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“My friends always wondered why I was never in the library, but instead in the student center socializing, or at a party, or at an event. They said I made it ‘all look so easy. ’” Anna, a straight-A college student This is not your average college study guide. Unlike the titles next to it on the shelf, none of the advice presented here was devised by professors or self-proclaimed academic skills experts.
I promise that you won’t find any mention of the Cornell note-taking method, mental map diagrams, or any other “optimal learning technique” crafted in an office or laboratory—environments far removed from the realities of typical college life.
Instead, this book reveals—for the first time—the study habits used by real straight-A college students. All of the advice that follows was distilled from a series of interviews I conducted with a large group of top-scoring undergraduates.
These participants were drawn predominantly from the Phi Beta Kappa rolls of some of the country’s most rigorous colleges and universities—including Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Dartmouth, Brown, Columbia, Duke, Amherst, and Skidmore—and they were carefully chosen to represent a wide variety of academic concentrations.
In each interview, I asked the student to detail his or her study habits. The questions ranged from the general (“How do you defeat the urge to procrastinate? ”) to the specific (“What techniques or systems do you use to locate and organize sources for a research paper?”). If the questionnaire revealed the student to be a grind—someone who earns high grades simply by studying an excessive amount—I discarded the responses.
I was interested only in students who improved their grades through smarter, more efficient study skills—not through longer hours and more painful study sessions. How did I know such students existed? I am one of them. When I arrived as a freshman at Dartmouth College, I had no idea how to prepare for exams or write college-level papers.
Like most students I left high school believing that to study meant to reread your class notes and assignments as many times as possible and that paper writing required you to sit down in front of your computer and start typing until you finished. The problem, however, is that college is not high school. The material to be mastered is much more complicated and the professors have higher expectations. In the college environment, simple brute force study methods can end up requiring a lot of time and causing a lot of pain.
Nevertheless, most students still rely on them. And this is why they find themselves regularly pulling all-nighters and developing an antagonistic attitude toward their courses. The taxing effects and spotty success of these methods also underlie the common belief that only geniuses and grinds can score top grades. When I first entered college, I shared in these beliefs. But soon I became dubious. It didn’t take long for me to decide that there had to be a better way to learn the material.
The results of my studying using simple techniques varied widely—I’d spend all night hacking away at an essay and end up scoring a B-, or give what I thought was a frantic last-minute review for a quiz and score an A. I constantly felt like I was behind in my reading, and there always seemed to be new deadlines on the horizon that I had to scramble to meet. It was truly a chaotic existence. But when I looked around, all of my friends seemed to be having the same experience—and none of them seemed willing to question it. This didn’t sit right with me.
I wasn’t content to work in long, painful stretches and then earn only slightly above-average grades for my efforts. I wanted to be exceptional. And I wanted to achieve this without having to sacrifice sleep or my social life. To many students, such a goal may sound hopelessly hubristic. But I’m an optimist by nature, and, observing the sorry state of my current study skills, I was convinced that I could do better. It took me most of my freshman year to construct, through repeated experimentation, a toolbox of sufficiently improved study habits.
But once I had perfected them, the results were profound. Of the thirty-six courses I took between my sophomore and senior years of college, I scored exactly one A- and 35 perfect As. The most stunning piece of this transformation, however, was how much less time I had to spend on studying. As my strategies became more refined, the hours required were reduced. By my senior year it got to the point where, during finals periods, I would sometimes pretend to be heading off to the library just so I wouldn’t demoralize my roommates, who were preparing for yet another grim all-nighter.
What was my secret? Efficiency. The simple truth is that the brute force techniques used by most students are incredibly inefficient. When it comes to exam preparation, passive review is not an effective way to learn complicated concepts. It’s also mentally draining, which further diminishes the rate at which you can absorb and internalize information. For paper writing, this same problem holds. When you approach the task without proper preparation, it becomes incredibly tiring and you can end up spinning your wheels.
After a while, even the formation of coherent sentences becomes difficult and time intensive. In contrast, the techniques I came up with were so streamlined that I could learn more material than my classmates and actually spend less time studying. By eliminating stupid habits and wasted effort, I transformed exam prep and paper writing from a dreaded chore to a targeted activity. For a while, I was convinced that I was unique for having discovered such a smart approach to learning. But, alas, this illusion was soon shattered.
It occurred during the winter of my senior year, when I was attending a ceremony celebrating my induction, along with thirty other classmates, into Phi Beta Kappa. This group represented, more or less, the thirty students with the highest G. P. A. s out of my class of over a thousand. Accordingly, I had arrived at the venue prepared to spend the evening with some serious nerds. As it turns out, however, I was in for a surprise. Upon walking through the door that night, I was immediately struck by how many of the other students I knew socially.
