On the 4.0 scale, an unweighted 4.0 GPA means perfection. You need straight A’s in every class – not even one A- is allowed. In college applications, this carries a lot of weight – you’re essentially telling the college, “high school classes are a cinch. I’ve taken a tough courseload, and I’m more than prepared for what college has to throw at me.”
In high school, I got a 4.0 GPA with a courseload featuring 10 AP courses. I got straight A’s and 12 A+’s. This strong courseload, along with a strong application, got me into Harvard and every college I applied to.
While it's flattering to say, "well, Allen's just a smart guy," in reality I relied a lot more on high level strategy and strong academic habits. These were the same strategies I applied to my undergraduate work at Harvard and led me to graduate with a 3.95 GPA and summa cum laude. This is the guide I wish I had in freshman year of high school.
Do you know how to learn effectively? Do you plan your course sequence correctly? Do you know how to structure your time so you get an A in the most efficient way possible? Do you understand how your teacher thinks and how to give your teacher what she wants? Do you have good study habits so you’re not wasting hundreds of hours of study time? Do you have self-discipline and motivation to put in all the word required to handle a challenging courseload? Do you know how to use your inevitable failures to adjust course quickly and improve yourself to raise your grade?
Going deeply into these topics is the subject of this guide. I believe these high-level skills are the critical foundation to academic success – without good strategy, you can pound your head against the wall and waste thousands of hours getting nowhere.
Tragically, these strategies are rarely taught in school. Teachers will collectively spend thousands of hours teaching you from their curriculum but rarely show you how to strategize your coursework and get better grades.
This guide contains all the advice I wish I knew but had to figure out myself the hard way. If you earnestly apply most of the concepts here, I am certain that you will have a much higher chance of academic success.
What a 4.0 GPA Is
In this guide, the 4.0 I’m talking about is a 4.0 unweighted GPA. A 4.0 then means an A or A+ in every class, with no exceptions. An A- is a 3.7 on this scale and a single one will knock you down from a perfect GPA. Typically an A+ doesn’t count as a 4.3, so you can’t go above a 4.0.
Here's my official high school transcript from 2005:
Here are a few things to glean from my transcript:
I took a pretty advanced courseload, but it wasn't the most extreme courseload possible. I took 10 APs in high school (I don't count my second AP Comp Science course since this was done for fun and I already knew the material). This is a high number, but it’s also not the max I could have taken, and I know some students take 12+. I don't think this is necessary, since you'll do a lot better in college admissions if you spend the extra time on exploring your interests and developing deep extracurriculars.
A's and A+'s are treated the same in GPA calculations. I started high school with a lot more A+'s in freshman and sophomore year, and ended with none junior and senior year. I don't think there's much to read into this other than the fact that junior/senior teachers didn't give out A+'s. I have a story about that A+ in AP Biology below.
Finally, here were my AP scores at the end of high school, taken from my Harvard student record:
In total, I took 14 AP tests and got 5's in all but two (Comparative Govt and Comp Sci AB, which doesn't exist anymore). These two also happened to be senior year classes, meaning I was probably hit by senioritis.
I know a perfect 4.0 record like this might be intimidating, if you feel you're not on track to replicating. It shouldn't be. Again, a 4.0 isn't necessary for even the top colleges like Harvard and Stanford. You can take half the number of these AP courses and still get into an Ivy League school. I know this because of my wide experience with students and from seeing a lot of resumes from Ivy League applicants when hiring for my company.
But I wanted a 4.0, so I worked for it, and I got it.
This ambition led to some stressful situations where I was deathly afraid of getting an A-, especially when the teacher’s grading was incomprehensible. I know this can sound obsessive, and as I'll mention below, I recommend that most students not feel be this obsessive. But I’m just being honest and reporting my own experience for your benefit.
This guide contains every important strategy I used to maintain a perfect 4.0 GPA with a tough courseload. I strongly suggest you read through this entire guide at least once. At the least, if you already have a strong foundation, you'll pick up some tips that might improve your coursework.
But I'm hoping that I'll dramatically change how you view your learning, how you're spending your time everyday, and how you're playing the entire admissions game.
If you want a 4.0, your transcript will need to look like this.
Before we begin, I need to get a few things out of the way. Bear with me because I’m going to anticipate common objections you might have that can affect how you interpret my advice.
If you’re looking for shortcuts or the academic equivalent of a “get rich quick” scheme, you won’t find it here. I won’t sugarcoat it – taking an advanced courseload and getting great grades will take a lot of hard work. I don’t know of any legitimate secrets that are going to get you the same result while reducing your workload by 90%, and I’d be suspicious of anyone who promised these secrets.
But it is vital that 1) you develop the mindset and motivation to work hard, and 2) you spend your limited time as effectively as possible to get the best result. That’s what this guide is about.
I’m a very direct and straightforward person, and I speak my mind. This means some advice might rub you the wrong way. If that’s the case, try to focus on the bigger picture and on the advice you do like. I don’t want you to throw the baby out with the bathwater just because you think I’m a jerk.
My focus is on helping you do better, and one of the best ways is to share my experiences honestly, warts and all. I did indeed go through a lot of stress in high school and put in a ton of effort. I think I was obsessive about achievement and have a high capacity for mental pain, and I happen to love working hard. I don’t think it’s optimal for most students to do what I did and feel what I felt, and I’ll explicitly point this out at places. So just because I describe my experience doesn’t mean I always condone it for everyone.
If you’re aiming for a 4.0 GPA, I’m guessing you also want to get into top schools in the country, so I’ll orient this guide toward both goals. To set the perspective correctly, I want to stress that a 4.0 is NOT required to get into top schools like Harvard and Princeton. You do NOT need perfect grades and test scores to get into the Ivy League. As an example, the average unweighted self-reported GPA of incoming students at Harvard is a 3.94. Thus, a 4.0 is really not that different from a 3.9 from the eyes of the college.
Do NOT freak out if you have high college goals and don’t already have a perfect GPA. It’s nowhere near the end of the world. I explain more about why in my How to Get Into Harvard guide.
The 4.0 number is not all you should aim for – the rigor of your coursework makes a big difference (this is where the concept of the weighted GPA comes in). Ideally you would both take difficult courses and excel in them. But if you have to make a tradeoff, I’d lean toward the more difficult courses. A B in an AP class is better than an A in a regular class.
Despite the title of this guide, the concepts are widely applicable to GPAs in all ranges. Even if you’re not aiming strictly for a 4.0, applying the advice here will get you closer to a 3.8 GPA or a 3.0 GPA or wherever you’re aiming. You can use all the strategies here to improve your grades and raise your GPA. This is geared toward high school students, but readers currently in college – the concepts apply equally to you, and often even moreso since you don’t have as much parental structure over your work.
This guide is aimed at high-achieving students who want to aim for academic success and push themselves to be better. As weird as it sounds, this is not the stance everyone should take. Yes, I know how stressed out students are these days about getting into college. No, I don’t think everyone should feel like they need to get into Stanford. Everyone has different academic goals, and this guide isn’t for everyone.I don’t think everyone should aim for the toughest courseload and perfect grades. Not enough students and families make decisions for personal happiness and are in a state of constant stress, especially if they constantly feel like they’re not doing enough. This can have bad long-term consequences. (In fact, applying the advice below should actually make your academic life easier because you’re spending your time more effectively.)
That said, I do believe there are huge benefits to academic success. Not only does it lead to obvious benefits like better colleges and more rewarding careers, it also trains fundamental skills that are applicable to improving the rest of your life. When I was in high school, I knew I wanted to get into a top school like Harvard, and I knew I was willing to endure the sacrifices and pain to get there. I cared deeply about my academic success and I constantly pushed myself to get better. If this sounds like you and you honestly want to get a 4.0 for good reasons, then you’ll vibe with my advice strongly.
So yes, I know there are other things to life than getting into the best college you can. Still, I know it’s a valuable goal for many of you, so I’m orienting this guide toward that. When you hear me say “do this to improve your college application,” you should read this as, “do this if college admissions is an important goal to you.”
Finally, I co-founded a company called PrepScholar. We create online SAT/ACT prep programs that adapt to you and your strengths and weaknesses. I want to emphasize that you do NOT need to buy a full prep program to get a great score. That said, I do believe that PrepScholar is the best SAT program available right now, especially if you find it hard to organize your prep and don't know what to study. In any case, the fact that I run a test prep company doesn't really affect my advice below.
I hope you’re still with me and that the above cleared up some concerns you had coming into this article. Now let’s get started.
What Role Do Coursework and GPA Play in College Admissions?
To understand how colleges think, it's important to put yourself in their shoes. I explain this in much more detail in my Getting into Harvard guide, but in short, colleges want to admit students who are going to change the world.
But how do you predict who's going to change the world when applicants are just 17-18 years old? By using their past achievement as a predictor of future achievement.
Admissions offices at colleges do a lot of research studies on what types of students they admit and how to predict students who are going to be most successful. Often in these studies, high school coursework has one of the strongest correlations with college grades.
The former Dean of Admissions at Harvard said:
We have found that the best predictors at Harvard are Advanced Placement tests and International Baccalaureate Exams, closely followed by the College Board subject tests. High school grades are next in predictive power, followed by the SAT and ACT.
In the majority of studies, high school grades have the strongest correlation with college grades. The SAT and ACT have the next strongest correlation, but this too is not surprising because they have a strong correlation with high school grades.
This isn't very surprising - it takes a lot of skill and effort to excel with a demanding high school courseload. The qualities that lead to success in high school - curiosity, motivation, hard work, good planning, time management, control of your own psychology - are likely to lead to success in college and career. These are all qualities we're going to cover in this guide.
Thus, your high school coursework is one of the most important pieces of your college application. In terms of time expenditure, it’s by far where you’ll be spending the most time, at over 2,000 hours per year (at 180 school days * (7 hours/day in school + 4 hours of homework)). This is equivalent to a full time job.
Learning is your job. But instead of building a house, you're building your future.
Finally, just to beat a dead horse, here are quotes from admissions offices from top colleges on importance of coursework to your college application.
The high school transcript is almost always the most important document in a student’s application. But it is hard to conceive of a situation in which the appearance (or absence) of any one particular class on a transcript would determine the applicant’s outcome.
There is no single academic path we expect all students to follow, but the strongest applicants take the most rigorous secondary school curricula available to them…Although schools provide different opportunities, students should pursue the most demanding college-preparatory program available, consistent with each student’s readiness for particular fields of study.
We give the greatest weight to your academic transcript. The rigor of the courses you've taken, the quality of your grades and the consistency with which you've worked over four years give us the clearest indication of how well you will do at Amherst.
