How to get good grades when you are a pragmatic person who is busy with other things
In my 3 years of studying the BSc Information Management for Business course at UCL’s School of Management I have consistently received top grades, currently being on track to finish IMB with an overall grade of 80+ (top 5% of my cohort). This level of performance is made even less likely by the fact that during my 2nd and 3rd year I have been part of True AI — a London-based startup researching and commercialising conversational artificial intelligence software — as Business Associate, working 20–35 h/week during term-time.
This post includes tactics and strategies I have identified that helped me do well at university under time constraints. Some tips may apply less to different courses and universities. Also, some of them may be more pragmatic and controversial than others, and they may run contrary to what the teaching staff recommends.
1. Go to lectures
Timetabled lectures are a valid reason not to go to work at the time — I was able to structure my work hours around the timetable. This means however, that they are the only time I focus on university during the week, the other days being filled with work. Because of that, getting the most out of lectures is crucial for me.
Students often miss lectures and then find themselves scratching their heads in confusion and wonder during the exam. As long as you stay focused, lectures are a great time to understand the material in the environment designed specifically for it. If you decide that the lecture is boring, you still typically have access to lecture slides — open your laptop and google the studied topics. You can always locate interesting and more engaging tutorials, news articles and stories — spend time exploring those. Your Facebook feed can wait until after the lecture.
2. Talk to professors and TAs
Here is this person who has devoted their career to exploring the subject area, of which you are barely scratching the surface in your 3-month module. Clarify questions and discuss topics with them in more depth than your official curriculum dictates.
Ask about assignments that you have in progress — while lecturers cannot grade the work before it’s submitted, if you are genuinely interested in doing as well as possible, they are happy to offer hints about where your reasoning may be wrong or what alternative methods you could use.
Most professors hold office hours and are happy to help you understand or explore any area of their expertise — free consultations with world-class academics are only something you have available at university. Meet with them in person, and correspond via email, but be mindful of their time and don’t force yourself over trivial matters.
3. Sit in the front
To facilitate tips 1 and 2, always sit in the front. This way you avoid distractions, as you don’t have tens of laptop screens with memes, Facebook and latest football results in front of you.
Make friends with people also sitting in the front. They are probably just as driven as you to achieve good results and typically make great study partners and team members. Working together, all of you will succeed.
4. Lecture slides are your holy grail
While lecturers say that you must buy and study a textbook, the important material is actually always in the lecture slides. When submitting assignments, browse through the slides to check if your work mentions and properly relates to everything relevant to the task. Similarly, with exams, don’t bother with other knowledge sources before you have fully understood/learned the slides. After you have dealt with slides, look at required reading other than slides. Only then, if you are bored, check the textbook, however at this point you are deep in the area of diminishing returns — only do this if you don’t have anything more urgent on the agenda.
In my 3 years of IMB I have only purchased two textbooks — one in year 1 before I realised it is not needed, and another one in year 3 as I wanted to learn more about the area of Innovation Management out of personal curiosity and the book seemed like a great overview. Textbooks are outrageously expensive, and as they are available in the library as your last resort, you don’t really need to buy them.
5. Realise that some classes/events are less useful than others
In the interest of time management, many events that are in your student calendar actually offer little value — make sure to figure out which ones they are!
For instance, in seminars I found that there is usually no new content beyond what was discussed at the lecture. My advice is this: at the start of the term, go to every seminar and participate fully. After 2 weeks, you will have a good feel for which seminars really add value and which ones do not.
One case in which I recommend going to seminars is if the tutor is great. If you felt intellectually stimulated, learned things that are either new and relevant to the module or interesting to you personally — go to the seminars. If not, you can easily skip them without damaging grades (be mindful of attendance regulations).
6. Have consistent teammates
Business courses tend to have lots of team assignments, for many of which you can choose your own teammates. Be quick to get in a team with the best students that you know (ones in the front row are often good candidates). If you are ambitious about getting good grades, this will prevent social loafing (you having to do all the work when teammates are lazy — been there & done that). Be in an environment in which everyone knows what to expect from others and the high standards of team members motivate each other to do well. Teams like this typically form in the 1st or 2nd year of university and stay until the end — if by that time you don’t have a solid group it will be difficult to join one later.
7. Learn the basics of graphics design
While universities are bastions of rational thought and precise, scientific enquiry, people grading your assignments are only humans having to process often 100s of mediocre submissions. Make yours stand out by having clean, professional design — learning the basics of typography and colour matching takes little time and gets you further than most students. As a bonus, having an attractive design helps you structure your assignment logically and feeds back into the merit of your work as you further iterate on the content that is now well laid out.
8. Overdo assignments
Aiming to do just enough to get 70% is not a good attitude. Spend twice as much time as other students when working on individual assignments and three times as much in your team assignments. If you think that you don’t have time for that, find that time — skipping on unimportant classes and events is one way.
Increased quality, greater breadth and higher precision that come with devoting more time to the same project are absolutely worth the extra contribution when you take into account the extremely high grades you get and great teamwork experience along the way (conditional on the success of tip 6). Importantly, later on you will have to spend significantly less time studying for the exam as you are already very familiar with the topic due to your assignment-related meticulousness.
9. Don’t study if you don’t have to
If your goal is maximising grades under time constraints, the only cases where studying is warranted are:
- Direct exam preparation (no sooner than 2–3 weeks before the exam)
- You are completely lost in lectures
- You need to learn more about a topic for an assignment that is due soon
- You are passionate about the topic
Apart from personal curiosity, there is no reason to study a module long before you are actually tested. During the term, you are fine as long as you understand the general picture of what is being discussed and can intelligently comprehend the ongoing lectures. This typically comes sufficiently from tips 1 and 8.
10. Stay hungry and curious for knowledge
In university, you are surrounded by smart and ambitious students, as well as experts in the fields you will be working in. This is the best time in life to learn new concepts and expand your horizons, before your future corporate overlords inevitably take over your soul and suppress your youthful spirit of curiosity, creativity and benevolence. Don’t be constrained by the scope of modules and your course. Use the library to read books on whatever topics interest you and enjoy the easy access to experts from any domain. Seek for unconventional opportunities to leverage your university knowledge in real life — join a startup or volunteer. I am often amazed how diverse experiences and knowledge can feed back into university performance — both when quantified by grades, and in terms of how the education’s quality and utility are perceived.
It is possible to do extremely well in university while also busy with work. To achieve that, you have to be considerate about what actually improves your grade, and what doesn’t (the latter set is much larger). Then, allocate your time wisely and stick to the schedule. This approach requires a degree of non-conformity as things such as skipping classes and consciously ignoring recommended reading are not the most comfortable and simple strategies, however they helped me do well both at university and work.