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7 Ways to Practice Self-Acceptance as a Student

a kitten looking at itself in the mirror with self-doubt

Many students struggle with self-acceptance, and a lack of self-acceptance leads to unhappiness, less resilience, and issues with self-esteem and confidence. To some degree, this is a normal part of being a teenager, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do anything about it.

In plain English, self-acceptance means being okay with who you are as a whole, not just your virtues, but also your flaws.1 And since everyone has flaws, learning to accept all parts of yourself – the good and the not-so-good – is essential.

Here are seven ways for students to practice self-acceptance.

1. Accept that school is hard.

One reason many students struggle with self-acceptance is that they struggle in school. Moreover, they carry around the assumption that school is supposed to be easy. And since it’s hard for them, they conclude that there must be something wrong with them.

The first step toward overcoming this mindset is understanding that school is supposed to be hard. One of the primary purposes of school is to challenge your mind. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be very beneficial. So struggling isn’t bad. Struggle makes you stronger.

a woman squatting heavy weights at the gym

The second step is to acknowledge that, when you learn something new, you’re not supposed to just instantly get it. You’re not at school to impress your teachers with how much you already know. You’re not at school to impress your peers with how quick you are. You’re there to learn and grow.

And finally, you need to embrace “mechanical solutions” – strategies that make it easier to learn and play the game of school. For you see, the problem is not you. There’s nothing wrong with you. School is just hard. And the sooner you accept that, the more easily you will accept yourself.

2. Cultivate self-efficacy.

That said, making school easier by learning how to study effectively couldn’t hurt. True confidence is a product of self-efficacy – the belief, based on real evidence, that you have what it takes to meet life’s challenges. So build up your skills through study and practice – be they math skills, writing skills, learning techniques, or executive function strategies. Self-acceptance is easier when you feel effective.

3. Cultivate healthy self-esteem.

But no matter how good you are, there will always be someone better. And if you base your self-esteem on how you compare to others, you’ll struggle to see yourself as good enough. So instead of comparing yourself to other people, compare yourself to your past self. Don’t worry about whether or not you’re better than other people. Focus on becoming a little bit better than you were yesterday.

This will help you shift from dependent self-esteem – where your sense of self-worth comes from the outside – to independent self-esteem – where your sense of self-worth comes from within.

Another way to do this is to collaborate with your peers. Form study groups or take on extracurricular projects with your classmates. This will help combat the culture of competition that is ubiquitous in our schools.

a group of students studying together outside

Also, remember that you are more than your grades. You might wish you had higher grades or better test scores, but you don’t have to be defined by those things. You are a complicated, dynamic human being. You have value, even if you’re doing poorly in school.

4. Abandon perfectionism.

On the other hand, some students struggle with self-acceptance while doing very well in school, and this is because of perfectionism. If a student believes that the only version of themselves that is “good enough” is the version that’s perfect, they’ll never be able to accept themselves because they’ll always be falling short of that ideal.

To overcome perfectionism, you need to understand that perfection doesn’t exist. It’s an impossibly high standard to hold yourself to. Accept that, in the real world, no one has ever been perfect, and give yourself permission to be human.

Also, know that giving up on perfectionism doesn’t mean giving up on striving for excellence. You can see yourself as good enough and work on becoming better.

If this is something you have a hard time with, click here for a deep dive into overcoming perfectionism.

5. Understand that your “self” isn’t fixed.

You are not a finished product. Because your brain can change, you can change.

This is the essence of having a growth mindset. You can make mistakes and fall short of your ideal without beating yourself up over it. Instead, you can use the lessons of failure as fuel for continued growth.

a baby tree growing off of a nurse log

Knowing that you are not done – that you are a work in progress – makes it easier to accept yourself when you find that you’re not as good as you’d like to be.

6. Practice acceptance in general.

Practicing self-acceptance is really a specific case of a broader acceptance practice. In Buddhism, it is taught that non-acceptance is the source of suffering – that when we resist the problems we have, we make them worse.2 In other words, suffering equals pain times resistance.

The better you get at accepting whatever life gives you, the more easily you will accept yourself. This doesn’t mean that when something goes wrong, you just passively let it be. It means that when something goes wrong, you get to work fixing it without getting needlessly upset. Or when it is something you can’t do anything about, like getting stuck in traffic, you simply accept it and maybe even use it as an opportunity to practice patience. Of course, this is easier said than done. That’s why it’s called “a practice.”

In particular, you need to practice accepting other people as they are if you want to be able to accept yourself. Permission to be human works best when it’s extended to everyone else as well as to yourself. Your friends and your family are also imperfect human beings. Your teachers are too. The more harshly you judge them, the more harshly you’ll judge yourself. If you’re always pointing the finger outwardly, at some point, you’ll find yourself staring into the mirror, pointing the finger at yourself.

(See also: 5 Ways You Can Practice Acceptance)

4. Practice self-care.

Lastly, self-acceptance comes more easily when you practice self-care. Take time to exercise, eat well, and get enough sleep. Take breaks. Do things you enjoy. Play. Spend time with the people you love.

