How to Start the School Year Off Right

One of the things I do is tutor, mostly high school kids. I’ve done it since I was in grade 11 so for the last OMG 18 years! It’s actually my favourite thing that I do and no matter how busy I get I’ll probably always tutor a little. So parents and students how do you start to school year off right and isn’t this post about two weeks early? No, no it’s not.


Why should this year be different? Lots of reasons really. Maybe your marks last year didn’t reflect your full potential. Perhaps life is starting to get real and this year (11 and 12 in Canada) your marks count for university applications. Or you’re starting a new school and want to turn over a new leaf. Maybe you’re getting your licence this year and gunning for a car. Either way if you don’t make a plan you’ll end up with the same results as last year. This is targeted to high school and university students but junior high students and grad students will find some of it helpful. If however your are the parent of an elementary student ease up!


Unless your average is above 85 (A) it’s totally possible to increase your grade by 10% (a full letter grade). If your already in the A range you can still get an extra 5%. If you weren’t applying yourself at all, your priorities were in the wrong place and or you like didn’t try AT ALL, the sky is the limit but… you’ll have some extra work this year catching up. So decide where you want to be mark wise or just resolve to do better, but then read on and set up a plan to get there!

Sleep patterns

This is why you need to read this now… actually last week would have been better. You probably have a big sleep cycle adjustment to make to get back into those early morning bus stop waits and 2 am should no longer be a time of day you’re acquainted with. Sure there are probably a couple of late night end of summer events left to attend but start treating that like the exception and not the rule. Aim to change your current schedule by no more than 30 minutes every day or two and get to where you need to be about 4 days before it’s time. Focus on your wake up time (which is usually harder) and bed time will fall into place. If you’re really off track or not that off track take the amount of minutes you need to change by each night and divide by 7 because that’s how many days you have left.


We have 10 wifi devices in this house between two people including tv’s I can control with my watch. I love me some technology but… when it comes to scheduling nothing beats a paper day planner. If I don’t write something down you won’t see me there. When I’m super busy or I want to be most efficient, I need an hour by hour day planner, preferably 15 minutes and that MUST include the weekends. Those rinky-dink day planners the school provides are never enough. Some people make it pretty and colour code it I however prefer to just scrawl and cross out because sometimes stuff just has to move.

But write down your class times and your lab times first then your extra circulars for the whole semester. Then go back and add your big deadlines in classes and other important personal dates like parties, appointments and doctor’s visits. Then decide how long each of those extras will take, add a bit of extra time and carve it out before your projects, tests and exams are due. Then add about two to four hours of review time per week, depending on your course load, starting a month in, review your previous work for exams. If you do that you’ll ace your exams after catching up on your sleep come exam time.

After that carve out an adequate amount of homework and reading time each day for a worst case scenario, you’ll almost never need to use it all. Think about how you work best. Is this time right after school, after supper or before bed. Is it all one big chunk or 45 minutes at a time through out the evening. Then put that in. Now add in things you want to do like runs, yoga classes, long bubble baths, reading time before bed or anything else that centres you and makes you happy. Now what you have is the basis for a successful year. You won’t have projects or social things sneaking up on you. You have fun things that keep your stress levels down and this is the most important thing you can do for academic success. Now live by this book and carry it with you everywhere. If you do nothing else, do this!

You’re never too young to stick to a schedule and reward yourself when you do. Actually this is my friend’s son who helped me make lectures for cell biology when I was babysitting. Such a ham!

Extra help

Whether it’s called extra help, tutorial, office hours or study hall, if your teacher offers extra help you need to go. Even if you never ever really need it. This is two fold one is obvious you get some extra help and two your teacher knows you as a thoughtful and serious student. Usually there is one session a week and if that’s the case make it to at the very least every second one, more if you need it. If you’re a university student make use of office hours and visit at least twice.

Here’s why. When I’m working as professor marking labs and exams I try, try try to be as impartial as possible. But it’s hard not to be the tiniest bit generous when marking the work of a student that you know has been trying. For me it’s equally hard to be generous to a student that I have previously caught cheating, but they haven’t been informed yet. If you do this your mark is probably inflated by an extra 2%. Save a question or two for extra help, get as far as you can and get help on the rest, even if you have a tutor.

