Students who want to be top students are busy.
You’ve got homework to do, projects to complete, extra classes to attend, and responsibilities to fulfill.
It’s not easy to lead a balanced life and get excellent grades, too. No wonder you’re sleep-deprived!
Want to hear some good news?
It doesn’t have to be this way.
You can become a top student and sleep eight hours a night. I know because I was that student.
I’ve since completed my formal education. But, if you’re curious, here are some of my academic achievements:
- I got 9 A1s for the GCE O-Levels.
- I got 4 As and 2 “Special” Paper distinctions for the GCE A-Levels.
- I received a full academic scholarship to study at Duke University in the USA.
- I did a double major at Duke and graduated summa cum laude (First Class Honours). My GPA was 3.98/4.0.
- I was inducted into three academic honour societies at Duke.
I don’t say all of this to brag — and I certainly don’t think these achievements make me a super-impressive person.
Neither do I believe the main aim of education is to become a top student.
However, by becoming a better student, you’ll learn to become more organised, focused, disciplined, and meticulous — valuable skills and qualities for lifelong success.
If you continually feel overwhelmed, you’re probably sleep-deprived, spending too much time on urgent tasks. Top students know this, so they focus on getting assignments done before they become urgent.
Apply the 10 principles outlined in this article, and I guarantee that you’ll study more effectively, feel less stressed, and have more time for the things you love outside of school — including sleep.
“I want to sleep, but I have homework”
I’ve worked with thousands of students around the world, and many are quick to say:
“I want to sleep, but I have homework. There just aren’t enough hours in the day!”
So, the only way to become a top student is to go to bed later and wake up earlier, right?
Well, not exactly…
Here’s the truth: If you want to do better in school, you must get enough sleep. In fact, if you’ve ever wondered how to avoid sleepiness while studying, that’s probably because you don’t get enough sleep in the first place.
Sleep is crucial to physical health, brain function, and learning.
Eight hours of sleep a night is ideal, but some students need closer to nine. Plus, it’s not just how much you sleep — how well you sleep matters, too.
I know some of you are thinking: “Eight hours of sleep sounds incredible… but also impossible.”
The secret to enjoying a good night’s sleep and academic success is studying smarter, not harder.
Top students prioritise their sleep and adjust their study routines accordingly.
So how do you study smarter? Here are just a few tips to start with:
- Space out your studying. Don’t wait until the last moment to cram for exams or finish assignments.
- Find a study space that works for you — ideally one where you won’t be distracted.
- Remember that reading isn’t studying. Reading is a good first step, but you must actively engage with the material to learn it.
What do top students do differently?
You now know it’s possible to get eight hours of sleep a night and still do well in school.
What do top students do differently to make this possible? Here are some typical traits of straight-A students:
1. Top students are disciplined
Top students don’t wait for the perfect opportunity to get started. Instead, they create a study schedule and stick to it — even when they don’t feel like it.
You’ve got a lot competing for your attention. If you find it challenging to stay focused, these strategies will help you become a disciplined student.
2. Top students value delayed gratification
Delayed gratification means putting off something fun now so you can gain something even more rewarding later.
Sure, you could watch TV or play video games for hours every day. But that will only make you feel good for a while.
How about committing to a study schedule and learning test-taking strategies? That’s going to have long-lasting benefits.
3. Top students have good study habits
Creating a weekly routine is one of the best ways to make good study habits a way of life. Without structure, maximum productivity is impossible — and will likely lead to bad grades.
Remember, we want to study smarter, not harder. I’ll explain how to create a foolproof study routine later in this article.
4. Top students know how to motivate themselves
Does it sometimes seem impossible to start studying? Like you’re dragging a sack of heavy stones as you shuffle to your desk?
We all have days when we make excuses that prevent us from succeeding or excuses for not doing homework. These are moments when we struggle with our lack of willpower. That’s why you can’t wait for inspiration to strike.
Instead, you must learn how to motivate yourself to study, no matter how you feel.
I suggest writing down all of the reasons why you want to study hard, which may include reasons such as:
- I want to do my best.
- I want to develop a better work ethic.
- I want to prepare for my future.
- I want to learn as much as I can.
- I want to be equipped to contribute more in the future.