These were people who, given their level of visibility on campus, I never would have imagined were scoring straight As. They were magazine editors, frat boys, and crunchy environmentalists. I knew them from parties and campus clubs and through mutual friends. They were, for the most part, normal, well-rounded, and interesting—not at all the type of super-grind one might assume would occupy such an elite level of academic achievement. The lesson of that night was obvious: Perhaps I was not, in fact, as unique as I had first imagined.
Maybe there were others out there who had discovered similar secrets to academic success. The writer instincts in me soon took over. Fascinated to know exactly how these seemingly normal students had done so well, I sent all of my fellow Phi Beta Kappas a survey about their study habits. Most were happy to share their methods and I quickly confirmed that my suspicions were true. Not only were many of them using innovative, homegrown study strategies, but many of these strategies were surprisingly similar to those that I had developed during the previous few years.
At the time I had just finished editing the manuscript for my first book, How to Win at College, so I wasn’t exactly eager to get started right away with another massive writing project. But after seeing these initial survey responses, I knew I had stumbled onto something big. While most college students toil arduously through the study and paper-writing processes, there exists an elite group of undergrads who have discovered unconventional strategies for earning much higher grades in much less time. I wanted to share these secrets with other students, and thus the idea for this book was born.
Soon I was sending out more questionnaires to more straight-A students at colleges around the country, until I gathered enough responses, from students with enough different backgrounds and majors, to distill the advice presented in this guide. In the pages that follow, you will discover the details of these often surprising study strategies. I’ve included examples and case studies throughout the book to demonstrate how to apply the advice in many different reallife academic situations.
Remember, this advice comes from real students and was honed, through trial and error, in real college classrooms. This distinction is important. It’s what separates this book from the many existing study guides that sit next to it on the bookstore shelf.
As mentioned, most study guides are written either by professors or academic skills experts, many years separated from their own college experience. The result is that the authors of these guides are disconnected from the realities of undergraduate life. For example, How to Study, by college professors Allan Mundsack, James Deese, and Ellin K. Deese, suggests that students wake up at 7 A. M. each morning, go to sleep by 11 P. M. each night, and on many days schedule only a single hour of “recreation,” with the rest of the time dedicated to attending class, eating, or working.
One gets the feeling that these professors haven’t spent much time socializing with students lately. Even their plan for Friday—the biggest party night of the week—has the student working until 10 P. M. , taking a one-hour break, then turning in by eleven. Student Success Secrets, written by Eric Jensen, a learning expert and professional public speaker, offers equally out-of-touch suggestions. His tips to help you remember concepts learned from a reading assignment include “put it in a picture or poster—use intense colors,” “act out the material or do a fun role play in your own room,” or “create or redo a song; make a rap.”
Just try to imagine a sophisticated liberal arts major attempting to make a rap about her recent reading assignment concerning post-structuralist interpretations of pre-Victorian English literature! (Key question: What word rhymes with “Foucault”? ) The granddaddy of all unrealistic study guides, however, just might be What Smart Students Know, by Princeton Review cofounder Adam Robinson. In this best-selling guide, Robinson suggests—and I swear I am not making this up—that students approach a reading assignment as a twelve-step process! That’s right, twelve separate steps.
Before you even crack the actual assignment, Robinson suggests that you jot down questions about the importance of the reading and then take notes on what you know about the topic, what it reminds you of, and what you want to learn. He then asks you, among other things, to read the assignment a total of three separate times, write and then rewrite your notes, represent the information in picture form, construct “question charts,” and devise mnemonics to help you memorize the concepts. Needless to say, this approach to a simple reading assignment is humorously unrealistic.
I even did a little math. For a typical college-level liberal arts course, a student might be assigned an average of two hundred pages of reading a week. In his book, Robinson provides a one-page sample reading and describes twenty-three different questions that students might ask about it. At this rate of twenty-three questions per page, spending thirty seconds on each query, we would end up spending around forty hours a week (i. e. , a full-time job’s worth of time) simply completing one of the twelve steps on the reading assignments for just one class.
Sounds like a great plan! These examples highlight the simple truth that the advice in most existing study guides—written by “experts,” not students—is often impractical and time consuming. How to Become a Straight-A Student, on the other hand, is the first guide based on the experiences of real college students, and it was written to provide an alternative to the other titles on the market. In the pages that follow, you will find homegrown strategies that are compatible with the demands of your day-to-day student life.
