“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.


Main Thesis

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.

  1. Use a master calendar to log due dates for assignments.
  2. Every morning, make a list of tasks to be done that day, and when you’ll do each of them.
  3. Make note of tasks that come up during the day in the list.
  4. 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

  1. When: Study earlier in the day in between classes. Partying can come later.
  2. Where: Study in isolation. Go to extraordinary places or use earbuds if necessary. Have several isolated study spots in your back pocket.
  3. 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:

  1. Readings that make an argument.
  2. Readings that describe something.
  3. 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.

  1. Precisely define the rule set of the exam.
  2. 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.
  3. Preemptively get rid of confusions.
    • Ask questions during class.
    • Ask professor after class.
    • Ask classmates.
    • Go to review sessions prepared.
  4. Study.
    • 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.

  1. Find interesting sources.
    • Ask your professor.
    • Check bibliographies of general sources.
    • Search in journal databases, library catalog, and Google.
    • When stuck, ask a librarian.
  2. Make personal photocopies of all sources and their bibliographies.
  3. Skim the sources and annotate key points.
  4. 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:

  1. Draw from previous work.
  2. State the thesis and explain how it relates to prior work.
  3. Support the thesis with reasoning and references.
  4. Explain the impact of the thesis, and further research left to be done.

Work on the outline in two steps:

  1. Construct a topic-level outline.
  2. 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:

  1. Digital reading pass about the general argument.
  2. Reading-out-loud pass from a physical photocopy.
  3. Final quick sanity pass.