Everything a Top Student Would Never Tell You If You Were Competing for a Grade
Getting the grade is one thing—cramming to memorize facts, knowing what's on the test, writing a passable paper—but being a top student is something else entirely. So what makes the difference between a good student and a top student?
Being a top student is a lifestyle, not just an A on your transcript. With advice from Stefanie Weisman, a lifelong top student, you'll learn keys to studying smart, learning well, and staying motivated. She combines her expertise with the additional experiences of 45 of the nation's best students to offer strategies and tips that will make academic excellence part of your life.
Hear From Top Students
Learn strategies on making the grade from valedictorians, Rhode scholars, Fulbright sch
Who Am I?
June 24, 1999. I am standing on the stage of Avery Fisher Hall in New York City, and I feel like I’m about to throw up. My hands are trembling, my stomach is turning, and my heart is pounding so violently that I can hear the blood rushing in my ears. I’m here to give my valedictory speech to the graduating class of Stuyvesant High School, one of the most competitive and academically rigorous schools in the country. The school is so big (more than 700 students in my class alone) that we had to rent out part of Lincoln Center to accommodate everyone.
The eyes of all my classmates and their parents follow me expectantly as I stride up to the podium with long, quick steps, trying to appear confident. Smoothing out the damp paper I have been crumpling in my hands, I begin to read in a quavering voice:
The day I found out I was valedictorian was one of the happiest days of my life. But then, after the euphoria wore off, I realized something that sent a shiver down my spine: I had to make a speech. I’m a pretty shy person, and to stand here in front of thousands of people is not easy for me. The terror I felt at public speaking almost made me wish my GPA was a few points lower, so I could avoid this nerve-racking ordeal. Almost. All I could do was write the best speech I could and try to present it without fainting. So now, I’m going to take a few deep breaths, hope for the best…and picture all of you in your underwear.
Okay, so maybe it wasn’t the classiest speech in the world. But the crowd laughed, and I loosened up after that. I began to enjoy myself. It felt good to be the center of attention and to have people acknowledge all the hard work I had done over the past four years.
I never expected to become valedictorian of Stuyvesant, a public high school in New York City where fewer than 4 percent of students who take the entrance exam actually get in.1 But my academic success didn’t end there. Four years later, I again graduated with the highest GPA in my class—this time from Columbia College, the undergraduate school of Columbia University. My grade point average was over a 4.0, causing lots of people to ask me how I got more than a “perfect” A. Simple, I told them: teachers at Columbia give out A+s, and each of those little beauties is worth 4.33!
I also came away with awards such as best senior thesis on a non-U.S. topic, best performance in Columbia’s core curriculum—a required program for all undergrads that includes classes in literature, philosophy, music, art, language, science, and more—as well as summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. Several years later I was admitted to Yale Law School, consistently ranked by U.S.News & World Report as the top law school in the country. (I eventually decided not to go to law school, but that’s a story for another book!)
Instead, I got a fellowship to attend New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, where I earned my Master’s in Art History in a year and a half instead of the usual two and graduated with a GPA of 3.95. Around this time, I became interested in technology and went back to Columbia to get a second bachelor’s degree, a BS in computer science. For two years I took nothing but courses in my new major. They were the hardest and most frustrating classes I had ever taken in my life, but I still managed to graduate magna cum laude, with a GPA of over 3.8.
As you can see, I’ve been a top student for a long time in a variety of areas. But it wasn’t because I was so smart that everything came naturally to me. In fact, it was just the opposite: I had an undiagnosed learning disability that made it very hard for me to understand spoken words. I can’t tell you how many times I would walk out of a classroom feeling like the teacher had been speaking a foreign language—and this was not in Spanish class.
In science labs, I would stare helplessly at the Bunsen burners and microscopes in front of me because I couldn’t process verbal instructions. Most of my classmates, on the other hand, would merrily proceed to burn their organic compounds and gawk at the bacteria in their swamp water. I often felt frustrated and stupid, and there were times when I hated going to school.
But, ironically, I believe that my learning disability made me a better student. It meant that I had to become extra good at things like taking notes, studying, and writing papers—the big three in the life of a student—to compensate for my poor listening comprehension. I also became an expert at keeping myself motivated. I refused to let my learning difficulty limit what I could do. By the end of my academic career, I had developed an extensive collection of techniques, habits, and ways of thinking that helped me excel in school—and which I will now share with you!
