How To Succeed In College: The Definitive Guide
No doubt, college is a formative time for all of us, regardless of when or where you’re attending school.
But, it’s also a big opportunity to set yourself up for success in life after graduation.
The problem is, more often than not, it doesn’t exactly turn out that way.
This guide will walk you through how to succeed in college, including exactly how to avoid the most common student pitfalls, and make the most of your classes, job prospects, and overall college experience.
Success in College: A Skill to Be Learned
For a lot of students, college becomes a slog: another task on the todo list while simply going through the motions for those two, four, or even six years of your life.
And even for those who do manage to get value out of their college experience, it’s often at the expense of something else: a tradeoff between academics, fun, and well-being. But here’s the deal:
What most entering students unfortunately don’t realize is that college success is a topic to be learned in and of itself.
Getting a degree can be valuable.
Bachelor’s degree holders make almost double that of those with only a high school diploma, accounting for $1.6 million in earnings over a lifetime.Source: University of Washington: What is a college education worth?
But there’s no denying: college is expensive.
The average 2016 graduate left college with over $37,000 in student loan debt.Source: Student Loan Debt Statistics 2016
Yes, there are academic success and advising programs at virtually all schools, and some even require enrollment in a “University 101” type course.
But with the cost of college higher than ever, and when successful completion of a degree in a field you’re passionate about has such a big impact on the rest of your life (financial or otherwise), this isn’t something that should be left to a one-off orientation, course, or worst (and most common), chance. The truth is this:
College can be tough, but if you learn how to succeed in college, and master the skill-set required for success, you’ll end up with a better education, a better GPA, and better job opportunities when you graduate – all with more fun and less stress.
Introducing The Definitive Guide to the
Web’s Best College Success Resources
How To Get Organized and Plan for the Perfect Major, Classes, and Schedule
Whether you’re studying engineering or underwater basket-weaving, the first step for any aspiring college student is putting together a plan. Going in with a strategy and staying organized throughout the semester can mean the difference between struggling to pass and setting the curve. Here you’ll learn how to succeed in college through choosing a major, picking the right classes, getting organized, and planning for a top-tier GPA.
Resource #1: The Student’s Guide to Choosing A Major
- Calculate your degree ROI. Do some research to determine how much the program will cost, what you can expect to make, and what the overall job prospects look like when you graduate. Use that information to determine which options will provide the best return on investment.
- College alumni most recommend STEM majors. And have the lowest approval ratings for majors in the arts, humanities, and social sciences, according to a recent Payscale poll. In fact, Software Engineering and Mechanical Engineering both came in at 90/100 or above, while Art, Theater, and Sociology were all lower than 42/100.
- Careers in STEM-related fields offer the highest annual salaries. Eight of the top 10 highest earning positions are in engineering disciplines (median pay $50k entry level). Careers in (surprise, surprise) social sciences, arts, and the humanities round out the bottom of that scale as well (median pay $28-33k entry level).
- Use a personality assessment to determine which majors would be a good fit. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is a good place to start (a free version here). Ball State University then offers a list of majors that correspond to each type that you can review.
- Be aware of the workload. Not surprisingly, Engineering majors spend the most time studying outside of class (19 hours/week on average), while Communications majors spend the least (12 hours/week on average), according to a NSSE study.
- Create a customized degree. If you’re stuck between two different interests, consider pairing a minor with your major that complements your core studies, which can typically be completed with 4 to 8 courses (sometimes even overlapping your major requirements) in that area of study. Further, a double-major is an option for those who are particularly ambitious or passionate about two different fields of study.
- There is no such thing as a “right major.” But students still question whether they chose the right one all the time. This questioning is not necessarily an indication that you’re not studying the right thing, but instead is a symptom that you may not be approaching your studies in the right way.
- Do less. By focusing on your major and small number of related activities (if any at all), you free up more time and energy to go deep, and really master the subject matter you’re studying. If you do, you’ll have an advantage over virtually other ambitious student who simply packs their schedule with as much “stuff” as possible.
- Synergize your classes within the same semester. When you’re choosing your classes, “look for synergies between your classes…try to find two classes that cover the same topic from different angles.” This will make your life easier, build your confidence (by mastering a subject in more depth), and stimulate your intellectual curiosity.