Your high school record is the most important aspect of your application, but very strong consideration is also given to your extracurricular activities, essays, letters of recommendation and standardized test scores. Competitive candidates for admission pursue the most demanding course work possible and receive strong grades."
Once again, though, don't get the wrong idea. "Most rigorous secondary school curricula" does NOT mean "take every AP class under the sun, at the expense of sleep and your sanity."
Says Stanford on this subject:
The students who thrive at Stanford are those who are genuinely excited about learning, not necessarily those who take every single AP or IB, Honors or Accelerated class just because it has that designation.
In essence, colleges by no means want to promote unhealthy obsession over racking up AP courses, especially if you're not interested in the material.
BUT: if you can ace the most advanced courseload available to you, AND build a strong application at the same time, you're at the level that the best colleges are looking for.
What This 4.0 GPA Guide Is About
As I mentioned at the beginning, this is not a guide where I teach you actual math or writing content. This is a high-level strategy and planning guide for you to have the right mindset and practices to achieve academic success.
I see this as the foundation on which you build your high school career. Just like in construction, if you have a weak foundation, your building will crumble, no matter how much effort you put in. Build on a strong foundation, and you’ll find studying far easier and more effective.
I’ve worked with a lot of students who see academic success purely as a content mastery and brute force problem – try hard enough to master the content and put in enough hours, and you’ll do better. Unfortunately if they’re learning the wrong way or spending time on stuff that’s not actually effective, they’ll see quickly that their hard work is wasted.
Here’s what we’ll cover in broad strokes. Each layer builds on the next and we’ll go from high to low level:
Mindset and Psychology
Overall Planning and Habits
Individual Class Strategies
Let's start at the highest level.
Section 1: Mindset and Psychology
The first, most fundamental thing you need to control is your own psychology. You need to believe that you’re capable of improving, and you need to be motivated to work hard.
If you lack these two insights, you won’t be able to put in the effort to achieve your goals, and you’ll be crippled by small setbacks.
1.1 Have a Growth Mindset: Your Goal is to Improve Constantly
Pop quiz. Tell me if you agree with any of these statements:
- You have a certain amount of intelligence, and you can’t really do much to change it.
- You're naturally good at some things and not others, and what you're not good at you can't do much to improve.
- You're afraid of others knowing about your failures because of what your failures say about you.
- You want to hide your flaws so that you're not judged a failure. You're afraid of looking dumb.
- You often get angry when you get negative feedback about your performance.
If you strongly agree with any or one of these statements, you have a critical problem with your psychology. You'll find it very hard to improve from your current situation because, deep down, you basically believe that you can't improve what you were born with. Every setback will pound you down, and you'll find it hard to make progress.
You're not alone - a lot of people, students and adults alike, believe intelligence is fixed. "People are just born smarter than others, and however smart you are now is how smart you’ll be from here on out."
This is tempting to believe because your observations of the world seem to fit this idea. The smart kid at your school just always seems to ace everything without breaking a sweat, and she’s always been that way. In contrast, you might have tried really hard in a class but no matter what and ended up with a B. Or you might not ever have been good at math, so improving your math grades seems impossible.
A belief in a fixed intelligence has problems whether you believe you’re smart or not. If you don’t believe you’re intelligent, then you’ve accepted that you’ll never be intelligent. If you’re bad at writing, you’ll always just be bad at writing. People are “right-brained” or “left-brained,” so of course they’ll do worse on classes they’re not good at!
While people definitely can have different talents, too often this kind of thinking is used to justify poor performance without thinking hard enough about how to actually improve.
Here’s the trap – let’s say you do poorly on something, like a math test. If you believe your talent is fixed, your excuse will be that you’re bad and you’ll always be bad. You won’t consider seriously the fact that you CAN actually improve. You won’t think hard about how exactly you failed and what you need to change to stop failing.
(I’m using “fail” often here and it may sound intense to you. The way I think about it, if you want an A, then a B is a failure. You can’t compromise this because you risk sliding into complacency and lowering your goals. So I’ll continue using “fail” throughout this guide even though it usually means something far less severe than literally failing the class).
This trap is easy to fall into because It’s easier to blame something out of your control (an idea that you were born with talent or not) than to admit that you just didn’t work hard enough or effectively enough to meet your goal.
This isn’t just relevant for low performing students – it’s a problem for high performers too. High achieving students often fall into a trap where they take failures too hard as a personal blow to their ego. They’ve been praised as smart from childhood and academics comes naturally to them.
When they first encounter failure, they don’t know how to react. If you believe that classwork is about intelligence, and you believe your intelligence is high but fixed, then a failure in classwork will seem unsolvable. Every mistake and failed test will be a crushing blow to your ego, and you’ll doubt yourself constantly and wonder if you’re doing things right. I think this is partly why students who excel in high school end up floundering in college when classes are a lot more demanding and they don’t have the structure of high school and parenting.
The Solution to a Fixed Mindset
The antidote to both problems is to adopt a growth mindset. This idea was developed by Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford, after decades of study of learners. Here’s her summary:
“In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that's that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don't necessarily think everyone's the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.”
In short, intelligence can be developed and trained. You CAN get better and smarter.
No matter how good you think you are now, your job is to get better and improve constantly. Your job is to use your experiences and failures to do better the next time, not to accept your failures for what they are.
This idea is borne from research. In a 2007 study, Dweck followed students transitioning from elementary school to junior high, when the material gets more challenging and the grading stricter. They wanted to see how the students’ mindset (fixed or growth) affected their math grades.
At the beginning of the project, they surveyed the students to gauge their perspectives on learning and mindset. One question asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the idea that “your intelligence is something very basic about you that you can’t really change” (just like I asked you at the beginning of this section).
Students with a growth mindset felt that hard work led to improvement. In response to a bad grade, growth mindset students wanted to work harder or try different strategies.
In contrast, students with a fixed mindset believed that smart people didn’t need to work hard to do well. When confronted with bad grades, students with fixed mindset said they would study less in the future and attributed it to their own lack of ability.
At the start of junior high, students in both groups showed comparable math test scores. But as the math got harder, a gap appeared – students with a growth mindset showed growth in test scores, while those with a fixed mindset slumped.
Here’s a model of how students with strong growth mindsets compare to those with strong fixed mindsets over 2 years:
Imagine how this difference scales over 20 years of your life, from elementary school to college and your career. The difference in the final result can be astounding.
This is why there’s a recent movement for parents and teachers to stop calling kids smart. Adults think they’re encouraging children with praise, but really they’re promoting a fixed mindset. If you believe your success is due to intelligence and not hard work, then when you encounter failure, you'll blame your intelligence, not your lack of hard work.
Having a growth mindset is important because you will inevitably face challenges in your classwork. You will do much worse on a biology test than you expected. You’ll get an essay back with a lot of red marks saying you just really didn’t get it.
It’ll feel terrible. I’d know - despite my perfect grades, I was nowhere close to acing every single assignment and test.
But after you give yourself time to grieve, you need to analyze exactly what you did and figure out what went wrong. Your actions led to this subpar result, and you need to change your actions to improve your result.
This all starts with believing that you’re capable of getting better. If you don’t accept this, you’ll just throw up your hands and resign yourself to your fate, which is basically like treating every class like a lottery.
Below, I’ll talk more about how to use feedback to reflect on your study strategy and improve.
The idea of a growth mindset is important throughout all of life, really. Whether you’re learning how to ski or trying to build stronger friendships, the belief that you’re capable of improving gives you the fuel to analyze your shortcomings objectively and actually try to improve them.
The alternative is to accept that you are now as good as you will ever be, and that whatever level you’re at is how you’ll stay for the rest of your life. That sounds pretty lame to me.
What Can You Do to Adopt a Growth Mindset?
If you said yes to any points in the pop quiz above, you're more likely to be operating in a fixed mindset. It's not likely you'll change this immediately, since you've believed in a fixed mindset for many years.
Instead, you'll benefit from a mindset change and taking little steps in the right direction.
First, repeat after me:
- However good you are now, you can get better, if you work hard and use your time effectively.
- Failures give you valuable feedback on how to improve. Failures are just temporary setbacks, and you'll do better in the future.
- You can learn to be good at anything, because your abilities are almost entirely up to you.
Note that this isn't saying everyone can be an Albert Einstein or a Kobe Bryant. But you can get a lot closer than you think.
After you adopt a mindset change, the important next steps are to actually apply the concepts to your work and continue believing it. We'll spend a lot more time below on how to use feedback to improve your studying.
For some fun examples, here's a well-known video by someone who learns to dance over a year, with focused practice:
If a year seems like a lot of time, here's a video by a dude who learns to kickflip in 5 hours.
The same thing applies to coursework.
If you don't think you're naturally good at math, you CAN get better.
If you've never been a natural writer, you CAN learn to write effectively.
I'm dwelling on this point because it's so critical to breaking free from constraints that you place on yourself now. You can improve from where you are, and you can have a lifetime of growth.
Moving on to the next major Mindset and Psychology point.
1.2 Be Prepared to Work Hard
We've already covered how top colleges like MIT or Yale place your coursework as one of the most important pieces of your application. These schools expect you to take a challenging courseload with some of the hardest courses offered at your school, often AP or IB classes. You’ll also have to do this while balancing extracurriculars, test prep, social life, and your sanity.
This means that your courseload is going to be challenging, and your schedule will be demanding. It will take a serious amount of work to excel in every single class, and sometimes it will feel like you’re just putting out new fires as fast as you can.
As a basic idea, I probably spent at least an average of 4 hours a day on homework, (including weekends) on projects, and studying. This would increase dramatically when finals and AP exams came around.
There’s no way around this. The smartest kid at your school might seem to just breeze through life and get straight A's without breaking a sweat. (If she enjoys having this reputation, she might even actively foster it.)
The reality is likely that the 'perfect student' is probably busting her ass everyday. She may just hide it well, or she just doesn’t really treat it like work and so doesn’t seem to be breaking a sweat. If you really enjoy learning, then working hard on schoolwork won’t be nearly as painful.
If you’re used to a comfortable life and schedule with many hours of free time everyday, you’ll probably have to start making tradeoffs in other areas of your life. If you care about high competition college admissions, you will need to orient your life toward that. This usually means less personal relaxation time or social time, or cutting out an extracurricular that isn’t adding to your application.
(Again, I'm not saying you HAVE to do this. Not every student should aim for the top colleges and the most rigorous courseload. But it's a meaningful goal and an important goal to a lot of you, so I'm just being real about what it takes.)
High school is of course four years, and so it’s going to be a marathon.
It will take effective strategies to understand where to spend your limited time to get the maximum result.
It will take discipline to keep yourself focused when there are distractions aplenty.
It will take motivation to power through disappointments and setbacks.
But the rewards are worth it, and if you learn these skills, you’ll be stronger in the rest of your life. We’re going to talk about each of these aspects below.
