Reposted from Daniel Wong’s inspiring website: http://www.daniel-wong.com/2015/01/14/straight-a-student/
**Note: The following content belongs entirely to Daniel Wong from www.daniel-wong.com. We think these tips by him would be extremely beneficial to students and hope to spread the words around!
In this article, I’ll explain the seven rules I followed to become a straight-A student. (I’ve since completed my formal education.) If you take my advice, I’m confident that you’ll get better grades. You’ll lead a more balanced life, too.
But first, here’s some background information about me, to assure you that I have some credibility in writing this article. (I don’t say these things to boast, really!)
I got 9 A1’s for the GCE O-Levels.
I got 4 A’s for the GCE A-Levels, along with 2 “Special” paper Distinctions and 1 Merit.
I received a full academic scholarship to study at Duke University, which consistently ranks as one of the best universities in the world. I graduated from Duke in 2011.
I did a double major at Duke, and graduated summa cum laude (First Class Honors). My GPA was 3.98/4.0.
Throughout my academic career, I never received a grade lower than an A- at a major exam.
Now, just to be clear…
Do I think I’m a super impressive person because of these achievements? No.
Do I think students should be obsessed about grades? No.
Do I think good grades are the key to long-term success? No.
But do I think that grades matter, at least a little? Yes.
A strong academic record can open doors for you down the road. More importantly, through the process of becoming a straight-A student, you’ll learn values like hard work, discipline, and determination.
These values will serve you well, long after you take your last exam.
So go ahead and pursue academic excellence. Just don’t let it become an unhealthy obsession.
Now that we’re clear on that, we’re ready to explore the seven rules.
Rule #1: Always have a plan.
(a) As the semester progresses, keep track of key dates: tests and exams, project submission deadlines, term breaks, etc.
Enter these dates into a physical or digital calendar.
If you choose to use a physical calendar, I recommend that you get a management diary. This will allow you to see the week’s events at a glance. The inside of the diary should look like this:
If you choose to use a digital calendar, I recommend Google Calendar.
(b) Schedule a fixed time every Sunday where you review your upcoming events over the next two months. Mark down when you’ll start preparing for that Math exam, working on that History project, or writing that English paper.
(c) For each item or milestone, write down the associated key tasks. Do this on a separate sheet of paper. Create a rough timeline for when you’ll complete each of the tasks.
(d) Next, note your commitments for the coming week, e.g. extracurricular activities, family gatherings, extra classes. On your calendar, highlight the blocks of time you’ll have for schoolwork.
(e) Write down the tasks you’ll focus on during each block of time. This plan will evolve as the week goes by, but it will at least give you a framework to refer to.
This planning process might sound time-consuming, but it’ll typically take just 15 minutes every Sunday. This is a wise investment of time, because the rest of your week will become far more productive.
Rule #2: Be organized.
Ever had trouble finding your notes or assignments when you needed them? You probably ended up wasting precious time looking for them, before you finally asked to borrow them from your friend.
Many students tell me that they keep all their notes and assignments in one big pile, and only sort it out before their exams!
Being organized – it’s easier said than done, I know.
So here are just two key areas to focus on:
(a) Get an accordion folder
(b) Assign one section in the folder to each of your subjects. In addition, reserve the section at the front of the folder for your incomplete homework across all subjects. Label each section, e.g. Math, Physics, English, Incomplete Homework (All Subjects).
(c) Every day, place your “incoming” notes and assignments in the correct section, as you receive them. There’s no need to create sub-categories for each subject.
For example, place all your Physics notes and graded tests/assignments/lab reports in the “Physics” section of the folder. Don’t bother creating sub-categories like “Physics – Notes,” “Physics – Lab Reports,” etc.
(d) Keep one large binder for each subject.
(e) Use dividers to create sections within each binder, e.g. “Physics – Notes,” “Physics – Lab Reports.”
(f) Every Friday when you get home from school, file your notes and assignments (from the accordion folder) in their respective binder.
This is a simple system that takes 15 minutes a week to implement, but it’ll save you many hours in the long run.
(Thanks to Cal Newport for this one. I started using the system described below years ago; it’s roughly based on his system.)
(a) Keep a homework list. Whenever your teacher assigns a new homework set, add it to your list. You can use a notebook for this purpose, or you can use an app on your phone. (I recommend the GNotes app, but any note-taking app will do.)
Next to each item on your homework list, write the due date in parentheses. For example, your homework list for a typical Wednesday might look like this:
Jan 14th, Wednesday
– Math Chapter 2 assignment (due: Jan 20th)
– Physics Chapter 4 assignment (due: Jan 18th)
(b) Every day when you get home from school, refer to your homework list. At the same time, open your calendar. Look for blocks of time in your calendar where you’ll be able to complete each item on your homework list. Prioritize the items that have the most urgent deadline.