However, I wanted this book to be based on more than just my experience. That’s why I surveyed forty-five other academic superstars, including Rhodes scholars, high school and college valedictorians, students who made it into Yale Law School and Stanford Medical School, Intel Science Fair finalists, a winner of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, and many more. If there’s one thing I learned from this survey, it’s that there is no one single way to achieve academic success.
Anyone who tells you that he or she knows the “correct” way to study either is lying or has a superiority complex. In fact, one of the keys to being a top student is recognizing how you learn best. Another is being able to adapt to each particular situation. This book will provide recommendations, advice, and ideas for improving your academic performance, but not hard and fast rules. Above all, it will help you discover the methods that work best for you.
Who Is This Book For?
This book is for anyone who wants to be a better student in high school or college—and by that I mean improving your GPA, studying more efficiently, honing your writing and critical thinking skills, and learning how to navigate the labyrinthine world of academia. All that’s required are an open mind and a desire to excel. Whether you’re at the bottom of the class, in the middle, or nearing the top and trying to take it to the next level, this book can help you.
By the way, you should not buy this book to become valedictorian. If that happens, great, but you’ll go crazy if you put that kind of pressure on yourself because too many factors are beyond your control. I never aimed for the number-one spot in high school and college, but I got lucky—very, very lucky. This book will help you achieve your personal academic best, whatever that may be.
What Makes This Book Different from Other Study Aids?
First of all, if you’re in a bookstore or library, look around you. Do you see any other books on how to improve your grades? Probably not. You will, however, notice lots of thick, brightly colored tomes on how to raise your score on the SAT and other standardized tests. While there are shelves upon shelves of books on test prep, precious few address how to achieve academic success. But isn’t doing well in school—which represents years of hard work to acquire knowledge and skills that will last you the rest of your life—more important than gaining a few points on a single exam?
That’s a rhetorical question, by the way. Colleges, graduate schools, and employers care more about your grades and the rigor of your curriculum than they do about your standardized test scores. The truth is, most people want a quick fix. They figure that a good SAT, GRE, LSAT, or MCAT score will outweigh a poor or mediocre performance in school, but that just isn’t the case. I’m not saying that standardized test scores don’t matter; it’s just that what you do in the classroom is so much more important.
“A good GPA, even from a lousy high school, is a far better predictor of whether a student will finish college than a high mark on the SATs. Not coincidentally, GPAs reward perseverance, character, time-management skills, and the ability to work well with others.”
—Belinda Luscombe, “Failure Is Not a Bad Option: Resilience Helps Kids More Than High SATs Do,” Time magazine, September 2012.
A small number of books do claim to show you how to get better grades. So what makes my book different and, dare I say, better? Here are some reasons.
• My experience as the number-one student in both high school and college. Most of the other writers have observed top students but have little firsthand experience. A few of them may have been good students in their time, but not great ones. And wouldn’t you rather get your advice from an actual top student than from someone who just writes about them?
• My broad background in science and math, as well as the humanities—unlike most of the other writers, who specialized in the latter and are somewhat clueless about the former. And let me tell you, the keys to success in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) are very different from those for the humanities. That’s why I include sections on how to survive STEM, how to ace homework and tests in these subjects, and more.
• My familiarity with today’s technology. I received my latest degree in 2011, while a lot of other writers sound as if they haven’t been a student since 1967. Ever hear of the Internet, anyone? Technology can be both a help and a hazard to students, and it receives special attention in my book.
• Advice and input from other outstanding students. I’ve surveyed forty-five people with exceptional academic records on how they achieved success. Nearly half are Rhodes scholars, valedictorians, or salutatorians. Many are currently attending the nation’s best law and medical schools. This group includes Rebecca Sealfon, the 1997 Scripps National Spelling Bee winner who made headlines with her extremely enthusiastic spelling of the final word “euonym”; and Justine Schluntz, Rhodes Scholar and 2010 NCAA Woman of the Year. Other participants include a winner of the Google Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship, Fulbright and Goldwater scholars, ESPN Academic All-American athlete-scholars, and Intel Science Fair finalists. The results of this survey and advice from the students themselves—indicated by “Survey Says” and “In Their Own Words”—provide unique insight into what it takes to succeed in school.
• A holistic view of academic excellence. Most guides fail to realize that there’s a lot more to great grades than following cut-and-dried techniques for studying, writing papers, and taking tests. It requires the cultivation of your body, heart, and mind, much as you would expect of a top athlete. It’s a lifestyle, not a set of instructions. You’ve got to eat well, sleep right, work hard, and, above all, have the drive and determination to succeed. That’s why this book includes sections on things like the mind-body connection, improving your work ethic, and getting and staying motivated. I also discuss how to incorporate the findings from the latest research on education and learning into your everyday study habits.