1.3 Find Something Deep to Drive You
For pretty much all ambitious students, high school coursework is going to be a grind. I’m not saying that learning isn’t fun, but inevitably you’ll have to do assignments you don’t care about, you’ll have to sit in class listening to profoundly dull teachers, and you have to prepare for exams that aren’t fun. All of this is going to take time and mental energy to drive through the most painful parts.
Having motivation makes a big difference in how hard you work and how strongly you persist through difficulty.
It turns out there are actually two types of motivation – extrinsic motivation (coming from outside) and intrinsic motivation (coming from within). One of them is a lot more durable than the other.
A common source of extrinsic motivation is parental pressure. If you fail a test, you might be grounded. If you don’t clean up your room, you get your phone taken away. More positively, if you get an A, maybe your parents buy you that pair of shoes you always wanted.
This can definitely work – but in the short term, and not reliably. While you might do your homework and stop texting for a night, ultimately it leads to frustration and resentment and won’t be reliable for long periods of time.
Just remember the last time you argued with your parents about something they wanted you to do, like chores or homework. Fear of punishment can be an effective motivator, but it wears off, especially as you get older and more independent.
“Fine! Ground me, I don’t care!” Sound familiar? If you rely on your parents to keep you working, and your parents aren’t around, you won’t work.
In contrast, intrinsic motivation comes from within. It’s something that you want for yourself – screw what other people think.
You might have a dream college you have a burning drive to attend.
You might want to prove your haters and doubters wrong.
You might want to compete with your nemesis and come out on top.
You might love learning things for its own sake.
In the darkest of times, this will drive you forward. When you’re tired and would rather watch Youtube, the idea of getting a B will get you out of bed and stay focused. When you get a C on your essay, the idea of failure will be unacceptable and you’ll have no choice but to question where you fell short and how you can improve in the future.
Research shows that extrinsic motivation like rewards are weak reinforces in the short run, and negative reinforcers in the long run.
Dig deep, find something internal you care about, and keep adding fuel to that fire.
(I want to caution here that you should try to steer away from unhealthy motivations if possible. I was very competitive in high school to the point of being repugnant, and my high school atmosphere overall was pretty toxic. It’s better if you can find something positive to encourage you that doesn’t make you a jerk.)
There’s more on intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation here, written for teachers.
Up to this point, we’ve covered really high level mindset and psychology. I know this parts of this sound like hokey motivational speech, but trust me. Way more students suffer from these problems than I would like.
Even though schools rarely cover these topics, I think they’re the most critical of all. If you don’t believe you have the capacity to improve, each failure will cripple you mentally. If you have nothing to drive you, your work everyday will be painful. You need a super solid foundation on which to build your actual learning and study habits.
With this in mind, we'll talk about about the next level - good academic practices and habits.
Section 2: Overall Planning and Habits
2.1 Plan Out Your Specific Course Sequence Early
Let’s start with the basics. You need to know early on what classes you’re going to take for your four years in high school. This will help prepare you mentally for what’s to come. You’ll make sure you have all the requirements in place and you’ll be able to start gathering info on classes to come. You’ll be able to picture the story that you’re building for your college applications.
You can approach this in two ways. The first way is top down – how many AP classes do you want to have taken by the time you apply to college? Which classes are these? With this in mind, you can fill in the classes backward based on the requirements for each of these classes.
The other way is bottom up – what classes have you taken already? What’s the logical, ambitious progression from this point forward? This will take you into senior year.
Gear your expected course sequence toward your interests. You don’t have to take every single hard class available. Remember what Harvard’s admissions office says: “students should pursue the most demanding college-preparatory program available, consistent with each student’s readiness for particular fields of study.”
Very roughly speaking, you tend to fit into one of math/science, social sciences, or humanities, and it’s useful for colleges to understand what you lean toward. I was a science guy and made sure to take all the major AP sciences, Calc BC, and Stats. I still took AP English, History, and Spanish, but I didn’t take AP courses for economics, psychology, and others.
If you don’t know what you’re interested in, you can do a general spread of the usual courses. As I suggest in my “How to get into Harvard” guide, though, I recommend you start thinking about what you want your application story to be and explore specific interests more deeply rather than try to be too well-rounded. (Sorry to keep linking to my Harvard guide, but it contains my best admissions advice and links strongly with this guide).
This also means that you don’t have to play the same game as everyone else. You do NOT need to take exactly as many AP courses as the top student in your school.
Are you a writer and do you really want to showcase this in your college application? You don’t have to take AP Biology. It might be really difficult and unenjoyable for you, and it will take up hundreds of hours that are far better spent elsewhere that will strengthen your application.
For my business, I interview and hire a lot of Ivy League graduates. When I ask about AP scores, it’s actually rare for someone to have taken the full gamut of AP courses, or even close to the 14 AP tests that I took. Most often it’s centered around their core interests.
Don’t feel pressured to do what your friends are doing or what’s generally accepted as right.
Finally, make sure you really understand all the prerequisites for each of the advanced courses and plan ahead. You may have to take summer school courses – understand how this works and anticipate any issues.
A personal example: I wanted to take AP Biology in Freshman year, which meant I had to take Biology as a summer course after 8th grade. This was unusual and I was only one of two freshmen to do this.
The next year I wanted to take AP Chemistry as a sophomore, which required me to take Chemistry in the summer. My high school only had two available classes for Chemistry, and they prioritized older students. I didn’t get the placement, which meant I had to register at a high school half an hour away and drive back and forth each day (thanks, Dad).
2.2 Start Getting Early Info on Future Courses
Another benefit of planning early is that you can start gathering information on courses you’ll be taking in future years. This will prepare you mentally for what’s to come and let you structure your life accordingly, like having the right amount of extracurriculars so you can stay afloat.
Different schools have different reputations for how courses are run. At my school AP Biology was seen as a hazing bootcamp, requiring hardcore memorization of tiny details. In contrast, AP Physics was really laidback, even though conceptually I think it's a lot more difficult.
This might be the opposite at other schools. Being able to predict this will help you prepare your life in advance and make sure you know what you’re getting into.
Also, different teachers have different reputations. One AP Biology teacher at my school was known for being excellent – she explained concepts cogently, was enthusiastic, and showed students the bigger picture. The other was unanimously considered one of the worst teachers at our school. I had the latter (fun story on this later).
Even though you might not have control over which teacher you get assigned to, you’ll be able to gauge how much variation there will be in your future.
How do you start doing this?
- get to know upperclassmen and talk to them about their experiences with classes. Everyone loves griping about school. If you have older siblings, ask them and their friends. Join a club where you can meet upperclassmen.
- talk to teachers in advance. Ask honest questions about how to prepare for their class, what the weekly workload looks like, and how intense students feel the class is. Most teachers will actually appreciate this, as long as you don’t keep neurotically bugging them.
If you set your expectations correctly for the future, you’ll be prepared to weather the storm.
2.3 Be Ruthlessly Efficient With Your Time
NOTE: This is probably my important piece of advice in this section.
There is one limitation in every human’s life, from Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg to you and me. That’s the time you have per day. Everyone has only 24 hours in a day, and it’s up to you to get the most out of each day as possible.
If you’re aiming for a top college, building a strong application will likely take up almost all of your free time. Roughly speaking, out of 24 hours in a weekday, you have 8 hours of school and transit (which are mandatory), 8 hours of time outside of school, and 8 hours of sleep. (And I do recommend you get sleep – more on that later).
Of the 8 hours you have outside of school, you may need 4 hours everyday to get through your homework, and another 2 for your extracurriculars. This gives you 2 hours of free time. Weekends remove the 8 hours of schooling, but likely replace it with more studying, test prep, and extracurriculars.
When charted like this, it’s clear that you have a strictly limited amount of time everyday to get through what you need to get through.
Therefore, every hour that you can spend or use more efficiently is a huge gain.
Furthermore, if you're able to save an hour everyday, you’ll be able to get an extra 365 hours per year. This is a massive amount of time you can use to improve your grades or make serious progress on an extracurricular.
The most driven applicants you’re competing with will be focused and productive 80% or above of, all the time. They’ll be strongly motivated to do well and often passionate about what they’re doing. (Remember what we discussed regarding intrinsic motivation.)
If you’re productive at only half this at 40%, you will lose out on 3500 hours of productivity over 3 years of high school. This is a staggering amount.
We’ll talk more about time management below, but there are two high level points I’d like to make now:
1) Time spent on any activity usually has “diminishing marginal returns.”
This means that for each unit of time you put in, the extra value you generate shrinks rapidly.
This is an economics concept that applies to a lot of everyday life.
Notice how at the very beginning, a little bit of effort makes a big impact on results. After a while, each additional unit of effort barely moves the needle on output.
Thus "diminishing marginal returns."
A common time drain is social time, or hanging out.
If you haven’t seen your friends all day, then the first 10 minutes you see them are going to be super exciting. You’ll share the latest news and gossip and find out more about each other’s lives.
By the end of the first hour, though, you’ll often run out of things to talk about. This is where awkward silences might start settling in and people start focusing on their phones.
By the end of the third hour, you’re probably in a zombie like state where you’re hanging out not really doing anything in particular. You could have packed things up two and a half hours ago and spent the rest of that time on something more effective.
The same goes for texting, Snapchat, Netflix, and browsing the internet, as far as your happiness is concerned. The first little bit goes a long way, and the rest of the time barely doesn't add all that much.
The trap here is that all these activities are pretty pleasant and pain-free, compared to running a marathon or studying. Like a warm blanket in winter, they’re easy to get lost in and hard to escape. It takes real discipline and willpower to break out of that trap and do hard things like study.
Surprisingly, diminishing returns applies equally to classwork. There really is a point where studying more isn’t going to raise your score, and you’re just obsessing for no real reason. There is a point where spending more time polishing an essay isn’t going to get you a higher grade.
If you’re a perfectionist like I was, you might obsess over every last detail. You have to recognize when good enough is good enough, and extra units of time aren’t actually adding to the quality of your work.
Surprisingly, a 4.0 isn’t about perfection in every single aspect of coursework. This is really stressful and difficult. It’s about doing a good enough job everywhere and getting the most for the least.
2) Find opportunities for wasted time and spend it on more useful things.
With the concept of diminishing returns above In mind, you should examine where you're spending your time and question the value you get out of every extra half hour you spend on it. This really extends to all aspects of your life.
Largely speaking, your life will be composed of school, homework, extracurriculars, test prep, social time, and family time. Some of these will be really important to your college application, and others will not.
If a major goal of your high school life is to get into the best college you can, then you need to structure your life around maximizing your chance of success.
