What makes some college students successful, while others — well, less so? Sometimes, it’s a question of intelligence or insight. And sometimes, it’s sheer good luck. But a lot of the time it’s good habits: things you do on a regular basis that set you aside from the hordes of other, more scattered students. In the hopes of separating the sheep from the goats, we offer our top ten habits of the most successful students. You’ll find that these folk …
1. Have a goal. They have a definite reason for being in college — and know what it is. Could be a future career, graduate or professional school, or just wanting to further your education. But it’s almost never because their parents told them to go to college, or because it’s the next thing to do after high school, or because they’re too unimaginative to think up anything else to do with their time.
2. Set priorities. For every student, college is a balancing act between going to classes, doing the homework, having a social life, and, for many students, holding down a job. But the successful student knows how much time to allot to each of these activities — and how to set limits. Maybe partying is held down on weeknights, or an employer is told that hours have to be cut back during the jam-packed midterm week, or one has to jettison the family thanksgiving dinner in favor of extra work on the term paper. Look, there are only 168 hours in the week — and no one of them can be spent twice.
3. Divide up the work. Readings get broken up into manageable chunks (not 200 pages in one sitting). Quizzes and tests are studied for over the course of a week (not at 3 a.m. the night before). And paper ideas start gestating when the assignment is handed out (not two days before the paper is due when you can barely formulate an idea, much less think through an issue).
4. Are organized. Successful students have gotten used to the fact that, in college courses, there’s not a lot of redundancy or “going over.” So, they make it their business to make most of the lectures (and don’t cut the sections , either). They take really good class notes (and keep them in super-neat condition). And they always get their work in on time (no one-week extensions that only make it harder to complete the work in their other courses).
5. Work efficiently. Each task is done well — and once. There’s no listening to the lecture a second time on their mp3 player (they paid careful attention the first time). No copying over all their notes (why would they do that if they have a good set from the lecture?). No doing the reading three times (once for a general overview, once to understand the argument or direction, and once to focus in on the finer points). In a fifteen-week semester, with four or five courses on tap, who has time to do things twice (or, in the case of some students, thrice)?
6. Are persistent. Successful students know that sometimes the going gets tough. Maybe there’s a problem-set that requires serious hard thinking, or a paper that has to go through a number of painful drafts, or a presentation that has to be rehearsed ’til one really has it down. But, whatever the case, the successful student doesn’t flinch at the extra effort needed or the uncertainty of the result while you’re still working on it. This student’s mantra: I’ll get this thing right if it kills me. (Which it usually doesn’t.)
7. Challenge themselves. Successful students are intellectually energetic. So, when they read, they think actively and critically about what they’re reading (not just slog their way through to get the plot). When they go to class, they actively think about, and question, what the professor is saying (not just taking it all in like a giant sponge). And when they write papers, they probe more deeply into nuances of the issue (not just looking for the most basic, “yes/no” answer). Above all, they get the wheels and springs of their mind moving — and keep them moving throughout any intellectual task.
8. Are open to feedback. The best students realize that the returned papers and exams are a golden opportunity: these are the times in the semester when the professor is giving one-to-one, customized feedback on their level of achievement. So instead of tossing away the graded papers and exams, or conveniently forgetting to pick them up, these students pore over the comments, and redo the missed problems, in the hopes of really learning where they went wrong and how they can do better next time. All in a non-defensive and genuinely open frame of mind. (Hard for everyone, but, somehow, these students manage to do it.)
9. Engage the professor. Successful students realize that the prof isn’t just some content-dispensing machine, pouring out what he or she knows during lecture, but is a working scholar who’s happy to work with you on the content and materials of the course. So they go to office hours, talk to the professor (or TA) after class, and email questions about things they didn’t understand. In the best case, they forge a two-way relationship with the professor and, in so doing, learn more than the average college student and defeat the anonymity of the (for some students) alienating mega-university.
10. Manage their emotions. It’s difficult to excel at college if you’re feeling inadequate, bummed out, or doomed to fail. So, successful students know how to focus on their own positive achievements — rather than on their failure to get a check-plus on the quiz that counts only two percent of the grade. And they’re not hyper-competitive or concerned to find out how everyone else did on that just-returned piece of work. They know that, for every assignment, there’ll probably be someone doing better than they — and many doing a whole hell of a lot worse. (And, even if not, there’s nothing they can do about it, so why add negative emotions to a less-than-stellar situation?)
Bonus Habit. Visualize success. For any multi-step activity — especially one that’s spread out over five years and forty-odd courses — it’s helpful to imagine the end product: that is, to really picture what it’ll be like, and to experience the good feelings that will come with it. That’s why the most successful college students repeatedly visualize what will come at the end of the road for them: their dream job, their acceptance to a prestigious graduate or professional school, or, simply, the next stage in their life. This provides motivation and energy, especially when you’re in a rut, and makes it all seem worthwhile. Which it is.