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Clothes in an office environment

September 10th, 2011

I am starting my first serious post-college job next week. I am an administrative assistant in the Provost’s Office at a major NYC university. I spent my undergrad years as a major in one of the performing arts and as such I don’t really know the whole “vibe” of an office environment. Any tips? The office I am in is one of the more “corporate” environments in a university without being as “business” as a law firm.

The unquestionable rule of dressing for work is that you should dress for the job you want, not the job you have. In translation, this means that you should generally err on the side of stylish professionalism and not fall into the deadly trap of dressing like most lazy been-there-since-the-70s administrative assistants do (old jeans, worn out untucked oxford shirts, etc).

If you’re at a university, you can really get away with about anything that isn’t pajamas, so I’d exploit the opportunity and overdress. Suits are, of course, the gold standard for this sort of thing, if you can afford decent tailored ones. Outside the suit realm, a combination of a good blazer and a good pair of pants always works well, pending you have a good shirt and tie to match. If the weather is too hot, forego the blazer, but still wear the tie — you’ll be respected for it, and it’s totally an east coast thing to do. If you feel like wearing something comparatively comfortable, jeans are appropriate only if they are (1) dark and (2) worn with otherwise dressy clothing like button-down shirts and the like. Don’t feel like you have to be hyper-conservative like a lot of the law kiddies will be (that is to say, feel free to wear shirts that aren’t white), so have fun — experiment with colors and patterns wildly and make a statement.

You may be slightly made fun of for dressing well, but trust me: doing so sets you apart in a way that will be absolutely invaluable for your career.

Dressing for Class

August 15th, 2010

What should I wear as a University student to class?

I hate always saying this, but it depends.

First off, let’s be honest: most people going to classes, at least at an undergraduate level, are incredibly poorly dressed. Even at upper tier schools, most people prance around in what amounts to glorified pajamas or sportswear, usually excusing themselves because they want to be “comfortable”. The sheer fact that you want to dress for class generally indicates you intend to do better than this, and anything is better than pajamas or basketball shorts.

In my opinion, in most disciplines, you can really get away with clothing that is informal, but not lazy. Jeans are, of course, generally appropriate, as are t-shirts and the like. If you want to dress better and look more professional, casual dress shirts, informal dress pants, and similar clothing is really the best you’ll want to dress. Don’t go into class wearing a suit or anything, but don’t be afraid to wear a casual tie or a blazer. As I think I’ve mentioned before on here, dressing well in class has its own benefits — you are treated much better by professors and classmates and tend to look more prepared for study — so feel free to err on the side of style.

For some reason, some people I know swear by wearing suits in professional schools, like wearing a suit to law school classes and/or business school classes. I recommend avoiding this, if you can help it. For one thing, wearing a suit constantly smacks of an attempt to try too hard — kinda like an awkward game of dress-up. In either context, you will be in a suit a lot outside of class, so don’t waste your time trying to show off in class. Again, ties and blazers are probably okay, full suits are not.

If you are studying in a science department, especially if you routinely do experiments, try to wear good clothing, but washable/cheap clothing, for obvious reasons. The same naturally would apply if you were in a cooking school or art school.

Oh, and a final note — don’t brand whore. I knew a lot of people in undergrad who specifically wore brands (especially Gucci and Louis Vuitton, for some reason) as blatantly as possible in order to garner attention. Don’t bother doing so, it appears tacky and spoiled.

How to Study in College in 10 Steps

April 6th, 2010

I have a lot of friends who have recently asked me a very simple yet a very complex question: how to study in College. It seems a little bit of a ridiculous question, but doing it is much harder than you think — even college seniors frequently find themselves having trouble keeping up with work. With that being said, here are 10 steps I think are essential to studying properly in college — most of which you’ll never hear from any orientation seminar.

10. Avoid disadvantaging yourself mentally.

Because you are fundamentally exercising your brain when studying, avoid disadvantaging yourself by clouding your brain. You can inadvertently hurt your retention capabilities and focus through bad diet, choosing a bad location to study, not sleeping enough, or even doing something ridiculous like drinking alcohol before you study. If you want to learn properly, treat study time like a religious mendicant treats prayer time — do it with focus, prepare for it, and never put yourself in a position where it becomes difficult to do.

