The difference between a student that knows how to study and a student that doesn’t is big. Really big!
I’m saying this as a student that has experienced both ends of that spectrum. Early in high school, I was near the bottom of my class. I was scoring just about as low as any student that actually showed up to class. My GPA was embarrassing.
Near the end of high school, I was able to turn those grades around until I was getting competitive grades. By the end of college, I was scoring at the top of my class despite studying dramatically less than most and taking a double courseload.
I didn’t do this because I’m super smart. I’m actually rather meh with academic stuff.
It was all strategy. And now that I’ve spent nearly a decade teaching these strategies, it seems even more clear than ever…
A high-scoring student doesn’t have to be gifted. They just need to have and use intelligent strategies.
An aspiring medical student that was getting C’s and B’s but after learning more effective strategies, she took her grades up to straight A’s.
A high school student that was on the verge of dropping out that learned effective strategies and ended up spending less time working on school stuff while improving his grades to A’s and B’s.
A college student that was already getting A’s but HATED every second of it ended up cutting hours a week off his study routine just to score even higher.
The Strange Truth That No One Ever Tells You
There is a strange thing about super powerful study strategies…
Almost nobody teaches these strategies…
Mostly, that’s because people just don’t know they even exist. For most people, using conventional study strategies, they understand the basic equation…
Work hard = Get good grades
Stress out = Get good grades
Suffer = Get good grades
Enjoy life = Bad grades
But that’s just because they’re using highly ineffective study strategies.
An effective study strategy is like a multiplier boosting your grades dramatically…
Study a little * study strategy multiplier = Get top of the class grades
But most people have spent their whole life thinking reading a textbook is an effective strategy to prepare for a test… it’s not…
In fact, the studies have shown that reading your textbook to prepare for a test is one of the least effective ways you can learn material for the test. It’s what will leave you sitting at your test thinking you know the answer but you just can’t remember it. It gives you a false confidence. You’ve read it… Sure… But it’s not locked in your memory where you can easily find it.
I can’t blame anyone for not knowing or using the highly effective study strategies. They’re not the kind of strategies you’re encouraged to use in school.
Why Perfectionism Is Like Committing Bloody Murder On Your Grades
One of your biggest enemies in scoring near the top of your class is perfectionism.
Sure… it’s good to want things to be perfect but perfection always comes at the cost of something else.
Imagine this scenario:
You have a test with 2 questions on it. Each question is 50% of your final grade.
0 correct answers = 0%
1 correct answer = 50%
2 correct answers = 100%
Getting 1 correct answer is dramatically easier than getting 2 correct answers…
Why is that?
Because 1 correct answer can come from knowing only 1 of 2 different things.
You can get the first answer right or the second answer right to get that 1 correct answer. Instead of having only 1 chance to get the right answer, you have two.
To get 2 correct answers, you need to know BOTH answers. Not just 1 out of 2 answers.
This is a difficult statistical point. If you don’t get it…
In a test with tons of questions on it, it’s dramatically harder to answer every single question accurately than to answer most of the questions accurately.
If you want all perfect scores, you’re going to have to study endless hours and hope you get lucky.
But if you’re comfortable with straight-a’s…
You can usually study less than 15 minutes a night and still get super high scores.
(If you’re not in a particularly difficult institution like MIT then it’s a safe bet. In easier institutions, 15 minutes a night can put your grades near the top of your class.)
Perfection is focusing on perfect details instead of focusing on an optimized big picture.
While you’re reading this, keep that in mind. Sometimes you will sacrifice small points to make bigger points in other places.
In fact… that’s what this next section is all about…
What’s Not Worth Doing Is Not Worth Doing Well
Do not waste your time doing unimportant things for class.
If you can prove something isn’t valuable then it should be thrown out (unless you actually find it fun.)
This is important!
I realize most “good” students live by the do-everything-no-matter-what philosophy but that costs them more than they realize.