- Go to department lectures. These lecture series, while not necessarily directly relevant to what you’re studying, give you a unique view into real scholarship in your field. And this might be just what you you need to inject some energy into your coursework (not to mention to stand out among your peers just by attending).
Resource #3: How to Register for College Classes
- Meet with your advisor (duh). It’s their job to help you stay on track with your major requirements for graduation, but make sure to be proactive. Email or call ahead of time, prepare a list of questions, and come ready to make some decisions about your courses.
- Get your gen ed courses knocked off first. Because these are typically prerequisites for most of your specialized major courses, make sure you take care of these early on (freshman and sophomore years) so that you don’t get “stuck” unable to take a course you need later on.
- Then prioritize courses for your major requirements. Build your schedule each semester around these requirements and you’re less likely to run into an issue later on. Then once you have these planned out, fill in your schedule with electives.
- Start the registration process as soon as you can! The best course times (and the ones most likely to fit your requirements) fill up fast, so do you research and meet with your advisor ahead of time so you have mapped out exactly what you need to take before registration opens.
- If you don’t get in to a course you need, don’t freak out. Register for a back-up course to fill the spot, but then keep a close eye on registration during the first few weeks of the semester. Students tend to drop, so spots may open up. You should also contact the professor directly in case they’d be willing to open up more seats.
Resource #4: The Freshman Guide to Picking Classes Like a Pro
- Look up the professors who teach the classes you’re considering on ratemyprofessors.com. It’s not the most nuanced way of discovering how much you’ll like the class, or how easy it will be. And you may not have much flexibility. But you can at least check for red flags (e.g. if 99% of students say “STAY AWAY”).
- Talk to upper classmen slightly ahead of you. Yes… I know, I know… the whole “talking to people” thing is annoying. But by just simply asking someone who is a year or two (or even just a semester) ahead of you which classes, professors, and schedules are ideal you could save yourself a ton of headache.
- Don’t overload your schedule. The less time you leave between classes, and during the week for homework, studying, and “life,” the harder it will be to manage your time. Don’t sacrifice doing a few things well for doing a ton of things poorly.
Resource #5: Starting a New Semester: How to Get Organized
- Order your books ahead of time. If the materials for the course are listed ahead of time, order them as soon as you can. Otherwise you can send the professor a quick email and ask. Missing key study materials while you’re trying to get organized during the first few weeks of class can derail an entire semester.
- Load up your calendar with class times, locations, and major dates. Get your class schedule in your calendar, but also include room numbers (so you don’t get lost), major academic calendar dates (like add/drop deadlines, withdrawal deadlines, breaks, etc.), and major exam dates (midterm and finals dates listed on your syllabi).
- Put your professor’s office hours in your calendar. A great way to do this (if you’re using Google Calendar) is to create a separate calendar called “Professor Office Hours.” Enter in each professor’s availability as a recurring event, and then you can turn that calendar on and off as you need it during the semester.
- Introduce yourself to your professors. Not only will this earn you some brownie points, it’ll also help you “get over the hump” of that initial resistance towards going to office hours and asking for help when you really need it.
- Change your habits while you’re motivated. Use the excitement and motivation that comes along with a new semester as an opportunity to change your habits. It’s during these times of changing schedules, living arrangements, and classes that you’re most “primed” to engrain new positive study habits. Take advantage. Set up an ideal study location. Schedule in an ideal and consistent study time on your calendar.
Resource #6: 45 Tips for Staying Organized in College
- Plan at the beginning of each week. Sit down before the week starts and plan out specifically: which classes to prepare for, which assignments or exams are coming up, and any other tasks or activities. Get them in your calendar or planner and stick to it as best you can. It’ll help you stay focused and productive, even if you don’t follow it perfectly (don’t worry, you won’t).
- Give your due dates a buffer. If a big paper is due on Thursday, give yourself an artificial deadline 2-3 days prior in your calendar, and add reminders beforehand. This will make sure you’re not surprised by assignments that creep up on you and increase the likelihood you won’t leave everything until the last minute.
- Build consistency into your schedule. Wake up at the same time each morning. Make your bed right when you wake up. Build in a consistent study time each day. This consistency will give each day a predictable rhythm that help support your productivity and positive habits.
- Clear your desk and floor each night. A cluttered desk = a cluttered mind. Clearing your desk each night before bed is also a nice way to signify that work is done for the day. Same thing goes for the floor in your room. Plus it’s just easier to find stuff.
