How the IB Prepared Me for my Time at Harvard
24 June 2022
Susie Clements was an IBDP student who has graduated from Harvard University in America with a Bachelor of Arts with Honors in History & Literature. Susie has written a piece for our students talking about how doing the IB set her up for success at university which we are delighted to share with you today.
I was 15 when I started the IB at St Leonards, a school nestled in amongst the cathedral ruins and alongside the beaches of St Andrews on the Scottish coast.
The IB was an intense, intellectually stimulating course of study that inspired me to apply to liberal arts colleges in America, where I could continue exploring the interdisciplinary method of learning.
Perhaps most importantly, studying the IB helped to give me the tools necessary to manage my schedule effectively during my time at Harvard.
Here, I’ll talk about my experience studying the IB, and list five useful tips for time management that I learned during Sixth Form and took with me to the States.
My Experience With the IB: Learning to Manage Time Effectively
The IB is a particularly time-intensive course of study, especially when compared to other secondary school qualifications like A-levels, Scottish Highers, or standardised tests like the SAT or ACT.
Balancing the study of six (sometimes seven) main subjects with a continued commitment to achieving your CAS hours, conducting an independently researched Extended Essay project, and preparing for your TOK oral presentation can feel slightly overwhelming at times.
However, this level of time commitment enabled me to learn on my feet and take on board a few crucial lessons about time management, lessons I carried with me into my years at Harvard.
1. Look after your mental and physical wellbeing
This piece of advice might not sound like it has much to do with time management, but I have found it to be the most important aspect of earning success and feeling fulfilment, whether you’re planning on acing your IB exams, graduating with a great degree from an excellent university, or simply on living a substantial and purposeful life.
Put simply, whenever you’re planning out your day, week, or month from a time management point of view, you should ensure that you factor in time for activities and practices that strengthen and sustain your mental wellbeing (as well as your physical state).
For example, try not to sacrifice a good night’s sleep on a regular basis, even if you feel like you have to scramble to revise that extra chapter of your history textbook or rewrite part of your coursework.
The IB is hard work, but if you manage your time effectively you should not have to sacrifice a healthy sleep schedule in order to be successful.
In his excellent book Essentialism, author and CEO Greg McKeown talks about the importance of “protecting the asset” when it comes to managing our time. He argues that if we don’t do the work and make the time to look after our minds and bodies, everything else in our life will suffer, including the quality of our work output, our ability to focus in class, and our capacity to develop and strengthen our personal relationships.
This lesson became particularly evident to me during my time at Harvard, but I first became aware of the wide-ranging implications of lack of sleep and exercise and a poor mental headspace during my time studying the IB.
2. Learn (and practice) the art of prioritisation
Another key lesson I learned whilst doing the IB was that it’s crucial to prioritise, especially when you have a lot of commitments and deadlines.
I found this lesson particularly invaluable during my first year at Harvard, when I was trying to figure out how to balance my studies with my commitments as a NCAA Division I athlete and my desire to socialise and meet new people.
Everyone’s list of priorities will be slightly different, but here is what mine looked like during my time at Harvard:
- Forging meaningful, genuine, and long-lasting relationships with teammates, members of the faculty, and my housemates,
- Committing to and engaging with my classes, and picking subject matter that inspired and excited me,
- Investing time and effort into getting better as a rugby player and as a teammate.
I tried to be proactive about maintaining these three aspects as my main priorities at college, attempting to manage my time appropriately between my physical exercise and hobbies (rugby), my studies (classes), and my personal relationships and social life.
I’ll talk about this in more depth in a later point, but I found that one of the best ways to maintain and adhere to clear priorities was to learn when to say “no.”
There were plenty of distractions around on Harvard campus and further afield, but most of these didn’t fit into a proportionate, balanced, and healthy time schedule that was defined by my top three priorities.
These included things like:
- Going to a speech or seminar that I wasn’t particularly interested in,
- Staying up late to binge-watch a TV series on my own the night before an early morning lift or work-out,
- Eating out on my own at an expensive restaurant downtown in Boston.
Of course, it was totally fine to do these types of things every so often, but I found that they tended to affect my work rate and negatively impact the time I was investing in my top three priorities if I made a regular habit of doing them all.
3. Don’t let admin tasks loom over you
Doing the IB also helped me to learn about the importance of setting aside time to tick off any administrative tasks I needed to do that day, week, or month.
I found that this practice became particularly useful during my final two semesters at Harvard, when I gained a newfound appreciation for keeping on top of more practical tasks like ordering books, registering for various classes, and replying to important emails.
Before I truly committed to this task, I had experienced first-hand the negative impact of letting all these administrative chores build up over time, becoming highly stressed and overwhelmed at points during this time of my life.
If you’re like me, you might not feel in the least bit inspired by the idea of drafting a logistics email or setting up your UCAS account.
However, I always find that I feel a lot better when I take five or ten minutes to get some looming admin task done right away rather than letting it hang over my head for the next few days or weeks.