Have you ever had a big important project due (or test approaching) but felt overwhelmed and maybe a little burned out?
Part of life is balance…
You only have so much time and energy.
When you spend too much of that time and energy on things that you don’t care about enough, that can leave you feeling less-than-stellar. And that’s okay…
Unimportant work is your opportunity to save your time and energy for better things.
Take advantage of it. (It also feels good to know you’re stickin’ it to the man.)
How do you know if work is unimportant?
Check your syllabus.
Have you ever seen that section in most syllabuses that tell you something like:
Using these numbers you can take a reasonably accurate estimate of how valuable every single assignment that you have is worth.
If you have 10 tests and tests are worth 10% of your grade then…
10% of your grade divided by 10 tests = 1% of your grade for each test
Those tests aren’t life or death. Skip them all and you could still get an A-.
But it there were only 2 tests that are worth 30% of your grade….
30% of your grade divided by 2 tests = 15% of your grade for each test!
Don’t screw up these tests because they can completely destroy your grades.
You can do similar calculations with your assignments to find assignments worth less than a percent of your grade. You shouldn’t spend a long time on those assignments.
Sometimes you’ll find assignments (often homework when it’s nightly,) that are worth less than a quarter a percent… Those are the skip-at-will assignments.
One thing to keep in mind: if you don’t understand a concept, it might be worth doing the homework to make sure you learn it, even if it’s not worth much.
But if you have a math assignment that will take you an hour to repetitively go over the stuff you already know… Skip it. (Or rush it and get everything wrong if you insist.)
This saves your energy for where you really need it.
The Most Powerful And Proven Study Strategy
The most overlooked thing when it comes to how to study is this…
If you’re studying with an effective method then you’re going to feel it.
Studying well shouldn’t be super duper easy. It shouldn’t be automatic. It shouldn’t be thoughtless. You shouldn’t be able to daydream while you’re doing it.
It should require (and encourage) focus.
And there is one strategy that researchers from around the world have repeatedly proven is the absolute most powerful study strategy ever devised for school.
Active recall can change your life.
You’ve probably heard of some of its most important methods… flash cards.
Active recall is sometimes called retrieval practice. That’s a good way of thinking about it.
Active recall is just practicing remembering something until you’re really good at remembering it.
You’re testing your own ability to remember it repeatedly until you can actually prove that you know the answer.
Some more sources on that:
If you’re not using active recall then, as far as I’m concerned, you’re not really studying.
It’s just taking the information, locking it into your long term memory, and then verifying it’s stuck in there.
The studies have repeatedly shown it’s dramatically more effective than reading, highlighting, mind-mapping, and virtually any other strategy you can think of.
And this completely obliterates a myth –
“I Need To UNDERSTAND The Material”
Look… understanding the material is a good thing.
I’m totally for it…
But you NEED to REMEMBER the information to do well on the test. It doesn’t matter how well you understand something if you can’t remember the correct terms when it comes test time.
Sure… understanding can help. It allows you to remember things faster. It helps you make inferences about other material you haven’t memorized. But…
Memorization is the key to good grades…
On top of that, understanding something is a whole lot easier when you have the complicated parts of it memorized. (Do a dozen flash cards. Then take a shower. Understanding will start to happen automatically.)
Teacher’s will lecture you about understanding. Folks selling you their super secret system like using understanding in their pitch (because there is no way you can “measure” understanding. “Okay… so… your grades didn’t improve… BUT you understand it better, right? Ughhh….)
People judge you by your grades. Memorization is the most efficient way to better grades. Understanding is important but it will happen on it’s own. There is no measurable strategy to “understand” something. It’s often a matter of knowledge and experience.
Focus on active recall and everything else will fall into place (and you’ll have the higher scores to prove it.)
The Perfect Way To Study (Especially If You HATE Studying)
Now that you have the study strategy decided – active recall.
How should you be using active recall?