- Set up email tags and filters – and use them. Set up tags for both personal and academic emails. Break it down further into different activities and classes. Then, instead of leaving everything sitting in your inbox, just simply categorize it when you’re done so that it’s stored away and organized.
Resource #7: How I Use My Calendar Efficiently
- Your calendar should act as part of your “quick capture” system. Get assignments, todos, events, or anything else you remember you have to do out of your head as quickly as possible and into your calendar. Then use your calendar reliably and you’ll no longer have to worry about forgetting stuff when you need it most.
- Use Google Calendar. Sure iCal or Outlook or stone tablets can work, but Google Calendar gives the most flexibility, the most integration options, and you can access it from any computer.
- Set up multiple calendars (optional). We mentioned in the section above to add in your professor’s office hours as a separate calendar you can turn on and off as you need it. You can also do this with: classes, your work schedule if you have a job, and your personal life (e.g. time for gym, friends, events, etc.).
- Use Calendly for scheduling one-on-one meetings. Calendly allows you to send your calendar to another person you’re trying to coordinate a meeting time with, and have them select and schedule in a time that works for them directly. No more 15-email-long-back-and-forth chains of “no Tuesday doesn’t work, how about…” This also integrates with Google Calendar nicely so you won’t get double-booked.
- Use Doodle for scheduling group meetings. Doodle allows you to set up a poll with multiple available times that everyone you want to invite can vote on. Then simply pick the time that works best for everyone once they’ve cast their vote. Then they’ll have no excuse for not showing up to work on your project for the 3rd week in a row.
Time Management 101: How to Be Super Productive
Getting more done in less time is the dream of many a college student. It’s also one of the fundamental building blocks of college success. Below you’ll learn how to stop dreaming, and start doing. From effectively managing where your time goes, to using science-backed principles to beat procrastination and improve your productivity as a student, these resources will show you how to succeed in college by mastering the clock.
Resource #8: How to Manage Your Time Better
- Record how you spend your time. The first step to managing your time better is understanding where you spend it now. Grab a notebook to carry with you during the day. Then, from the time you wake up, until you go to sleep, write down everything that you do. Do this for at least a day, preferably 2 or 3 days to get a full picture.
- Analyze where you spend your time. Review the time log you created and highlight any chunk of time you don’t feel like you used productively (Really? 2 hours on Facebook after lunch!?). Add up all of the time you wasted, and identify your top 5 time wasters to focus on changing.
- Set up a todo list and start prioritizing. Write this out at the beginning of the day, or the night before. Limit the list to 5 items, and order them by level of importance. This will significantly improve your level of focus.
- Declutter your study (and living) space. The less time you spend searching for what you need, the more time you can spend being productive.
- Use your calendar from Chapter 1. Review this while creating your todo list. Establish cleanly segmented start and stop points for your work so that the day doesn’t drag on. Stick to it as closely as you can, and adjust as needed.
Resource #9: The 168-Hour Exercise
- Start each week with 168 hours to “spend” and work backwards. We all have the same amount of hours in the week. Understanding and planning out how you want to spend those hours will go a long way towards improving your productivity, and ensuring you’re getting what you want out of your time in college.
- Clearly identify your academic goals and how many study hours it will take to achieve them. Determining what your GPA goal is at the beginning of the semester, along with an honest assessment of how many hours you’ll have to study for each course each week will set your schedule in the right direction from the very beginning of the semester. Add it all up and subtract the total amount of study hours from 168.
- Take into account work and other responsibilities. You don’t exist in a vacuum, so make sure you estimate allocate the appropriate amount of time for personal care, meals, commuting, your job, sleep, and other fixed activities. Add it all up and subtract the total amount of “fixed” hours from [168 – study hours]. What you have left over is leisure time.
- Review and evaluate your priorities. Do I have an appropriate balance of work, school, and recreation each week? I say grades are important, but do I spend enough time on my academics to justify that belief? Do I have a lot of leisure time left over that just seems to “evaporate” each week? Asking these questions will help clarify what, if any, changes you might want to make.
- Identify time wasters, and establish a plan to eradicate them. If you determine you need to put more of your time to good use during the week, identify your biggest time wasters (both self-imposed and external) and establish a detailed plan for reducing or eliminating them.
Resource #10: The Science of Productivity
- Your willpower alone is not enough. Trying to simply “muscle through” and try harder to be productive is typically an uphill battle, and may actually be counter-productive.