The highest form of self-acceptance is self-love, and practicing self-care is the best way to cultivate self-love.

1 Ackerman, Courtney E. “What is Self-Acceptance? 25 Exercises + Definition and Quotes.”

2 Wright, Robert. Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. Simon & Schuster, 2017.

How to Read a Difficult Textbook

A student at a desk reading a textbook

Many students struggle with reading textbooks. They’re dry, and they’re dense, and when boredom mixes with confusion, many students are inclined to abandon ship. Thus, many either don’t read their textbook at all or they read them ineffectively. So let’s learn how to read a difficult textbook.

Let’s say you’re taking a biology class. (The same strategies will apply to chemistry, history, AP Human Geography, and any other class that presents difficult content in a thick, overwhelming textbook.)

Each unit comes with a 15-page chapter reading that is dense. It’s full of new vocabulary, complicated diagrams, and confusing processes. The amount of detail is overwhelming. When you read the chapter, you hear yourself mouthing the words, and you even try to take notes, but none of it sticks. You wonder if there’s something wrong with you. Every time the teacher assigns the next chapter, you groan with dread..

Someone hiding behind a pile of textbooks

Now, before you toss your textbook in the garbage (or the “recycling bin” on your laptop if it’s an ebook), let me reassure you that the problem is not you. There’s nothing wrong with you or your brain that’s making this process difficult. No, reading a dense textbook is just a very difficult task. It’s difficult because it leads to cognitive overload, which not only creates frustrating confusion – it also inhibits memory formation.1

And you’ve never been given proper guidance about how to read a textbook strategically. But, lucky for you, I’m about to deliver that guidance.

Start with a Summary

When you set out to learn any topic that has a great deal of complexity or an overwhelming amount of information, you should always start with a summary. This is critical if you want to avoid feeling swamped by a deluge of detail. Once you know the big picture, it’s far easier to manage and remember the details.2

a forest viewed from above

In many cases, your textbook will provide an introduction page that tells you what the point of the chapter is, and then at the end, it will provide a chapter summary. Read the introduction page and then skip to the end and read the chapter summary.

Whatever the main ideas are, write them down. A major theme of reading a textbook for learning is writing. You can’t expect to form an understanding or a memory from passive reading. You have to put pen to paper in order to convince your brain to care.

If no such summary is provided or if you still don’t feel like you know what the gist of it is, seek out other summaries. YouTube is probably your best resource for this. The videos are short, generally aimed at a high school audience, and often entertaining. Watch multiple videos if you have to. Don’t stop until you’ve got a basic understanding. No one should dive into taking notes on the Krebs Cycle before grasping that cellular respiration is about combining glucose and oxygen to make energy.

Make an Outline

A chapter in your textbook will not be a continuous wall of text, so your notes shouldn’t be either. Flip through the chapter and take note of the bold headings that divide the text into subsections. Write down these subsections into an outline. Leave some space between headings so you can fill in the gaps later.

In addition to making a space to store information on paper, this exercise actually creates metaphorical storage shelves in your brain.3 When you actually get down to reading, your mind will know where to put things.

Collect Vocab

The key terms section of a textbook chapter

You might think that you’re now ready to read, but you’re not. Your next task is to collect vocab.

Why? Because we’re trying to prevent being overwhelmed by managing cognitive load. If you’re reading about a complicated biological process, and every fifth word is foreign, you’re going to get lost. So go through the chapter and grab all the vocabulary before you read the actual text.

Most textbooks make this really easy – the vocab words are in bold and the definitions are nearby. Occasionally, the definitions aren’t easy to find on the page, but in those cases, you can just flip back to the glossary. Use one of the pen-and-paper techniques recommended in my article on studying vocab and verbalize as you write.

Once you have the vocab and definitions written down, the words won’t seem so foreign when you read them in context. In fact, you’ll be getting a little spaced repetition when you read them since it will be your second exposure. This will enhance your memory.

Read and Take Notes

Someone taking notes as they read at a desk

Okay, now you’re ready to read and take notes. I know, I know, the process leading up to the actual reading seems long and arduous, but trust me – it’ll make your life easier. The reading itself will go much faster, you won’t get confused nearly as often, and you’ll remember far more of what you read. So in the end, all these time-consuming strategies will actually save you time.

Oh, and remember that outline we made earlier? Yeah, we’re not actually going to use that for note-taking. But we are going to use it, so don’t throw it away. Take notes on fresh paper, writing in the heading and subheadings as you go along.

Okay, start reading, but pause often to take notes. Anytime you think they’ve tossed a big, important idea at you, pause and take a note. Your notes don’t have to just be words though. They can also be diagrams, drawings, charts, mind maps, timelines, or whatever makes sense for the content. Take up space. Leave blank spaces between ideas and notes.

