The 4A term in Nanotechnology Engineering was perhaps the busiest term in my entire undergraduate career. Being the ambitious type, I had two extra courses more than everyone else in the class, for a grand total of 8.75 courses. This alone meant I had 10-12 hours less per week compared to my classmates. This, as it would turn out, was too much for me to handle, even though I was quite confident at the start of the term about my abilities.
In my entire 5 years at Waterloo, I have known only 3 people to have taken 8 or more Waterloo courses in a single semester and still pass them all while maintaining a term average higher than 80%. Obviously, it is an unusual thing to do. The people who've done it have done it only to push themselves the extra mile, and seldom out of necessity. It requires a tremendous amount of focus, dedication, and discipline to come up with a plan and execute every aspect of it without deviation. The time management and triaging skills required are extra-ordinary. You'd need to be an expert at fast typing, email management, decision making, context switching, multi-threading and multitasking, Google Calendar, Internet research on Google and literature journals, constant re-assessment of priorities, and distraction squashing. A lot of these ideas and principles come from Steve Pavlina's Do It Now article that I have been religiously studying and implementing for the last 3 years.
A little background: The NE 454L and 455L labs are a series of twenty-four 6-hour labs conducted on consecutive weeks of my 4A and 4B academic terms in Fall 2009 and Winter 2010 respectively. These lab sessions would start at 8:30am on Tuesdays or Thursdays and often go until 2:30pm. Each lab session required that students read the entire lab manual and instructions for that session which could take up to an hour. The students then had to complete a safety quiz which took up to 30 minutes. In addition, each session would have 5 or 6 pre-lab questions that students would be expected to complete before the lab session. These pre-lab exercises would often take between an hour or two. After the 6-hour lab session, the course instructions required that each student submit his/her own lab report even though the experiment itself was conducted in pairs. These lab write-ups could take up to 3-4 hours to write, and most of that time would go into processing the data in Excel, figuring out the right formulas to use, generating charts, making sense of the data, drawing conclusions, and finding supporting evidence in the literature. In summary, each lab session was estimated to take up to 13 hours per week. Times that by 24, and you get over 300 hours spent across a period of 8 months for a single 1.0 credit course. This is the equivalent of two normal courses at Waterloo. In contrast, I would have only spent 100 hours for two normal nanotech courses. If you missed or failed even one lab out of the total of 24, your degree would automatically be extended by an entire year.
Taking 8.75 courses, or equivalently 4.38 credits, caused my semester to turn into quite the circus where I was constantly jumping from one deadline to the next while still continuing to attend lectures and tutorials, and performing 6-hour labs each week in between. Like this wasn't enough, I was also caught off-guard in the middle of a hurricane of interviews for graduating jobs.
Oct. 15 2009. A chilly Thursday evening in my matchbox bedroom in an apartment on Keats Way in Waterloo. I had a lab report for NE 454L due the next day at noon which happened to coincide with perhaps one of the busiest weeks of my entire life. I spent most of my time that week preparing for a series of round 1 interviews with six well known and highly reputable software companies. These companies were: Zynga, Microsoft, Google, 80/20, Deloitte, and Expedia. These interviews were critical to deciding if I would proceed to round 2. I was especially anxious about the Zynga and Google interviews, since these were strong candidate companies for where I wanted to work full-time after graduation.
To rub salt into the already bleeding and partially septic wound, I also had an MSCI 432 midterm examination the next evening at 7PM. I felt unprepared for this midterm since I had missed a number of lectures due to a time conflict with the NE 454L 6-hour labs on Tuesdays. And of course, I had my usual series of assignments that were due that coming week. There were 4 assignments due that week for MSCI 432, NE 445, NE 408, PMATH 334, and to top that, an NE 471 quiz as well. How's that for an exercise in triaging?
I spent that entire weekend of Oct. 17/18 preparing for my six interviews. These interviews were going to determine my future after graduation, so they were top priority. I falsely assumed I could get the NE 454L lab report done during the week. Much to my dismay, it turned out that the report was just way too long to complete on time. In addition to the discussion and analysis, the report had thirteen questions to answer, and each question was taking me around half-an-hour to research and answer on my own, as it should. That was 6.5 hours right there just for the questions.
Of course, I considered playing my wild card here by getting an extension from the lab instructor, but my chances of getting an extension were slim since the instructor had already given us a 2-day extension. But even if I got an extension, there was no guarantee I could submit the report successfully the following week either: I had double interviews with Facebook, and other grad interviews with Amazon, Microsoft and RIM. I had another lab report for a different lab course NE 450L due the following week as well. There was therefore no point getting an extension; I just had to get the lab report done somehow that week. No questions, no excuses.
At this point I was starting to feel like an Apache web server that was being hammered so hard in all directions that it had begun to exhaust all of its available threads causing it to return HTTP 503 Server Unavailable errors all the way.
It was an unfortunate fact that all my interviews were scheduled around the same week. Interviews are scheduled by CECS and are beyond my control. However, in the end, I feel spending all that time preparing for grad interviews was worth it. Later on in the term, I received an impressive offer from Zynga whose headquarters are in San Francisco, California. I promptly accepted their windfall offer. The ruthless triaging had paid off! So in retrospect, had I spent the time I had spent preparing for interviews working on assignments, the lab report, or attending classes, I may not have gotten a job offer at all, let alone such an impressive one.
This extra course thing at Waterloo can get pretty addicting, especially since they're free from a monetary point of view. It can be immensely satisfying to get a 80%+ term average even with extra courses. But you have to realize that sometimes, everything can come together on the same week. And when things do come together, it'll often be after when the no penalty drop period ends. So if you're like me and want an impeccable transcript with zero withdrawals to appear, you're out of luck. Sure, if things are a bit more spread out, the deadlines are a lot more manageable. But the reality is that this isn't always the case. During such times, your only fail-safe is ruthless triaging. Get rid of everything that wastes your time. I mean everything.
You don't have to get an A in every single course.