There are a few common time sinks that don’t end up contributing to your college application as much as you think they do:
Time Sink #1: Time-consuming, ineffective extracurriculars. Typically, extracurriculars will take up the most time outside of coursework. Certain activities take up a ton of time but aren’t very impressive to the top colleges if you’re not performing at an elite level. I’d like to single out a few common ones:
- Playing an instrument and in an orchestra/marching band. A serious musician might practice 1-2 hours a day. Being in a marching band might add an hour per day, on average. Over 3 years, this will add up to thousands of hours. If you are not a section leader of a well known group or a national-level performer, this experience does not add significantly to your application. Sorry to be blunt. Imagine the many thousands of orchestras and marching bands in the country, all with concertmasters, drum majors, and section first chairs. If you are rank and file, you will not stand out, but you will spend a lot of time on not standing out.
- Volunteering: Some students think that 1000 hours of volunteering service is a lot more impressive than 200 hours. It’s not – especially if you’re doing something straightforward like delivering hospital samples or serving frontline at a soup kitchen. You can get “credit” for volunteering with just, say, an hour per week. Again, hundreds of thousands of students volunteer across the country – it’s not just that special unless you make it special.
- Athletics: Sports practice and games are grueling and can take up to 2 hours on average per day. Plus when you get home at the end of the day, you may get too tired to maintain your willpower and do efficient schoolwork. If you’re not good enough to be recruited for your sport or earn meaningful distinctions at the state level or above, it’s really not that impressive. Once again, imagine how many hundreds of thousands of varsity athletes there are across the country, and imagine how you fit into this crowd.
As you can see, the pattern is that it’s very easy to spend time on activities that are very common, very time-consuming, and very indistinguishable from what everyone else is doing.
Time Sink #2: Hard classes that you don’t need to take. As I mentioned above, you really don’t need to take AP Biology if it’s especially hard for you. It’s easy to get caught up in what everyone else is doing, but you don’t have to play the same game. If you drop AP Biology, you might be able to take two AP courses in other subjects you like more.
If you’re participating in one of these activities, dropping it can free up hundreds of hours a year. This is a massive amount of time.
Here’s what you can do with this bulk of free time:
- First and foremost, you can get your grades up. If you historically find yourself short on time to do homework and test studying of the highest quality, you’ll be able to devote more time to doing a better job in school.
- Pursuing a deep interest and making notable achievements. This is more impressive to college admissions committees than typical activities and will benefit you personally as you explore developing passions.
- Just spending that time doing things that truly make you happier. If you're really stressed out all the time, chances are you're spending time on something that's not making you happy nor adding much to your college application. Dropping it will be a breath of fresh air.
A clear exception to the rule above is if you really enjoy your activity. If you really really like volleyball but will only play at junior varsity level, then keep on doing it. Happiness is important, and it’s usually better to be happy and unoptimized than miserable and optimized.
In all other cases, it’s just silly to do one of these activities at a mediocre level at the expense of schoolwork or other helpful things.
I know this analysis sounds pretty intense, but it’s super important, and not enough students actually take a step back and evaluate why they’re doing what they’re doing.
It’s also a really good life skill – you’re never going to have more time in the day, and when you get into college and your career, getting the most out of each hour will put you ahead of most people.
So that you’re not worried about becoming a robot, I admit that I’m nowhere near perfect 100% efficiency throughout my day. In high school I spent time everyday chatting online with friends and playing computer games. These were my ways of unwinding.
Importantly, though, I rarely ever let this 'wasted' time expand beyond an hour per day, often because I gave it to myself as a reward after finishing all my homework. (Remember that diminishing marginal returns means). My parents also were pretty effective moderators of this, sometimes disconnecting our internet at night so I wouldn’t stay up til 2AM chatting about stupid stuff.
So again, the most important piece of advice I have in this section is to analyze everything that you’re doing and decide whether it’s worth it. If you spend your time correctly, like what I suggest in my How to Get Into Harvard guide, this will put you ahead of most of your classmates.
2.4 Know When Every Assignment Is Due. Plan, Plan, Plan.
For a sane life, you need to know precisely when major tests and papers are due, and when every homework item is due.
You then need to plan ahead and budget enough time for each assignment. You need to notice when you’re ahead or behind of schedule for each of your classes and adjust your time spend to catch up.
This is essentially like having five parallel pipelines going on at any time:
A Gantt chart, a common project management technique. More hardcore than you need, but used here for illustration.
If you know you need a full week to write a good essay, you need to plan for this. Start a full week ahead of when it's due, and not any later.
If you know you need 15 hours to study for an AP Biology test, then budget the time for that everyday.
I suggest using Google Calendar or the iCloud Calendar for this. You can color code categories of work like homework, projects, and tests. You can also set alerts for things you tend to forget.
You want to be a machine and aim for full preparation for everything you’re responsible for.
You should treat any surprises or last minute work as a failure of planning. These increase your stress and lower the quality of your work. No last minute homework crunch of quiz studying should be happening.
I know that all-nighters are in rare cases necessary, but they should not be a common occurrence. While it might be fun to bond with friends over pulling an all-nighter for a paper, you should take a step back and realizing what that says: “I didn’t plan well enough to budget enough time for this assignment, even though I’ve already done 20 of them. It was physically and mentally painful and most likely lowered the quality of my work.”
The better thing to do is to have that paper ready a whole day before it’s due and have it so rock solid you’re sure it’s going to get an A.
Here are a few effective scheduling tips:
- Do a regular weekly and monthly review of your schedule to plan ahead. Get your parents involved since they can help enforce your planned schedule and deadlines.
- Prioritize your work correctly. Assignments that take up a bigger portion of a class’s grade are more important. Classes that you’re doing worse in need more critical attention. You should be dynamic and adjust to the circumstances. Do NOT just focus your attention on assignments you like more or that are easier for you.
- Know when to cut your losses for now and move on. It's easy to get stuck in a rut and spin your wheels without making progress. Move onto something else for now, and come back to the assignment later. When you come back, you’ll likely have a new perspective and get unstuck.
Again - you're going to be spending at least 100 hours per month at least on homework. You might as well spend an hour a month guiding where that time will be spent.
2.5 Don’t Prioritize Other Things Over Sleep
Now, sleep. There seems to be an epidemic of high school students regularly sleeping very late at night, say past midnight, and having to wake up at 7AM. Then they need to get triple shot espressos every few hours to make it through the day.
This sounds crazy to me.
It’s universally accepted that teens should be getting 8-10 hours of sleep every night. When I was in high school, I regularly slept from 11PM to 7AM, without fail.
I remember this clearly because in senior year, I had to stay up till 2AM working on a group English project that we had procrastinated on. This stood out to me because I had rarely ever stayed up that late.
And yet, with eight hours of sleep everyday, I was still able to pack everything in. (Remember what I said above about being ruthless with effectively using your time.)
Sleep has a huge impact on your performance and happiness.
Worse, it affects you in an insidious way – you’ll think more slowly and less creatively. Assignments will take longer. A vicious cycle can happen - because you’re less efficient, your homework takes longer. This makes you sleep later, which makes you even less efficient, which makes your homework take even longer.
If you’re not getting enough sleep, you need to examine where you're spending your time and be sure that every hour you’re spending on something is really worth it. I would bet something does exist that you can cut.
There is probably some combination of an intense coursework schedule, a demanding school, and intense extracurriculars that make it very hard to carve out more time. But I would bet that at least one of two things is happening: 1) there is a lot of time spent on an activity that isn’t actually worthwhile for college admissions, or 2) there is ample time wasted somewhere else. We covered both above.
I can also guess that something dumb is happening - sleeping late is actually now a badge of honor, especially at uber-competitive high schools. If you’re around hardworking students, people might brag often about getting four hours of sleep. Pounding Red Bulls visibly is something to be proud of. They might even be tempted to share this on Instagram, timed perfectly at 3AM.
This is silly because it incentivizes the opposite of what you want – it rewards you for being inefficient, not efficient. In fact, people who do this probably waste time during the afternoon because they WANT to sleep late. This sounds crazy, doesn’t it?
You should aim for the opposite - do really well and make it look easy.
(If people don't actually do this, I apologize as I’m an old man now and out of touch with you teens.)
Here are tips to get more sleep:
- Enforce a sleep deadline everyday, like 11PM, so that you can get up by 7AM to get ready for school. Force yourself to lie in bed, not grab your phone under the covers. If you have to break this deadline, make sure you have a good reason.
- Cut caffeine six hours before your scheduled bedtime. After that point, it has serious effects on the quality of your sleep. I see people in Starbucks at 9PM and have no idea how they sleep at night. If you need caffeine to stay awake from 5PM-11PM, you’re probably not getting enough sleep!!
- Cut the use of electronic screens on phones, tablets, and monitors before sleep. Blue light from screens disrupts your circadian rhythm and tricks your body into thinking it’s daylight when it’s not. You can also install software that will change the color of your screen to a warmer color. Flux is great for desktops and laptops, and Twilight for Android. Nothing for iOS unfortunately.
- If you have a habit of wasting too much time before bed (like me), then enforce your deadline strictly again.
Section 2 Recap
Up to this point, we’ve discussed high level strategy. This sounds like general life advice, which is appropriate given that, since you’re a student, school is the major part of your life.
If you want to get a 4.0 GPA, you'll need to master your life habits and psychology.
I can’t repeat enough that you need a solid foundation on top of which to build your actual studying and classwork. If you don’t have this, you’ll end up like those unfortunate students who take on a heavy courseload and find themselves floundering for two years, getting five hours of sleep a night, being miserable, and at the end of the day not even making it to their target school.
This is a recipe for academic discontent and disillusionment. It’s like trying to build a house on quicksand.
Instead, you want to build a fortress on bedrock. After reading this guide, take the time to review all the important notes and reflect on whether you feel like you’re executing well on them. You might even do this every semester to make sure you’re on track.
Section 3: General Class Strategy
With the high-level stuff covered, we’ll now get into the thick of it – how to get straight A's in your actual classes. This section will cover general class strategies that apply to every single class you take, regardless of subject. Then Section 4 will cover strategies for individual subjects like math and English.
3.1 Understand How the Class is Graded
At the beginning of the year, every teacher makes clear how the class will be graded. This varies tremendously from subject to subject and teacher to teacher, and it’s important to understand where you should be spending your time to get the best results.
There are two important pieces to this:
1) How are different components of your work weighted in your final grade?
Commonly, this means a distribution across homework and projects, test scores, and participation. Different teachers have different weightings. Often science and math classes will be focused on tests, while English classes will focus on essays and projects.
You need to prepare a strategy for each course to do well on whatever is maximized. A simple rule of thumb is that you should spend a proportional amount of time depending on how much it contributes to your grade. If a class is 50% tests, 40% homework, and 10% participation, you should roughly split your time for that class accordingly. You can get away with minimal class participation IF you ace the tests and homework.
