I graduated in May of 2018 with B.A.s in Computer Science and Studio Art. I had the highest overall GPA of anyone in either of my majors, and had a 4.0 in Computer Science. My goal had been to graduate summa cum laude, which I did with plenty of room to spare. Keeping my grades up wasn’t easy, but it was well worth it. Learning in itself is incredibly rewarding and having that nice pretty 4.0 to show for it isn’t too bad either. Without further ado, here’s how I did well in college.
Go. To. Class.
If I had to shorten this post down to five words, those would be the words. Go to class; pay attention. A solid 80% of my learning occurred while I was actually in class. Turns out, most professors are actually pretty good at getting information from their brain to yours. It’s almost like it’s their job.
I’m not saying that I never missed class. There are occasional days where going to class just isn’t the move, but in general, I went to class 95% of the time. Just going to class isn’t enough, though. Don’t go to class just to sit on Reddit the whole time. Pay attention, and take good notes. It’s amazing how much you can learn just by listening and writing down what you hear. In my experience, most professors explain things thoroughly and are great at answering questions. And most classes are what, an hour long? Pay attention. Just showing up and paying attention in class is the absolute best use of your time while you’re in school.
Start assignments early. Yes, even those semester long assignments. In fact, I’d often break those down and give myself deadlines throughout the semester so that I kept moving forward with large projects and didn’t save them until the end.
By starting your assignments early, within a day of them being assigned, you give yourself several advantages. The most obvious is that you’ll have time to go to office hours if you have questions before the assignment is due. I typically had my professors’ office hours memorized, even if I only ended up going once or twice in a semester. Your professors are there to help. If you start early and run into trouble, go ask questions. They’ll often give you quite a bit of assistance.
Starting early also gives your brain time to mull over the problem before actually solving it. Often, “starting early” merely meant that I’d read over the homework problems or the requirements for the paper and then let them float around in my brain for a day or two before even starting to brainstorm or writing a single line of code. Your brain does a lot of thinking while you’re off doing other things, and will often come up with great ideas in your absence if you just give it time.
Starting early also allows you time to make mistakes and gives you a bit of breathing room in case something else comes up. By staying a few days ahead on my work, if I didn’t do anything for a day because I was sick or something else came up, I didn’t fall behind on my assignments. It’s much easier to stay ahead than it is to get ahead. Start the semester off strong and stay on top of your work so that you build up a bit of a buffer for when things do go wrong. Because things will go wrong.
If you start early, you’re also likely to finish early, which gives you time to fix things before turning in your work. Reviewing your work before turning it in is important. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve caught stupid errors on exams by going through and double or triple checking my work before turning it in. The same thing happens with homework. Aim to finish early so that you have time to step back for a bit and give your brain a break, then revisit your work to check it over for errors.
Start studying for exams early as well. I typically would start studying about a week before the exam, but if I could manage it, two weeks was even better. I’m sure you’re aware that cramming isn’t going to be nearly as effective as spreading out your studying, so I won’t spend too long on the topic. Suffice it to say that twenty to thirty minutes of studying each day for a week or two leading up to an exam will often be enough to get a grade that your mom would be proud to hang on her fridge.
Make flashcards. Pretty much the easiest way to fit in little bits of studying is to make a set of flashcards that cover the exam material and carry them around with you. Any time you find yourself with a few extra minutes while you wait for someone to show up or class or a meeting to start, pull out the flashcards. Before you know it, you’ll fit an extra fifteen or twenty minutes of studying into each day without having to plan it, and that time would’ve otherwise likely been wasted on your phone.
Speaking of using those little blocks of time, seriously make sure you’re taking advantage of those. Our days are full of little two to ten minute chunks of empty space. Use those bits of time! They’re great for doing a bit of brainstorming for a paper, reading, writing, or studying. When you have a lot to do, it’s important to use your time efficiently.
If you want good grades, good time management skills are non-negotiable! I perfected my ability to manage my time about half way through college, and I would not have achieved everything I did without it. Getting good grades, working, having a social life, taking care of yourself, sleeping enough, and participating in clubs and groups on campus means you’ll be busy. To get everything done, your time management needs to be impeccable.