Put the list somewhere you can see it. When you’re having trouble finding the willpower to open that textbook, read your list. It’ll motivate you to study when you need it the most.
In Principle #6 below, I share more practical ways to motivate yourself when you need encouragement.
How to be a top student
Now that you know what top students do differently, let’s explore the 10 principles I used to get straight A’s and still sleep eight hours a night.
Principle #1: Stick to a routine
Spontaneity is a good thing. But if you want to achieve maximum productivity and your academic goals, you’ve got to have structure.
Create a weekly routine. It’s one of the most important steps to becoming a top student with a school-life balance.
Here’s how to create a weekly routine that works for you:
- Take out your calendar. (I use Google Calendar, but a hard-copy agenda also works.)
- Create events in your calendar for all your fixed, recurring commitments — things like classes, extracurriculars, family events, and religious activities.
- Set aside time daily for homework and studying. (Read my article about when is the best time to study.)
- Schedule time each day for leisure, relaxation, going out with friends, and so on.
These “fixed” appointments in your calendar will serve as a helpful guide.
Sure, these appointments might change now and then. But instead of wasting valuable time wondering what to do next, you’ll have a structure to your week. You’ll get more done — and likely have more free time, too.
Principle #2: Write everything down
When I say “everything”, I mean it.
Productivity expert David Allen says, “Your brain is a thinking tool, not a storage device.”
Don’t trust your brain to recall information like:
- Homework assignments
- Project due dates
- Test or exam dates
- Family events
- Project meeting dates/times
- Miscellaneous tasks
- Ideas that pop into your head
Have you ever forgotten a deadline or meeting? Of course — we all have! That’s because your brain doesn’t always remember such information perfectly.
So write it down in an “everything” list. You can use a notebook or an app like Google Keep. Then, follow this system:
1. Once a day, review your “everything” list.
Review your list after school. Keep your calendar handy. Depending on the item, do one of the following:
- If it’s a date you need to keep track of, mark it down in your calendar.
- If it’s a task that will take three minutes or less to complete, do it immediately.
- If it’s a task that will take more than three minutes, schedule it as an appointment in your calendar.
- If it’s an idea or information you’d like to keep for future reference, save it in a document in Dropbox or Google Drive.
This process only takes five to ten minutes a day, but will help you stay on top of your responsibilities. And it’s the system top students use to save valuable mental energy, too.
2. At the end of each day, plan for the following day.
Before you stop work for the day, review your “everything” list and calendar.
If there are any tasks you weren’t able to complete, make a new appointment to finish them. This way, you stay organised, and nothing falls to the last minute.
3. Every Sunday, review your upcoming events for the next two to three weeks.
Check your calendar every Sunday to review important events like tests, project due dates, or class presentations.
If necessary, note in your calendar when you need to begin preparations for the event.
For example, if you have a big history test in two weeks, you might make an appointment to start studying this coming Tuesday.
Principle #3: Make sleep and exercise a priority
You now know that sleep improves memory and learning. Well, so does exercise.
Sleep and exercise also lower the risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and many other illnesses.
If you want to be a top student, you’ve got to prioritise sleep and exercise.
“Being busy” isn’t an excuse. After all, you always find time to eat and shower, right?
When I made it a priority to sleep eight hours every night at university, my concentration, memory, and mood improved — and so did my grades!
Because of my increased focus, I took on more responsibilities outside of school and still had a social life, too.
Here are some practical ways top students prioritise sleep and exercise:
- Decide that sleep and exercise are non-negotiables (just like eating and showering).
- Determine how much sleep and exercise you want to get.
- Choose a consistent bedtime.
- Set a daily alarm as a reminder to go to bed on time.
- Schedule sleep and exercise into your calendar; make them part of your routine.
- Make a rule that you aren’t allowed to use your phone in bed.
- Remove all electronic devices from your bedroom.
- Find an exercise partner.
- Tell at least two or three people about your sleep and exercise goals.
- Write down these goals.
- Review these goals several times a week.
Don’t make too many changes at once. Start small and make gradual progress. Soon, you’ll be a better, happier, and healthier student!
Principle #4: Keep up with the work
It’s not always easy to stay on top of your work. But if you want to become a better student — and not one who is continually stressed — consistency is key.