- Getting started is both the biggest barrier, and the best first step to improved productivity. Before starting on a task, our brain visualizes the hardest portion and provides inertia against diving in. This leads to a desire to fill time with small, mindless tasks instead of doing your work. Instead, take advantage of the Zeigarnik Effect by just starting on a small portion of that task. Breaking your large todos into smaller sub-tasks will also help.
- Spend time on deliberate practice in 90-minute bursts. By focusing the study time you have allocated on your most difficult tasks in short, concentrated bursts, you’ll make significantly more progress than spreading that effort across an entire day. Intersperse those work periods with 15-20 minute periods of rest to maximize their intensity.
- Give yourself a deadline. Establishing a target due date for a specific assignment in your calendar, or even just a goal time to complete a task can improve the likelihood that you’ll complete it.
- Use an accountability chart. Take your schedule for the day, and write down next to each time period what you actually accomplish. This allows you to realistically evaluate your work, instead of inaccurately assuming what you’ve done. This improves future planning and helps avoid falling into small mindless activities.
- Stop multi-tasking. The research is clear: if you attempt to multi-task you’ll be less productive than if you focus on one task at a time. Instead, make your todo list for the day and follow it sequentially.
Resource #11: 50 Productivity Hacks to Help You Get More Done
- Prepare food ahead of time. Getting all of your food for the week (or at least some portion of it) prepared ahead of time will help you spend less time every day worrying about what to make.
- Use the 80/20 rule. Twenty percent of your actions produce 80 percent of the results. Apply this to your academics, and focus on which 20 percent of assignments and study activities produce the most results in your grades. Then spend less time (or no time) on the stuff that doesn’t matter as much.
- Use OHIO when checking email and doing assignments. OHIO is an acronym for “Only Handle It Once,” which means that as much as you can take care of something in the moment (instead of looking at it and telling yourself you’ll do it later), you’ll improve your efficiency.
- Start papers and projects right away. Doing large assignments at the last minute virtually guarantees stress and a low-quality outcome. Instead, start on it right away, even if you’re just coming up with ideas or making an outline, and you’ll be surprised at how much easier it is do to a good job and finish on time.
- Learn to say “no.” The sooner you can learn how to politely turn down offers for going out with friends, parties, and other activities, the better. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have fun when it’s deserved, but you should be able to control when that happens instead of feeling like you’re always obligated to say “yes” whenever someone asks.
- Use the Two Minute Rule. If you can complete a task in two minutes or less, do it now with no questions asked. This will help you avoid creating unnecessary planning time, and also generate momentum for getting things done.
- Identify your “productive time.” Pay attention to how you feel and how much you get done during the day and identify your optimal time window. Then schedule your most difficult and important work during that time and stick to it.
- Become a contrarian (go against the grain). By going against the grain (e.g. going to the gym at 7am instead of 6pm) you’ll be doing things when others aren’t, which will reduce the amount of time you have to spend fighting traffic, waiting in lines, or dealing with interruptions.
Resource #12: My Algorithm for Beating Procrastination
- Learn to notice when you’re procrastinating. Even if you don’t do anything about it, simply noticing when you’re procrastinating and building that awareness is a useful skill for eventually learning to use your time better.
- Determine which part of the “motivation equation” is causing you to procrastinate. When you procrastinate, it’s most likely because you lack the appropriate motivation for the task at hand. This has to do with (a) how likely it is that you will be rewarded when you complete it, and (b) the size of the reward. It also has to do with (c) your level of impulsiveness or impatience, and (d) how much delay is involved in the reward that comes along with completing the task. Take a look at your situation. Is it low value (e.g. a small homework assignment worth very little and unlikely to help you on an exam)? Is it unlikely you’ll be able to complete it (e.g. a very difficult programming assignment)? Are you tired or bored? Is it something you won’t see the results of for a long time (e.g. studying for you final exam early on)? Diagnosing the problem is the first step towards solving it.
- Use OHIO when checking email and doing assignments. OHIO is an acronym for “Only Handle It Once,” which means that as much as you can take care of something in the moment (instead of looking at it and telling yourself you’ll do it later), you’ll improve your efficiency.
- If your task is low value, increase the reward. Connecting a task that doesn’t have much value in itself to something that does (e.g. eating chocolate, playing video games) can help you get over this motivational hump.