When you’re using active recall effectively, you can produce massive learning is short periods of time.
You don’t need to study for hours a night to see your grades go up. In fact, your rate of memorization will go down the longer you spend studying.
That’s why my “ideal” strategy is studying for 15 minutes a night.
Trust me… if you’re using active recall right then you’re going to feel worn out after that 15 minutes a night. If you don’t feel worn out then you might want to up the difficulty level a bit with harder flash cards.
If you insist on studying more then spend 15 minutes a few times a day studying.
And if you’re in a super hard course load, consider giving on the idea of studying sessions. Study some flash cards repeatedly through your day. If you’re stuck waiting 5 minutes then pull out your phone or flashcards and practice while you’re waiting.
Do not study in long sessions.
Do this daily.
Habits are difficult when you’re doing them only certain days. They can become automatic when you do them virtually every single day of your life. It just becomes part of your day like brushing your teeth. You just do it. That’s how you want studying to feel – automatic.
This will help you keep the stress levels down and it will ensure you never feel that desperate need to cram the night before your test.
How To Go Into The Tests Ready To Dominate
I think this should go without saying but I’ve seen too many students blow it to believe it…
Don’t be stupid and change a bunch of crap before you go in for a test.
The night before a test:
Do not pull an all-nighter!
Going into a test without any sleep is a gamble. Sometimes it will work alright. Other times it will completely destroy your efforts.
Don’t eat weird stuff or differently than usual!
Pre-test is not the time to try new things. It’s the time to fall into a boring routine and keep everything just like usual. Don’t suddenly drink 3 coffees because you’re feeling tired that morning. Don’t eat that weird food you’ve never tried before. Don’t starve yourself.
Do not think about the test any more than usual!
Just keep your usual study routine…
Here is the thing…
I know you want to study a little extra the night before the test but imagine what that’s saying to your brain…
This Completely Obliterates Most Student’s Grades
“I’m not prepared. I need to study more.”
If you’ve had a responsible study routine up to that day then you are prepared. It would be smarter to tell yourself that you’re all prepared for it. Heck… you probably don’t even have to study if you didn’t want to.
This “not prepared” feeling will stick around… you’ll go to bed worrying… you’ll wake up worrying… you’ll walk into the test worrying.
Going through the motions of a worried person (by studying extra) is just going to make your worrying worse.
Going through the motions of a confident person is going to make it easier to stay confident.
If you can’t stay confident walking into the test then at least think this –
The test results are decided when you walk into the test room.
You can’t improve your grades while taking a test.
You’re just filling out the forms. You either know the answer, you know how to get the answer, or you don’t.
And when you don’t… let it go. It’s lost. Don’t spend twenty minutes wondering about it. The test score has already been decided anyway. Finish all the answers you know and if you still have energy then you can try to dig into those other questions you don’t know.
Stress is the biggest killer of most students grades.
By keeping your head on straight, using active recall consistently, and maybe even learning some of the powerful strategies taught here on Smart Student Secrets, you can take your grades near the top of your class with less effort than you can imagine. You can learn how to study better than ever before and have the results to prove it.
Every Journey Starts With A Single Step
If there is one thing I’ve learned in life…
It’s that decisions are about risk.
I’m going to tell you some stuff that sounds pretty crazy.
Want to learn:
- Why You Screwed Up In The Past Because Of The Things They Forced You To Do – And What To Do Instead
- How To Get A Top Score (Even If You’re Failing Assignments Now)
- 5 Biggest Reasons Students Get Bummed And Give Up
- How to prepare for a test so well that test day is easier than studying
- Learn to predict what’s on the test with (almost) perfect accuracy
- How to use the most science-backed study strategy to study in a fraction of the time
That’s the kind of stuff we keep bottled up for people that sign up to our email list. Including tons of members-only articles.
Now let’s get back to decisions…
You can take a chance and sign up for this email list… Or you can never take a shot.
What’s the risk here?