Here are some practical tips I recommend to keep up with schoolwork:
1. Complete your homework at least a day or two before it’s due.
If you’re following Principle #2 and writing everything down, this should be manageable.
2. Skim new topics before your teacher covers them in class.
A day or two before you learn a new topic, skim through the relevant notes or textbook chapter. Pay attention to the learning objectives, headings, diagrams, and chapter summary.
You’ll get a good overview of the topic and grasp the new concepts more quickly in class.
3. Review any new information later the same day.
Let’s say you learned about respiration in biology class, the Treaty of Versailles in history class, and population dynamics in geography class.
Later in the day, review your notes and check your understanding of each topic. This way, you won’t fall behind.
4. Clarify your doubts immediately.
You’re reviewing your notes when you realise you don’t understand a specific concept. Write down your questions. As soon as possible, clarify your doubts with your teacher.
Don’t wait until the next test or exam to do this, as this will cause unnecessary anxiety.
Plus, anxious students are rarely top students. Set yourself up for success by asking questions when you have them.
5. Use online resources.
If you don’t understand your teacher, you can always turn to the Internet.
There are countless educational resources available online. These are three of my favourites:
6. Test yourself often.
After you’ve studied a topic:
- Test yourself.
- Check that you’ve memorised the relevant equations, definitions, concepts, and facts.
- Do some practice questions to ensure you’ve mastered the topic.
7. Attend every single class.
Is your teacher the most boring instructor on the planet?
Attend class anyway.
Your teacher knows the material far better than you do as a student. Your teacher also knows which concepts are important. Attend every class, so you don’t waste time studying irrelevant information.
No matter how monotonous your teacher is, show up with a positive attitude, and you’ll learn something from each class.
8. When it comes to projects, always have a plan.
Do you rush to complete a project a few days before it’s due? That will lead to sleep deprivation and undone assignments.
If you want to become a top student, always make a plan. Start by identifying the following:
9. Start your test preparation early.
You’re now following top students’ Principle #2, so you’re scheduling the dates you need to start studying for upcoming tests. Periodically review the topics, so you don’t need to cram for tests.
Before you start studying for an exam, clarify which topics your teacher will include, as well as the length and format of the test.
Armed with this knowledge, you can focus on studying the relevant information.
Principle #5: Focus on achieving progress, not perfection
Do you ever feel like you’re not making progress towards your goals? Or that your progress is too slow?
On your journey to becoming a top student, you’ll face challenges and disappointments.
Tests in which you underperform. Essays that your teacher doesn’t like. Group projects that turn out to be a mess.
Remember that the goal is progress, not perfection.
What does it mean to focus on the process?
Set process-based goals instead of outcome-based ones.
When you set process-based goals, you set yourself up for success. That’s because you can’t always control outcomes, but you can control processes.
Here are some examples of process-based goals:
- Read one newspaper article and learn at least five new words a day.
- Do at least two extra math practice questions a day.
- Sleep at least seven hours a night on school nights.
- Exercise for at least 10 minutes a day before dinner.
- Check your social media feed a maximum of three times a day.
- Study for at least two hours a day on weekdays and three hours a day on weekends.
- Start preparing for tests at least two weeks in advance.
This way, you will continually work towards your academic goals without fixating on a specific outcome.
You’ll begin to enjoy the process of improving and developing — and be much more likely to get the results you want, too.
Now, I’m not saying the outcome doesn’t matter. But it’s the process that counts in the long run. So focus on continual progress, and, like other top students, you will accomplish your goals over time.
Principle #6: Stay motivated using practical strategies
No matter how badly you want to become a top student, there will be times when you don’t feel like studying. How do you stop procrastinating on your homework?
Even if you’re driven to reach your goals and you want to make your teachers proud, there will be moments when…
… you feel like lying in bed all day.
… you want to watch YouTube videos non-stop.
… you’d rather do anything other than schoolwork.
What’s a driven but unmotivated student to do on days like these?
Try these practical strategies to become a top student who gets things done no matter what:
- Reward yourself when you finish a task.
- Set a timer for three minutes. Get to work and tell yourself that you can stop after three minutes. (You’ll probably carry on with the task once you get started, though.)
- Work in short blocks of 25 to 35 minutes.
- Put up motivational quotes. My favourite is by Jim Rohn: “Don’t wish it were easier. Wish you were better.”
