The Art of Academia: preparing for a new semester

A beginning of semester checklist to improve your mental health and academic success this term

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Four grey stone statues of Sun Tzu standing beside each other all facing towards the left. The lighting is dim and dramatic with a black background behind the statues.
Using Sun Tzu Art of War to help plan for my next semester has changed my life. PHOTO: tonyv3112 / Adobe Stock

By: Yelin Gemma Lee, News Writer

“The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand.” — Sun Tzu

Not to be dramatic, but applying the Art of War by Sun Tzu to everyday struggles has changed my life. As I go into my last semester, I want to pass on the Sun Tzu-inspired routine that has made a measurable difference in my mental health and academic success.

An academic journey has battles called semesters: some are more challenging than others, some surprise you, and some are simply necessary to obtain a greater goal. Like battles, each semester needs ample preparation. Before my semester gets busy, there are things I do to prevent burnout and the familiar feeling of stomach-churning doom. As a new army of classes looms over you like storm clouds, I hope these will help you feel like you’re closing in on the semester, rather than the semester closing in on you. 

  1. Declutter your workspace and honour your previous semester 

If you’re anything like me, your post-finals desk is probably a mess and you haven’t been able to tidy it properly until this point. But as Sun Tzu said, “In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.” Go through all the paperwork from your previous semester and keep anything that helped you grow as a student. Even if you didn’t get the grades or outcomes you wanted, take a moment to appreciate the work you put in and celebrate the small wins. I believe honouring the past is one of the key elements to moving onward.

After doing so, clean the rest of your space. This can also include organizing your digital desktop and virtual files.  If you have the time, do a deep clean of your living space as well. I typically only have the time and energy to do this in between semesters. Even after this one step, I feel immensely refreshed.

  1. Equip yourself with the tools you need 

You wouldn’t run into battle without having a stocked base camp with trusty weapons and adequate rations. Look at your now decluttered space and make a list of supplies to stock up on for the semester. I typically divide this into three different sections: desk and school supplies, health and well-being, and essentials. It’s good to start this list as you declutter and clean so when you notice you’re running out of something, you won’t forget to buy it later. I take extra care to check on things I use a lot throughout the semester, such as sticky notes, printer paper and ink, vitamins, coffee, etc. Equipping yourself with the tools you need also includes course-specific materials. Take a quick look at your course outlines and put in an order for textbooks and whatever else is asked for — if they’re not listed yet, order them the moment they’re available

  1. Strategize with your mind and body

When Sun Tzu mentioned strategizing in the “temple,” the “temple” is you — your mind and body are going to be carrying you through the term. Lay out your weekly schedule and start sleeping and waking up at the times you would have to for the upcoming semester. This might be unnecessary for some people, but as someone who has been staying up till 5:00 a.m. playing video games or binge-watching shows, you want to actually make sure you are resting. 

This is your time to look closely at your course outlines and record the information given to you. I use the website/app, Notion, to record all my school deadlines in detail, and use Google Calendar to alert me when there’s an upcoming deadline. I also take this time to book and record non-academic events and doctor’s appointments. Whenever I try to book appointments during a stressful semester, my brain short circuits and I end up putting it off until the end of term. Sleep well and eat well. Absolutely do that extended skincare routine, keep your body active with YouTube home workouts, and drink lots of water. Really extend the care you give to yourself here.

  1. Setting goals and boundaries 

No battle starts without goals and no general will be found without boundaries. I want to stress how important it is not to have a grade or percentage goal. Due to extenuating life circumstances, I had to aim for straight A’s every semester for two years to get my GPA back up before graduation. Those were the most mentally agonizing semesters of my life and absolutely ripped the enjoyment out of truly enjoyable classes. If you want to get good grades this term (who doesn’t?), make goals around what you can do to make that happen. For example, set goals like “check off deadlines as you complete them” or “go to office hours and review feedback on assignments at least once a month” rather than “get straight A’s this term.” 

The second thing is communicating your boundaries to your family, friends, co-workers, and colleagues. I have at least five hard commitments every semester and need to set firm boundaries for each of those responsibilities to stay on track. For my family, I’ll say something like, “Hey, if you see me working hard at my desk at night, please drop me a text rather than interrupt my workflow.” To my co-workers at my café job, I’ll say, “Hey, please don’t message me outside of work about work stuff. If it’s an emergency, tell the manager.” 

At first, this might be hard to do — especially if you’re not used to it — but most of the time people will appreciate the transparency. Truth is, whether you communicated to them or not, you probably expect people to respect your boundaries anyway. So it’s not entirely fair if you don’t openly communicate your boundaries but get upset when they are ignored. When you communicate your boundaries with others, it reduces the likelihood of resentment growing inside you because someone can’t read your mind. 

  1. Do whatever the fuck you want

This is a much less structured tip, but seriously — do whatever the fuck you want. I’m so busy during the semester I barely have the time to sleep and eat my meals. So it becomes difficult to prioritize spending meaningful time with my loved ones or engaging in my hobbies like painting and practicing my instruments. I longingly think of doing these things during the semester if I didn’t make time for them during the break, and start spiralling over how I don’t have time to engage in things that make me happy anymore. Before the semester gets under full swing, this is the time for you to relax. As you do the things you love, reflect on how you can incorporate them into this semester’s schedule in smaller ways. Look for an opportunity at least once a week where you can carve out time for yourself, and intentionally put that in your schedule. 

Although preparation is important, so is maintenance and balance. Do your best to maintain all the preparation work you just did by incorporating these great things you’ve set up for yourself into your hectic semester. Each semester is an intense time that requires a lot of energy and flexibility. This week of preparation has been effective for me because it’s a blueprint to return to, and it reminds me of the care I am capable of giving to myself.

“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.” — Sun Tzu