Also, a big part of this is to be careful with caffeine. Caffeine is a great way to keep yourself focused and energetic, but it can also crash on you and make your mind worthless — and too much of it can make you too hyper to function. Learn to use it in moderation or don’t use it at all. Same with sugar.

9. To hell with (most) study groups.

Study groups are a common pratfall of most. While it may seem tempting to join up with your buddies to all collectively work on material, the reality is that study groups very rarely do anything but make you all collectively distracted, or at least encourage you to feel like you know material you do not. Unless you absolutely must, avoid study groups and “group cram sessions” — they are absolutely useless. If you don’t know much of the material, they can make you feel like you know more than you do, or worse scare you from showing you how little you do. If you know a lot, they simply become a waste of time as you babysit people who don’t know the material. If you study properly and take proper notes, there will be nothing that a group can help you with that you cannot figure out on your own through better, more efficient methods.

8. Actually pay attention to lectures.

This is a big one. Pay attention.

Don’t screw around on your cell phone, laptop, or anything else. Prepare for lectures, take notes, and actually process what the professor is saying. Ask questions if necessary. Work with the material in your head. If you have trouble getting lectures the first time, record the professor with a tape recorder (get permission first) and listen to the lectures again. Many, many college courses will have tests that focus more on lecture material than actual course material, so this is absolutely essential.

Oh yeah, and for obvious reasons, do not skip class, ever. Pending you are not egregiously contagious, even if you are sick, go to class.

7. Deep process everything.

“Deep processing”, in my terms, is the ability to understand information beyond the basic facts. This is how most people learn the most efficiently.

The way to “deep process” something is to learn information about the subject deeper than the required knowledge actually goes. For example, if you need to remember something relatively unfamiliar (let’s say something like “The Kaaba is in Mecca”), your goal is to not only learn more about it to solidify the fact, but also to connect it to different parts of your life. For example, in the aforementioned case, you not only want to deepen your understanding of what the Kaaba is (for example, reading the Wikipedia page, looking at pictures of it, etc), but also trying to connect it to something in your life already (like “Hey, that’s where Malcolm X went! I saw that in that movie with Denzel Washington!”, etc). For example, to remember a lot of stories and themes from novels I studied early in my college career, I would always hop onto JSTOR to read academic articles about them, I’d check the Wikipedia page to see an overview, and I’d even see if I could rent a movie inspired by the book itself. The idea is, in short, to keep looping the information around your head in different ways until the information becomes as familiar as your name.

Naturally, deep processing helps a lot — especially with tests involving essay portions. The more information you know about topics, the more information you can display about that topic, and thus the more you can write.

6. Use flash cards or other tools when necessary.

When it comes to rote memorization of basic facts, figures and words, nothing quite beats flash cards.

Flash cards don’t have to be cumbersome and annoying — there are plenty of flash card apps out there now (the Flashcard Exchange and Smart.fm come to mind) that allow you to create and use flash cards to memorize information on your computer and sometimes even on your cell phone. This especially helps for languages with complex character sets (the Flashcard Exchange saved my butt big time with Japanese), as the familiarity of seeing the gestalt of the word not only helps quick recognition, but also generally helps you read complex alphabets faster. Repeating something over and over — though the process is boring — helps you remember it. This actually tends to explain, among other reasons, why you likely remember intense amount of detail about your favorite songs — you hear them over and over, and you develop a mastery of them.

Warning — do not over-use flash cards. Flash cards are for rote memorization of material in small bites, not much more. It is generally preferable, in many disciplines of the liberal arts, to get the idea of something rather than getting it by name. It, of course, depends on your professor, but never use flash cards and rote memorization as a replacement for good working knowledge of information.

5. Recover information by re-reading material.

In the same vein as flash cards, re-read material if you can.

