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 week 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.
(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.
This planning process might sound time-consuming, but it’ll typically take just 15 minutes every week. 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 that looks like this:
Bring this folder to school every day.
(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.
(d) Keep one large binder for each subject. The binder would look something like this:
Leave these binders at home.
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 Google Keep app, but any note-taking app will do.)
Next to each item on your homework list, write the due date in parentheses.
(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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.)
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.
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