• No sugarcoating. I won’t do that, unlike many other study aid writers. No matter how many techniques you learn and how much you prepare, some things are out of your control. You can’t always avoid taking classes you hate, having terrible teachers, or getting an unfair grade. The trick is knowing what to do when these bad things happen.
• Information that works for high schoolers and college students. Unlike most study aids, which are geared toward either one group or the other, this guide is meant for both. In high school, you should be learning skills that are transferable to college. If you’re in college now, it’s not too late to learn good study skills or improve on the ones you already have. Plus, a lot of high schools these days are just as hard as college, if not harder. I can tell you that after going to Stuyvesant High School, Columbia was practically a breeze!
Why Should You Want to Be a Better Student, Anyway?
If you’re reading this book, chances are you already want to improve your academic performance (unless your parents have forced it on you—sorry, guys). But it couldn’t hurt to remind you why grades are so important.
Reason 1: Competition for Scarce Resources
Every year, it gets harder to secure a place at a top university. Just look at these statistics from the February 5, 2011 edition of the Wall Street Journal:
Number of freshman applications at UC Berkeley in fall 2001: 35,473
Number of freshman applications at UC Berkeley in fall 2011: 52,900
Admission rate for applicants to Yale, class of 2001: 17.8 percent
Admission rate for applicants to Yale, class of 2014: 7.5 percent
Scary, huh? Colleges and grad schools are becoming increasingly selective because they have to be—there are simply too many qualified applicants and not enough spots. The same is true of employment in this country. As the economy gets squeezed, competition for jobs skyrockets. And in these times of economic uncertainty, how you do in school is more important than ever.
Am I saying that getting great grades will guarantee you a spot in your dream school, or that you can’t have a successful career without being a top student? No, of course not. But doing well in school does make it easier and more likely that you’ll achieve these things.
Reason 2: It’s Your Patriotic Duty
Seriously. Kind of. U.S. students are falling behind their counterparts in many (mostly Asian) countries, and this has an impact on America’s standing in the global economy. You are competing not just with students in the same classroom, school, and nation, but with your peers all over the world. Consider President Obama’s speech to U.S. students on the first day of school in 2009:
What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country. What you’re learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future….
Whatever you resolve to do, I want you to commit to it. I want you to really work at it. I know that sometimes, you get the sense from TV that you can be rich and successful without any hard work—that your ticket to success is through rapping or basketball or being a reality TV star, when chances are, you’re not going to be any of those things. But the truth is, being successful is hard. You won’t love every subject you study. You won’t click with every teacher. Not every homework assignment will seem completely relevant to your life right this minute. And you won’t necessarily succeed at everything the first time you try.5
And his 2011 State of the Union address, in which he said that the United States is facing a new “Sputnik moment”:
We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world….
We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair. We need to teach them that success is not a function of fame or PR, but of hard work and discipline.
I know it might be difficult to think of your academic success as being for the greater good. Some of you may feel inspired by the President’s words, others apathetic. But whatever the case, doing well in school will benefit both you and the nation. It’s a win-win situation!
Reason 3: The Sense of Satisfaction and Accomplishment
It’s a great feeling when you accomplish something through hard work and effort—when you can pat yourself on the back and say, “Job well done.” Whether you raised your GPA a few points, finally got an A on your pre-calculus test, mastered the Spanish subjunctive, or wrote a stellar paper on the legacy of Socrates in Western civilization, you can be proud of having done your best.
Reason 4: The Quest for Knowledge
That’s right, people actually go to school to learn! In general, the better a student you are, the stronger your critical thinking skills will be and the more you’ll know about the world around you. When you write a paper, you’re learning how to synthesize new ideas from diverse types of information; when you study for a test, you’re figuring out how to apply the concepts you were taught in class; when you memorize facts and figures, you’re adding to your knowledge base and your ability to put things in context.
And, in the end, this is the real reason for going to school—to become an educated, knowledgeable, rational human being, not to get straight As or go to an Ivy League college or even to get a high-paying job (though these things are nice too!).
Okay, enough with my little spiel. It’s time to get down to business.
lars, Intel Science Fair finalists, National Spelling Bee champions, and more!
Lifestyle Tips and Techniques
Discover tips and mantras that will keep you on the road to academic success.
Practice makes perfect. Put what you've learned to the test with easy exercises on taking notes, staying motivated, and more.