- Break tasks into smaller steps, so they’re not overwhelming.
- Visualise how you’ll feel when you finish your task.
- Keep a list of the tasks you’ve completed to remind yourself that you’re making progress.
- Turn your schoolwork into a game. Give yourself five points for each task you complete, then reward yourself when you accumulate 20 points.
- Join a study group of motivated students. Their ambition will rub off on you.
- Get enough sleep. Tiredness and lack of motivation are linked. (Refer to Principle #3.)
Need some more tips? Here are 23 ideas for how to get motivated to study.
Principle #7: Learn to say “no”
Are you too busy?
I’ve worked with students who just have too much on their plate. They’re involved in countless extracurricular activities, from music to art to sports.
I don’t care how efficient you are. You’re not a robot — and you won’t be a well-rested top student if you’re juggling too many activities at once. Worse, you risk burn-out.
What’s the simple solution?
Learn to say “no”.
Here are some tips to help:
1. Develop various ways of saying “no” politely, so you’re equipped for every situation.
Here are some examples:
- “Thank you for thinking of me, but I’m sorry I can’t make it.”
- “I’m sorry, but I can’t do that. Here’s what I can do instead.”
- “Thanks for the invitation, but I’ll have to pass.”
- “I appreciate you asking, but I apologise. I can’t help this time.”
- “I’m sorry, those dates don’t work for me.”
- “I’m sorry, my schedule is really packed for the next month.”
- “That sounds like a great opportunity, but I’m sorry it’s not suitable for me.”
- “I’m sorry, I’ve already made other plans.”
- “I’d love to, but I’ve already committed to help __________ (friend, family member, etc.) out.”
2. Don’t participate in more than two to three extracurricular activities.
Whether it’s volunteering, learning a sport or musical instrument, or developing a new skill, only choose a couple at a time.
3. Categorise your friends and decide how much time to spend with each group.
Categorise your friends?
It might sound like a strange suggestion, but it’s an easier way to say no to social engagements that would otherwise overload your schedule.
Time is a finite resource. Top students know it’s impossible to spend frequent time with everyone you consider a friend.
Categorise your friends into the following four groups:
- Casual friends
- Close friends
- Best friends
Next, decide how often you’ll hang out with each group. For me, it looked like this:
- Acquaintances – once every few months
- Casual friends – once a month
- Close friends – once every one to two weeks
- Best friends – once every few days
By clarifying how much time you’ll spend with each friend group, you’ll invest in the friendships that mean the most.
Principle #8: Create systems for staying organised
Have you ever started studying for a test only to realise you can’t find the relevant notes or assignments?
Do you keep papers in a pile, then spend too much time rummaging through them when you need to find an assignment?
Being disorganised is a time-waster. Here are some proven tips to help you stay organised when it comes to (a) notes and assignments and (b) email:
Notes and assignments
1. Bring an accordion folder to school every day.
The accordion folder should look something like this.
2. Assign each of your subjects or courses to a section of the accordion folder. Assign one additional section for incomplete homework.
As the day goes on, place the notes and graded assignments you receive in their respective sections. Put your incomplete homework across all subjects in the “incomplete homework” section.
3. Get binders to keep at home. I suggest one binder for every category of work (for each subject).
For example, use one binder for your history notes, one for your history assignments, and one for your history tests.
4. Once a day, look through the “incomplete homework” section of your accordion folder.
Ensure you haven’t overlooked any homework assignments.
5. Once a week, transfer all your notes and graded assignments from your accordion folder to the respective binder.
Do this consistently, and you’ll realise if you’ve misplaced any notes or assignments. This way, you can replace them long before you need to prepare for your next exam.
1. Forward all your school emails to a Gmail account.
I’ve used almost every popular email service out there. Gmail is the best one. So, if you don’t already have a Gmail account, set one up.
2. Create as few email folders as possible.
Most top students don’t need too many additional email folders.
Folders complicate the way you process email. Plus, the Gmail search function is excellent. Use it to quickly find any old emails you need.
3. Process your email once a day.
I recommend you check email on your computer, not your phone.
It’s not always easy to reply to emails on your phone. But the messages will still appear as read — even if you haven’t processed them.