Support in place early

If you’ve really struggled in the past or had support from a tutor think about bringing one on from the start of the semester. It can be costly but the right tutor can provide you with support in a lot of ways you might never have thought of:

  • Accountability and mini tasks for scheduling. This is especially useful in distance and correspondence courses.
  • Efficiency for busy students or slower learners, you can take 5 hours of work and get it done in one. Or turn 12 hours of studying into two with targeted help.
  • Someone to bounce ideas off off an make sure you understand the theories fully.
  • Review and help in a session but also working a bit ahead so when a concept is introduced in class you already have some familiarity.
  • A personal set of notes with examples for the concepts you struggle most with.
  • Enforced work time each week.
  • Constant review and tying of concepts together in programs like AP and IB (think biology.)
  • Provide links and examples to things outside the course work you are passionate about like sports, medicine or history.
  • Offer enrichment to bored students or students with learning difficulties. Or find a way to make it interesting and time spent learning often boring concepts seems way less painful.
  • Offer perspective and help navigating university admissions and help calm stressed students.
My sister’s university graduation. We weren’t allowed to throw our hats.

So how do you find a tutor and what makes a good tutor? Well you have some options. Online classified sites are pretty universal so it’s not a bad place to start but keep in mind you get what you pay for, usually. It’s a bit unreasonable to get a free session from someone but you should surely meet and talk to them first. A good tutor will not come to you with a lesson planned. They will look to you to see what you need help with but… they may want to point out specific concepts or common mistakes even if you don’t ask about them.

I think I’m an expensive tutor but I also think I’m pretty full service. I come to you instead of you taking extra time to come to me. I encourage my students to text or call for extra hard problems between sessions. I make my students practice exams and extra worksheets when needed. I have degrees or specializations in physics, biology, chemistry and as such am very proficient in math, calculus and statistics. So we can look at the chemistry lab even if I’m your math tutor. I also make notes in sessions for my students in mostly legible handwriting. So for one $40 hour a week session students usually see their marks increase by more than 10%, in fact I guarantee 10%. I also don’t really care that much about a strict hour. If you still need some help I’ll probably stay and I’ll never cut you off in the middle of a question or concept.

But I’m not perfect, I occasionally have to say no to a last minute extra session but can almost always say yes with 12 hours notice. Sports rules questions can confuse me as I know the rules of exactly zero team sports. I have no idea still if football field goals have to go between the posts AND below their tops for example. Every once and a while I have to take a picture of a question away and think about it or solve it alone in a quiet place and send you a picture. Plus I live a ways from the city and I watch the winter weather carefully so there is a chance you might need to meet with me a day early or later if there is a blizzard coming.

I get that tutoring is expensive a weekly session with me and a few extras around exams costs a family about $850 per semester. Now it’s not that painful since it’s $40 at a time but it adds up and I take that seriously. I would love to be your tutor but chances are that’s not possible so here are some things to look for and steer clear of to maximize your benefit from sessions:

Look for:

  • A good fit, your more likely to reach out for help if someone is approachable.
  • Someone that lets you direct the sessions but tells you how to do that too, for example highlighting questions during the week to work on.
  • Someone that can do extra sessions when the need arises.
  • Someone who is knowledgeable in their subject manner, it’ll be obvious if they’re not. But some questions are stumpers.
  • Someone that asks about your end goals.
  • Someone that is more focused on your child than you as a parent.

Look out for:

  • Someone that totally directs the session.
  • Someone you feel you can’t inturupt to say you still don’t get it or that concept is fine lets move on. Who are they there for if not you?
  • Someone who opts to end early rather than working ahead or reviewing a previous concept on light weeks.
  • Someone who says whenever is okay, it’s best to be consistent and weekly is usually a good place to start.
  • Someone with no flexibility in schedule, life happens but remember that goes both ways and for most people tutoring is a second job.
  • Someone that can’t re-phrase or offer a different explanation if your having a tough time getting the first one.
  • Someone who doesn’t get you to prove you can solve problems in session.
  • Someone unreliable who cancels or doesn’t show up.


I’m a bit of a frugal fanny and I take this to school supplies too, with a couple of exceptions. First by twice the looseleaf you think you need, it’s $0.50 a pack now in a month it’ll be $3. Get an extra binder or two for when the rings on your first one separate. I also recommend a sharp or Casio scientific calculator even if you already own a Texas Instruments. Past that even if you have a crazy list use you judgement. Is a grade three student really going to use a full math set with a compass or will a ruler and maybe a protractor do? Do they really need 8 erasers on the first day or with the trickle from halloween and birthday treat bags fill the void? Sure get the cheap stuff now when it’s on sale like binders, report covers and paper but other things can be bought as needed. Plus they’ll probably lose half of it if you give it to them on the first day.

But it is nice to have a few nice shiny things to start the year fresh with!

What is your recipe for academic success? Which of these ideas are you going to try this year?

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