Pay special attention to the images and diagrams provided in the text. These are often important, information-dense nuggets that you’ll want to make note of. Or they’re just visuals that help with memory.2

But don’t write everything down. You shouldn’t be copying the chapter word for word. This is why you started with a summary – you should have some sense of what’s important because you know the big picture. Use that to guide your note-taking. Filter out the unnecessary details. A good rule of thumb is one line of notes per paragraph of text.

Write Down Your Questions

Inevitably, there will be parts of the chapter that you find confusing, despite your diligent use of these strategies. That’s okay. That’s normal.

When it happens, write down your questions, right there in your notes, with space to write an answer later. Then, in class or in office hours with the teacher, ask your questions and write down the answers.

Recall

Okay, Now we’re ready to use that outline you made.

Sometime after reading, perhaps a day later, use that outline as a practice test. See if you can recall the main idea from each subsection of the chapter. Force yourself to write something in each blank space. Then use your notes to check your answers and write your wrongs.

Conclusion

Taken together, this method of learning from a textbook will make you a powerful student, armed with the ability to both understand and retain what you read.

See? The problem isn’t you. Reading a difficult textbook is just a matter of using proper strategies.

Notice, too, that the problem is also not with the textbook itself. Textbooks are great resources. You just have to know how to use them.

1 Cowan N. Working Memory Underpins Cognitive Development, Learning, and Education. Educ Psychol Rev. 2014;26(2):197-223. doi:10.1007/s10648-013-9246-y

2 Medina, John. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Pear Press, 2008.

3 Oakley, Barbara. A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra). Penguin, 2014.

How to Study Vocab (Better than Quizlet)

a list of Spanish vocabulary

These days, the most popular way to study vocab is Quizlet, which is a repository of digital flashcards.

Quizlet is popular because it’s easy. Usually, someone else has already made the flashcards for you – either your teacher, a classmate, or some random person on the internet (whom you hope is reliable).

Why I Don’t Like Quizlet

Unfortunately, studying the “easy” way is not a good recipe for learning. By using someone else’s flashcards, you’re missing out on a critical step in learning vocabulary – the step where you write it down yourself. Thus, you’re failing to tap into the power of written product.

Furthermore, the act of using Quizlet’s flashcards is often very passive. It involves a lot of looking at your phone and swiping the screen. The trouble with that version of “studying” is that it’s way too similar to all the other looking and swiping students do with their phones. It doesn’t stand out, so it doesn’t convince the brain to care.

On the other hand, you could take out a piece of paper or a stack of blank notecards and spend 20 minutes writing out the vocab yourself. That would stand out to your brain, and that would put you on the path to rapid memory formation.

It’s not that Quizlet doesn’t work; it’s just that it’s low-grade studying that requires far more time than other methods of studying vocab. It’s akin to lifting very light weights. Eventually, you’ll get strong, but you’d gain strength a lot faster lifting heavier weights.

Here are two excellent, time-tested methods for studying vocab that will get you more memory in less time.

Paper Flashcards

A stack of blank flash cards

Quizlet is actually modeled after traditional paper flashcards. Once made, these are a nice way to get in little doses of studying here and there. You can shuffle them to mix up the order. You can reverse them all to switch from word –> definition to definition –> word.

But as mentioned above, the real power comes from the writing of them. Making them yourself is hard work, and it’s precisely that hard work that tells your brain this vocab is worth holding onto.

Additionally, the physical experience of flipping through paper cards is rare, as compared to swiping on your phone, so it should stand out to your brain as more significant than using Quizlet’s flashcards.

Two-Column Charts

This is my preferred method for studying vocab.

The method is simple: You take a sheet of paper and draw a line down the middle. On one side of the line, you’ll write the vocab. On the other, you’ll write the definitions. For example, if you’re studying Spanish, you might receive a vocab list for the unit. On one side of the chart, you write the words in Spanish, and on the other side, you write the words in English.

a two-column chart with Spanish words on the left and English words on the right

In the first round of effort, you’re just using the provided resource (which might even be a Quizlet your teacher made) to write out the two lists. As with the making of paper flashcards, this lays the groundwork for initial memory formation. (Note: Don’t write out all the Spanish words and then all the English words. Write them in corresponding pairs. Hablar | to speak, comer | to eat, and so on. You’re trying to establish a link in your brain between the vocab and its definition, so write them together.)

Then, when you’re ready to study with your two-column chart, grab a blank sheet of paper and cover up the English side of the chart. You then go down the list, writing the English words next to their equivalent Spanish words on your blank sheet of paper. When you finish, check your answers and write your wrongs. Later, you can do it in reverse order, by covering the Spanish side and using the English side for prompts.

The two-column chart creates a powerful two-way practice test that works for any foreign language, but also for biology, language arts, history, statistics, or any other situation where you need to memorize a bunch of vocabulary.

The only drawback is that you cannot randomize the word order, as you can with flashcards. But the fact that you’ve got a ready-made, reusable, written practice test more than makes up for that. And if need be, you can always rewrite it in a different order.

Remember to Verbalize

No matter what method you choose, you’ll enhance your retention if you also verbalize as you study. This incorporates more senses, and it’s slightly more work, and both of those things improve memory formation.