Today’s post is by Ryan Nguyen, a UC Santa Barbara, CA student who writes for our friends over at CollegeInfoGeek. Ryan is also a soon-to-be medical student, and blogs about his premed journey on PracticalPremed.

Most students are terrible at studying.

Perhaps it’s not entirely our’ fault. With so much emphasis in school placed on what to study, it’s no wonder that how we study gets lost by the wayside.

One of the strengths of the traditional education system is that it does a great job of teaching the progression of concepts. For example, basic addition and subtraction is taught before algebra, which is taught before trigonometry, and so on. However, one of the shortcomings of the system, and something I wrote an entire post on, is the lack of education on progression of how to study. The traditional solution to a student struggling in math in 1st grade is the same solution to a student struggling with math in college: “The student needs to study harder.”

It’s time to re-think the way we study.

Want to get better grades and actually learn what’s being taught in your classes? Take a step back, and objectively look at how you fundamentally prepare for your exams. Chances are, your notes are copied verbatim from the professor’s powerpoint slides and lecture, with a few insights added here and there.

Guess what? The vast majority of your classmates take notes the same way.

Dig a little deeper and how do most students traditionally study? Reading over notes again and again, hoping concepts will stick. Maybe copying these notes, hoping that the act of writing them down will help. And let’s not forget repeating the same assignment problems that everyone else has.

So if everyone is studying the same way from the same set of notes, what then becomes the key-determining factor for distribution of grades?


The students who can put in the most time studying end up earning the best grades. When everyone plays by the same unwritten rules of traditional studying, the winners are determined by a race to the bottom. There will always be another student who can put in more hours, who has fewer things to worry about, and displays a greater ability to forgo sleep. And when a student struggles in this system, the inevitable advice is to “study harder.”

How a struggling college student turned his grades (and life) around.

In the spring of 2009, I was stuck in this exact rut. Countless all-nighters, poorly constructed notes, and caffeine-fueled panic attacks at 3am in the morning had taken their toll. As a pre-med, I had become grown to accept that this was merely how things went. But something in the back of my mind suggested otherwise.

There had to be a better way.

Stumbling across Cal Newport’s blog StudyHacks, opened up my eyes to a whole world of students who dare I say, hack college. More specifically, I discovered a group of students who redefined what it meant to have a successful college experience. These are students who consistently earn high grades while making it seem easy.  They not only set the curve, they also do incredible things outside the classroom. These students don’t just reject the traditional rules of studying, they’ve created a whole new system all their own.

Over the past year and half, I’ve made a point of dissecting the minds of such students, reading their blogs, interviewing them on their systems, and (somewhat) creepily adopting their eccentricities. Perhaps the most startling realization: these students are just like you and me. They get frustrated, they oversleep every once in awhile, and they deal with the same fears and worries that every other college student faces. The difference isn’t that they are super humans with photographic memory and ridiculous IQ’s, but that they approach school in a manner that fundamentally differs from what is the “traditional” college experience. Rarely did any of these students ever have to pull all-nighters, they all had real, valuable relationships with professors and TA’s, and somehow they managed to do some pretty incredible stuff outside the classroom, such as starting their own company.

And could a regular guy like me actually use these strategies?

After adopting these improved study habits, I went from quarters of sub-3.0 GPA’s to an average GPA of ~3.8 over my last 4 full-time quarters.

Yeah, these strategies work.

After a year of researching and adopting such habits, I found 3 unifying strategies among all these high-achieving students. Strategies that any student could pick up now to improve their college experience.

3 Lessons from College Hackers:

They ruthlessly protect their studying/work time.

“Giving someone four hours of uninterrupted time is the best gift you can give them at work.”- Jason Fried, founder of collaboration software company 37signals.

