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The Unintuitive Way to Ace College

Andrew Liu
Andrew Liu
11 min read
The Unintuitive Way to Ace College

Table of Contents

I find it silly whenever people tout the saying "C's get degrees." You invest four years of your life, just to settle for the bare minimum? No wonder prospective employers raise their eyebrows. It doesn't matter what you do, just be sure to do it well. If you commit to college, you can certainly succeed and be proud of your journey.

Getting's straight A's in college was not particularly difficult for me. We're talking about a STEM degree in a good university with some extracurriculars on the side. Many people smarter than me who worked harder than me received worse results than I did. It's because their general strategies were pretty poor.

What matters most to your college success tends to be the systemized approaches you adopt. I'll share some basic tenets that built the foundation for my college journey. If you're currently struggling through college or have a friend in that boat, it's best to read ahead.

Mindset 🧠

While in college I noticed that there was a weaker-than-expected correlation between time spent working and actual results. It seemed that the majority of college students were simply not productive. They needed a fundamental change in mindset. Working hard is great, but it's even more critical to be working smart.

Working hard fails if your mind isn't in the right place.

Don't Half-ass

For the folks who finished college: do you remember the kids sitting in the back of the lecture hall texting on their laptops?

I wonder why they bothered to show up to class anyway. It probably would have been more enjoyable for them to use their computers elsewhere. Think carefully if you want to be like that. Whatever you do, don't half-ass it.

  • If you want to go to a lecture, pay attention and absorb information like a sponge.
  • If you want to study, make sure you burn the knowledge into your head.
  • If you want to recreate, that's perfectly fine. Just don't pretend to study at the same time. A lecture hall isn't the best place to have fun.

To be transparent, I didn't actually spend all that much time studying. But when I did, I worked smart and every moment I spent was a productive moment. You don't need to invest every waking minute in your classes. But when you do allocate time for education, it's best to prioritize achieving results.

Seek the Truth

Another key mindset shift is to remember that what you're taught aligns with the truth. Way too many people look at education as a game of memorizing random bits of information. That puts them at a disadvantage because their success rests upon brute force memorization. Seek to understand instead of just going through the motions.

View education as a means of uncovering the truth about the universe. Your worldview should evolve as you learn. Everything should be self-consistent, and it should be possible to re-derive what you learned. After all, all human knowledge has either been gathered through observation or derivation.

(As a major caveat to the above paragraph, I have to note that what I mentioned may not apply to the liberal arts or more subjective fields of study. All I can do in such a case is apologize for your loss and recommend that you pursue a degree in computer science.)

Taking Notes 📓

Taking notes the wrong way will set you back.

I'm not a proponent of brute-force memorization. With the sheer amount of material across a full-time student's classes, trying to "just memorize everything" sets you up for failure. Hence, good notes play a key factor in indexing all the information you consume.

How NOT to Take Notes

Notes are a tool, not some deliverable you show off. Nobody cares if your notes are long or short or beautiful or ugly. All that matters is that they're useful. If your notes make you retain knowledge, it worked. Far too often, I've seen bad note-taking habits disguised as "good" practices.

  • Taking notes with many colorful highlights
  • Rewriting notes to make them "pretty"
  • Copying the textbook

These are terrible.

Have you seen the notes of someone who highlights everything? Maybe you are that someone. At a certain point, the signal-to-noise ratio from highlights starts to plummet. If anything, I've noticed that the content that was not highlighted tended to be more interesting. Highlighting isn't inherently bad, but it should be used sparingly. We want to take notes, not draw in a coloring book.

Rewriting existing notes may backfire as well. While rereading notes is fantastic, most people tend to go on autopilot and mechanically copy over the writing. All the information goes on paper but not inside the head. If you think pretty notes are better, know that messier writing may actually help memorization. Keep in mind that it's not always bad to rewrite notes. My recommendation for those who rewrite notes is to condense your original notes. You cut the fluff and must think about what's parts are actually important.

How to (Correctly) Take Notes

A few good notes outweigh lots of notes. If you're in class, pay attention. If you're not going to class, go to class. Understanding what's being taught out-prioritizes being the teacher's scribe. Don't be afraid of messy or sparse notes. The purpose of notes is to facilitate getting knowledge inside of your head. The notes don't have to be clear if your head is clear.

