually signs that things are going well—that you're developing intellectually at college.

10. Don’t be defeated by minor mishaps. We’ve seen students who were so discouraged by a bad grade on a homework assignment that counted only two-percent of the course grade, that they were ready to abandon their college and/or career plans altogether. Don't let one small misstep eat up all your motivation.

11. Visualize success. You'll have a much easier time getting over the harder moments at college if you imagine what it will be like succeeding at the task.  Imagine—really imagine—how pleased you will be when you can tell your parent, spouse, or child that you got an "A" in that course.  And how much you'll really enjoy getting that promotion at work, that new job, or simply, that college degree.  Pleasure—even imagined pleasure—breeds motivation.

12. Celebrate small victories. One of the simplest—and most effective—ways to keep up your motivation is to reward yourself when you reach a goal (even a small one) or have a good accomplishment in a course. Not only do you show yourself that your success is important to you, you build up a positive expectation of reward for the next task. (We'll leave it up to you to figure out what rewards would best motivate you, though a couple of slices of pizza would surely go well with that "A" on the midterm.)

13. Don’t get distracted. Going to college can be pretty stressful even before you add in such other responsibilities as work, family, and helping out in the community or church. Keep in mind that excessive commitments—and the stress that goes with them—can defeat your motivation and leave you totally burnt out. So carve out your "college time": Tell your boss, family, and community that, at certain times in your week, you're not available to them. Manage the inevitable stress of college in whatever way works best for you. Exercise, meditation, yoga, rest, and, for some, simply talking it over with a friend can be good stress-reducers (and motivation-builders).  

14.  Deal the professor in. One of the best sources of motivation at any college is the professor—you know, the guy or gal at the front of the room, spouting off on who-knows-what, and whom you think (wrongly) could care less about how you do in the course.  But, in truth, the professor would like to see you do well and is happy to show you how, during an office hour.  And, if he or she happens to offer up a few words about how well you're doing in the course, or how good some idea of yours is—well, that'll provide added motivation for you to forge ahead in the course—a true gift.

Best-Kept Secret. Accountability is one of the keys to motivation. So, it's worth paying a couple of visits to your academic advisor each semester to review your progress—and you thought your adviser was only for picking courses.

15. Find your true passion. The number-one motivator at college (and just about everywhere else) is really wanting to do the thing. Whether it's wanting to become a policeman or nurse, learning how to build bridges or plan cities, or figuring out how to design new software for social-networking sites, there is something that really excites you and that you are super-motivated to do.  Find this "something" as soon as you can in college. The quicker you discover—and embrace—what you really want to do, the more motivated you'll be to do it.  

 The Secrets of College Success, 3rdEdition by Lynn F. Jacobs, Jeremy S. Hyman (c) 2019 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. This book is available wherever books and ebooks are sold.

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