How to Stay Sharp During Winter Break From College

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Winter break is finally here. College students everywhere are heading home to see family, booking warm weather retreats, or making plans for hibernation that involve fleece, hot cocoa, and Disney+. We support all of these pursuits. But our support comes with some friendly advice. There will come a point, in the month of January, when you have to get up, dust the cookie crumbs from your pajamas, and get back to real life. It's normal to feel some dread over this prospect. After floating on a sugarplum cloud for nearly a month, you'll have to kick your brain back into high gear. So, how can you prepare to return to school after an extended break? Start by keeping your wits sharp over your winter break. Read on to find out how.

Woohoo! Vacation!

I'm sorry for yelling. I'm just excited. Winter break is awesome. And the holiday season is awesome. And you guys are awesome for making it through fall semester. You deserve some rest.

During your mid-semester break, put aside a little time to achieve a state of sedentary relaxation so deep that somebody puts a mirror under your nose to make sure you're still breathing. You should find the experience replenishing, rejuvenating, even first. If you remain in this state for too long, you will begin to find the experience stagnant, boring, and probably a little pathetic. At this point, you are officially vacationing too hard.

We're not suggesting that you should waste your precious vacation days by working. We're just saying that an athlete must remain limber in the off-season, ever-prepared to take the field on opening day.

If you’re not feeling the sports analogy, I’ll say it plainly: after a week of clogging your arteries with buttery goodness, numbing your brain with insipid holiday music, and contorting your face into a polite smile every time you get a crummy gift, you’ll be returning to school with the intellectual readiness of a honey-glazed ham.

But it doesn't have to be this way. There are ways to prepare for next semester even as the dull strains of Johnny Mathis waft through your home.

If the comforts of home (Johnny Mathis or otherwise) have you rethinking the campus experience, perhaps spend your winter break checking out The Best Online Colleges.

Otherwise, check out these tips and stay sharp over your college winter break.

1. Read Something Longer Than a Tweet

Your brain is a muscle. Okay, it’s not actually a muscle, it’s an organ. But stick with me or the analogy doesn’t work. Like any muscle, the brain needs constant stretching. Even if you don’t plan to run a marathon, it’s a good idea to go for a light jog. So, during your vacation, read something to engage your mind, preferably something that has nothing to do with your studies, your courses, or your assigned reading. Dive into current events and read a few investigative articles. Pore over a few periodicals — ideally those containing more words than ad space. Or you could go the old-fashioned route by curling up with a good paperback (do people really “curl up” with books?). We’re not sticklers for how you get your vacation reading in, but it should be something that actually grabs your attention and channels it for longer than a few minutes. In other words, your Twitter feed doesn’t count.

And if your holiday fireside reading ignites a newfound passion for the printed page, find out if a Great Books education is right for you.

2. Learn a New Skill

Every time you experience something new, you open new neural pathways between the brain and body. Get those synapses firing by attempting something you’ve never tried before. Maybe you always wanted to learn culinary knife skills. Perhaps you’ve seen dagger-throwing on television and it’s something you’d like to try. Maybe you’ve always wanted to master cutlery honing and maintenance, but you never had the time.

I mean, obviously, your chosen activity doesn’t have to involve knives at all. (For some reason, that’s all I came up with). Anyway, it could be almost anything. Take a piano lesson. Dissect an old computer. Write that Downton Abbey fanfic novel that’s been burning a hole in your brain. This is an opportunity to engage in an enriching activity with low stakes. You’re really doing it for the opportunity to experience something, not necessarily to produce something. Do your thing and make it a labor of love.

If all that extracurricular activity invigorates your love of learning for learning's sake, we've got great news — Lifelong Learners Live Longer!

3. Game Competitively

Getting a group together for a few games is a really excellent way to find out which one of your friends is a competitive jerk with really serious anger-management issues. More importantly, it’s a great way to keep your brain in problem-solving mode. I’m kind of traditional in this regard. I like a game of Trivial Pursuit, or Scrabble with just enough rule deviations to allow for the occasional insertion of humorous profanity. Those are my house-rules. You might play differently.

Anyway, whether you prefer head-to-head backgammon, epic Stranger Things-level Dungeons & Dragons, or a night of Texas Hold ‘Em with your closest buds, get a few friends together, come up with a game, and get the gears turning in your head.

If you’re an advanced board-gamer looking for a real challenge, we’d advise checking out these Twenty Board Games To Challenge Your Skills.

4. Let’s Get Physical

Doctors say that you should get your heart rate up for at least thirty minutes every day. This is one thing from which there is no vacation. The connection between your level of physical activeness and your mental acuity is well established. Sedentary behavior slows everything down, including the speed and clarity with which you process information. In other words, if you do plan to veg out in front of the TV watching National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation — and we strongly advise that you do — be sure you’re in the right mental state to get the jokes. (Randy Quaid’s performance in particular is best enjoyed through the eye of a seasoned literatus).

So, make sure you get in a jog, a morning stretch, or an afternoon lift before eventually hitting the couch. And because it’s your time off, we’ll look the other way if you miss a day or two due to eggnog-related complications.

If you're looking for ways to get your heart rate up after vacation, check out The Freshman 15: 10 Tips to Avoid College Weight Gain.

5. Write Thank You Notes

I know, I know. Thank you notes are such a stupid waste of paper and postage. It’s not that you aren’t appreciative. It’s just that there are more efficient ways to express your appreciation these days. They didn’t have digitally transmissible heart emojis back when the concept of the thank you note was invented.