Sometimes this can be deceiving – some teachers may have little weight on homework and an emphasis on tests, for example (this is almost always the case in college courses).
But it’s often difficult to do well on tests without the regular commitment on homework, so you should spend that time on homework even if it doesn’t contribute to your grade.
2) What’s the grading scale – is it curved so only a % of students will ever get A's? Or is it based on an absolute scale on test scores?
Curved scales are rare in high schools, likely because they lead to unwanted competition. But if your class is curved, you need to pay attention to where you’re positioned in the class, rank-wise, and you need to give yourself extra wiggle room in case the curve on a test is particularly tough.
If instead the class is graded on an absolute scale, like 93%+ is an A and the tests aren’t curved, then you can focus more on your own performance. This also makes planning more predictable- if you’re at an 87% and need to pull yourself up to a 93%, then you can figure out what your remaining homework and test scores have to be to get an A.
3.2 Learn How to Learn
Learning is a mysterious process. You probably don’t remember how you learned to walk or talk. When you memorize something, you can recall that fact some time later, even though you don’t really know what is actually happening in your brain.
Even at the frontier of research, the nature of how we learn is still pretty mysterious.
Regardless, there are still a few principles of learning that have been provably effective.
1) Imagine your knowledge as a tree
To build a tree, first you need strong roots and a trunk – these are the foundational concepts of the subject. Then you build the branches and the leaves – these are the smaller details that you’re often tested.
If you don’t have a trunk, you won’t have anything for your branches to grow on. So when you learn something, really focus on the fundamental core of what you're learning - the core that underlies all the little details.
(I got this analogy from Elon Musk, the well-known entrepreneur behind SpaceX and Tesla Motors.)
For an example from calculus, let’s take the concept of derivatives. On a test, you’ll often be given a function and asked to find the derivative of the function. Different functions behave in different ways – the derivative of 2x2 is 4x, but the derivative of sin(x) is cos(x). These often require memorization, and the details are the leaves of the tree.
The trunk of the tree is the fundamental idea behind what a derivative is: when you take a derivative of a function, what you’re doing is defining the rate of change along the function. At any particular point, the rate of change is equal to the slope of the line tangent to the function at that point.
Derivatives, one of the most important concepts of calculus. If you're nowhere near taking calculus, don't worry about the details.
When you understand this trunk, then every derivative formula afterward makes intuitive sense. You’ll be able to absorb new formulas – new branches and leaves – much more easily since you just add them to the trunk.
But if you don’t understand this trunk, you’ll find yourself struggling to memorize the details piecemeal, like you’re making a shoddy quilt.
This is also true in the humanities. When you learn how to write an essay in English or history, look beyond just following the standard essay template given by your teacher.
- Understand that the thesis-evidence-conclusion structure is an effective way to make an argument because you prepare the reader for what you’re going to say, you prove it using evidence, and then you recap the important takeaway points.
- Understand that when you cite textual evidence from a book, you need to relate it back to your thesis to make clear how the evidence is supposed to prove your point.
- Understand that transitions between paragraphs and within paragraphs help the reader piece together all your disparate points into a cohesive whole.
Once you build this trunk, the details of how to do this with actual words and phrases come naturally. If you don’t, you’ll find yourself frustrated that you’re following someone else’s instructions without knowing why.
When you learn something, really try to ask yourself what the root of what you’re learning is. Once you identify this, the details will come more naturally. Many teachers don’t naturally teach this way, so it’s up to you to do it yourself.
2) Constantly relate new things you’re learning to things you already know
When I visualize how knowledge works, I imagine a network of nodes connected to each other. Each node is a unit of information – a math formula, a concept, a historical fact.
When two nodes are connected, I see them as related to each other. Two linked nodes might be the area of a circle and the perimeter of a circle, for example.
How I visualize my knowledge - each circle is a concept or fact, and lines connect related concepts.
Some nodes are heavily connected to each other. Some nodes hang on only by a thread.
Nodes that are weakly linked and not accessed often tend to be forgotten much more quickly. Intuitively, this makes sense – if a particular concept is related to other concepts, every time you recall one of the related concepts, you have a better chance of activating the related concepts. This then cements all the concepts around.
I know this is very abstract, so let’s use an example. In US History, you’ll learn about three core events – the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and slavery abolishment, and women’s suffrage.
The brute force way to learn about these events is to memorize the facts and details for each event, as though each were in its own independent vacuum. After all, you're likely taught and tested unit by unit, so this is the natural way to learn.
Instead, there are key themes that tie these events together:
- Over time, the subjugated tend to earn their freedom. In the Revolutionary War, the American colonists were under the dominion of the British government until they won their independence. In the Civil War, slavery was a contentious issue leading to abolition and freedom of slaves. In women’s suffrage, women earned the right to vote equally as men. This trend continues holding true today with gay marriage rights.
- In each event, key leaders spoke for the masses and represented their will. Select examples of these would be the founding fathers in the Revolutionary War; Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass in the Civil War; and Susan B. Anthony in women’s suffrage.
- In each event, there was opposition that tried to maintain the status quo. This would be the British, the South, and society at large, respectively. (Both men and women opposed women's suffrage.)
(I’m not a history buff so apologies for this complete simplification.)
These unifying themes help you see the patterns between these important events. When you learn about Abraham Lincoln, you can relate his achievements to those of George Washington, which will strengthen your understanding of both.
Now, these events are clearly tremendously different from each other, but defining contrasts is just as helpful. In the Revolutionary War and women’s suffrage, the main instigators of action were those being subjugated – the colonists and women. In contrast, in the Civil War, the action was more strongly led by white men in the Union and less so by the slaves themselves.
Defining these contrasts still develops a connection between the events, which in turn leads to stronger understanding of both. It also helps you ask interesting questions about why these events differed from each other.
You can see how altogether you’re building this interconnected network of events. When you learn world history, you’ll be able to fit the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the end of colonization, and other events into this framework.
This rich, multi-dimensional network-building is a stark contrast to the usual way history is taught – as a one-dimensional timeline. The one-dimensional way was how I was taught history and it made history a pretty boring collection of historical facts, which is a shame because learning could be so much more interesting and effective.
If you can focus on building a strong trunk of knowledge and connect what you learn to what you already know, you'll be able to learn much more effectively.
3.3 Understand How Teachers Think, and Give Them What They Want
If learning is your job, then your teacher is your boss. Your responsibility is to follow the teacher’s guidelines and give the teacher what she wants. Your performance will determine whether you get a promotion (an A) or you get fired (an F).
This can be intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. Even though teachers may seem like imposing vanguards of knowledge, in reality they’re humans, with ambitions and flaws like everyone else.
By understanding how a teacher thinks, you’ll be able to customize your approach to the class to increase your chances of performing well. This is especially important in subjective pieces like essay grading, group projects, or class participation.
There’s a huge variation in the types of teachers you’ll have. Some teachers are veterans, have seen it all, and won’t put up with your whining. Others are new, are still trying to figure it out, really want to do a good job, and crave approval from students.
Some teachers are passionate, want to connect with students, and achieve carpe diem moments daily. Others are perfunctory – they just want kids to keep quiet and cause less trouble in their lives so they can go home and watch The Walking Dead.
Some teachers want lively class discussions and want to see students inspire each other. Others run class like a prison – no outbursts, or you get solitary.
The more you understand how a teacher thinks, the more you can give the teacher what she wants. This might sound sociopathic and calculating, but in reality it’s a social skill that you already use without thinking much about it. It’s also a skill you’ll be using throughout your life, from college applications to job applications and work.
Here are some general principles that I’ve found true of most teachers.
Most teachers do, at their core, care a lot about their job.
They chose education as their craft for a reason, usually because they like the idea of inspiring students and contributing to their growth. They care about the subject matter – if they teach math, they find math interesting; if they teach history, they find history interesting. Grizzled veteran teachers may be disillusioned by this because maybe their kids have historically sucked, but they’re still open to be surprised and inspired by the young people they teach.
What does this suggest?
Most teachers hate students whose sole concern is getting a good grade and who make it clear from their questions and behavior.
Most teachers love students who sincerely care about the class material and show curiosity. They love passing on their subject matter knowledge to students – filling the jar of the student’s mind.
One place this is clear is in the syllabi that teachers write for classes. You may not know that AP courses at every high school are audited by the College Board for curricular soundness, and teachers are required to submit their syllabi for approval. Here’s a real example from a teacher for AP English Language:
This lesson plan is an X-ray into the thinking of the teacher – it clearly describes the meaningful skills that students are expected to learn, and the teacher's enthusiasm is palpable. While this is probably an example of an above average teacher, it illustrates how teachers who care really do understand what they're teaching and what they want students to get out of it.
If you can show the teacher that you’re learning what she wants you to learn, you’ll be in amazing shape.
Most teachers see students they teach as the future generation of society.
You are the future, so teachers want to see admirable qualities in their students. You’ll be liked if you’re honest, take responsibility for your mistakes, contribute positively to the class, and work hard. You’ll be disliked if you’re sneaky or dishonest, disrupt the classroom, act arrogantly, or blame others for your mistakes.
Be the kind of person teachers would like to entrust the future to.
Most teachers already have a lot of work to do.
Teaching requires a huge time commitment. After school ends, they have to grade homework at night and plan for the next day. Some of them supervise extracurriculars. This can mean an effective workday of 7AM-6PM.
If you cause more trouble and add to the teacher’s load, this will be annoying.
If instead you can offer ways to lighten the teacher’s load and solve her problems, she’ll love you.
Why does all of this actually matter?
Understanding how the teacher thinks is critical to getting a good grade on assignments, tests, and participation. On a history test, does the teacher care more about the big picture or about reciting minute historical facts? In an English essay, does the teacher care about executing a standard template well, or about having a novel point of view? What skills and concepts does the teacher really want to see in this essay?
If you approach your classes from the teacher's perspective, you'll be able to customize your work to what the teacher expects. We'll talk more about this later.
Another significant way this will improve your class performance is to communicate with the teacher more reliably. Given the same issue, you can present it in a way that will make the teacher hate you, or in a different way that will make the teacher admire your maturity and resolve.
Let’s say you didn’t do well on a test. The annoying student will say this:
“Ms. Robinson, I got a B on this test. I studied really hard and some of the questions were unfair. You didn’t tell us they were going to be on the test. Also, I’ve been really busy with orchestra and volunteering other students don’t have these responsibilities. Is there any way I can get my test regraded? Can I get extra credit?”
Gag. This is nails on the chalkboard for a teacher. You get anti-brownie points. Poop points. I’ve overheard this often during high school and even in college.
Here’s a better way:
“I got a B on this test, even though I spent a lot of time studying and I wanted to see if you could help. I’m not here to ask for more points; I just want to improve for the future.
