Friday Book in a Page: How to Become a Straight-A Student


How to Become a Straight-A Student by Cal Newport

If you are a student or know a student, or are about to become a student who has struggled with their productivity in the transition to online learning in 2020 then How to Become a Straight-A Student just might be what you are looking for. Because honestly, who isn't attracted to the promise of better grades while studying less? This book offers practical and tangible time management skills and clear tools for gaining efficient clarity on projects. And while Newport is a college professor and meets (and grades) hundreds of students each year, this book is based on researching and analyzing the successful skills of thousands of straight-A students.  

Key Messages of the Book:

  • A series of short and intensive bursts will lead to greater success than long studying hours. (See my discussion here of the Pomodoro technique to get a sense of how to start working in short intensive bursts).
  • Studies show that the optimal learning period is 50 minutes and after 60 minutes most people's focus drops down to a psuedo-working level.
  • Phrased in a different way, this means that three 50 minute periods working at a level 10 intensity will yield higher results than working for 10 hours at a level 3 intensity and offer you seven additional hours to re-charge your batteries so that you can continue working at a level 10 without burn-out.
  • Keep a detailed calendar with all your due dates and plan your bursts around those. Spend five minutes every morning reviewing your calendar.
  • Don't assume that straight-A just got lucky and don't suffer from procrastination like the rest of us. The difference is that they assumed that procrastination will strike and have equipped themselves with strategies to combat it.
  • One tool is the Work Progress Journal. Here's how it works:
    • Each morning write down the day's most important tasks: classes, exams, a friend's birthday party etc.
    • Each evening write a short explanation for tasks not completed.
    • By recording and reviewing your excuses for not getting tasks done you will better understand how to work with your natural procrastination tendencies and begin to schedule optimal days for yourself.  (This same concept is discussed in Charles Duhigg's The Power of Habit when analyzing the success of the AA program and in particular the tenant If you don't want to slip, don't go where it's slippery.)
  • Find your perfect trifecta of the right time, the right place and your highest energy levels.
  • This will be different for everyone - but try to find three places to rotate through to keep your mind stimulated.
  • It's basic biology. Your highest energy levels are a result of enough water, enough food, enough sleep and enough exercise.
  • Smart Note Taking.
    • It sounds basic, but straight-A students know that going to class and taking smart notes cuts their studying time in half.
    • Instead of trying to write everything down, record the Big Idea - the main concept, argument or theory. If you understand what an instructor is trying to teach you, you have the inside track on what they're going to test you on.
  • Efficient Studying
    • Don't expect yourself to remember everything that you have been taught or read. Having this expectation of yourself will set you up for failure. It's not possible.
    • Start by defining exactly what you need to learn.
    • Then understand the main concept and then the details and examples.
    • Quiz yourself on these.
  • Invest in Academic Disaster Insurance
    • Ensure that there is no concept or subject within the course that you know nothing about 
  • For exams, use the three Ps: Planning, Proceeding and Proofreading
    • Planning: When you get your exam, review the entire exam first and plan what you will do before beginning. Create a schedule of how you will use the exam time and prioritize the questions based on the concepts you feel most knowledgable about and the marks weighting of the questions.
    • Proceeding: Find some easy questions to get you going. The concept is that the harder questions will become easier once you feel you have confidently made progress.
    • Proofreading: As tempting as it is to leave the exam early, staying the entire time and using that time to proofread is time well spent.
  • When writing a paper set yourself up for success.
    • Know what topics really interest you and find a way to connect your personal interests and the assignment.
    • Have a clear,  concise and direct driving question in your thesis. Answering this driving question will be your touchstone to come back to. 
    • If you believe that the bulk of your time should be spent on writing the paper, change your thinking. After your thesis, plot out your paper in bullet points. What is the main point of each section and how does it answer your driving question and support your thesis. 
    • Stay out of the rabbit hole of too much research. When collecting sources, gather only the necessary research. Set time limits on how long you are going to research. First, outline your main arguments, and then, for example, give yourself 30 minutes to find research that supports that argument. Ensure that all the topics central to your thesis have at least two good sources. Once you have those, stop and start writing. 
    • Allow more time for editing and reviewing drafts then you think you will need. Never submit your first draft.

Straight-A students aren't born. They're made. It's up to you if you want to make one.

Back to blog