How to Become a Straight-A Student : The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less
Looking to jumpstart your GPA? Most college students believe that straight A's can be achieved only through cramming and painful all-nighters at the library. But Cal Newport knows that real straight-A students don't study harder--they study smarter. A breakthrough approach to acing academic assignments, from quizzes and exams to essays and papers, How to Become a Straight-A Student reveals for the first time the proven study secrets of real straight-A students across the country and weaves them into a simple, practical system that anyone can master. You will learn how to:
Streamline and maximize your study time
Absorb the material quickly and effectively
Know which reading assignments are critical--and which are not
Target the paper topics that wow professors
Provide A+ answers on exams
Write stellar prose without the agony
A strategic blueprint for success that promises more free time, more fun, and top-tier results, How to Become a Straight-A Student is the only study guide written by students for students--with the insider knowledge and real-world methods to help you master the college system and rise to the top of the class.
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Three Rivers Press
December 25, 2006
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Excerpt from How to Become a Straight-A Student by Cal Newport
A common complaint I hear from students is that they never seem to have enough time to finish all of their work. They vent about how many hours they spend--late nights reviewing in the library, weekends sacrificed to paper writing--but no matter how hard they try, there always seems to be something else due. As Matthew, a straight-A student from Brown, explains, it's easy for college students to become "stuck in a state of permanent catch-up." Understandably, these students feel like they have reached their academic limit; they believe that unless they forgo sleep or any semblance of a social life, there are simply not enough hours in the day to stay on top of all their schoolwork.
Let's start by getting one thing clear: This belief is false. The problem here is not the amount of available hours, but rather how each hour is spent. I know this from firsthand experience. While researching this book, I spent time with some of the country's most accomplished students, and I can assure you that no matter how diligent you think you are, there is a Rhodes scholar out there who fits in three times the amount of work and activities you do and probably still manages to party harder than you would ever dare. I don't mean to imply that everyone should aim to become a drunken Rhodes scholar (though it would certainly be fun to try); rather, my point is that a surprising amount of work, relaxation, and socializing can be extracted from a single twelve-hour day. A lack of time, therefore, isn't enough to explain why so many students feel overwhelmed. So what does explain this phenomenon? The answer, as it turns out, has much more to do with how we work than what we're trying to accomplish.
As humans, our minds have evolved to prefer short-term tasks such as "run away from that lion" or "eat food." Therefore, when you walk into the library on a Sunday morning with the goal of finishing all of your homework and writing a paper, your brain isn't happy. The idea of spending eight consecutive hours trapped in a study carrel is dispiriting. Plus, it's hard to focus for that long, so pretty soon fatigue will set in, your concentration will wander, and every distraction will suddenly seem impossibly appealing. Before you know it, the day will be over and you'll realize that you haven't accomplished much productive work at all. The next day, new assignments will pile onto those you didn't finish on Sunday, and the tedious process starts all over again.
Jason, a straight-A student from the University of Pennsylvania, uses the term "pseudo-working" to describe this common approach to studying. The pseudo-worker looks and feels like someone who is working hard--he or she spends a long time in the library and is not afraid to push on late into the night--but, because of a lack of focus and concentration, doesn't actually accomplish much. This bad habit is endemic on most college campuses. For example, at Dartmouth there was a section of the main library that was open twenty-four hours a day, and the students I used to see in there late at night huddled in groups, gulping coffee and griping about their hardships, were definitely pseudo-working. The roommate who flips through her chemistry notes on the couch while watching TV is pseudo-working. The guy who brings three meals, a blanket, and six-pack of Red Bull to the study lounge in preparation for an all-day paper-writing marathon is also pseudo-working. By placing themselves in distracting environments and insisting on working in long tedious stretches, these students are crippling their brain's ability to think clearly and efficiently accomplish the task at hand. The result is fatigue headaches and lackluster outcomes.
The bigger problem here is that most students don't even realize that they're pseudo-working. To them pseudo-work is work--it's how they've always done it, and it's how all of their friends do it. It never crosses their mind that there might be a better way. Straight-A students, on the other hand, know all about pseudo-work. They fear it, and for good reason. It not only wastes time, but it's also mentally draining. There is just no way to be well-balanced, happy, and academically successful if you're regularly burning through your free hours in long, painful stretches of inefficient studying. The students I interviewed for this book emphasized again and again the importance of avoiding this trap. In fact, when asked what one skill was most important in becoming a non-grind straight-A student, most of them cited the ability to get work done quickly and with a minimum of wasted effort.
So how do these students achieve this goal? A big part of the solution is timing--they gain efficiency by compressing work into focused bursts. To understand the power of this approach,