They may not be as elaborate as the intricate systems devised by the “experts,” but they’re easy to implement—and they get the job done. Best of all, when you start putting these strategies into practice, you will experience immediate results. Keep in mind: If you find a piece of advice that doesn’t quite fit your needs or circumstances, that’s okay. In fact, you should expect this. Each of the students I interviewed for this book had his or her own unique take on the best way to study. Follow their lead and, when stuck, experiment.
Replace techniques you don’t like with ones that seem better. If these new techniques work, keep them; if they fail, replace them with something else. The key to improving your grades without becoming a grind cannot be found in any single study habit. It is, instead, rooted in the big picture decision to reject rote review once and for all and begin the flexible search for strategies that work better for you. Above all, remember that college is a multifaceted experience, of which grades are just one of many important pieces.
It’s my hope that this book will help you painlessly conquer this one piece so you can have more time and energy to explore all of the others—the friends, the unburdened idealism, the heroic beer consumption—that make these four years so rich. A common complaint I hear from students is that they never seem to have enough time to finish all of their work. They vent about how many hours they spend—late nights reviewing in the library, weekends sacrificed to paper writing—but no matter how hard they try, there always seems to be something else due.
As Matthew, a straight-A student from Brown, explains, it’s easy for college students to become “stuck in a state of permanent catch-up. ” Understandably, these students feel like they have reached their academic limit; they believe that unless they forgo sleep or any semblance of a social life, there are simply not enough hours in the day to stay on top of all their schoolwork. Let’s start by getting one thing clear: This belief is false. The problem here is not the amount of available hours, but rather how each hour is spent. I know this from firsthand experience.
While researching this book, I spent time with some of the country’s most accomplished students, and I can assure you that no matter how diligent you think you are, there is a Rhodes scholar out there who fits in three times the amount of work and activities you do and probably still manages to party harder than you would ever dare. I don’t mean to imply that everyone should aim to become a drunken Rhodes scholar (though it would certainly be fun to try); rather, my point is that a surprising amount of work, relaxation, and socializing can be extracted from a single twelve-hour day.
A lack of time, therefore, isn’t enough to explain why so many students feel overwhelmed. So what does explain this phenomenon? The answer, as it turns out, has much more to do with how we work than what we’re trying to accomplish. As humans, our minds have evolved to prefer short-term tasks such as “run away from that lion” or “eat food. ” Therefore, when you walk into the library on a Sunday morning with the goal of finishing all of your homework and writing a paper, your brain isn’t happy. The idea of spending eight consecutive hours trapped in a study carrel is dispiriting.
Plus, it’s hard to focus for that long, so pretty soon fatigue will set in, your concentration will wander, and every distraction will suddenly seem impossibly appealing. Before you know it, the day will be over and you’ll realize that you haven’t accomplished much productive work at all. The next day, new assignments will pile onto those you didn’t finish on Sunday, and the tedious process starts all over again. Jason, a straight-A student from the University of Pennsylvania, uses the term “pseudo-working” to describe this common approach to studying.
The pseudo-worker looks and feels like someone who is working hard—he or she spends a long time in the library and is not afraid to push on late into the night—but, because of a lack of focus and concentration, doesn’t actually accomplish much. This bad habit is endemic on most college campuses. For example, at Dartmouth there was a section of the main library that was open twenty-four hours a day, and the students I used to see in there late at night huddled in groups, gulping coffee and griping about their hardships, were definitely pseudo-working.
The roommate who flips through her chemistry notes on the couch while watching TV is pseudo-working. The guy who brings three meals, a blanket, and six-pack of Red Bull to the study lounge in preparation for an all-day paper-writing marathon is also pseudo-working. By placing themselves in distracting environments and insisting on working in long tedious stretches, these students are crippling their brain’s ability to think clearly and efficiently accomplish the task at hand. The result is fatigue headaches and lackluster outcomes. The bigger problem here is that most students don’t even realize that they’re pseudo-working.
To them pseudo-work is work—it’s how they’ve always done it, and it’s how all of their friends do it. It never crosses their mind that there might be a better way. Straight-A students, on the other hand, know all about pseudo-work. They fear it, and for good reason. It not only wastes time, but it’s also mentally draining. There is just no way to be wellbalanced, happy, and academically successful if you’re regularly burning through your free hours in long, painful stretches of inefficient studying. The students I interviewed for this book emphasized again and again the importance of avoiding this trap.
In fact, when asked what one skill was most important in becoming a non-grind straight-A student, most of them cited the ability to get work done quickly and with a minimum of wasted effort. So how do these students achieve this goal? A big part of the solution is timing—they gain efficiency by compressing work into focused bursts. To understand the power of this approach, consider the following simple formula: work accomplished = time spent x intensity of focus Pseudo-work features a very low intensity of focus. Therefore, to accomplish something by pseudo-working, you need to spend a lot of time.