I calendar blocked every single day in college. Each evening, I planned out exactly what I needed to do the next day from the time I woke up til the time I fell asleep, and then I stuck to that schedule like my life depended on it. Efficiently managing your time means that everything gets put on the calendar in a way that makes sense, then you follow the calendar, and not a minute is wasted. Use those little bits of time!
If you’re looking for personalized advice, feel free to email me at email@example.com and I’d love to talk through your schedule with you and help you set something up that works for you.
Take advantage of office hours. Office hours are there to help you! Often, the professor will be able to explain something in a slightly different way than they did in class, or help you to make a connection that just wasn’t clicking before if they have the chance to talk to you in person. Sometimes they’ll even just give you the answers to the homework. I’ve seen it happen. Plus, showing up to office hours throughout the semester, not just at the end, shows your professor that you care and want to do your best, so they’re more likely to be lenient while grading your work and give you extensions if you need them.
Work with your peers. Find a few people in each of your classes that you can work with. Help each other with homework, studying, and understanding concepts that you don’t fully grasp. I couldn’t have done it alone.
Working with others is beneficial in a couple ways. If you don’t understand something and ask a classmate to explain it, they may have insights that you didn’t see, or share tricks that they use to help remember things. The people around you are full of great information. On the other hand, if someone else doesn’t understand a concept and you explain it to them, you’ll further solidify your understanding of the idea and be better able to remember it. Teaching others is one of the best ways to check your own understanding of something.
Care about your classes. I did everything I could to take classes I loved with professors I love in subjects that I love. It’s a million times easier to learn new ideas and work on difficult assignments if you deeply love the work you’re doing. I formed close friendships with a few professors and genuinely loved both of my majors. Waking up each morning excited to work and learn makes it significantly easier to get good grades and really dedicate yourself to learning.
Stay organized. This is fairly basic advice, but it’s necessary to succeed. Know where all of your books and assignments are. Keep your files organized on your computer so you can find and reference old assignments if you know they have useful information. Don’t load your bag up with crap so that you can’t find that paper you need to turn in. Color coding my notebooks and folders by class helped me to find things easily and put them back in the right place when I was finished with them. You don’t need to be flawlessly organized, but make sure that you have a system that works for you.
GET ENOUGH SLEEP. You won’t be able to function at your best, retain the most information, or do your best work if you’re tired. I never pulled an all nighter in order to get work done. I never even came close to pulling an all nighter. I rarely did homework after 7 p.m. Get your work done at a reasonable hour, and then get some sleep.
Sleep works wonders when it comes to your brain’s ability to hold and process information. All of your assignments and test scores will improve if you start getting enough sleep. You’ll be able to work faster and more efficiently and have more time for yourself if you’re well rested. Getting enough sleep as often as possible was priority number one for me. There will be occasional days where a full eight hours isn’t possible, but nine days out of ten, you need to be getting at least seven hours of sleep.
Something that really helped me personally, but may not help everyone, was to become a morning person. Setting myself up with a good morning routine so I could get a lot of homework done before the rest of the campus woke up gave me the ability to be a bit more flexible with the rest of my day.
Because campus is so quiet at 7 a.m., especially on the weekends, mornings are the perfect time to really focus and get your best work done. As an art major, I liked to get in the studio early in the morning as often as possible so I could get work done without sharing the space with other people. Tons of people stay up late doing homework, but it’s rare that college kids do work in the morning, so no one will be around to distract you.
Go above and beyond. If you really love a subject, or a project, or a class, run with that. I fell head over heels in love with ceramics, and ended up making 1000 pots as my senior capstone project just because I loved the medium so much and wanted to take it as far as I could. Professors teach because they’re passionate about their subject. They love seeing that passion in their students and will make your life so much easier if they know you’re genuinely interested in the subject. Don’t force yourself to pretend to love something you couldn’t care less about, but if you find something you love, don’t hide it.
I often say that my advice isn’t always right for everyone, but I’m not going to say that today. If you do everything I’ve talked about here, good grades will follow. Getting a 4.0 is possible, it just takes a lot of hard work and dedication. Focus on understanding the material, putting in the work, and taking care of yourself, and your GPA will reflect that.