How to Become a Straight-A Student

Cornell note-taking method,

Real straight-A students, like most reasonable students, hate time management. After all, college is supposed to be about intellectual curiosity, making new friends, and becoming obsessed with needlessly complicated drinking games.

Each morning, when you work out your schedule for the day, quickly jot down in the notebook the date and the most important tasks that you are scheduled to get done. At the end of the day, if you’ve completed all of these tasks, simply jot down all completed. If you failed to complete some tasks, record this, along with a quick explanation.

You can no longer get away with lame rationalizations. This is especially true if you continue to delay the same task day after day. After seeing all of those excuses pile up in your journal, there will be no escape from reality: You are being lazy! Your ego won’t like this truth, so it will kick-start your motivation in an effort to avoid it.

1. Drink water constantly.

2. Monitor your caffeine intake carefully.

If you’re a coffee drinker, start off with a strong brew to jump-start your mind, but switch to decaf, tea, or just water for the next hour or two before returning to another strong drink.

3. Treat food as a source of energy, not satisfaction.

4. Don’t skip meals.

If you see a large number of deadlines looming just over the horizon, you can be sure that there will be some hard days in your near future. Here’s the secret: Plan them in advance. Don’t wait until the deadlines are so close that you have no choice but to buckle down. Instead, scout out one or two days to preemptively designate as “hard.”

QUESTION: When is the best time to study? ANSWER: Early.

For these reasons, you must minimize the amount of work you do after dinner.

Remember: “Work hard, play hard” is always better than “Work kind of hard, play kind of hard.”

QUESTION: Where should you study? ANSWER: In isolation.

QUESTION: How long should you study? ANSWER: No more than one hour at a time without a break. Your break needs to be only five to ten minutes, but it’s important that you take an intellectual breather during this period.

“Your notes are for you and you alone,” explains Lee, a straight-A Columbia student. “They don’t have to make sense to anyone else.”

“It’s important to read over your notes right after class to absorb them and make corrections and additions, otherwise you’ll be susceptible to entirely forgetting what was covered that day.”

Often, a professor will introduce a major question for the whole lecture and then spend the time exploring smaller questions that help build toward an overarching conclusion.

“If you pay attention to the contours of a professor’s lecture,” explains Matthew from Brown, “you can determine what he feels is important.”

Participation keeps you focused. If a student says something you feel is mistaken or irrelevant, just ignore it. And, most important, if the professor chimes in, write down what he says and underline it several times. You better believe that his points are insightful.

for technical courses you should focus on “capturing lots of detailed explanations of problems…the more notes the better.” In other words, you can forget about big ideas. The key to taking notes in a technical course is to record as many sample problems as possible. When you study, these sample problems will prove to be your most important resource.

Accordingly, your entire focus in a technical class should be to write down, as faithfully as possible, the steady stream of examples provided by your professor.

What you should do, however, is bring your reading to class. Smart students follow the professor’s examples with their textbook open. This significantly improves your understanding of the techniques the first time they are presented, and it helps sharpen your questions when you get lost.

First priority: Record the problem statement and answer.

Second priority: Question the confusing.

Third priority: Record the steps of the sample problem.

If you get ahead of the professor on a given problem, and you have time to kill, annotate the steps with little explanations of what they accomplish or why they’re important.

Smart students avoid these issues by working constantly on assignments, in small chunks, every day. “I try to sit down every Sunday night and plan out the week,”

For example, if you have a problem set due every week, complete one problem a day, one hour at a time. Don’t spend five hours the night before. The same goes for reading assignments—knock off a chapter a day, and you’ll never find yourself spending a lonely night with a textbook and a six-pack of Red Bull.

For example, in most college courses there are one or two sources that show up on the reading list for almost every lecture. We will call these favored sources—they’re usually a textbook or a course reader, and they provide the basic structure for the course by outlining key facts and arguments in a condensed form. Always read the assignments from favored sources.

To refresh your memory, the core of this strategy is that all big ideas can be reduced to a question, evidence, and conclusion. This approach can work wonderfully for reading assignments as well.

Identify one or two students who share a similar skill level as you and then construct a regular schedule for working together on the class assignments. Set your meeting dates for two or three days before the deadlines; this gives you time to first try the problems on your own and identify the ones that give you the most trouble.

You should also take advantage of office hours. Most technical courses hold office hours once a week, usually run by a teaching assistant (TA). These meetings are meant to clarify complicated concepts from class and to be a source of help on hard problems. Always go to office hours, if you have time, and arrive knowing which homework problems pose the biggest challenge to you.

As you walk across campus, wait in line at the dining hall, or take a shower, bring up the problem in your head and start thinking through solutions. You might even want to go on a quiet hike or long car ride dedicated entirely to mulling over the question at hand.

Your problem set assignments are the key to your review process. Start a pile for each problem set that covers material that might appear on the exam. Next, you’ll need to supplement each problem set with sample problems from your lecture notes. For each lecture relevant to the upcoming exam, do the following:

For every major topic covered in a particular mega-problem set, jot down a question that asks you to explain the basics of the topic. For example, as Greta from Dartmouth recounts, in an “economics course, I would make study sheets and then add a general question such as: what happens when a government increases spending and lowers interest rates?” Or, for a chemistry class, you might have a problem set containing many questions that require you to draw the molecular structure of specific chemical compounds. In this case, you could add a technical explanation question along the lines of: “Explain the general procedure for drawing a molecular structure, why this is useful, and what special cases must be kept in mind.”

It’s important that you add these technical explanation questions in addition to your regular sample problems, since they will reveal whether or not you understand the underlying concepts or if you’ve just memorized the steps for some particular problems.

Don’t try to organize and study in the same day. This is a crucial tactic used by many straight-A students. When you review, you want your brain at full power.

Whether it’s philosophy or calculus, the most effective way to imprint a concept is to first review it and then try to explain it, unaided, in your own words. If you can close your eyes and articulate an argument from scratch, or stare at a blank sheet of paper and reproduce a solution without a mistake, then you have fully imprinted that concept. It’s not going anywhere.

Once you’re done with the technical explanation questions, move on to the sample problems. Try to answer each. Again, don’t do this in your head. “I don’t just read the material,” explains Worasom, a straight-A student from Brown. “I write the important equations and concepts out by hand.” Your solutions don’t need to be as detailed as if this was a real assignment, but they should clearly demonstrate that you know what you’re doing. If

As before, check mark the questions that give you trouble. Review the solutions for these questions. Take a break. Then repeat the process, except this time try to answer only the questions you marked on the previous pass.

Develop the habit of talking to your professor briefly after class. “Talk to the professor after class, or send him an e-mail asking for clarification about questions that arose during his lecture,”

You should then immediately correct your notes before you forget the explanations.