For example, looking at your calendar, you might notice that you have time on Jan 14th from 4 to 6pm to finish your Physics Chapter 4 assignment. Convert that item on your homework list into an appointment in your calendar.
Referring to your calendar once again, you might see that you have time on Jan 15th from 8 to 9pm to complete your Math Chapter 2 assignment. Once more, convert that item on your homework list into an appointment in your calendar.
At this point, you might ask…
“What happens if a homework assignment takes longer than expected, and I can’t complete it during the ‘appointment’ slot?”
That’s a good question; the answer is in the next paragraph.
(c) At the end of each day, look at your calendar to see if there are any assignments (which have already been converted into appointments) that you’d planned to finish, but weren’t able to. Add those appointments to another day that’s well before the due date.
For instance, let’s say you couldn’t finish your Math Chapter 2 assignment on Jan 15th from 8 to 9pm, because you got stuck on one of the questions. You estimate that you’ll need another 30 minutes to finish the assignment.
So, at the end of Jan 15th, you refer to your calendar. You notice that you have an available slot on Jan 17th from 4:30 to 5pm. So, in that slot, create an appointment, “Math Chapter 2 assignment.”
And that’s how the system works. I know it seems complicated, but it really isn’t. Try it out for a couple of weeks and you’ll get the hang of it.
Rule #3: Take care of your physical health.
Most of the students I work with complain that they’re constantly tired and sleep deprived.
They can’t focus in class. They daydream. They lack energy and enthusiasm. They frequently fall sick.
Is it possible to be a straight-A student when you’re in this kind of physical state?
Yes… but it’s unlikely.
Physical health is the foundation of academic excellence. To be a straight-A student, you don’t need to have the physique of an Olympic-level athlete. But you do need to take excellent care of your body.
Work on these three areas, and you’ll become a better learner:
Eight hours of sleep a night is ideal; some people need nine.
If you’re sleeping four, five or six hours a night, you won’t be able to suddenly increase it to eight or more. The jump is too big, and you probably feel like you have too much to do during the day as it is.
So I recommend that you gradually bring forward your bedtime. 10 minutes earlier this week, 20 minutes earlier next week, 30 minutes earlier the week after, and so on, until you get to your target bedtime.
To remind yourself to go to bed on time, set an alarm. When the alarm goes off, start your bedtime routine.
But it’s not just about how much you sleep. How well you sleep matters too.
To improve your sleep quality, get the Twilight app for your Android phone. For your computer and jailbroken iPhone, install f.lux. (Unfortunately, if you have a non-jailbroken iPhone, there doesn’t seem to be a substitute app at the moment.) My own sleep quality has improved dramatically since I started using these two apps.
Next, make your bedroom as dark as possible at night. Put up blackout curtains, and remove all light sources.
Turn off all electronic devices in your bedroom before you go to sleep. If, for whatever reason, you need to leave your phone on, turn it to airplane mode. This way, you’ll minimize the cell phone radiation you’re exposed to, and you’ll sleep better.
And just in case you need further convincing that sleep is crucial if you want to become a straight-A student, read this study.
It’s the usual advice:
Eat regular meals.
Drink 8 to 10 glasses of water a day.
Don’t overeat more than once a week.
Restrict your intake of processed foods.
Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.
Don’t drink sugary drinks.
Do these things and you’ll feel more alert throughout the day. It’s hard to become a straight-A student if you’re always feeling lethargic!
You’ve heard it before: Exercise at least three times a week, for at least 30 to 45 minutes each time.
Exercise enhances your memory and thinking skills, as proven by research. So make exercise a priority, and you’ll get better grades.
Rule #4: Don’t cram. Instead, use a periodic review system.
People are usually surprised to hear that I’ve never pulled an all-nighter before. As the research shows, cramming is a bad idea.
The more effective approach?
If you periodically review the new information you learn, you’ll move that information from your short-term to your long-term memory. This way, you won’t forget important facts or equations come exam time.
The end result: Less stress and anxiety, and more A’s.
After much experimentation, I’ve found that the optimal review intervals for most students are as follows:
1 day after learning the new information
3 days after the first review
7 days after the second review
21 days after the third review
30 days after the fourth review
45 days after the fifth review
60 days after the sixth review
By the end of this cycle, the information is almost permanently stored in your long-term memory.
Note that each review is just a review of the key facts and equations, not a full review of the topic. As such, each review only takes 10 to 15 minutes to complete.
Here’s how to put this periodic review system into practice.
(a) Let’s assume that today is Jan 14th, and your teacher has just finished teaching Biology Chapter 3. Referring to the optimal review intervals listed above, you should do the first review one day after learning the new information. So take out your calendar and go to Jan 15th.
(b) Create an appointment, “Review Biology Chapter 3,” for Jan 15th during an available slot.