The straight-A approach, on the other hand, maximizes intensity in order to minimize time. For example, let’s rank intensity on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being the most intense). Assume it takes ten hours to finish studying for a test by pseudo-working with a low intensity score of 3. According to our formula, this same amount of work can be accomplished in only three one-hour bursts, each with an intensity of 10. The work that took you all day Sunday to complete could instead be finished by studying an hour after breakfast, an hour after lunch, and an hour after dinner—the rest of the day being free for you to relax!
With this formula in mind, you can begin to understand why many straight-A students actually study less than their classmates: They replace long, low-intensity stretches of work with a small number of short, high-intensity sessions. Of course, this is not the whole story behind their success; what straight-A students actually do in these short bursts is also crucial—technique is just as important as timing. Part Two (Quizzes and Exams) and Part Three (Essays and Papers) of this book are dedicated to these technical details.
But learning how to follow an efficient schedule, and banishing pseudo-work from your college experience for good, is a crucial first step toward your academic overhaul. To accomplish this transformation, however, you will need to gain control over your lifestyle—and that’s often no small task. For example, you will need to spread out the intense work sessions so that you have time in between to recharge. This requires basic time-management skills. You’re also going to have to overcome your urge to procrastinate, because scheduling your work is meaningless if you don’t actually work in the time you set aside. This requires self-motivation.
Finally, to obtain the highest possible levels of intensity, you need to choose the right locations, times of day, and durations to study. If you aren’t careful about how you select these three factors, you can unintentionally sabotage your ability to focus. This requires a smart planning strategy. Part One will teach you how to satisfy these requirements. It begins with the presentation of a simple timemanagement system, customized for the busy college lifestyle. Don’t be frightened, the system is incredibly lightweight—it’s designed to require only five minutes a day of planning and can survive periods of neglect.
Part One then continues with a collection of battle-tested strategies to help you fight procrastination. This advice comes straight from the experiences of real students and has been proven to work amid the chaos and distractions of the typical undergraduate lifestyle—it is simple, easy to apply, and surprisingly effective. This part concludes with a discussion of when during the day, where on campus, and for how long to study to maximize your productivity. The students interviewed for this book experimented extensively to find the right answers to these key questions, and, in this final step, I pass these answers on to you.
Together, these basic skills are the foundation upon which all the advice in this book is built. Without them, you’ll be unable to implement the specific study techniques described in the parts that follow. Master them, however, and you will experience improvements in all aspects of your life—not just grades. You’ll have more free time, you’ll get the sleep you crave, you’ll party harder, and you’ll be able to devote more energy to your extracurricular interests. So relax. You are about to take your first step toward a much more enjoyable and productive college experience. Step 1.
Manage Your Time in Five Minutes a Day Real straight-A students, like most reasonable students, hate time management. After all, college is supposed to be about intellectual curiosity, making new friends, and becoming obsessed with needlessly complicated drinking games. An overwhelming interest in time management is best left to harried business executives (or, perhaps, premeds). At the same time, however, you can’t abandon all attempts to keep tabs on your schedule. As mentioned in the introduction to Part One, all of the techniques described in this book require some ability to control your schedule.
Ignore this skill, and you doom yourself to four long years of playing catch-up with your work. As Doris, a straight-A student from Harvard, states: “Time management is critical—it’s a skill that you absolutely must develop over the course of your time at college. ” Most students, however, misunderstand the purpose of time management—they believe it’s used only to cram as much work as possible into the day. But this is not the main motivation behind controlling your schedule. As it turns out, a little planning goes a long way toward reducing your daily stress levels.
Having deadlines and obligations floating around in your mind is exhausting—it makes it impossible to completely relax, and, over time, can lead you down the path toward a breakdown. However, once you figure out what work needs to be done and when, it’s like a weight being lifted from your shoulders. The uncertainty vanishes: When you work, you can fully concentrate on the assignment in front of you, and when you relax, you can do so without any anxiety. “I don’t believe in giving up anything,” says Jenna, a straight-A student from Princeton. “Not my social life, not my extracurricular activities, not my academic success.
” Basic control over your schedule breeds balance. This is why time management, as Doris stated earlier, is the key to getting the most out of all aspects of your college experience. The goal of Step #1 is to present a time-management system that helps you achieve this stress-free balance without requiring you to sacrifice the spontaneity and excitement of college.