I feel like I have a problem with the way I’m studying. For example before the test I felt really confident with this kind of question, but on the test I made this mistake and I’m not sure why. Also, I tried to be thorough in my studying, but I missed the sections that were tested in these questions.
Do you have any suggestions?”
Let’s contrast the two options. In the first one, you blame the teacher and your schedule, not yourself. You put the focus on the grade rather than the learning. Finally, you try to get an unfair advantage over other students without contributing anything yourself. This type of response is pretty typical because, to be fair, your goals are really important to you, and it’s tempting to try to get easy points where you can. (Also, you’re young and more likely to think the world revolves around you.)
The second option is a 180 on the first. You put the emphasis on improving yourself, not on the grade. You own up to your mistakes rather than blaming other people. Before the meeting you’ve done your homework by reflecting on where you might have fallen short, rather than expecting the teacher to fix all your problems while you sit back. You also make it an open conversation where the teacher can use her expertise to ask more questions and dig more deeply.
These kinds of interactions make a world of difference in how teachers perceive you. It’s unlikely teachers will actually give you an unfair advantage in grading, but it will make your life easier. You’ll be treated with more respect and understanding. Teachers will work harder to help you. In cases where you need more flexibility, the teacher might be more likely to accommodate you. It’ll also ultimately lead to strong letters of recommendation for your college applications.
Now, I’m not talking about sycophantic brown-nosing. You should be sincere and not just act the part. Teachers have seen a lot, and it’s easier than you think to detect insincerity. One common way to sniff out a fake is to ask more questions and dig more deeply. If you haven’t actually analyzed your test, for example, when the teacher asks you how you actually studied and where you think your mistakes were, you’ll come up short. Then it’ll be clear that you’re just mouthing words and the teacher will lose trust in you.
Take some time to think through classes you're struggling in, or teachers you don't get along with. Do you understand what the teacher's expectations are? Why aren't you meeting them, and what can you do to improve this?
3.4 Develop Strong Study and Homework Habits
Over the course of high school you’ll likely be spending over 3,000 hours on schoolwork and studying.
This is a lot of time. If you can make a 10% improvement on this by spending 20 hours learning really good study strategy, it is well worth your time. (This is what’s known as “high leverage” – you put in a little to get a lot.)
Here are a few guidelines I think every student should follow.
Study Habit 1: Focus on effectiveness and efficiency.
When you get into the thick of high school, you start taking a lot of things for granted. Each math homework assignment will take about an hour. Studying for a history test might take 8 hours. An essay all included might take 15 hours.
Rather than taking things for granted, you should instead be continuously evaluating whether you’re spending the right amount of time on your work. How long is homework taking? Why?
What is your time distribution across all the activities that go into doing homework? Is anything less effective than you thought? Can you experiment with restructuring your time so that you get better results for less time?
(This connects to the "being ruthless with your time spend" point above).
As an extreme question - can you cut your total time down by 50% while maintaining the same level of quality? Why or why not? I ask my employees this all the time, and while it’s not usually strictly possible, it helps illuminate what things can be cut with little effect on the outcome.
By going through this analysis, you'll be able to partition your time spend into effective and ineffective components. If you can ax the ineffective parts, then you'll save a lot of time withotu affecting the quality of your work.
At the end of this reflection, you may find that there’s really nothing better you can do and you just need to keep chugging along. This can be true, but you have to be honest with yourself and give yourself enough time to give this serious consideration. You should also experiment with alternatives or improvements and reflect on whether you improved or declined.
Remember, there's always a time-quality tradeoff curve. Get the most for the least. Avoid perfectionism. Understand how much you need to do to get a great score, and when each unit of time is no longer returning you sufficient results, spend that time elsewhere.
Study Habit 2: Put away your phone. Turn off your computer. Eliminate distractions.
There’s homework time and there’s relaxation time. Clearly compartmentalize both. Do NOT mix the two.
When you're doing homework, do it at 100% effort.
You’re nowhere near as good at multitasking as you think you are. Focus on one thing, and then focus on another.
Recently I went to a coffee shop and watched a college student at the next table try to study chemistry while using her phone. It was painful to watch. She’d read a page for 2 minutes, get a text, respond to it, then start browsing Facebook for 5 minutes. It took her an hour to get through 3 pages.
She likely wasn’t super motivated to study to begin with (hence why I started this guide with that high-level principle), but the bad study habits guarantee she’s wasting her time. Not only was she getting nowhere with her studying, she probably wasn't even enjoying texting and Facebook all that much either. A lose-lose.
If you really have a problem with this, then I suggest you try timing yourself just to see how much time you’re wasting. Get a chess clock and force yourself to time when you’re studying and when you’re using your phone.
If you need to use the computer while you work, there are browser tools like RescueTime that track what websites you’re visiting for how much time. You can see how much time you’re spending researching and how much time you’re just watching Youtube.
You can also block distracting websites for a certain period of time. 6-8PM will stay English essay work time, not 20% English essay/80% Youtube time.
Study Habit 3: Do homework in school if possible.
A lot of teachers have spare class time or downtime. Typically students will just chat with each other until the bell rings. Use that time to do your homework that you would otherwise do at night.
I remember AP Computer Science was an easy class. I’d finish assignments in 10 minutes, then work on homework for the rest of the hour. In another history class, the teacher’s lectures were unhelpful and I was better off just reading the chapter by myself at home. I took that time to work on other homework. (Note that some teachers get really annoyed when you do this, so be careful.)
There’s also lunchtime, which is a little less than an hour. Many students sit at lunch tables and chat until the bell rings. I banded together with a bunch of other nerd friends in the library and just did homework. Social life + homework = two birds with one stone.
Every day, this saved me over 2 hours of time. When I got home, I’d only have a few hours of homework and studying left, which freed up room for extracurriculars and a few games of Starcraft. (This is also part of why I was able to sleep before 11PM every night, even with my extracurriculars.)
This isn’t the coolest thing to do and you might be afraid of looking like a nerd. But if you think it’s a good idea, you generally shouldn’t lead your life based on what other people think about you anyway.
Study Habit 4: Learn to deal with procrastination.
Procrastination affects pretty much everyone in multiple aspects of life. Everyone knows the feeling of how much easier it is to put off test studying for an extra half hour of Netflix. Before you know it, it’s time to sleep and you haven’t done anything yet.
We have an excellent guide on why procrastination happens and how to overcome it, in the context of test prep. I highly recommend you read it.
As a summary, procrastination happens when (1) you feel that you’re in the wrong mood to finish a task, and (2) you assume that your mood will change in the near future. This can lead to a vicious cycle where you feel guilty for procrastinating, which makes it even harder to summon the energy to be productive again.
We discuss more about this and proven ways to defeat procrastination here. It’s well worth the read.
3.5 Learn to Ace Tests by Understanding What's Being Tested and How
Tests typically make up the majority of how you’re graded in a class. Teachers need a way to assess your knowledge in a standardized way that is hard to cheat on, and tests seem to be the best way (or the least bad way). Learning how to prepare for tests and get great scores reliably is critical to getting straight A’s.
The most important piece to this is understanding WHAT'S being tested (the “content”) and HOW it’ll be tested (the “format” e.g. multiple choice, essay, open-ended questions).
This will directly determine what you actually study and how you prepare for the test.
You likely already know this intuitively – how you study for a math test is pretty different from how you study for Spanish test. For math, you’ll run through a lot of practice problems. For Spanish, you have to memorize vocab and practice grammar rules.
Once you know what you’re being tested on and how, you can build your test study strategy:
- Understand test content and format
- Define your test study strategy, integrating reading, practice questions, and review
- Execute your study strategy
- Test yourself
- Improve your method and go back to Step 3
But the critical piece is step 1: understanding what's actually on the test.
Even within the same subject, different teachers have different styles – you and your friend might be taking the same course, say AP US History, with different teachers but have entirely different tests. Your teacher might emphasize fact memorization and have mainly multiple choice questions gridded in through scantrons. Your friend’s teacher might emphasize big picture concepts and use tests consisting mainly of essays and free responses. The way you prepare for each exam is very different.
How do you figure this out? Here are a few strategies:
1) Ask the teacher for a sample exam from last year. Teachers are usually consistent in how they test from year to year, so chances are this year’s tests will look a lot like last year’s. In college it’s very common for professors to give access to previous years’ exams as practice tests. Good high school teachers will do this too because they don’t recycle tests and they want to give students fair exposure to what the test will be like. Worse teachers will hide previous years’ tests because they’re lazy and want to recycle the tests, and they don’t want to give resourceful students an unfair advantage.
2) Get exams from last year’s students. If you have friends or know upperclassmen who took the class with that teacher, ask if they’ve saved the tests. You can set up an exchange between your friends where you share materials from classes that the other will take in the future. Lazy teachers really hate this because it forces them to write new exams each year, but that’s really part of their job.
(Note that you should of course be careful and avoid allegations of cheating. If you’re worried about this, feel free to ask your teacher how she feels about it before you try to obtain previous year’s tests. And of course don’t do anything dumb like getting someone’s A-scoring essay and plagiarizing it.)
3) Ask the teacher what’s going to be on the test and how it’ll be tested. Don’t be annoying about this. Remember what I said about giving teachers what they want. Teachers often HATE the question, “is this going to be on the test?” because they can’t win. If they say no, students stop paying attention. If they say yes, students won’t appreciate the greater meaning of what they’re learning. Most teachers really do care about how their students are learning and get excited when they see students with a genuine love of learning.
A more palatable way of doing this is to be proactive. Prepare a high level overview of content that you believe is on the test, and the format in which it’ll be tested. Go to the teacher and ask her to take a quick look. Make it clear that you’re asking because you care about doing well on the test and that you want to understand the teacher’s expectations.
You might even offer to save the teacher time by circulating this to your classmates so that she won’t have to talk to 20 different students about what’s on the test. (Remember – if you can make the teacher’s life easier, she’ll love it.) If you do this earnestly and not in an obviously groveling way, the teacher will typically be more than happy to help because it’s clear you care about your education.
4) Use every previous test to infer what future tests will look like. Even if you have zero information about the first test and you go in blind, the second test will likely look a lot like the first test. Halfway through the course you’ll be comfortable with how the teacher thinks and be able to predict the tests with high accuracy.
Story time: The worst class I’ve ever taken in my entire academic career was AP Biology in Freshman year. The teacher was a middle-aged man who was profoundly uninspiring. Everyday he would turn the lights off, sit in front of the class with an overhead projector, and go line by line down the teacher notes provided by the book (Campbell’s Biology). He would literally just read each bullet point, add a sentence or two, and move on. He had a monotone voice and half the students treated this as nap time (though as I suggest above, the smarter thing to do would have been to work on other class’s homework during this time). Thinking about his inefficacy is infuriating to this day.