The “five-minute rule” is an idea in psychology that refers to the practice of doing a task for five minutes, stopping if you want after this chunk of time is up (or, as is more likely, taking the positive momentum from doing this task and carrying on with other work).
There are a number of reasons why I like this rule, especially when it comes to completing administrative tasks:
- It’s actionable. Doing a quick and clear-cut administrative task in five minutes or fewer is a manageable challenge to set yourself, no matter where you are, what you’re doing, or what mood you’re in.
- It’s simple. These types of tasks tend not to require too much lateral, abstract thinking, so you can tune into some music, your favourite podcast, or have a show on in the background whilst you’re doing them.
- It makes you feel better. Research shows that you can generate momentum by doing a simple task for 2-5 minutes and improve your mood drastically. You can also use the five-minute rule as an effective way to trick your brain out of the trap of procrastination, by telling yourself that you only need to tackle a task for a few minutes and no more. I normally find that the hardest part of doing a task (be it an administrative, academic, or physical one) is starting it. Once I start, I tend to find it a lot easier to carry on.
4. Do the most important task of the day in the morning
Obviously this lesson is a bit more difficult to implement when you’re going to school during the week and have a set timetable of lessons on these days.
However, whenever you get the opportunity (whether on the weekends or during the holidiays), I would recommend making the most of your mornings and trying to get the most important task of the day done an hour or so after you’ve woken up and had breakfast.
Speaking from my own personal experience, I’m far more energetic, focussed, and motivated in the morning than I am in the mid-afternoon or in the evening after dinner.
I realise that different people will feel more switched on and focussed at different times. I had friends at Harvard that did their best work in the late evening: they would go to bed later and get up later because they felt demotivated and lethargic in the mornings.
Therefore, this rule isn’t set in stone. However, I would say that you should definitely attempt to get the most important task of your day done before you try to tick off any of the others on your list.
Effectively, this tactic is a way of forcing you to prioritise your tasks and spend more time on those that matter most to you.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to how I would recommend planning out your day:
- Settle on a sleep schedule that works for you and your body clock, within reason. Obviously, you’ll have to get up during weekdays in time for school, so factor this into the equation when figuring out when you should be heading to bed on weeknights. How much sleep does your body need in order for you to be productive the next day?
- Try to make a practice of writing out a to-do list the night before (I take a few minutes to journal, which allows me to reflect on the day I’ve had before figuring out what I need to get done the next day).
- Once you have your list of tasks, try to prioritise them in order of importance. If you’re stuck on how to do this, take a bit of inspiration from the Eisenhower Matrix method for goal prioritisation and consider factors like upcoming deadlines and whether the task itself is personally meaningful to you and your internal values.
- List the tasks in order of priority. I tend to write down the top three priorities for the next day in my journal. The more you add to this list, the less likely it is that you’ll get all of these tasks done, and the more likely it is that you’ll feel deflated and slightly demotivated at the end of the day as a result.
- Your top-priority task is the one you should dedicate most time to, whilst your second and third tasks should take up the second and third most amount of time respectively. You should also tackle the top-priority task first thing: this means that if it takes longer to complete than you originally expected, you can cut some lower-priority tasks from your list without too many issues.
Here’s a useful tip: scientific research shows that blue light helps to increase alertness during the morning and early afternoon period of the day. If you want to boost productivity on the weekends or on any given day during the holidays, consider in investing in a blue ring light for your desk.
5. Learn how to say “no”
Perhaps one of the most crucial rules that I learned during my time studying the IB (and at Harvard) was the importance of knowing when to say “no” to things, whether that was to an expensive dinner I didn’t need to go to or a meeting for a club that I wasn’t very interested in.
In Essentialism, Greg McKeown makes a statement that really rings true:
“If it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.”
This might seem a little harsh at first, and I also appreciate that a lot of your day-to-day schedule is already laid out for you during Sixth Form.
However, when it comes to picking extracurricular activities and social events outside of school, try to learn how to say “no” to doing things you’re not really keen on: this will create a lot more time for you to focus on those activities and events that really matter to you.
You will also have to accept that there will be some times when you will have to say “no” to something that sounds fun or interesting because you’ll have to prioritise an important assignment with an upcoming deadline.
Again, it’s all about finding balance in your life: you need to take time for yourself to do activities you enjoy, but you also want to make sure you invest enough time and energy into your work as well. Speaking from experience, if you don’t invest enough energy in the latter, you may well find your mental health taking a hit further on down the line.
The Final Thoughts
My time at Harvard provided a steep learning curve when it came to time management and effective prioritisation.
However, looking back on this time, I firmly believe that my experience taking the IB gave me the skills and tools necessary to cope with the intense environment and rigorous time commitments I faced at university.
I still feel that my time taking the IB was more academically challenging and stimulating than my first year at Harvard: that is a testament to how well the IB sets you up for life rather than a takedown of freshman year at one of the world’s top colleges.
Hopefully, you can take on board some of the advice I have for managing your time effectively during your studies (and afterwards, whether it’s at university or in your jobs).