- If the task is unlikely to produce a reward, make it easier. For large, difficult tasks, the best way to do this is to break it down into small, achievable tasks that you know you can complete.
- If the task involves a delayed reward, create intermediate rewards. For example, if studying for your exam in 2 weeks, break down that studying into individual chapters. Test yourself on each chapter when you’re finished and reward yourself with something you enjoy.
- If the task is boring or you’re feeling impulsive, use commitments and build habits. Making a public commitment to a friend or an accountability partner can help you stick to what you’re working on. Positive work habits will help you stay on track more readily.
Resource #13: How to Actually Stop Wasting Time on the Internet
- Go Cold Turkey. Cold Turkey is a free cross-platform application that will block any website you add to the “blocked” list for a period of time you specify. Use it when you sit down to start work to eliminate the temptations of social media, email, and other random browsing to improve your focus.
- Work with old-fashioned pen and paper. Most of us assume that pretty much all modern work happens on the computer. But consider engineering in periods of time each day where you go without, grab your books, print out your assignments, and head to the library to work or study computer-free, and therefore distraction-free.
- Use the Pomodoro Technique. Set a timer for 25 minutes and commit yourself to focus and work until the timer runs out. Then allow yourself a 5 minute break. Working in this manner will help to break the cycle of procrastination by reducing that initial resistance to getting started, and giving yourself a short-term goal to achieve.
Note-Taking Fundamentals: How to Take Amazing Notes
Love ’em or hate ’em, a good set of notes can make or break your study sessions and help you get the most out of class. Here you’ll not only learn how to take world-class notes from lectures, textbooks, and everything in-between, but also how to choose the note-taking method that best fits your personality and course content.
Resource #15: How to Take Great Notes
- Don’t just copy down what the lecturer is saying or writing. When you simply copy down what you’re hearing or seeing, you’re not actually engaging with the material in a way that promotes learning. You’re actually saving the learning until later on when you study or try to complete assignments, which is incredibly inefficient.
- Take notes in a question/answer/evidence format. Instead of writing down facts, reformulate what the professor is saying in terms of a question (e.g. “What is the central theme of Romeo and Juliet?”). Then answer that question based on the information they’ve provided in class, and add in some evidence if applicable. This method maps more directly to how you would use the information you learn in an essay or on a test.
- Teach back your notes to a friend after class. Don’t just re-read your notes after class, try to teach them to a friend or classmate to test your comprehension. This is a far more effective way of studying, and will improve your ability to recall that information in the future.
Resource #16: How to Take Notes in Class: The 5 Best Systems
- Use The Outline Method to take well-structured notes in fact-based courses. To do this, you’ll create high level bullet points that represent the main concepts, problems, and topics discussed during the lecture. Then you’ll fill in the details underneath those higher level bullets as you go along. This method works well if you’re taking notes on a laptop because you can go back and re-organize the structure of the outline easily.
- Use The Cornell Method to create study-ready notes the first time around. Divide your paper into 3 different sections: the “cue” column on the left, the “note-taking” column on the right, and the “summary” at the bottom. Take traditional outline-style notes in the right column. Then as soon as you can after class write out questions or phrases as cues in the left column that correspond to the information on the right. Then write down a summary of the lecture at the bottom. When you’re done, you’ll have a set of notes that are easy to study from at a later date, rather than having to rewrite them (more on this below).
- Use The Mind Map Method to take more free-form notes in non-linear lectures. If you’re in a class that covers a wide range of non-linear off-shoots around a central theme (e.g. a philosophy lecture covering different modes of consequentialist thought) this method allows you to create more free-form notes that follow that model more closely. Start by writing the topic in the center of the page, and then “branch out” as you cover the different trains of thought.
Resource #17: The Cornell Note-Taking System
- Take notes during class using “telegraphic” sentences. This means take short, concise sentences that capture the thought without worrying about grammar, punctuation, or sentence structure.
- Formulating questions a summarizing helps clarify meaning, reveal relationships, and strengthen memory. By using the “cue” column to develop these questions after class you’re improving your understanding and retention of the material. The “summary” at the bottom of the page plays a similar role.
- Study from your notes by covering and reciting. After you’ve created your notes, you can now cover the “note-taking” column with a sheet of blank paper, and ask yourself the questions you posed in the “cue” column. Say aloud, in your own words, what you think the answers to your questions are. Then remove the sheet and compare how you did.
