Preparing for College Physics

Preparing for a wonderful life of asking and answering “why” questions.

1. Focus to finish. Be able to focus for 50-75 minutes in class, 3-4 hours at home or in a study room solving problems or studying for understanding, and several hours at a time, over several days or weeks, until the completion of an extended study, problem solving, or lab project. Finding a way to keep from being distracted is essential. Sometimes it is a multitasking problem, since you are actually continually disrupting your own thoughts. Sometimes focus is a medical problem, and it is better to address this sooner than later.  Sometimes focus is a scheduling problem, especially if you have wide interests, high energy, and a willing spirit. Know how to write out what you want to do and how much time it will take. Make a budget of some sort to make sure you have the time to do it all. (Often talented physics majors take on 3 times the hours they have available.)

2. Record things. Be able to take good notes by hand (this is known to be particularly effective). Sketch situations, ideas and plans on paper or electronically (you don’t need to be artistic -- doodling is good). Touch type effectively so you can enter data or text quickly on any keyboard (you often need to make things easy for others to read, including your computer). Keep information organized so you really can find it later.  Listen carefully to increase recall.

3. Connect with teachers and peers. Networking is one of the most important skills that will help you succeed. If you feel shy, find ways to work around it. Practice meeting new people.  Make a study group so you can practice working with others, learning to verbalize what you know and learning how to learn from others. Physicists and scientists depend on the community of physicists and scientists to make progress.  Sharing is at the heart of their endeavors.

4. Depend on yourself. Don’t depend on technology or other people to give you answers.Think things out for yourself. Do your own hand calculations or estimates to check up on yourself and others. Normed tests (like ACT, SAT, GRE) don’t allow calculators, anyway. Use shortcuts, visualizations, and rules of thumb to get the lay of the land on a problem, eg. the unit circle for sine and cosine functions, the right hand rules for torque and magnetic force, etc.  

5.  Study hard and deliberately now. If your teachers don’t keep you challenged, challenge yourself. Study hard because you want to think well, not to get a grade. Prepare deliberately for the PSAT, ACT or SAT.  It will make a difference financially and academically even after you get accepted. Work on the vocabulary part, which some STEM students ignore but admissions people don’t. And learn how to write by finding someone who will help you get down on paper or on a screen messages you care about and need to communicate.  Make sure the mathematics part is in good shape so you can get into higher mathematics as soon as possible. Take mathematics every year in high school. If not available, see if you can take it online or at a nearby college for dual credit. 

6. Know about graduate school. Once you finish a physics degree in college, you will never pay another dollar for education.  “They” will pay you to go to grad school, including a stipend for living expenses as well as all tuition and travel for professional purposes.  Spend your summers and extra time during the school year doing research or whatever a national lab, local college or industry.   

7. Feed your creativity. Physics is as much about creativity as precision. Play music. Program. Cook. Do puzzles. Do fractals. Draw. Sail. Design. Dream. 

Visit the Physics Department website to learn about programs of study and who to contact for more information.