“How to Become a Straight-A Student” by Cal Newport is the best student advice book I’ve come across, full to the brim with practical strategies that will leave you less stressed, more focused, and academically successful. I reread it many times, and in my most recent read, I condensed my reading notes into a single blog post.
Straight-A students employ smart study strategies that help them succeed while stressing out less than their peers.
Part 1: Basics
Stop pseudo-studying. Studying efficiently leaves you ample time for leisure activities, socializing, and sleep.
Step 1: Manage time in 5 minutes per day
All you need is a master calendar, a list, and 5 minutes in the morning.
- Use a master calendar to log due dates for assignments.
- Every morning, make a list of tasks to be done that day, and when you’ll do each of them.
- Make note of tasks that come up during the day in the list.
- Transcribe new tasks into the master calendar in the evening.
Step 2: Defeat procrastination
- Keep a work journal to stay motivated.
- Eat healthy meals and drink lots of water.
- Go somewhere special - with no distractions - to tackle the most difficult tasks.
- Build a routine to tackle repeating assignments.
- Spread out the hard assignments in advance.
Step 3: Choose when, where, and how long to study
- When: Study earlier in the day in between classes. Partying can come later.
- Where: Study in isolation. Go to extraordinary places or use earbuds if necessary. Have several isolated study spots in your back pocket.
- How long: Study for no more than one hour at a time without a break.
Part 2: Exams and Quizzes
Stop reviewing by rote. Go to classes, and divide the work into small daily chunks.
Step 1: Take good notes
- Identify the big important ideas.
- Take notes in question, evidence, conclusion (QEC) format.
- Mark confusing bits and questions.
- Record and annotate sample problems step-by-step.
Step 2: Streamline reading assignments
Read carefully the “favoured sources” and take QEC notes. Given a time limit, prioritize:
- Readings that make an argument.
- Readings that describe something.
- Readings that provide context.
Step 3: Tackle problem sets
- Go to study groups and office hours.
- Do them in small chunks.
- Solve problems in head on the go.
Step 4: Prepare for exams
Actually “studying” is the least important part of Straight-A students’ exam preparation.
- Precisely define the rule set of the exam.
- Make a study guide that contains:
- General conceptual questions.
- Sample problems from lectures.
- Problems from problem sets.
- Flash cards if the subject is memorization-heavy.
- Preemptively get rid of confusions.
- Ask questions during class.
- Ask professor after class.
- Ask classmates.
- Go to review sessions prepared.
- Actively recall, without looking at notes, conceptual and technical questions from the study guide
- Memorization with flash cards should be spread out over time
Step 5: Take the exams
- Scan all the questions then budget time for each question.
- Solve the easy questions first.
- Outline essay questions before writing them.
- Check your work!
Part 3: Essay and Paper Writing
By dividing a large writing assignment into smaller steps, it can become a much more manageable task.
Step 1: Find a topic
- Get started on ideation early on.
- Read primary source carefully.
- Start with a general (introductory) source, then go deeper into its bibliography.
After some ideas are generated, consult with your professor and ask for recommended sources.
Step 2: Research
Research should be a systemic process, not a haphazard grind that most students employ.
- Find interesting sources.
- Ask your professor.
- Check bibliographies of general sources.
- Search in journal databases, library catalog, and Google.
- When stuck, ask a librarian.
- Make personal photocopies of all sources and their bibliographies.
- Skim the sources and annotate key points.
- If done, move onto writing. If not, return to step 1.
- List the topics crucial to support the thesis.
- List the topics that might help support the thesis.
- Make sure there are two or more good sources for each crucial topic, and one good source for most supplementary topics.
(Note: The author elaborated in his later works that separating the process of collecting sources, and actually reading them is a standard practice in the academia.)
Step 3: Outline
The goal of an outline is to make sure these criterion will be met:
- Draw from previous work.
- State the thesis and explain how it relates to prior work.
- Support the thesis with reasoning and references.
- Explain the impact of the thesis, and further research left to be done.
Work on the outline in two steps:
- Construct a topic-level outline.
- Fill out each topic with quotes and evidence.
After an outline is made, consult with your professor and friends to make sure the overall argument makes sense.
Step 4: Write
Unlike what most students think, the actual writing shouldn’t take too long.
- Separate writing from the other steps, psychologically and temporally.
- Write in isolation under focus.
- Follow the outline, and work on one topic at a time.
Step 5: Edit
Fix, but don’t fixate. Three passes are enough:
- Digital reading pass about the general argument.
- Reading-out-loud pass from a physical photocopy.
- Final quick sanity pass.