For example, if you are ever in a situation where you use a textbook you will be tested on, don’t just read the textbook before the class time or right before the test- read it multiple times, with increasing ferocity as you approach the day of the test. For example, if you have a Psychology class and you need to understand a chapter on conditioning, the ideal way to memorize the book would to read the book right before the class on the chapter, re-read it the weekend after the class (so you can apply what you heard in the lecture), and then read it a day or two before the test day, and, if possible, the day of the test. This certainly depends on your retention level and how much time you have available to you, but it helps — the more you read something in-depth, the more you notice.

Hell, even if you don’t remember what you read, you’d be surprised what you can remember merely by remembering how it was laid out on the page or the graphic associated with. I’m not kidding, it works.

4. Complete things at least a day or two in advance.

This is one of the biggest pitfalls of college students in general — very few students do anything in advance, preferring rather to do things the day (or more usually, the night) before their work is due — be it a paper, studying for a test, or the like. Do not do this.

I like to consider writing a good paper or studying for a test like being a really neurotic sniper — take three hours to aim before you take the one second to shoot. In the context of a paper, have a working draft of even a two page paper at least 2 weeks before it is due. Keep returning to it over those two weeks to check it over — read it aloud, fix grammatical errors, add more to the paper, and do everything you can to further refine it. Like a good piece of art, continue to slowly and meticulously craft it, approaching it with a new mindset each time. If you can, send a well constructed draft in to your professor and have them examine it and tear it apart. Work at the thing until you are so sick of seeing it that you’d like to see it burned in a fire.

I especially recommend this for anything long or resembling a dissertation. A good 50 page paper, for example, requires actual hard work — there is no messing around or writing it the night before. Even if you have six months to write something, have it written the first month, and use the remaining five to attack it like crazy. Trust me, this results in better work overall — no-one ever sounded like a genius vomiting something out in a panic on paper the day before it was due.

3. Actually do the work.

No, seriously. Do it.

If you are assigned to read a book, read it, don’t read the stupid Spark Notes. If you have to do research, actually do it, don’t mess around with only one source. If you have to do an experiment, actually do it, don’t pretend you did it. The time expenditure required for this sort of work is horribly annoying, but it is absolutely required — the more time you spend on something, the more your effort will (generally) show. There is no shortcut when it comes to cramming stuff into your brain.

Sure, you will meet people in your college career who manage to skate by doing minimal amounts of work for good grades, but they are merely cheating themselves out of educations. Having to work very hard to learn something does not make you stupid or slow, it makes you normal and hard-working. Just do the work.

2. Take good, efficient notes — and then take them again.

This is one of the biggest tricks I learned in my entire college career: don’t just take tons of notes, and don’t just take them once. Take efficient notes, and then further refine them again later.

The best way to do this is to simply carry a notebook around with you and take notes for all of your classes. Don’t carry around a laptop — I mean a literal pen-and-paper sort of notebook. With your notes, try to address the big points of the lecture or presentation you see — don’t write down everything, just write down the things to remember. This is a learned skill, certainly, but try as hard as you can. Write down quotes you find important to remember, write down interpretations of information and data in your own words — hell, even draw pictures if you have to.

Then, take these notes a week or so before test time and type yourself out a big study guide from them. Take your notes, identify what you now know as important, and make one big study guide from your notes. Add in information from your textbook or other reading material (that is, take notes from the material and add them to your study guide), and arrange it logically. Bold key terms. Insert quotes in relevant areas. I personally like to make everything one big bullet list, like a huge tree of information descending from the core topic of the class — but do whatever you like. Organize all the data you need to know — even the stuff you think won’t be on the test.

Then read the study guide often. Refer to it in class. Flip around it. Look at it during commercial breaks of TV shows. Have it laying on your kitchen table when you eat breakfast. Just look at it.

Oh, and right before the test? Read your notes and the text — not the study guide — again. You’ll see the data as outlined in your study guide, and be able to see it all working together in the big picture. Then look at the study guide again. Suddenly, the heavens will open up, everything will be in its proper place, and you will see everything nicely in order, rank and file. You will know the information and have processed it up and down, and it will show during test time.

