Re-defining my Academic Success

One of my most important goals this year is to achieve exceptional marks in my academics. The bigger picture being that I would like to be involved with diabetes research at some point in my life. Of course, many of the tools I have been using to study have clearly not been as effective as I wish they had of been.

I am not stupid. I’m actually exceptionally smart, and it is that inherent intellect that carried me through my last year at university. I say this because I all but gave up at the end of the last academic year, disheartened by the extensive daily commute and the lack of free time I had. Even with that genetic advantage on my side, I still did incredibly poorly compared to my usually high standards.

This year is going to be different though. I am going to optimise my studying to do well while spending less time focussed on it. I am going to utilise my extensive commute for other endeavours. And I am going to make sure that I have time for a life outside of work.

How To Be A Straight-A Student

As I mentioned yesterday, I picked up Cal Newport’s book with the aforementioned title. I spoke about the common theme I’m seeing among success related books in my previous post, but in this one I’m going to discuss some of the techniques that Cal recommends for students.

The first idea conflicts almost entirely with the generally accepted ‘work hard, do well’ mantra. Rather than suggesting that students should find more time in their schedule for studying, he advocates studying less. Far less. Cal recommends focussing on working for shorter periods but in far more intensive bursts.

I have heard in the past that the attention span begins to wane after about 20/25 minutes and that you should take a 5 minute break before continuing. This book suggests that so long as the study session lasts less than an hour, ideally 50 minutes, you’ll be fine. Either way, I will definitely be remembering to work at a higher intensity but for shorter bursts of time.

Keep a Progress Journal

A progress journal, by this definition, seems like a fantastic idea. It is basically a to-do list that you write out every morning with the most important tasks you have to complete that day. You mark off each task as you complete it. At the end of the night, consult your progress journal and provide an explanation for any tasks that remain incomplete.

If you notice that you’re continually failing to complete any of your daily tasks, you can look for patterns among your excuses. Ultimately, a progress journal will allow you to see where you’re just making pathetic excuses and force you to get started on making big changes in your life.

If you continually put off studying because you’re too tired, you can make appropriate changes to your schedule to avoid being tired at the time you’ve allocated for study. It could also suggest that you need to get more sleep, or change your sleeping routine entirely. It highlights the areas of your life that might require a bit of consciousness engineering and a quick software update. Following that point then, Cal suggests that you study earlier in the morning when you’re at your freshest and you concentration hasn’t been exhausted.

Keep Energy Levels High

Keeping my energy levels high is something I’m struggling with at the moment, but I know that’s because I’m often sleeping less than 5-6 hours a night and my diet is a little bit less than healthy. They’re things I’m actively working on at the moment. A few things that Cal suggests to aid your energy levels while studying are:

  • Rotating your study spaces to keep your mind stimulated. No one wants to sit in the same chair, in the same room, staring at the same scenery every day for 3 years. Find some new places to study!

  • Take a break at least once per hour. Five or ten minutes is probably best so that you don’t fall out of the studying mindset. However, while having your break you should try not to think about the material at all. Go for a walk, get some fresh air, or even meditate.

  • Stay hydrated. I think this was probably a big issue for me keeping my energy levels up last year. I didn’t have any money to get myself a coffee, nor did I ever pack a drink before leaving. I would often go 14-16 hours without having a drink.

Be Selective

When I sit down with a textbook in front of me I typically want to be able to recite it cover to cover. Obviously, I am not able to do that. What this book has shown me is that it isn’t actually necessary either. Only study what is likely to appear in the exam.

Exams do not test your knowledge of the entire textbook. They are very selective. That is a skill worth developing to maximise your academic potential. Yes, in an ideal world I would have the time to learn everything there is to know. But I don’t live in an ideal world, so I may as well cut 99% of that out and study only what is necessary to ace my course.

Even when you’ve been very selective about what is necessary to study, you should also go over it once more and be very selective about what is worth remembering.

Be The Quiz Master

This book suggests two methods of studying to help you know when you’re ready for an exam and what you still need to work on. They’re both methods of self-testing.

The first technique relies on the fact that we can better understand and recall things when we teach them to other people. This technique asks you to use your own, simple words to teach the concept to an imaginary stranger.

The next technique asks you to create tests from your own notes. After creating the questions, you need to answer them. If you can answer all of the questions perfectly, that suggests you’re ready for the official exam. This method of testing also highlights any areas that you need to spend a bit more energy studying. By analysing the questions you couldn’t answer, you know what topics and concepts you don’t completely understand.

Academic Disaster Insurance

This is quite an interesting, albeit contradictory idea in the book. Academic disaster insurance is the idea that you should know a little bit about everything, just in case it randomly pops up in the exam. It makes perfect sense, but it could also lead to me falling back in my old routine of feeling like I need to know everything.

Of course, if you spend the entire year being consistent with your studies, it is a realistic expectation that you won’t come across any topics that you wouldn’t be able to say something about. Just don’t try to cram everything!

The 3 P’s

The three P’s is a system that Cal suggests to optimise your exam taking ability. The 3 P’s are plan, proceed and proofread.

  • Skim through the entire exam paper and plan how long (briefly) you will spend on each question. Leave a 10-minute buffer at the end of the exam. The skim through primes your brain and allows your diffuse mode to start working out the answers.

  • Proceed through the paper answering the easiest questions first. Getting some wins under your belt early on will drastically enhance your confidence and push you past any anxious feelings you might have had.

  • Proofread your exam when you’ve finished answering the final questions. The ten minute buffer provides you with a minimum of ten minutes to complete this step, but if you finish the exam before that point you should use however long is remaining to proofread. If you leave an exam before it has officially ended, you’re leaving marks on the table.


Cal’s book is a worthwhile read for any student. There are a few revolutionary ideas in there that should really be obvious, and I’m kicking myself for not performing them anyway. Especially the idea of keeping energy levels high by staying hydrated. It’s idiocy for me to have not been doing it.

I will definitely be using some of the techniques in this book to enhance my studies. The most obvious of which at the moment will be the progress journal (which I think is a fantastic idea), the energy level tricks and the idea of being selective.

The sooner I shift my mode of thinking to realise ‘I’m studying to pass an exam,’ the better.

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