When I was in junior high school, I was obsessed by the idea of becoming valedictorian. I felt like I would be the happiest girl in the world if I could only be first in a class of about sixty students. That may not be the dream of most thirteen-year-old girls, but it was mine. Although not a superstitious person, I made wishes on pennies I found and the first star I saw in the night sky. When the end of eighth grade arrived and the rankings were announced, I learned that I was not valedictorian, not salutatorian, but third in my class. I was devastated.

That fall I started attending Stuyvesant High School, a specialized math-science school with thousands of brilliant students from all over New York City. I immediately gave up my dream of being valedictorian among such an illustrious group. Instead, I merely resolved to do the best that I could, without worrying about other people’s grades. You can imagine my surprise when, four years later, the principal told me that I was valedictorian!

I then went to Columbia University, where I was surrounded by so many smart and talented people that I thought my days of academic glory were over. So I again focused on things I could control: working hard, finding a major that interested me, and filling my brain with as much knowledge as it could hold. I was bowled over when, four years later, I received the Albert Asher Green prize for the highest GPA in my class. Without aiming to, I had achieved the number-one spot not once, but twice.

Most people assume that being a top student was easy for me — that I was a “natural” — but this was far from the case. I actually found school very difficult. For starters, I had poor listening comprehension and couldn’t absorb what my teachers said in class. It wasn’t until I read the textbook or my notes that things started making sense. I also had a stutter, which could turn activities like class participation and oral projects into terrifying ordeals. Nevertheless, I refused to let these obstacles get me down.

As a result of my experience, I became fascinated with academic success and what motivates top students. In preparation for a book I wrote on the subject, I surveyed forty-five academic superstars – including Rhodes scholars, college valedictorians, students in the top law and medical schools in the country, even a National Spelling Bee winner – on how they achieved success. Here’s what I learned:

Top Students Are Self-Motivated

There is something deep inside most top students that drives them to succeed; for the most part, they don’t depend on external motivation. What drives every student is different. In my case, it was the need to do my best and understand things. For other top students, it may be the desire to get into a top medical school, or become a lawyer, or land a dream job – the possibilities are endless.

You may have heard about helicopter and tiger parents who micromanage their kids’ lives and aggressively push them to succeed. Well, it turns out that most of the top students in my survey don’t have parents like that. Seventy-five percent said that their folks were supportive without being pushy, compared with 18 percent who felt that their parents pressured them to get good grades. And when asked to rate how much they attribute different factors to their success on a scale of 1 to 10, top students gave “pressure from self” an average score of 8.69. “Parental pressure,” on the other hand, scored only 4.20.

If you have trouble finding your inner motivation, you may want to try a goal setting program. According to a 2010 study, students who wrote about their goals and how to achieve them raised their GPA by 30 percent. You can find one such program here.

Top Students Have a Competitive Streak

This point cannot be denied. Not surprisingly, top students like coming out on top. There’s a little thrill that comes from getting better grades than your classmates. Top students are a lot like top athletes – they thrive on competition.

If you feel you don’t perform well under pressure, however, all is not lost. Research has shown that people can change the way they react to stress. In a 2009 study, students who were told that feeling anxious could enhance their performance scored significantly higher on a GRE test. Viewing stress as something positive rather than negative may help you become a better student.

Top Students Love to Learn

It’s not all about the grades – most top students actually care about what they’re studying. In my survey, students said that the desire to learn was one of the most important keys to their success.

In college, you have a lot of freedom in what to take – so choose classes that are interesting to you, and major in something you’re passionate about. The more involved you are in what you’re learning, the more successful you’ll be.

Aiming to be a top student is a good goal to have. But no matter what your grades are, you should always be proud of doing your best. If you do that, any outward show of success — being valedictorian, getting straight A’s, graduating summa cum laude, etc. — will just be icing on the cake.

About the Author: Stefanie Weisman was valedictorian of Stuyvesant High School in New York City and graduated from Columbia University with the highest GPA in her class. She has a B.A. in History, a B.S. in Computer Science, and an M.A. in Art History. She is the author of The Secrets of Top Students: Tips, Tools, and Techniques for Acing High School and College (Sourcebooks, 2013). Follow Stefanie on her website or on Twitter @StefanieWeisman.


Image: Svein Halvor Halvorsen