1. Eliminate all distractions.

This is the biggest factor in how well you study, period. No amount of study tricks or techniques will save you from having to work on this issue.

Eliminate all distractions, period, end of story. Never use a computer for studying unless you must — you will be distracted from your work. Do not study in a public location — sequester yourself from society. Do not watch television while you study, or even listen to music with lyrics — and if you use a MP3 player of some kind, set it on shuffle or otherwise prevent it from requiring your attention too often. Turn off your phone or mute it and keep it away from you. Get comfortable and don’t feel like you have to get up — get a comfortable (but not too comfortable) chair and desk or table and stay there. Get a good, cold drink, but try to avoid snacks if you can. If you can, clear your head of issues related to the day — do it at a time where you don’t have to worry about errands, future classes, or the like. Remove from your mind any errant thoughts — don’t worry about girls, friends, other problems, video games, or really anything that comes to mind — make yourself a vessel for information. As I jokingly tell friends, this is a zazen approach to studying — and it works.

This applies for any sort of studying, reading, or anything close to it. Focus is everything — under no circumstances should it be challenged.

Choosing a College

January 22nd, 2010

I have to choose between two different colleges. One small one I have a scholarship to, the other larger university I don’t. The small one is ranked fairly low, the larger one is pretty well ranked. What do you recommend?

Honestly? It depends.

First off, understand that to some degree, getting out of college with little debt is important. If you do not plan to go to graduate school of some kind, this is especially important. Once you graduate from school, for the most part, your alma mater won’t be a huge part in determining the job you get as much as other factors. Rankings are important in certain circumstances (especially in respect to getting into graduate schools), but for everyday sort of folk wanting to get in and get out normally, it’s a rather moot point.

If you do plan to go to graduate school, it’s a bit of a different story. I like to use the following allegory: consider your GPA from 0 to 4.0 (preferably closer to the 4.0). Now, consider that value multiplied by the value of the school, perhaps divided by the public knowledge that the school grade inflates (as some upper tier lower end schools tend to do). For example, let’s say you get a 4.0 in a really small middle-of-nowhere previously-was-a-community-college sort of joint- that’s just a multiplier of 1, meaning a 4.0. However, if you did that at a notoriously difficult and prestigious school, consider it a multiplier of 1.5 or even 2, meaning we’re talking much over that 4.0, at least in an imaginary sense. At least in my mind, there’s a marked advantage to not taking the easy route if you want to continue academic pursuits.

What I’m trying to say here is that there are reasons to go to the big university. Like it or not, despite what many self-assured (slightly overzealous) seniors at the small college will tell you, there are reputation differences that can play a factor later in your life if you have to stay in circles where reputation matters. However, if you’re a normal Joe looking to get in and get out with a normal job, then from an economic standpoint, it would be better to take the smaller school.

Always remember that no matter where you go, scholarships can be gained and lost, and loans can always be held. Sometimes- not always, but sometimes- it’s better to take on a sum of debt to get a real education than to get a free one that’s trash.

Oh yeah, a note on the side: wherever you go, cheap or not, don’t major in something stupid. Theatre, Studio Art, Dance, Gender Studies, Human Resource Studies, and similar disciplines have very restricted applications, despite what majors in those respective departments will tell you. Unless you’re going to be the next master level practitioner of those disciplines, don’t go for them. That’s not to say that there are many good majors (there aren’t), but at least don’t become ridiculous. I can’t even begin the count the number of guys I’ve known who graduated from various programs like the ones listed above Magna Cum Laude with scholarships who now live with their parents working at grocery stores.

5 Ways to Save Money in College

December 12th, 2009

college_moneyLet’s not kid ourselves: college is expensive. Virtually all forms of higher education are. Even if you manage to get a number of scholarships to your school of choice, even affording to live near or inside of your college can be a massive problem. Of course, this inevitably means that most college students end up being “college poor”- and largely for no reason. With that being said, here are 5 ways to, for the next semester and beyond, save a little bit of money and afford something more than ramen noodles every night.