On a tactical level, I recommend against using laptops for note taking. Laptops put you at risk of online distractions. Pen and paper gives you the most flexibility when it comes to transcribing complex notes. You don't need to take notes from scratch, either. If there are lecture slides for a class, it makes sense to print them out beforehand. In such a case, take notes to fill in the gaps or add context around the slides.

Above all, be sure to reread your notes. If you don't bother to retrieve the information you wrote down, there was no point in taking those notes.

Studying 🎒

Make sure you study productively. Otherwise, don't waste your time.

When it comes to studying for an exam, the idea of working smart makes the biggest difference. It's not necessary to spend copious amounts of time to study. If you've been well-organized and on top of classes, your preparation will pay dividends.

Know the Exam

Before any studying happens, it's mandatory that you know the format of the exam. There must be no surprises. Ask your professor about the exact format, and look over corresponding exams from previous semesters. Again, this is a hard prerequisite. If you don't know the format, you don't know what to study.

Once you finally sit down to study, you might be wondering: what do I actually study? The syllabus or a textbook might seem tempting, but those are the worst places to look. Study the exams from previous semesters. Think about it. Previous exams are the closest you'll get to the actual exam. It'll guide you on what to focus upon. It's literally a roadmap to success. If you look over broad sources like textbooks, you're flailing in the dark.

Make sure your professor provides practice exams or past exams. If they don't automatically volunteer those resources to you, ask them for the past exams. If they refuse to provide those exams, they're probably lazy professors. In such cases, you can expect your upcoming exam to be identical to last semester's exam. I don't have a good solution if you find yourself in such a situation. All I can say is that it pays to have good upperclassmen friends. Before signing up for classes, you might also want to check those websites that rate professors.

Get in the Zone

When you study, make sure you get in the zone. You should be laser-focused on burning information into your head. I find that setting your environment plays a big role with helping you get into a state of flow. You want to find a quiet place to hang out for a few hours, ideally free of any distractions. For me, my dorm room worked great.

If you still struggle to fall into a state of concentration, it may make sense to stop studying. Don't half-ass your studying. Doing so builds a destructive habit. Enjoy yourself for time being, and start studying once you're ready to concentrate.

How to Actually Study

When you actually study, try to emulate a realistic test-taking scenario. For example, when taking a practice test, pretend it was the real thing. Put yourself on a timer, don't peek at your notes, and grade yourself at the end. Don't like your score? Then you'd better step up your game.

After you finish a pass through a practice exam, learn how to solve the questions you missed. Going through your notes or other resources at this point is fine. Look to understand concepts rather than memorize answers to a specific question. The questions on the real exam will be slightly different, so you don't want to set yourself up for failure.

How Andrew Studied for his Computer Science Exams

Around a week or two before an exam, I'd make sure that copies of the exam from previous semesters were available. Once the practice exams were printed out, I'd go about my normal life until a day or two before the actual exam.

Then comes studying time. I usually allocate a few hours at the end of the day for exam prep. I prefer evenings since it gives me the flexibility to extend my study time if necessary. My studying follows a cyclical pattern.

  1. I go through a practice exam as if it were the real exam. No notes, no phones, no cheating.
  2. Once the practice exam is done, I learn how to solve the questions that I answered incorrectly. Using notes and the Internet is fine. After this step, I should understand how to solve the entire exam.
  3. Since I know how to solve the entire exam, I actually fix the questions that I missed. This shouldn't be hard if my understanding is correct.
  4. I move on to another practice test and repeat the cycle.

After enough iterations, the format of the exam should be firmly melded in your mind. Taking the real exam should almost feel like you're taking an additional practice exam.

Some Thoughts on Study Groups

I advise caution with study groups. It can be less productive than studying alone. Large gatherings make it easy to be distracted. Groups may cover material that you're already familiar with. Remember, the real exam is not a team effort. You'll be taking it alone.

