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Ultimately, all top students are different, and all of them study in different ways. However, there is a variety of pedagogically- and psychologically- supported ways of studying, which have a lot to do with focusing on really learning the material in a way that does not require much additional effort on your part, and in a way that is healthy for you in the long run. Not all top students adhere to the points listed below, but they would probably (in my experience) be a lot better if they did.

The trick to studying has nothing to do with doing work early, or changing your day-night schedule, or even getting help from others. I skip class at least a few times every semester, I rarely take notes in most of my classes, and I definitely cram for exams. The real way to get good grades, the one that anyone can do, is to make it easy to learn.

  1. Focus on working when you feel most awake and concentrated. While it’s tempting to try to follow academic literature about waking up early and going to bed on time, trying to be awake at a time that you really just want to go to sleep, and forcing yourself to go to bed when you’re not tired, is just a way of adding more stress and mental load to your life. Study when you can study, regardless of when your friends study, or when I study, or when scientists tell you to study. (Here’s a secret – most of those studies are specious at best).
  2. Focus on methods that help you learn. For some people, it has to do with hearing the material, for some reading it, and for others, writing it. It doesn’t matter at all how you take the material in, as long as you’re engaged with it. To make sure you’re not wasting your time staring glazedly at a Powerpoint with a bunch of words you don’t really understand, test yourself often. This is easier if you’re progressing towards questions that someone else has given you (like a study guide or a practice test), but it can also be done by yourself – what do terms mean? How do you summarize a concept into a single sentence? How would you draw a process as a diagram?
  3. Focus on understanding concepts, rather than memorizing them. Look at the levels of learning, and focus on the upper levels – understanding, applying, analyzing, and evaluating. Testing yourself with the above questions is part of the way towards doing this, but make sure for important things you really put some extra thought into it. Why might a certain term be used for a concept (for example, Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation is a word for using a magnetic field to influence brain activity? This makes sense because transcranial means through the skull, magnetic refers to a magnetic field, and stimulation is making something active through an outside force)? What is the mechanism that a process occurs in a certain order, and what would happen if the process occurred in a different order? How are certain concepts related to each other?
  4. Focus on what is really bothering you, rather than what is most pressing. For me, this means most often that I will put off doing work (such as doing a homework assignment the night before it’s due at 10:00 pm, instead of doing it three days before or that night at 8:00 pm) if when I attempt to study before that time, I feel extremely concerned about something else – if I am overtired from waking up early for a class that morning if I am hungry because I didn’t have time to eat recently if I am having a fight with my boyfriend if I feel really behind in a different class that does not have an exam or an assignment as soon. Before you are a student, you are a human being – and neglecting the latter will only hurt the former because it is much harder to commit to really high-quality mental activity when you are really nervous about something. It is okay to have physical demands. It is okay to have social demands. You can’t learn as well if you’re extremely tired, or extremely hungry, or if you have a bad headache; and if you are feeling those things, it is okay to attend to them first. If you sacrifice everything in your life for more than a very short amount of time to try to achieve an academic goal, your mental health will suffer – so try to make sure that your goals are either in line with your ability to work and manage different stressors or that you are absolutely sure that those goals are worth the possible long-term cost.
  5. Focus on achieving excellence, rather than perfection. You live in a world where everyone has varying knowledge and varying abilities. Sometimes, an assignment is created to make everyone (or at least, a whole lot of people) struggle – and it’s important to recognize when you’re not getting anywhere with a problem. It’s definitely valuable in a lot of subjects to ‘tinker’ – that is, think about a problem in different ways, and attempt it in different ways, and try to think of what you might be missing, but sometimes, you can’t come up with a way that will actually make it work the way you think it should. If you absolutely cannot, after a reasonable amount of trying (based on how long it takes to do similar problems), come up with an answer, it’s really powerful to skip it and move on – and if later you have not gotten any new ideas, it’s sometimes valuable to move on. Flagellating yourself for missing a few questions on a test because you misread them is not productive for your learning in the long run. Staring at a single homework problem (or even a single assignment) for a very long time without making any meaningful progress on it is not productive for your learning in the long run, especially if you do not know what you need to learn or figure out in order to solve it. Remember that a 95 counts the same as a 100 for your GPA, that a 3.0 is considered great in many fields, and remember that making an honest mistake is something that all humans do. If you get something wrong in a way that you cannot make progress towards fixing (such as a mechanical mistake, a misreading when you are generally careful, or a misinterpretation of the problem), it is important to forgive yourself – this relates to the previous point about having good mental health is important to have academic success.