And guess what, it doesn’t matter to your Great Aunt Hortence that they have textable heart emojis now. Unless she gets a thank you note in the mail from you, she has no way of knowing whether or not you received your gift, how much you appreciated it, or which commemorative stamp you chose at the post office for the one time you had to actually drop something in the mail in like three years.

Point is, you have to write thank you notes. The generations that came before you simply expect it. Lucky for you, any time is a good time to sharpen your writing tools. Think of every thank you note as an opportunity to keep your compositional skills handy. Use this intimate, handwritten note to tell your Great Aunt Hortence how much she means to you, how thoughtful her gift was, and how it represents something greater and more profound in the relationship that you two have shared across generations. Or just slap together some empty boilerplate sentiment about your gratitude and make sure the grammar, diction, spelling, and punctuation are perfect.

I can’t tell you how to feel about Aunt Hortence. But your thank you notes may represent the most writing you’ll do between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Use it as a way to keep your pen moving. It’ll be a lot less rusty when you dive into the first essay of the upcoming semester.

If your deeply poetic and truly heartfelt thank you note could benefit from some expert assistance, get great research, writing, and editing advice at our Writing Lab.

6. Get Your House in Order

There are probably all kinds of projects staring you in the face, from the loose cabinet fixture in your kitchen to that gross sludgy deposit behind the washing machine. And there are all kinds of everyday chores in-between, the ones that tend to fall by the wayside as you blitz through your finals on the way to vacation. These things are a source of distraction, and they may detract from the working environment that you’ve created for yourself.

Use vacation time to reconsider the layout of your workspace, to attack projects long demanding your attention, and to give your living space a major cleaning — and possibly a makeover. In addition to creating a better and more optimal work environment, the act of strategically engaging your space will infuse the coming return to work and study with some anticipation, possibly even excitement.

If you're an online student, your house isn't just your home. It's also your study hall, classroom, and library. For more tips on creating the perfect space, check out The Savvy Student's Guide to Online College and Online Education.

7. Stay Plugged In to Current Events

You may be living in a holiday haze, but events in the real world persist outside of your sweet little vacation bubble. Remain aware of these events. I can’t tell you that today’s political discourse is bursting with wit and intellect. I’m not going to lie to you, and I certainly won’t patronize you. (I just respect you too darn much.)

But one of the best ways to stay focused during vacation is to keep one eye on the world around you, from policy actions and international conflicts to major weather events and important artistic achievements. Sometimes, this kind of attentiveness can pay off in opportunity, from the chance to dialogue constructively about policy to the inspiration to make a charitable donation in the face of tragedy. But as long as we’re on the topic, please patronize only valid and seasoned news outlets. Those that peddle in conspiracy theories do not enhance your connection to the real world. They magnify your remoteness. Fact-checking is, as it happens, another great way to remain sharp.

Put yourself on the front lines in the fight against disinformation. To learn more about this fight, check out College Students Vs. Fake News.

8. Get Out and About

Travel, day-trip, or simply take long probing strolls in your own neighborhood. Few things enliven your brain like a change of scenery. The cool thing is, you don’t necessarily have to hop on a plane to do it. If you plan to hop on a plane, that’s great. Obviously, that really increases the number of places you can go during your vacation. But if you’re generally staying close to home, all kinds of undiscovered adventures lie within a car, bus, or train ride’s distance. Maybe there’s an amazing Christmas Village an hour away, a cool micro-brewery that does weekday tours, or a cheerful Main Street town in the next state. Or maybe there’s just a spot in your neck of the woods where the neighbors put on competing holiday light displays. Whatever draws your interest, bundle up and get out of the house. Then, when you’re done getting your stimulation, come home and wrap your frozen digits around a warm mug of something.

If you're not sure where to go, check out College Winter Break Ideas — Trips You Can Take On a Budget.

9. Get a Jump on Next Semester

I know you’re not trying to think about this right now. You’re solidly in the throes of your vacation, and the last thing you want on your mind is the chilly reality of that early January day on the not-too-distant horizon. But your subconscious knows it’s there. It nags at you, reminding you that you ought not to get too comfortable with this life of ease.

Part of that nagging sensation is the lack of clarity. You’ll have a new schedule, new professors, and new syllabi. All of that uncertainty can be super-stressful, even if you are trying your hardest to suppress it. Take some time in the midst of your vacation to peek at your upcoming courses. Familiarize yourself with your schedule. Read up on your instructors at Rate My Professors. Set up calendar alerts that include classroom locations during your first week back. Fill in the uncertainty with the information you have at your disposal. Bringing some clarity to the upcoming semester may help to remove a bit of that impending dread.

And with the next semester upon us, be sure you're ready for the academic challenges ahead. Get helpful testing tips and subject-specific study starters at our student-centered Study Lounge.

The most important thing you can do to prepare for next semester is to indulge in your winter break. Indulge truly and deeply. Stuff your face. Watch the same exact movies you watch every year at this time. Delight in the comfort of friends and family. Recall brilliant holidays past and make memories anew.

Speaking of which, as we enter the New Year, we here at the Quad are filled with love, gratitude, and champagne. The combination is making us mushy. Thanks to you, our dear readers — all 3.4 million of you — for making 2019 our best year yet. We have a ton of awesome stuff planned for you in 2020. But first...a vacation.

As the temperature dips, we wish you warmth, cheer, and good fortune. Happy New Year!

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