Each morning, you look at it to figure out what you should try to finish that day. Then, throughout the day, whenever you encounter a new to-do or deadline, simply jot it down on your list. The next morning, you can transfer this new stuff from your list onto your calendar, where it’s safe. And we’re back where we started. That’s it. Pretty simple, right? The whole system can be summarized in three easy steps: (1) Jot down new tasks and assignments on your list during the day; (2) next morning, transfer these new items from your list onto your calendar; and (3) then take a couple of minutes to plan your day.
Now, we’ll examine these steps in a little more detail. In particular, we need some strategies for how to plan your day each morning using your calendar and what to do when unexpected events interfere and turn that plan upside down (trust me, this will happen more often than not). Update Your Calendar Each Morning This is where the magic happens. Every morning, spend a few minutes to update your calendar and figure out what you should try to accomplish. This is the only serious time-management thinking you have to do for the whole day, so the demand is pretty reasonable.
This updating process should proceed as follows: Find your list from the day before. It will probably look something like the example described in Figure 1. Don’t worry too much about how this list is formatted; we will discuss that shortly. For now, focus on the “things to remember” column, which contains the new to-dos and deadlines that were jotted down throughout the day. Figure 1.
Sample List Tuesday—1/24/06 Today’s Schedule
Transfer these new items onto your calendar. Write the deadlines on the appropriate dates, and write the todos on the days when you plan to complete them.
Following the example of our sample list, you would first jot down the econ study group time under Thursday’s date and the French quiz under Friday’s date. You would then choose a day to do laundry and jot down a reminder under that date, and choose a day to start internship research and jot down a reminder under this date
. You can move these items around on your calendar as many times as you want, so don’t worry too much about which date you initially choose for a new to-do. However, try to use some common sense. For example, if Wednesday afternoon and evening are packed with meetings and work, this might not be the best day to schedule doing your laundry. Similarly, if you have a big test Monday morning, don’t schedule a lot of annoying errands for Sunday; you’ll need your concentration for studying.
If something is not especially time sensitive, such as the internship research example from above, don’t be afraid to put it on a day far in the future, at a point when you know you will be less busy—such as right after midterms or at the beginning of a new semester. Next, move the to-dos that you planned for yesterday, but didn’t complete, to new days on your calendar. In our sample list from Figure 1, the Today’s Schedule column describes to-dos planned from the day before. As you can see, in this example, all the to-dos were completed except the “Start French essay” task, so you would need to move this task to a new date.
At this point, your calendar once again holds everything that you need to get done. Now it’s time to figure out your plan for the current day. Go ahead and trash yesterday’s list—it’s served its purpose—and grab a fresh sheet of paper to use as today’s list. Divide it into two columns, as shown in Figure 1, and label them Today’s Schedule and Things to Remember, respectively. Next, look at the calendar entry for the current day. It will probably contain a handful of appointments and todos. Your goal is to figure out how much of this work you can realistically accomplish.
You might be tempted to simply copy all of these tasks into your Today’s Schedule column and then treat it as a simple to-do list for the day. Don’t do this! If you want to avoid getting overwhelmed by your work, you need to be smarter about your time. Here is what you should do instead: Try to label each of your to-dos for the day with a specific time period during which you are going to complete it. Be honest. Don’t record that you are going to study for three hours starting at three if you know that you have a meeting at five.
And be reasonable about how long things really take—don’t plan to read two hundred pages in one hour. For simplicity, group many little tasks (errands that take less than ten minutes) into one big block (for example: “10:00 to 10:45—mail letter, return library book, buy new deodorant, fill out transcript request form at registrar”). Leave plenty of time for breaks. Give yourself an hour for meals, not twenty minutes. And, if possible, end your day at an appropriate hour; don’t try to fit in work right up until sleep time because you need to be able to unwind and relax.
In general—though it may seem counterintuitive—be pessimistic. The truth is: Things will come up. Don’t assume that every hour that looks free in the morning will stay free throughout the day. Remember, the goal here is not to squeeze everything into one day at all costs, but rather to find out how many of the tasks listed for the day you actually have time to accomplish. If you can’t fit all the to-dos into your schedule for the day, no problem! Simply move the remaining items onto the calendar entries for future dates. You can deal with them later.
Your final step is to record the tasks you will have time for into the Today’s Schedule column of your list. As shown in Figure 1, label each task with its time. That’s it. You can now reference your list throughout the day to remind yourself of what you should be doing and when. But here’s the important point: The specific times on your schedule aren’t set in stone—they’re more of a suggestion. As we will discuss shortly, you will be free to move tasks around throughout the day, depending on your energy level and unexpected events that may arise.
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