- Spend time each week on (active) review of your notes. This will continue to cement that information in your memory so that you have it available both for current use and for your exams.
Resource #18: Back to Basics: Perfect Your Note-Taking Techniques
- Keep your notes simple. Keep your sentences short. Write in your own words and shorthand. Try your best to only write down what matters.
- Highlighting, underlining, or re-reading your notes aren’t worth your time. Instead, focus on taking them once and doing your best to capture the key points from the text or lecture. Then use that information to do homework, active recall practice, and take practice tests in order to get the most from your studying.
Resource #19: 6 Ways You Can Use Evernote to Dominate Your Classes
- Use Evernote to take organized, accessible notes on your laptop. Evernote allows your to take notes as your would in a normal word processor, but then organize that information with tags and within notebooks. It’s also easily searchable (in case there’s one specific concept you want to look up) and it immediately syncs across all of your devices, and is accessible through any web browser.
- Quickly assemble research and study materials as you browse online. You can also use the Evernote Web Clipper browser extension to take any article, photo, or screenshot and add it into your notes as you go.
- Take a snapshot of your paper notes and make them searchable! I have to say, this is quite amazing, especially for STEM majors. Because with Evernote you can take notes with pen and paper as you usually would, but then simply take a photo of them with your phone. Evernote then will digitize and store your notes, and make your handwriting searchable so taht you can reference anything you’ve written at anytime. Touche Evernote, touche.
- Study anywhere, at any time. Remember how Evernote syncs across all of your devices? Tell me: when do you not have either your laptop or your phone on you? This opens up a world of opportunity. Whip out your notes at any time, and do some quick recall practice to your heart’s content.
Effective Studying: How to Make It Stick
Time to rid the “I thought I knew it until I got to the test” phenomenon from your vocabulary, and learn how to study so that the material actually stays with you. These resources will take you through research-backed learning strategies you can use to maximize the value of your study sessions.
Resource #20: The 9 BEST Scientific Study Tips
- Study in small, short chunks spread out over time. Research shows that studying for twenty 30-minute sessions spread over a few weeks is far more effective than studying for one 10-hour chunk. This concept is called distributed practice.
- Flash cards work. While passive reading and highlighting have been shown to be ineffective (and sometimes detrimental) to studying, the old tried and true flash cards method reinforces memory very effectively. You can also work in study sessions quickly on the fly.
- Learn the material as if you had to teach it. Studies show that students told they would have to teach material to a class vs. be tested on that material performed better. Try thinking about your studying with that frame of reference.
- Practice tests work (like really well). Testing yourself frequently on the material you’re studying significantly improves your ability to recall that information later, even if you get the answers wrong. It also helps you identify mistakes so you know what to study, and improves confidence leading up to the actual test.
- Turn off the music. While much of the research isn’t clear, some studies have shown that rhythmic background noise can be detrimental to learning. Virtually no studies have shown a benefit.
- Turn off the phone. Text, email, and social media notification severely decrease concentration.
Resource #21: Study Less Study Smart
- Reward yourself at the end of the day. If you’ve legitimately put in a good day’s work and managed to work in some good studying throughout, make sure to reward yourself with fun or relaxation. Good habits are reinforced by positive reward.
- Create a dedicated study area. This will “prime” you to get into study mode whenever you enter that area. Make sure to separate it from leisure and other activities not related to studying or schoolwork.
- Study actively. More detail on this below, but make sure you have a purpose for each study session, and don’t let yourself fall into the trap of re-reading or passive review. Put it into your own words, and test yourself throughout.
- “Survey” before studying from your textbook. Go to the end of the chapter and read through the review questions so you know what knowledge you’ll need to extract and how it will need to be used before you study the chapter itself. This will make your reading much more effective.
- Use mnemonics when you’re studying facts. Recalling raw facts from memory is difficult unless their built into a particular context. A good way to do this is through mnemonic tools like acronyms, coined sayings, and image associations.
Resource #22: The Straight-A Method: How to Ace College Courses
- Capture, organize, and regularly review everything you have to do as a student. By taking stock of all of the tests, homework assignments, application deadlines, and other administrative tasks you need to take care of, you’ll build a better picture of what needs to get done and maintain a sense of control over your life. This will in turn help you focus on your studying.