1. Take Advantage of Student Discounts

This is a fairly obvious tip, but few people realize it: in your average college town, a huge number of retailers and stores have some form of a “college discount” program to attract college dollars, something you should take advantage of as much as possible. From clothing retailers such as J.Crew to even grocery stores, a lot of places openly (or sometimes secretly) carry discount plans for those willing to show their student ID cards. Bigger purchases also count- if your university has deals with the respective companies, oftentimes computer companies such as Apple and Lenovo will offer discounts, as well as software companies such as Microsoft. While not entirely a discount, oftentimes banks and insurance companies will partner with colleges to offer better deals to students (though admittedly sometimes the deals are atrocious- do your research). Do not be embarrassed to ask for a discount virtually everywhere you go- though it doesn’t seem like much, it does make a big difference down the road.

2. Take Summer Courses, Aim for an Early Graduation

Unless you are in a major program that absolutely requires it, graduating in 3 years (or in 3 1/2) is far from impossible. Though it’s considered normative to stick it out through the traditional four years of schooling, graduating even a semester early is a very nice break from tuition, not to mention a nice way to get started with your job or grad school earlier. The easiest way to graduate earlier (other than simply taking a ton of courses each semester) is to take summer courses, which are often leagues better courses for much less money, if you can stomach not having a summer break. As many have found, summer classes (in virtually every discipline) are often much more relaxed, easier, and often more personal than their normal-semester counterparts, and they make graduating early incredibly easy. Do your research.

3. Live Off-Campus

This largely depends on the location and type of your institution, but many tend to find that living off-campus (even a couple miles away) can be leagues cheaper than staying in a dormitory. While this sounds rather ironic (one would think that being crammed in a tiny room would be cheaper), many colleges and universities in the US tack on quite a big price for what is largely a small hole in the wall- check what is available to you off-campus. When doing your research, remember to consider the cost of staying on campus as a package- not only what it costs you in terms of the dorm fee itself, but also associated food costs, living costs, and the like- it may be much more than you initially would suspect.

4. Buy Books Off Campus

This is a biggie virtually every upperclassman knows: as much as humanly possible, do not under any circumstances purchase books from a campus bookstore. Campus bookstore textbooks are infamous at any university for being overpriced and arbitrarily new, meaning that you pay quite a bit of money for something you inevitable trash or sell off the next semester. This is quite a racket at a number of universities, who not only sell you a book for an inflated price, but offer low-ball “buyback” prices for the books which they sell again for the inflated price. Don’t contribute.

My recommended method? Once you get the names of the books (copy down the ISBN numbers from the bookstore or contact the professor), go to a reputable online retailer such as Amazon.com, find the books, and then compare and contrast the prices available for the used versions of the books. For retailers like Amazon with sub-retailers, remember that sometimes bundling a few books from a similar location (i.e. one shipping cost) can be cheaper than buying slightly cheaper books from multiple retailers (i.e. a lot of shipping costs). Either way, you’ll save money.

5. Study something Worthwhile

This may be a bit late, but it’s the most obvious: study something worth going to college for.

This sounds quite morbid, but do it anyway: go to relevant sites with median salaries and look up what your degree is worth. Though your heart may be in something like Drama or Social Work, both of those degrees are ultimately very dangerous risks- especially in terms of paying back your college debts in the future. Like it or not, you have to be highly realistic about what you plan to do with yourself after your four-or-less years in college.

So, should everyone become Engineering majors? Of course not. Engineering is an incredibly difficult discipline for a select few. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t speculate and plan your own future. For most, the best option you can always pick for ensuring future earnings potential is to look into future education opportunities- professional degrees or graduate degrees. Professional and graduate degrees do not always guarantee money (lower tier law schools will actually harm you more than help you- “Go to Valpo, dine on Alpo”, etc), but that doesn’t mean you should find ways to further your worth in the job field.

In my opinion, however, regardless of your degree, the best thing you can do to ensure a relatively safe job hunt in the future is to simply get some experience and skill outside of college itself. Study as much as you can, but network, get to know people, and try to find part time jobs and internships- which often make you a much better candidate than any sort of studying.

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