Students who are high-performers are ruthless with their peak studying time. They recognize that more can be accomplished in 30 minutes of isolated, uninterrupted work, than in 3 hours of distracted, unfocused “traditional” studying.  Interruptions, whether external or internal, are the biggest hurdle to overcome in effective studying. External distractions can be your roommates asking you a few questions or a phone call while internal distractions can be checking facebook, sending a tweet, or even going through emails. The most effective students treat these distractions like the black plague and do everything they can to stay away from them while in hardcore studying mode. They use apps to block distracting websites, they find isolated study spots away from their normal daily schedule, and they create an atmosphere of ”don’t bother me, I’m studying.” This approach will unsettle others, who are used to you replying to their requests within minutes, but the reality is that there is rarely a distraction that requires immediate attention. High-achieving students recognize the importance of momentum, of pure, unadulterated time to work on the task at hand or learn the concept behind a lecture.

Challenge: Find a brand new study spot away from your daily schedule and spend 1 or 2 hours to just study without any interruptions. This spot could be a out of the way coffee shop, a hidden table in a low-traffic university building, or even an empty classroom on campus. Turn off your phone for those two hours, block all distracting website, and just focus on the most important thing you need to do. Reflect on the difference between those 1-2 hours of uninterrupted study time vs. any other distraction-filled study session you’ve had in the past.

They have distinct systems for processing and organizing information.

The wealth of information that exists in college can be overwhelming. Meetings, appointments, interviews, exams, lectures, just the sheer volume and variety of things to remember can cause our minds to switch into “off” mode, choosing to stop even trying to process information. And in the bustle of midterms and papers, our emotions and stress begin to dictate where priorities will be placed, and the class you don’t have any exams for that week will get placed pretty low on this list. The problem with this approach is that while the class with the exam demands the majority of the attention during the week, other information you receive during the week can be vital to your success in other classes. How then can all this information be managed? Systems. By removing the human component, with all its emotion and chance for error, systems compensate for where our limitations exist. Students who seemingly are juggling an impossible number of tasks while also excelling in school all operate by a variety of systems.

Of these systems, there are two that I’ve used to great success and found among many top students:

1) Digital Records: Gone are the days when losing a paper with the assignment instructions would fuel a panic attack. When students keep digital records of everything, from syllabi to practice tests to class notes, the fear of losing a paper here or there disappears. And the hour you would spend rummaging through your backpack and room for a specific set of notes would instead be used on actually studying. Evernote has been by far the best file and note management software I’ve come across so far. The ability to switch between different set of notes so easily makes for a user interface perfect for students. In this post I go over exactly how I use the program to manage my different classes, exams, and projects.

2) Project Folders: Cal Newport advocates the use of plain-old manilla folders to manage preparation material for classes. Each exam or paper gets its own folder, and anything associated with that exam or paper is put into the folder. The sheer simplicity of the system is what makes it so applicable for students, manilla folders are pretty cheap to come by, and if you keep digital records of all your notes, you can then just print out a set and stick in in the manilla folder. This solution to managing information fits in perfectly to a student’s needs; it focuses information to what that information can be applied to and is radically simpler than constructing a 3-ring binder with color coded dividers. Once again, time can be spent on actually studying rather than making a binder that just “looks good” but has minimal practical functionality.

They choose their battles.

Even with the best studying methods and systems, there are bound to be “bad weeks” in college. Perhaps it’s the week you had three midterms in as many days, the week with two paper deadlines sandwiching a presentation, or even the week where a job interview landed on the very same day as a final. The point being, while students cannot control their schedules enough to avoid these types of weeks altogether, they can control how they deal with them. And while this avalanche of studying may paralyze most students into inaction and procrastination, high-achieving students recognize the impending amount of work to be done and choose to do the brunt of studying at a time much earlier than the day before the exam or deadline. They recognize that yes, it’s not going to be pretty, but they choose to fight the battle on their terms. By struggling with the material multiple days before an exam, these students can get the emotions of nervousness and anxiety out of the way so that come test time, those jitters have been dealt with.

Challange: The next time you have a “bad week” coming up, schedule out hard study days up to a week before you exams or deadlines. Plan to have 90-95% of the material well understood at least 2 days before the test. The day before a test is the absolute worst time to learn new material, and is better suited to reinforcement of what you already know.

Disclaimer: I am in no way affiliated with any product, service, or person mentioned in this article. However, I am willing to accept money from anyone who wants to fund my medical education.

What systems or strategies do you use to study?

[Photo by English106 licensed under CC BY 2.0]