You’re more likely to have all the information you need on your computer so you can quickly and efficiently get through your inbox.
4. Follow these rules when processing your email:
- If an email doesn’t require a reply, archive it.
- If an email requires a reply, do so immediately. Then, archive the original email.
- If an email requires a reply but will take significant time to write one, create a task (refer to Principle #2). Archive the original email after you’ve replied to it.
By following these rules, you’ll get to “inbox zero” (no emails in your inbox) almost every day. You’ll eliminate email stress, and you’ll rest assured that all relevant tasks have been completed or scheduled.
5. Use the Boomerang for Gmail app.
The Boomerang for Gmail app has already saved me dozens – or even hundreds – of hours.
This app lets you schedule a reminder to follow up with someone if they haven’t replied to your email by a specific date. It’s a handy app for group projects and more.
Principle #9: Work on one task at a time
It takes time to get into the flow of an assignment, so finish one task before moving on to the next.
Don’t multitask, either.
That means no texting, watching TV, or checking your social media feed while doing your schoolwork.
Research shows that multitasking isn’t possible. When you think you’re multitasking, you’re actually switching between tasks and reducing your overall efficiency.
Here are some tips that top students use to help you focus on one task at a time:
1. At the start of each homework/study session, write down what you’re going to work on.
Write this on a scrap piece of paper or a Post-it Note, and put it on your desk. This is to remind you of the task you’re supposed to work on.
2. Allocate a specific amount of time to the task.
Give yourself a realistic deadline, so you’re more likely to concentrate fully on the task at hand.
3. Whenever you feel like switching tasks, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.
The urge to multitask or do something more “fun” comes in waves.
Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths, and these waves will pass by. Then, get back to work.
4. Improve your focus gradually.
If you have trouble focusing, take small steps to improve your concentration.
Start with 10 minutes of complete focus. Over the next week, increase it to 12 minutes. Then 14 minutes and so on. Eventually, you’ll be able to focus for 30 to 40 minutes!
Principle #10: Eliminate distractions
Do you find it difficult to concentrate, even when you’re not multitasking?
Distractions are a common problem for many students, and it doesn’t necessarily indicate that you dislike studying.
Here are a few ways to eliminate or reduce interruptions:
- Turn off notifications on your phone.
- Only reply to text messages three times a day. Put it in your calendar as a series of mini-appointments.
- Archive all the inactive chats on your phone, so they don’t clutter your app’s home screen.
- Mute all group chats.
- Delete all social media apps from your phone.
- Wear a watch, so you don’t have to check your phone for the time.
- Use an extremely long password for your phone, so you won’t be tempted to use it mindlessly.
- Use headphones while you’re studying (even if there’s no music playing) so that others will be less likely to interrupt you.
- Do all of your schoolwork at your desk, not on your bed, so you won’t laze around.
- Put your phone in another room when it’s time to work.
- Use an app like Freedom to restrict online distractions.
- Turn off your Internet access when you’re doing schoolwork.
- Close all unnecessary programs or tabs on your computer.
- Tell the people around you when you’ll be doing your work. This way, they won’t interrupt you in the middle of your study session.
Implement these essential study tips, and you’ll set yourself up to become a top student.
Start with two or three tips. When they become habits, tackle a few more. Even one small change can create a big difference in the long run.
You want to do well academically, but you also want to lead a balanced life — and part of that definitely means getting eight hours of sleep every night!
I know it’s easier said than done. It took me 16 years of continual research and experimentation to develop these systems and become a well-rested top student.
Remember, the reward isn’t the straight A’s or the accolades.
What matters is the process of challenging yourself — of developing greater focus, self-discipline, commitment, and resilience.
As you implement the tips outlined in this article, I’m confident that you’ll become a top student. More importantly, you’ll become a student with advanced self-management skills.
Equipped with these skills, you’ll contribute more effectively and serve more meaningfully. This means that you’ll make a difference in your community and in the world.
Now that’s an end goal worth working towards!
Want even more tips to become more organised, focused, and disciplined? Check out my step-by-step system to become a straight-A student in just 40 minutes a week.
It’s everything you need to join other top students and have a healthy school-life balance. Say hello to eight hours of sleep a night — and straight A’s, too.
Wishing you all the best on this challenging and exciting journey!