- Control your daily schedule. Make a short-term plan either at the beginning of the day, or the night before, that spells out exactly how you’ll spend the hours during the day and how you’ll break up your studying and assignments to fit within those time blocks. This will help you get your schoolwork done on your own terms.
- Never actually “study,” plan instead. The word “study” conjures up feelings of guilt, boredom, and pain. Instead, simply make your plan on how you’ll prepare for an exam or start working on a specific homework problem set, and then execute.
- “Evolve” your study routine over time. There’s now way you’re going to get it exactly right the first time around… or even the 100th. Instead, constantly evaluate and reevaluate your strategies and update them as you learn how you work best over time.
Resource #23: Active Recall: How to Not Blank on Exam Problems
- Avoid passive learning at all costs. You’ll know your being passive whenever you’re feeling comfortable. You should never feel like the “recipient” of information. Learning is hard work, and your brain should feel like it’s getting a workout.
- Don’t confuse recognition with recall. Recognition is driving along on the highway not knowing where to turn, seeing the exit, and remembering “oh yes, this looks right.” Recall is being able to describe the route to someone beforehand from memory. When you’re taking a test you need recall, not recognition. So study accordingly and don’t let yourself get lulled into a false sense of security because you can recognize material you’ve seen before.
- Start with a blank sheet of paper, and solve problems or answer questions from scratch. This “active recall” method builds the recall muscle and significantly improves your ability to answer exam problems. Don’t review any study materials before or during these sessions. Only go back to check your answers after you’ve finished answering.
How to Ace Your Exams
While many argue that tests will never represent what you’ve truly learned about a subject, the reality is, exams matter in college – like, a lot. Here you’ll learn how to transition your standard study sessions into curve-busting exam preparation, all while keeping the dreaded test anxiety at bay.
Resource #24: How to Prepare for Exams Like A Pro: The Exam Prep Cycle
- Exams don’t test your knowledge, they test your ability to perform. Drop the romantic view that exams are a true test of how well you’ve learned the material. They’re more like a single snapshot in time… a race, a game, or a musical performance. You should instead focus on developing the ability to recall and use the specific and practical knowledge you will most likely need to answer the questions that show up on the exam. This will significantly improve your chances of success.
- Avoid the “I thought I knew it but blanked on the exam” Phenomenon. This common occurrence (also known as the Fluency Illusion among education researchers) happens when you have a gap between your general knowledge about a subject and your ability to apply that knowledge when called upon. This comes from preparing by re-reading notes, studying the textbook, practicing relatively straightforward problems while following examples – all things we’ve previously discussed are ineffective.
- Create practice exams 6-10 days prior to test day. A big mistake most students make is not studying what’s actually likely to show up on the exam. Spend some time ahead of test day to review your lecture notes, the syllabus, and any study guides or hints your professor has dropped about what the exam questions might look like. Then use previous quizzes, homework, example problems, sites like Koofers, and other resources on Google to construct at least two different homemade practice exams to take.
- Do exam rehearsals 5 days prior, and 2 days prior to test day. This means sitting down with your practice exams, a timer set to match the time you’ll have to complete the actual exam, and no study materials or distractions. Take the exam all the way through as if you were doing it for a grade. The purpose of the first exam is to understand where you stand, and pinpoint where your mistakes are. This is what you should focus on studying. The second exam rehearsal is to circle back, after you’ve studied, and work out the kinks and the jitters prior to test day.
- Intersperse exam-specific study sessions in between practice tests. During these hyper-specific sessions you’re not just “studying,” but instead putting in a very specific type of practice: finding the problems and concepts you had difficulty with during your practice tests, and specifically working through where you went wrong. Then solving similar problems from scratch. Repeat until you feel comfortable answering those types of questions.
- Do a quick refresh and mental rehearsal the day before the exam. Do some light active recall problem solving just to stay sharp. Then take advantage of visualization to help reduce test anxiety. Mentally rehearse some potential scenarios where you might get stuck of have trouble (e.g. you blank on answering a question, you realize you’re doing it wrong halfway through, you start to run out of time, etc.), and then how you’re going to overcome those obstacles.
Resource #25: Ace Your Next Exam: 10 Revision and Test-Taking Tips
- If you’re prone to test anxiety, write down what you’re worried about. Getting those negative thoughts out of your head and onto paper has been shown to help students improve their test grades.
