What does it take to be a standout student? How can you make the most of your college years — graduate with honors, choose exciting activities, build a head-turning resume, and gain access to the best post-college opportunities? Based on interviews with star students at universities nationwide, from Harvard to the University of Arizona, Cal Newport wrote How to Win at College: Surprising Secrets for Success from the Country’s Top Students, a book that presents seventy-five simple rules that will rocket you to a fantastic college experience. I highly recommend his book.
Below are my favorite points from Cal Newport’s book with some of my additions. Even though I am not a straight-A student like Cal was, I have managed to do pretty well. In an average semester, I missed 2 weeks of school because I fly out to attention self-development seminars or attend cool events. While at school, I went to about 10 speeches or conferences where extraordinary people were speaking at, and some of them conflict with classes. However, I still managed to get on Dean’s List every semester.
Enjoy the hacks and apply them in your real life.
Don’t do all your reading
For reading that covers the topic of an upcoming lecture, it’s often sufficient just to skim the main points ahead of time and then fill in the gaps during class by taking good notes. Students are sometimes afraid of skimming, but you shouldn’t be. You need to master the skill of covering hundreds of pages of text very quickly. The secret is to read chapter introductions and conclusions carefully, and then skim everything else. Make tick marks next to sentences that catch your attention, as this is faster than highlighting.
Become a club president
It is a lot more manageable than most students think. And it is one of the best ways to improve your leadership and interpersonal skills. It looks good on a resume too.
Seek out phenomenal achievers
Find the extraordinary people on campus and connect with them. The term “achievers” is relative to each person. They can be Rhodes Scholars, Nobel Laureates, the professor who wrote your textbook, students who started companies or organizations, or a quiet drama major who has won a bevy of creative awards. Find these people. Meet them. Treat them to a meal, and let them spill their guts to you. Find out how they did what they did, what it felt like, and what are they up to next. There are many benefits to doing this. To expose yourself to possibilities, expand your network, and gain a different perspective. And to a people person like me, I feel a charge of energy when I talk with people who have done amazing things because I sense a pull to raise my standards.
Never pull an all-nighter
Just don’t do it. You will find countless studies on how bad it is for your health and productivity. If you allocated your studies properly, you shouldn’t ever need to do an all-nighter. If you do need to do some emergency work, at least sleep couple hours. And the best ROI on sleep is found by researchers if you fall asleep before midnight. So sleep from 10pm-2am will recharge your body more effectively than 4am-8am.
Ask one question at each lecture
This is a simple strategy to make sure you pay attention to the professor and the professor pays attention to you. By the way, talking while having the entire class staring at you is also effective to wake you up if you feel sleepy. (I’m not indicating that you ever felt sleepy in class at all.)
Always sit in the first row
One day in my junior year, I realized that this might be the single most significant factor that saved my grades from my crazy traveling and activities. Ching, a friend of mine, gave me this advice before I started college. Ching graduated from Hong Kong Polytechnic University as the valedictorian and then went on to get a Ph.D. from MIT while earning multiple patents. I simply acted on his advice. This rule is great because it forces you to pay attention in class, and you automatically receive the cognitive bias most professors have for the “front-row students.”
Don’t study in your room
Based on personal experience, this one is much harder to do than I expected. Many times I just feel too lazy to study in the library, but the low productivity is embarrassing. If you want to take this to another level, only study in libraries because the study atmosphere is stronger in a library than other parts of a school. And you will get more done just by being in that atmosphere.
When would you get to spend months living in a different country with different culture and language? College is the most likely the time in your life that you will get to do this. Studying abroad is a beautiful experience. Even though I spent a semester abroad, I regret not spending two semesters away. This an adjustment I would make if I get to do college again. Also, a couple of founders including Aaron Rasmussen and Nathan Chan also recommended studying abroad and traveling as a way of gaining different perspectives.
Befriend a professor
Most professors want to engage and help the students. Some professors are successful and fascinating human beings. While this is a great way to get more recommendation letters, it will also make your college experience that much more personal and enjoyable. How do you befriend professors? Go talk to them during office hours, propose a coffee meeting, discuss things outside of classes, and most importantly, actually be curious about them and their work.
Use college as an excellent way to practice juggling multiple things at the same time by managing your time well. The best way I have found is to schedule everything, including time to study, hanging out with friends, working out, grocery shopping, etc. In other words, get in the habit of putting events on a calendar versus trying to “remember.” This way, you are less likely to fail to do the things you intended to do or get overwhelmed by too many moving pieces. This habit is beneficial in the professional world as well.
Make your friends your №1 priority
If you are already in college, you probably realized that spending quality time with friends is actually not an easy thing to do because of the other millions of things you need to do. This is just a friendly reminder that people and friends are the most important part of college and life in general. Schedule enough time to create some magical moments together.
Learn important things outside of classrooms
As I mentioned in earlier parts of the book, what you can learn from classes is very limited, but the free time in college is plenty. If you put in the time and work to become great at something you care about, this could be a key that can open many doors for you after graduation.
Pick professors over classes
Look for great professors rather than interesting course titles because great professors are more likely to impact the way you think and learn. Also, their passion will help you engage more with the classes. I have made multiple mistakes where I chose interesting class titles over professors, and I have regretted all those decisions.