Everyone knows that to be a top student, you’ve got to study hard, write great papers, and ace your exams. But there’s so much more to it than that. A large part of academic success comes from the everyday habits and personalized strategies you create for yourself. More often than not, it’s the little things that mean the difference between a mediocre transcript and a stellar GPA. I’ve been a top student for most of my life – I was valedictorian of Stuyvesant High School and graduated from Columbia University with the highest GPA in my class – and the following strategies helped me immensely. Some of them may surprise you in their simplicity, others may contradict what you’ve always been told about studying – but I never could have achieved what I did without them.
Taking an exam is like a marathon for your mind. It requires intense concentration over long periods of time, and it’s easy to lose focus or become forgetful as your brain loses steam. Whenever I felt like this was happening to me, I whipped out my secret weapons: apple slices, string cheese, and fruit-and-nut bars. Just a few bites were enough to bring my brain back to life. Exam foods have the following qualities: they’re healthy and easy to eat – you must be able to hold them with one hand so you can answer questions with the other – and they should not be smelly, noisy, or messy, out of courtesy to your classmates. If food isn’t allowed at the test site, see if you can bring in juice or coffee in a closed container.
A lot of study guides warn against studying in bed. You’ll wind up using your book as a pillow, they claim; and you should keep your sleep area and your workspace separate. But I loved studying in bed. It was one of the only places where I could really concentrate. After a long day of sitting in class, it felt so good to stretch out, get under the covers, and crack open a book. The more comfortable I felt, the easier it was for me to work for long periods of time. When I studied at a desk, within half an hour my back started aching and I began to feel restless. Am I saying everyone should study in bed? No, not if you’re going to conk out. But if you’re well-rested, your bed might just replace your desk as your new favorite workspace.
Throughout my academic career, I avoided study groups like the plague. I could learn better from rereading the textbook or asking my teacher than from talking to my classmates, most of whom knew less than I did. All too often, study groups are cases of the blind leading the blind, and studying with your friends can make it difficult to concentrate. According to Richard Arum, Josipa Roksa, and Esther Cho, college students who spend more time studying alone are more likely to show improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and written communication skills.
That’s not to say study groups are useless, however. They’re great if you want to review for exams or practice foreign language skills; and if you’re really having problems with motivation, your peers may give you a much-needed boost.
Don’t get me wrong: if you can do the assigned reading before class, you should. But when you start getting hundreds of pages of reading a week – as often happens in college – reading everything just isn’t possible. That’s why I usually waited until after class to tackle the textbook. After the lesson, I could do the readings faster because I was already familiar with the material, and I could skip or skim the sections that the teacher had indicated weren’t as important. Think of it this way: the amount of time you spend in class is fixed; the amount of time you spend reading is not. By waiting to read until after the lesson, I significantly cut down my study time. Keep in mind, however, that there are lots of exceptions to this rule. If you’re expected to participate or there’s the chance of a pop quiz, you’d better come to class prepared!
At the end of a test, what usually happens? Chaos breaks out as students turn to one another and compare answers as if their lives depended on it. And if those answers are different, they start to panic. I avoided this pointless post-test ritual by leaving the room as quickly as possible. Why work myself into a frenzy when I couldn’t do anything about it? And why should I trust my classmates’ answers, anyway? If I could, I looked up what I wasn’t sure about in the textbook. Otherwise, I just waited until I got the test back. Then I went over what I got wrong and made sure I knew it for next time. Simple and (relatively) stress free!
Since junior high school, I have always studied with good old Amadeus playing in the background. (My favorite study soundtrack is Mozart’s Violin Concertos, by the way.) Although Mozart does not increase IQ, as people claimed in the 1990s, it can put you in a better mood and improve concentration. There’s something about classical music that just makes you feel, well, smart! If you don’t like Mozart, you can try any music that is upbeat and has a steady rhythm and a relatively constant volume. Whatever you do, don’t put on vocal music while you’re doing schoolwork, as you use the same part of your brain for studying as you do for listening to lyrics. That means Jay-Z and Lady Gaga are out!
I’m not saying that you have to follow these techniques to become a great student. They may not all work for you. If you love joining study groups, hate reading in bed, and prefer studying in silence, that’s perfectly fine. The point is to develop strategies that work for you. Don’t be afraid to challenge convention and try new things. Remember that being a top student is a lifestyle, and you need to feel comfortable in order to do your best.
About The Author:
Stefanie Weisman was valedictorian of Stuyvesant High School in New York City and graduated from Columbia University with the highest GPA in her class. She has a B.A. in History, a B.S. in Computer Science, and an M.A. in Art History. She is the author of The Secrets of Top Students: Tips, Tools, and Techniques for Acing High School and College (Sourcebooks, 2013). Follow Stefanie on her website, www.valedictoriansguide.com, or on Twitter @StefanieWeisman.