If you really want to study in a group, pay close attention to the average competence of your study group. If you're in a crowd of morons, I'd find it hard to extract value from the group. Even worse, an incompetent group may spread misinformation, effectively confusing and misleading you. You don't want them dragging you down.

Therefore, I recommend you prefer to study with people smarter than you. Though if we apply the same game theory, why would they waste their time studying with you?

If you're still determined to study as a group, my general advice is to make friends with good people and work with them consistently. The best way to help others while learning is to teach. If your friends don't understand a concept, teach it to them and make sure they learn from you. If there's something you struggle to grasp, encourage them to teach it to you.

Some Thoughts on TA's

Teacher assistants are a great study resource, but be careful not to become dependent on them. As a former TA myself, I've noticed that the regulars in office hours were never the star pupils. Instead, they seemed to be students looking to outsource their thinking.

It's a good habit to form positive relationships with your TA's and professors. You don't have to go to office hours for help. Office hours can be for general conversation and learning as well. If you do attend office hours looking for help, make sure you've done your due diligence in terms of preparation. Don't waste your TA's time.

Taking the Exam ✍️

All of your preparation has boiled down to a single test. Even the best prepared student isn't infallible, so here are my favorite tactics I used when taking real exams.

Peel away the exam layer by layer.

Pacing is key during the actual test. Working too slowly or getting hung up on a problem will kill your time. At this point, your can't prepare any further, so focus on what you can still control. Think of an exam as an opportunity to show off everything you know, not just to answer one question really well.

I like to approach tests like peeling layers of an onion. Before you write anything, look through the entire exam. Set a hard time limit for each problem. If you're taking too long on a question, it's fine to leave it and move on. You should aim to pass through the entire exam multiple times.

Once you've reached the end of the test, loop back to the start and repeat the process. This time you'll be answering the questions you skipped or double checking your answers. You can be a bit more lenient with how much time you spend on a single problem, but be sure to keep tabs on your pacing. Keep repeating this loop until everything has been answered and double-checked.

Those who were exceptionally well-prepared may find themselves finishing the test early. There's nothing wrong with turning in your exam with extra time, but make sure you have no regrets. Nothing feels worse than submitting early and finding out you made a stupid mistake on the test. Take some time to double check your answers one more time. If you're confident about submitting, follow through and enjoy your extra free time.

We're not done until the test comes back with a grade. If you're happy with the results, then pat yourself on the back and move on with life. If not, consider doing a postmortem on the exam. There should be no surprises on an exam. If there was, either the test wasn't fair, or there was a problem with your preparation. Have an honest reflection on what went wrong and how to improve for next time. It's okay to make mistakes, but it's wrong not to learn from them.

Some Parting Thoughts

This has become quite a long essay. Thank you for powering through if you read this far. Although I've focused heavily on test-taking and grades, I wanted to wrap up some higher-level thoughts.

  • People don't reflect on why grades matter. Why do we bother to do well in school? My answer is that it opens up opportunities in life. If you're committed to an education, don't squander it. Flunking out doesn't open doors.
  • It's okay to make mistakes. In the real world, grit matters more than a high score. In a similar vein, don't neglect finding internships, making friends, and enjoying your life in college.
  • Choosing classes and professors wisely is one of the highest leverage actions you can take. If you take a bad class, you end up with several negative factors outside of your control. Note that I'm not advocating just taking the easiest classes. Rather, look for signals that the class is fair and educational.
  • The best signals around the quality and fairness of a class include a transparent syllabus, no need for a large curve, and positive feedback from former students. Classes covering the hard sciences tend to be quite fair. Classes that cover subjective topics allow room for arbitrary grading.
  • I don't think college is for everybody (but I do think it's for most people). I have a simple litmus test for current students. Ask yourself: is there something meaningful you'd otherwise do? If so, you may need to make a calculated decision. Otherwise, stay in school.

College is a big hurdle for too many people. It doesn't have to be that way. Focus on adopting a good strategy in life, and victory is assured. But above all, do what's right for you. Good luck.

Do you have any questions or comments about this blog post? Maybe you disagree with everything I said? Post your thoughts in the Twitter post above!


Andrew Liu Twitter

Software engineer. Does cybersecurity and ML stuff.


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