The worst part of the class was how the tests were created. They were entirely multiple choice, and they often tested on trivia straight from the book. There wasn’t really any high level thinking involved – the only way to do well on the tests was to memorize each chapter entirely before the test. I remember the worst question was a trivial fact from the caption of an image – I think it was the species name of the bird – that was totally irrelevant to what we needed to know for genuine understanding. He just decided it was a good way to test whether someone had memorized the chapter.
This struck fear into all of us. After bombing the first test, I had to change up my approach. I started reading every chapter 6 times to memorize all the details. I would highlight details like a madman to make sure I wasn’t missing anything that might be tested. I would create my own quizzes before reading the chapter so I could assess how well I was memorizing the details.
The key point is that I customized how I prepared to the content and the format of the test. My approach would have been totally inappropriate for another AP Biology class, but it was the right one for this class.
Going into the end of the year, I had an A and I was safe. It took a ton of work but I did it. Unfortunately the teacher realized that because of how crappy of a job he had done at teaching, the average grade in his class was going to be a C, and he was going to get a lot of hate from parents and the administration. He decided at the end of the year to administer a sample AP test that was entirely extra credit.
I was annoyed because I ended up with something like 130% in the class, which is why you see an A+ in my transcript for freshman year AP Biology, which meant I studied unnecessarily hard.
The upside to this was that the actual AP test was super easy because I had literally memorized the entire textbook.
3.6 View Your Job as Constant Improvement. Build Feedback Cycles for Yourself.
NOTE: This is one of the most important points in this entire guide. I work with so many students who don't understand this and it's killing their potential to improve.
If something you’re trying isn’t giving you the results you want after a lot of trials, it’s clear that you need to reexamine your strategy. If you’re cutting broccoli for dinner and you chop off a piece of your finger every night, it’s pretty obvious you need to change how you’re using the knife, unless you love adding iron to your family’s diet every night.
For some reason, this isn’t as obvious in the context of coursework. If you get a C on a test, you might be tempted to believe that if you use the same study methods but just study twice as hard, you’ll raise your grade up to an A.
If the cause of your poor performance was truly a lack of time, then this can work. You can use my advice above to carve out more time for studying.
But in many cases, this is wishful thinking. It’s as though you need to tunnel through a brick wall, and you’re trying to get through by pounding your head against it. You’re failing to make a dent, but you feel like if you pound 3 times as hard you’ll be able to get through. There’s something wrong with your strategy, and you need to understand why you failed and how you will improve.
I think the reason this is so difficult in the context of coursework is that students don’t actually understand the root cause of why they failed. If you get a B on an essay, it seems tempting to think that you just need to spend more time researching and writing your essay, but really your weakness might be that you just don’t understand the teacher’s standards and are playing a totally different ball game.
This is why I stress the importance of the high-level concepts above. If you understand that academic success is a combination of multiple factors – motivation, time management, effective learning, understanding of class grading, teacher expectations, and the actual content – you’ll be able to pinpoint your weaknesses more effectively.
If you don’t understand these are important, you’ll have no idea where to begin.
You should treat every evaluation as an opportunity for reflection and improvement. Remember the growth mindset we discussed above. Every disappointing homework assignment and test gives you a chance to reflect on how you failed and how you’ll avoid those mistakes in the future.
We can call this the iteration cycle:
First, you obtain a measurement. This is often a grade on homework or a test. If it’s lower than your standards, then something needs to change.
Next, you reflect on what happened. Here’s a checklist of questions to ask yourself:
- How was the assignment or test graded? What did the teacher expect?
- What did you produce? What was your method of producing this? Try to break down the major pieces of what you did.
- What is the difference between the expectation and what you produced?
- Why did this discrepancy happen? What flaw in your method most strongly contributed to this failure?
- What are you going to change about your method to prevent it from happening next time?
- When is the next time you’ll be able to evaluate if this is an improvement?
This is comprehensive and may sound tedious, but it’s critical to improvement. In my experience with test prep, this is often the second biggest barrier preventing students from improving their test score (the first being not putting in enough time period).
Sometimes this analysis can be quick – you forgot to proofread your essay and your grammar mistakes got points taken off, so next time you need to dedicate time to spellchecking.
On the other extreme, after a lot of reflection you might not even know where to begin. Then you can ask the teacher for help. (Remember what I said above - if you go to the teacher with clear introspection and questions, this will show you really care about your education).
Take notes on this reflection, especially on your plan for next time. Write this down as a commitment to yourself. The next time you have a chance for evaluation, like a test or assignment, review these notes and implement your plan.
In the last stage of the cycle, you get your next measurement. If you improved substantially and met your goal, great work – from here on, you just need to keep doing what you did. If instead you didn’t improve or even declined, you need to treat your next iteration cycle even more seriously because your situation has gotten worse and you need to try something new to dig yourself out of the hole.
You need to do this for every class in every semester throughout high school. After you do it a few times it’ll be second nature, and you’ll do it without even thinking.
As an analogy, this is actually how you keep your car on the road when driving your car. You get constant visual feedback on where you are on the road. If you veer to the left, you reflect on this and turn the steering wheel to the right. You do this constantly to stay on the road.
When driving, you run constant iteration cycles to stay on the road.
When people first start learning to drive around age 14-15, they’re not very practiced in this feedback loop. They’ll go nearly off the road before jerking the steering wheel back in the other direction. Then they realize they’ve gone too far and jerk it too far back.
Practiced drivers make far smaller adjustments constantly. Next time your parents drive, watch them. You’ll see them make tiny adjustments left and right constantly to stay exactly where they want to on the road. Experienced drivers do this automatically, by habit.
In your academic life, you don’t want to drive 60mph off the road. Use feedback to figure out where you are, and what adjustments you need to make if you’re off track.
As a side note, here’s a video of teens getting distracted by their phones and shooting way off the road.
Complete failure to measure -> reflect -> improve.
I can't repeat enough - this concept of iteration cycles is VITAL to your academic success.
Many students don’t go through this process because they don’t realize they need to or they don’t feel like it’s important enough compared to actual studying.
In contrast, I would say this is the most important thing you should do after every test. Between every test you probably spend 20 hours in school and 20 hours on homework. Don’t you think it’s worth one hour examining your method and thinking about it if you’re not doing well?
Don’t drive 60mph off the road.
Section 4: Subject by Subject Strategies
We’ve covered a lot of high level stuff so far. We’ve talked about the foundations of motivation and determination. We’ve discussed understanding how teachers think and how to understand how you’ll be tested. We’ve covered good study habits and how you should iterate on feedback to improve your results.
Now let’s talk about specific subjects, because how you’ll treat calculus is very different from how you’ll treat history.
Math and Science Classes
Math and science classes typically tend to be the most straightforward classes because the material is very standardized. If you take AP Chemistry, the tests are most likely going to look like standard chemistry questions, and the labs are going to look like standard labs. Same with calculus and physics. You have a ton of practice problems to work in your textbook, online, and in supplementary books. Unlike English essay grading, teachers can’t really get too creative or subjective.
The good news here is that you can typically predict with great accuracy how you’re doing well before the test. It’s easy to prepare your own practice tests, review your mistakes, and understand where your weaknesses and how you need to improve.
The hard part about math and science is that the concepts build directly on each other throughout the year. Something you learned earlier will directly affect your ability to grasp future concepts. In physics, if you don’t really understand how force diagrams work, you’ll struggle every step of the way through mechanics. In chemistry, if you don’t understand stoichiometry and how to convert units to each other, every calculation will be difficult.
This doesn’t apply as strongly in other subjects like history, which tends to be composed more of modular units. Even though I mentioned above that you can connect different concepts to build a strong network of knowledge, at the end of the day they don’t build on each other as much. You might have flunked the section on the American Revolution, but this doesn’t strongly affect how well you can do in the Civil War section.
What you have essentially is exponential growth of knowledge vs linear growth:
In my experience, math and science teachers don’t emphasize this enough. They treat learning linearly, but in math and science it’s really exponential. If you don’t get it right in the beginning and you don’t fix it, you’re screwed for the year, because the teacher has already moved on.
So if you get a bad start to a math or science class, you need to double down and repair the holes immediately. If you don’t, it will only get worse. IF you start a class way in over your head, consider dropping to a lower level.
Another issue with math and science is that the material tends to be dry because it involves a lot of abstract topics that don’t really affect your everyday life. Good teachers will show how the concepts apply to everyday life to make what you’re learning more real. If you’re learning about EM waves in physics, you’ll also learn how your FM radio works. If you’re learning about exponential functions, a teacher might take you through a simulation of compounded interest to show how much money you can make through savings.
I once heard a story about a physics teacher who was lecturing and tossed a ball at a student. The student caught it instinctively – didn’t even have to think about it. The teacher said, “what your brain just did is to a kinematics calculation. You knew exactly where the ball started, how it was traveling, and where it would end up. That’s exactly the point of what we’re learning – to mathematically predict how traveling objects will behave.” I bet that teacher is awesome because that sounds a lot more interesting than just throwing a formula on the wall.
If you lack inspiration in math and science, try to relate what you’re learning to the real world and to what you care about. If you’re a news junkie, this will help you understand articles and analyses more deeply. If you’re an athlete, think about how physics works in your sport. This won’t always work and it may sound hokey, but sometimes you might be pleasantly surprised.
English and Writing Classes
In my experience the hardest part about English classes is the essay grading. Year by year, the standards you’re graded on change, and the teacher’s expectations change. Some teachers want you to follow the same formula essay after essay. Others want you to have a “voice” and write with style.
I had a frustrating experience in Honors English when we had to write essays about themes of books we were reading. Most people would write something like “the theme is abandonment.” She would make a big red circle around this and write, “SO WHAT?” But she never really explained articulately what she meant by this, even when asked.
Eventually we figured out that the theme statement was supposed to be a concept that required a sentence to explain, not just a single word. This requires you to dig a level deeper, like “abandonment is crippling to a child’s psyche and ripples throughout adulthood.” But she never explained it well, and it felt like being helpless at the hands of a merciless tyrant.
In English classes, you have to understand the expectations of your teacher and how she will be grading essays. As I said above, use every chance you have for reflection and iteration. If the teacher lets you submit drafts for review before the final essay, take this super seriously. Give the draft your best work, and if you’re confused about any of the teacher’s comments, ask about them outside of class.
If you don’t do well on an essay, reflect on it, prepare notes, and approach the teacher and ask earnestly where your shortcomings are and how you can improve. (Measure -> Reflect -> Improve)
There are also solid foundations to effective writing, like making your thesis clear, using clear transitions between sections, using textual evidence to reason your points, and using vocabulary precisely. How to do this well is outside the scope of this article, but these are concepts you’ve been taught through much of English and can see everyday in writing in publications like the New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic.