(c) Referring to the optimal review intervals once more, you should do the second review three days after the first review (which you did on Jan 15th). This would bring you to Jan 18th, so flip to that date in your calendar. Create an appointment, “Review Biology Chapter 3,” for Jan 18th during an available slot.
(d) You should do the third review on Jan 25th (7 days after Jan 18th), the fourth review on Feb 15th (21 days after Jan 25th), and so on.
(e) Now all you need to do is fulfill the “appointment” when it comes around.
This system will save you dozens of hours by maximizing your studying efficiency.
Rule #5: Form a homework group.
Here’s why I recommend this.
You’ll run into difficulties while doing your homework, so it’s good to have friends around whom you can turn to for help. Even if they can’t solve the problem, you can bounce ideas off them. This process can be motivating and fun.
But if you do your homework alone, you’ll become discouraged more easily when you can’t solve a problem.
Your homework group should consist of three to four people, including you. More people than that and it’ll be distracting.
If possible, find people to join your homework group who are better than you at that specific subject. More importantly, ensure that the people in your homework group actually want to get together to do homework – not chat!
When it comes to studying, however, you may or may not be better off doing it in a group. Some students enjoy studying with friends, because there’s a healthy pressure to stay focused. But other students concentrate better when they study alone.
So run your own experiment and decide what works best for you.
Rule #6: Set up a distraction-free study area.
Here are some practical things you can do to make your study session as fruitful as possible:
Install and activate the Freedom or Anti-Social app on your computer.
Turn off your phone, and put it at least 10 feet away from your study area.
Keep a clutter-free study area.
Work in 30- to 45-minute blocks. Time your study sessions to help you stay focused.
Give yourself a small reward every time you complete a study session, e.g. eat a fruit, watch a YouTube video, go for a short walk.
If you plan to study at home, let your family members know when you’ll be studying so that they won’t interrupt you.
On a related note, don’t multitask. You might think that you’re able to watch TV, write an essay, check your Twitter feed, and solve a Math problem – at the same time.
But research shows that multitasking isn’t productive, and may even damage your brain. So focus on one thing at a time, and you’ll be that much closer to becoming a straight-A student.
Rule #7: Clarify your doubts immediately.
Many students wait until a week before the exam to clarify their doubts. This leads to panic and anxiety, a combination that doesn’t result in optimal exam performance.
The alternative is simple: Ask questions. Lots of them.
If you don’t understand a concept, ask your teacher to explain it again. If you feel shy about raising your hand during class, then approach your teacher after class.
Yes, if you do this consistently, your classmates might label you a “teacher’s pet” or a “brown noser.” There’s always a price to pay when you pursue excellence. Accept this fact and move on.
If you’re studying and you realize that you have many questions about a topic, write down all your questions on a sheet of paper. You might be tempted to text your friends or your teacher to get those questions answered right away, but I don’t recommend that you do this.
It’s hard to explain things via text message, so you’ll end up wasting a lot of time. The more effective approach is to batch your questions and talk to your teacher in person, as soon as you have a chance to.
On a related note, go to class every single day.
Yes, your teachers might be boring. Yes, they might tell lame jokes. Yes, they might speak in a monotone.
But nonetheless, they’ll highlight the important areas to focus on, which will save you time and effort down the line. Furthermore, you’ll probably find it easier to make sense of your teachers’ explanation, than to figure things out on your own.
That’s why borrowing your classmate’s notes isn’t a substitute for attending class.
I’m proud to say that throughout my 17 years of formal education, I only ever skipped one class. (That class was a review session on a topic that I’d already studied several times.)
Another point to note: If you get to choose where to sit during class, grab a seat at the front.Research shows that students who sit closer to the front get better grades.
The bottom line
Right now, you might be feeling overwhelmed. I can almost read your mind:
“These rules all sound good, Daniel. But there are just so many habits I need to change. I don’t think I can do it.”
Rest assured that I’m not asking you to put everything into practice all at once. That would be impossible.
I’m asking you to start with just one tiny change.
If you want to start exercising regularly, don’t set some huge, ambitious goal. Instead, start with a 10-minute walk, once a week. After a month, increase it to 15 minutes. The following month, increase it to 20 minutes, and so on. Eventually, you’ll be exercising three times a week, for 30 minutes each time.
The same principle applies to all seven rules. Focus on one rule at a time, and stick with it until it becomes a habit.
It took me more than 10 years to learn the rules, so don’t rush the process.
One other thing…
I mentioned it earlier, but I think it’s worth repeating: Straight A’s on their own don’t mean much. The process of becoming a straight-A student is what counts.
As you implement the seven rules, you’ll become more disciplined, organized, responsible, and self-motivated. These traits are vital for long-term success.
So start building the foundations of success, one day at a time, one habit at a time, and one rule at a time.