- Keep an eye out for clues on the exam itself. If you find yourself stuck on one question, move on and return to it later, because other questions often cover similar material that may trigger something in your memory that will help you answer it.
- Create a cheat sheet (even if you can’t use one on the exam). Creating a one-page summary sheet is a great way to actively summarize the material for your exam. You’ll solidify concepts in your memory more effectively if you do.
- Simulate the conditions of the exam while you’re studying. By replicating the time constraints, test format, and even the room your exam is going to be held in as closely as possible, you’ll create context for the information you store in memory that will increase the probability you can recall it on the exam itself.
- Apply Hofstadter’s Law to your study schedule. “It always takes longer than you expect, even when taking into account Hofstadter’s Law.” You’ll probably need about 50% more time than you think, so plan accordingly.
Resource #26: How to Prepare for Finals in College
Resource #27: How To Handle Finals Week: My Secret Formula
How to Thrive in College: Stress, Sleep, and Overall Health
The archetype of the stressed-out, sleep-deprived college student is so common it shows up in movies, TV, and books, and is for the most part assumed as an inseparable part of college life. But in stark contrast to the portrayed harmlessness of the “tired student” image, we continually hear about the devastating effects burnout, depression, and lack of sleep can have not only on your grades, but also on your overall health and well-being. Below is a set of resources that will guide you through how to manage stress, get better sleep, and keep your body and mind in top shape so that you can keep up your grades, friends, and your sanity.
Resource #31: How Stress Affects Your Body
Resource #32: University of Michigan: Managing Stress During College
Resource #33: How to Make Stress Your Friend
Resource #34: Getting Enough Sleep is Vital to Academic Success
Resource #35: How Much Sleep Do You Actually Need?
Resource #36: How To Get Better Sleep
Resource #37: How to Get to Bed on Time and Stop Losing Sleep
Resource #38: Run, Jump, Learn! How Exercise Can Transform Our Schools
Resource #39: Finding Time And Motivation To Exercise In College
Resource #40: The Scientific Power of Meditation
How to Stay Motivated
Follow the steps in the preceding chapters of this guide, and you’ll soon find yourself a super-organized, high-powered learning machine. But none of that will matter unless you can find and maintain the motivation and drive to keep going. The semester is long, and each one brings new challenges. Here you’ll learn how to tap into your natural motivation for learning, adopt a growth mindset, and establish goals that inspire you to keep putting in the effort each week.
Resource #41: The Science of Motivation
Resource #42: Angela Lee Duckworth: The Key to Success? Grit
Resource #43: How Can I Stay Motivated and Finish My School Work?
Resource #44: How to Fulfill Your Potential: The Growth Mindset
Resource #45: What’s The Point of Studying So Hard?
Resource #46: 8 Simple Tips to Stay Motivated
Friends, Fun, and The College Experience
College is an opportunity to learn and set yourself apart academically. But it’s also one of the only times in life where you have to freedom to explore your interests along with minimal responsibilities. Yes, some students take it too far (hence the ever-present “C’s get degrees” slogan). But if you do it right, college can (and should) be one of the best experiences you’ll have in life. The resources below will guide you through how to have fun, make friends, and get the most out of college, without sacrificing your education to do it.
Resource #47: How to Have Fun in College
Resource #48: How to Make the Most Of Your College Years
Resource #50: 50 Things Every College Student Should Experience
How to Wow Recruiters and Land Your Dream Job
At the end of the day, getting a job is right up there at the top of the list of the reasons why we go to college, and want to succeed. We all want a vibrant professional network, incredible internship opportunities to build experience, and ultimately, to be able to find and land a job we love right out of school – all while keeping up with classes, exams, and everything else college life has to throw at us. Well these resources are designed to show you exactly that.
Resource #51: The Ultimate Networking Guide for Introverts
Resource #52: How To Rock The Career Fair And Make Recruiters Love You
Resource #53: How to Get An Awesome Internship
Resource #54: 97 Actions To Become THE Person Companies Want To Hire
Resource #55: My 10 Best Pieces of Career Advice for College Graduates
Resource #56: How To Find Your Dream Job
Resource #57: The Complete Guide to Writing a Student Resume
More World-Class College Success Resources
While everything you’ll find in this guide is top-of-the-line, below you’ll find some of the best stand-alone resources on the interwebs on college success to help you on your journey. Bon’ voyage!