How to Become a Straight a Student
About the author: Cal Newport is a computer science professor at Georgetown University who writes about the effect of technology on our daily lives and techniques for getting more work done quickly.
How to Become a Straight-A Student is a short guide about the strategies required to succeed at University. It is divided into 3 parts:
Step 1: Use a piece of paper to track your time and to-dos during the day. Every morning, write out you schedule for the day in the left column including blocks of time to complete assignments, exercise, hang out with friends etc.
In the right column, write down anything that comes up during the day that you need to remember.
Example day list:
|Today’s Schedule||Things to Remember|
|10:00 to 12:00 Econ class||Econ study group, Thur. at 9 P.M.|
|12:00 to 1:00 Lunch with Rob||French quiz moved to Friday|
|2:00 to 1:45 Government reading||Laundry|
|2:00 to 4:00 Government class||Start researching summer internship opportunities|
|4:00 to 5:30 Finish government reading|
|5:30 to 6:30 Start French essay|
Step 2: Declare war on procrastination. Here are several tips for dealing with procrastination:
- Drink water constantly
- Avoid unhealthy snacks while working. Eat well
- Go somewhere committing to start the worst tasks. You are more likely to do what needs to be done if you bus to a coffee shop
- Routines are more power full than willpower
- Schedule hard days with lots of work in advance. Tell your friends for accountability. Don’t do too many back-to-back
Step 3: Choose When, Where, and How Long.
- Schedule your hardest work early in the day. (when)
- Study in isolation—away from your dorm and the main library as much as possible. (where)
- Don’t study for more than an hour without a break. (how long)
Quizzes and Exams
Step 1: Take Smart Notes.
Always go to class. Always
Organize your materials neatly
Format your notes aggresively. Use lots of bold, underline, and ALL CAPS.
In nontechnical courses, identify the big ideas. Format your notes using the Question/Evidence/Conclusion structure. These may not be stated directly.
QUESTION: Was there really a big “fall” of the Roman Empire? • Roman Empire having a catastrophic decline and fall, at the hands of savage barbarians, popular idea since eighteenth century. • Edward Gibbon — wrote book blaming fall on Christians and barbarians. Christian beliefs replaced heroic virtues, weakened military, let barbarians take over. • Rostovsteff and Toynbee — wrote books with similar arguments – EXCEPT: Not Christians’ fault, but social and political problems that led to weak empire. • HOWEVER: These views are “geographically narrow.” – Authors lived in Europe, so they focused on Europe, only place where it looked like Empire had a big fall. – Loss of power in Mediterranean region not nearly so pronounced…no real big decline and fall there. CONCLUSION: The idea of a catastrophic decline and fall of the Roman Empire became popular in European circles, but it overstates reality…too much emphasis on what happened to the Empire in Europe.
In technical courses, record as many sample problems as possible. Prioritize your note-taking:
1st. Priority: Record the problem statement and answer. 2nd. Priority: Put question marks next to what is confusing. 3rd. Priority: Record the steps of the problem. 4th. Priority: Explain the steps.
Ask lots of questions! Go to office hours!
Step 2: Demote Your Assignments
In general, try to spend less time on assignments
Work constantly. Instead of starting an assignment the night before, making working your default state.
Don’t do all the reading. Always read sources which are used throughout the course. Otherwise, prioritize as follows: 1st. priority: Argumentative pieces 2nd. priority: Texts which describe an event or person 3rd. priority: Reading that only provide context
Take reading notes in the same question-evidence-conclusion format as lecture notes. Start by looking for the question. Write it down. Secondly, look for the thesis (conclusion). Write it down. Finally, skim through the reading and put check-marks next to each important-looking paragraph. Then, for each one, write a concise summary in the evidence section with a page number.
Don’t work alone on Problem Sets. Try the problems first by yourself to get a gist for them, and then try to work them out with others.
Employ the diffuse mode of thinking (see A Mind for Numbers). After trying a difficult problem, go for a walk!
Once your figure a problem out, write it down formally the first time. Don’t waste time re-writing.
Step 3: Marshall Your Resources:
Studying should not be hard.
Figure out what will be on the test as early as possible.
For nontechnical courses, print out the notes that may be relevant to the exam and separate them into different piles by topic (use paper clips).
For technical courses, construct a mega-problem set. Make a pile for each problem set that might appear on the exam and then supplement these with sample problems from lectures.
Furthermore, for every major topic you must make technical explanation questions. Consider using the Ali Abdaal Google Sheets Method (link)
Use flash cards to memorize efficiently. Never memorize without understanding. Use Anki.
Don’t organize your studying the same day that you study.
Step 4: Conquer the Material
- To study, use the Quiz-and-Recall method:
- For nontechnical courses, use your Question-Evidence-Conclusion formatted notes to build practice quizzes. Answer each question out loud until you can explain it perfectly.
- For technical courses, study the technical explanation questions in the same manner as for nontechnical courses. For sample problems, try to solve them and put a question mark next to each one that was confusing. Return to these later and try to explain the steps.
- Employ practice exams as a final check.
Step 5: Invest in “Academic Disaster Insurance”
- Make sure you take the time to understand each point of confusion (question marks) in your notes. This begins with asking lots of questions in class.
- Don’t be afraid to send your professor an email asking for help.
Step 6: Provide A+ Answers
- Treat the exam process with respect. Answer problems fully.
- Apply the following strategy to test-taking:
- Skim the entire exam
- Write down a (rough) time-budget for each section
- Proceed from easy to hard
- Always outline essay questions
- At the end, always try to check your work (twice even)
Essays and Papers
Step 1: Target a Titillating Topic
- Start looking for a topic early. Keep an eye out for concepts that interest you during readings and lectures.
- “Be imaginative and intuitive—look for unusual connections between individuals, ideas, and broader themes.”
Step 2: Conduct a Theses-Hunting Expedition
- For critical analysis essays, simply review the related readings and lecture notes.
- For research papers, start with general sources and then keep moving one layer deep from the source’s bibliography
- A good thesis should be “provocative, nuanced, direct, and inclusive.”
- Don’t be afraid to change your thesis part way through writing
Step 3: Seek a Second Opinion
- After finding a thesis, ask your professor for a second opinion.
Step 4: Research like a Machine (Research Papers)
- Find both general and specific sources. Use your university’s research databases. Don’t be afraid to ask the librarian.
- Make a photocopy or printout of all relevant material. Make sure to label each photocopy with citation information and copy the source’s bibliography.
- Annotate the Material. Skim through the material and make brief notes with page numbers. Don’t bother copying the evidence the author uses to justify their arguments.
- Decide if you’re done. If you have at least two good sources for critical topics and one good source for nonessential topics, then you’re good to go.
Step 5: Craft a Powerful Story
- Prep your brain by reading well-written discussions and articles.
- Construct an outline. Start by outlining each topic in order. Then, fill in each topic with evidence to support it. Draw from your annotations.
Step 6: Consult Your Expert Panel
- After building an outline, re-visit your professor. Explain your thesis and run through your outline and supporting elements.
- In addition, talk over your paper with smart friends. They may ask pertinent questions or reveal point of confusion.
Step 7: Write Without the Agony
- Try to leave a space between the previous steps and the actual writing.
- Write in isolation
- Follow your outline and move slowly
Step 8: Fix, Don’t Fixate
- Follow the three-pass editing procedure:
- Read the paper on your computer and focus on the arguments. Clarify sentences, remove excess, and look for major structural issues. Don’t be afraid to re-organize.
- Secondly, print out your paper and read it out loud. Look for small grammatical and structural mistakes.
- Finally, read it one more time for sanity. Enjoy it.