Memorization Heavy Classes, Like History and Foreign Language
Some classes rely more heavily on factual recall than others. In particular I’m thinking about history, where you need to memorize historical events and figures, and foreign languages, where you need to build your vocabulary.
Many students will use flashcards for memorization, but they’ll use them ineffectively. They’ll just go through the entire stack from beginning to end and repeat.
This is ineffective because you end up spending the same amount of time reviewing words you already know as you do the words you have problems with. What you need to do is bias your time toward the cards that you struggle with.
The way I do this is what I call the “waterfall method” of memorization. I describe this here in the context of memorizing vocab for the SAT. You cycle through the cards you don’t know much more often than the cards you already know.
For long term retention, there’s also a concept known as “spaced repetition” learning that spaces out your learning optimally to increase your recall of information. The idea is that right after you learn something, you should review it quickly thereafter to secure the memory. The next time you review it can be spaced out further, and the next one even further still. Doing this regularly will lock in knowledge in the long term
This is in contrast to the usual method of memorization, which is to cram before a test and then forget it until you need it for the final.
As I mentioned above, try to find connections between things you’re learning and notice patterns. Connect historical events to each other. See foreign language grammar rules as fitting a pattern, and notice when rules deviate from that pattern. This will make learning more interesting and help you understand more strongly.
This isn’t a specific class, but it’s a common enough issue that it’s worth discussing. You’ll inevitably have group projects, which means your fate is no longer 100% in your hands.
If you have a choice of partners, try to choose people who you know will do a good job. These are other people who work hard and care about their grades. Friends may not be the best option if they’re dead weight and you have to end up carrying them. Make it clear to the friend that it’s not personal and that you just don’t feel you work well together. If the friend ends up dissolving your friendship because she expects you to lift her up, and it’s not because you’re being a jerk about it, then the friendship probably wasn’t strong to begin with.
If you don’t get a choice of partners and the teacher just assigns you, you have to make do with what you have. Teachers are rarely sympathetic to complaints about your team, and it’s unlikely you’ll be able to change your partners. If anything, be flattered if you get paired with weaker students – the teacher might believe that you’ll be a positive influence on them.
Once your group is set, focus on getting a good job done. Treat it with the same care and planning as you would your own work, and don’t be afraid to take charge if there hasn’t been any action.
- Write up the tasks that need to be done and split the work among group members. Ideally you want to pair the tasks with people’s natural skills and interest, since this will maximize the overall quality of your project.
- Set up a timeline for milestones your group should hit. Make sure the group agrees on the plan and understands the details.
- Be prepared for timelines to be broken and think about what you’ll do in those cases.
- Don’t be afraid to take charge if there hasn’t been any action.
Don’t get hung up on inequality. There’s sometimes that one dude who is a complete flake and never gets his job done, and you end up having to cover his ass. Don’t sweat it. Focus on the big picture – your grade.
Redistribute his work to the rest of the team and revise the plan, and once again make sure the team agrees on the overall plan. Yes, the slacker may end up with a good grade riding on your backs, but he’s also probably screwed for his individual assignments and for other classes. Karma works its way.
If there was anything really frustrating about the group project, you might tell the teacher. As I’ve said repeatedly above, the messaging to the teacher matters a lot. The teacher does NOT want to hear you whine about not getting a better grade because of your team. The teacher does NOT want to hear excuses.
The teacher DOES want to know of potential problems and ways to improve the classroom experience.
Here’s an example of a bad presentation to avoid:
“It’s unfair that we got a B because of Taylor. She was supposed to do her part of the project, but she dropped out halfway through and we all paid for it. She should get a C and we should get an A. I didn’t even want her on our team but we didn’t have a choice. Can I get a better grade?“
Here’s a better way:
“I wanted to let you know how our group project went since this might be helpful for our future projects. First off I want to say that I’m not arguing for a better grade – as a group we share responsibility in how we did and we deserve our grade. So here’s the story. When we started our project we clearly divided up the work and everyone agreed on a timeline. Halfway through at our group meeting, Taylor said she was busy with tennis and promised to get more work done. We were all done with our parts and we trusted her, which was a mistake. We find out two days before the project’s due that she still hasn’t done anything. We scramble and try to pitch in, but we’re all busy so we didn’t put out the best work.
I thought I’d share this with you for future projects in case it’s helpful. You should ask for her side of the story if you’re interested.”
This takes a totally different approach. First, you make clear that you’re not arguing for a better grade upfront – this makes the teacher less suspicious of your motives and listens to you more intently. Then you present the facts, without emotional bias, and accept responsibility for your actions throughout. Then you tell the teacher why this might be useful, and you show enough maturity to suggest that you might yourself be biased so she should hear from Taylor’s perspective.
In the worst case, the teacher ignores you. In the best case, the teacher might reconsider giving the team a bad grade if she finds out how negligent or manipulative the disappointing student was.
Don't Ignore the Easy Classes
In middle school, when I was a chubby kid, I got a B in PE.
Yep. I didn’t know this was possible at the time either.
It turns out the PE teacher gave everyone a set of physical exams – pushups, situps, stretches, and mile run time – tallied up your points, and gave you a grade. I did pretty poorly on all of them and ended up with a B.
You can see how many of my above rules I failed:
- I didn’t have the motivation to do well since I didn’t think I wouldn’t get an A.
- I didn’t understand early on how the class was actually going to be graded.
- Given chances for iteration cycles, I didn’t reflect enough on my shortcomings and I didn’t change my method of preparing for the exams.
I freaked out and made sure I knew how PE would be graded in high school. I ran my little chubby butt off. It turned out in high school they graded mainly on participation and attendance, and I ended up fine.
Don’t let yourself miss an easy A. Understand how all of your classes are graded, even the ones that everyone thinks they get an A in. If you get on the bad side of your orchestra teacher you might be surprised with your final grade.
Again, don’t be a jerk about this by marching to the teacher and asking, “I want to know how I can get an A in this class.” Make it clear you just want to meet the teacher’s expectations and understand what those are.
We’ve covered a lot already. Here are some last minute pieces of advice, and then we’ll wrap up with summary points and a checklist for your academic health.
Get Some Objective Assistance
When you get as involved in something as coursework, it’s often hard to take a step back and truly understand your shortcomings. An artist may not be the best critic of her own work.
If you have parents who care about your success and are willing to help out, send this guide to them and discuss it with them after they read it. Discuss what parts you agree with and want to improve on. Give them your goals and action plan for your high school career, each academic year, and each course. Inform them about your iteration cycles so they can contribute new ideas about where you went wrong and how you can improve.
Importantly, don’t get upset at them and accuse them of nagging when they try to help out according to the way you agreed – this just makes everyone miserable.
If your parents aren’t interested in helping, find a friend who cares as much as you do about education and college, and hold each other to task. Even if you feel competition with this friend for getting into college, you’ll likely lift each other to greater heights than where you would be individually.
Know the Trouble Signs and Act
High school can be stressful, especially if your goals are high. Not only are you preparing a strong college application, you’re also navigating the high school social scene, figuring out what you want to do in your life, and figuring out your relationship with your parents. Sometimes all things come to a head and it can be overwhelming.
Recognize trouble signs, reflect on whether they’re serious problems, and act quickly if they are:
Are you deeply unhappy? Does every day feel like a slog to you and you’re not sure why you’re doing any of it? Think about the root cause of this feeling. Maybe your parents are pushing you into a goal that you don’t identify with. Maybe there are conflicting aspects to your life – being better at school may mean getting ostracized socially so you’re caught in the middle. Try to reflect on this, identify any plausible root causes, and take steps to address them. (Easier said than done, I know, but you have to start somewhere).
Are you getting 7-8 hours of sleep nightly? If not, you should restructure your life so you get more output in less time. Chart out where your time goes every day and every week and observe where there are possibilities for large improvements. This might mean cutting current activities and refocusing that time on something more helpful to your application.
Is one class dragging down the others? Are you spending lots of time to stay afloat in one class, at the expense of your other grades? Consider dropping the course. The earlier you can detect this, the more you can avoid getting a permanent Withdrawn mark on your transcript. But even if it’s too late to avoid this, it’s preferable to failure across the board.
Importantly, don’t be too proud to ask for help. More people are willing to help you than you think – you just haven’t asked yet. If you lack helpful parents and friend support, seek help from teachers and counselors. It may take you some time and multiple tries to find someone who advocates for you, but one likely exists somewhere in your world.
If you suspect even a bit that you might have mental health concerns, seek help quickly. Again, more people are willing to help than you think.
Prepare for Crunch Periods: Finals and APs
The end of each semester and academic year is typically pretty stressful. Instead of a staggered timeline, you’ll get final exams in most classes all at once. Even worse, you might also have to prep separately for AP exams and the SAT/ACT.
The good news is that if you’ve built a strong foundation throughout the rest of the year, you’re already 80% there even before you study for finals. You may have forgotten some details, but the foundational tree trunks are still around. Preparing for the final is a matter of loading the info into your short term memory for recall.
If you’re learning a lot of new material for a final, you’re too late. Try the best you can, but next time focus on sustained effort throughout the year.
As for AP Courses, usually doing getting an A in class will lead to a pretty easy 5, unless your class is really easy and A is the most common grade. Preparing for standardized tests uses the same skills and principles, no matter if it’s an AP or the SAT. I cover these principles in my How to Get a Perfect SAT Score guide.
Rinse and Repeat
High school is four years long (duh). Maintaining high performance throughout freshman to junior year requires sustained commitment, motivation, and high quality.
If you do really well on a semester, great job – take time to celebrate, but steel yourself to do it again the next semester.
The good thing is that the earlier you start building good habits, the easier it gets. If you start all of this by freshman year, senior year will be a breeze and you’ll be well prepared for college.
Notice how most of this guide has been about mindset, your personal psychology, and effective habits. This forms an effective framework that you can apply to every class and every semester of school. Every important concept that got me to a 4.0 GPA is here.
Now the hard work is actually adopting these practices and continuing to apply them through your entire high school career.
Read my other well-regarded guides:
- How to Get a Perfect SAT Score and How to Get a Perfect ACT Score
- How to Get Into Harvard and the Ivy League
Prepping for the SAT or ACT? We've written the highest quality prep guides available anywhere. Check them out for strategies, tips, and content:
Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:
Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
As co-founder and head of product design at PrepScholar, Allen has guided thousands of students to success in SAT/ACT prep and college admissions. He's committed to providing the highest quality resources to help you succeed. Allen graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude and earned two perfect scores on the SAT (1600 in 2004, and 2400 in 2014) and a perfect score on the ACT.