College is something of a mystery and an adventure, but I’m here to tell you that it’s not an impossible task to conquer. I was terrified of screwing up, that my hard-earned tuition dollars and heaping loans wouldn’t be worth it if I couldn’t be at the forefront of the pack. This is, of course, ridiculous, because you’re more than your grades. But still, to me, it’s always been one of my biggest priorities. I’ve managed to work a full time job, have a wonderful relationship, spend time with friends, and be a full time student with a 4.0 GPA at UC Berkeley, one of the toughest and most stressful schools in the world, in a difficult major. How do I do it? I’m here to share my secrets!
- Know your syllabus: Honestly, the easiest way to take an axe to your GPA is to miss all the small things. If you didn’t know that attendance was mandatory for your discussion sections, you’re automatically on the wrong trajectory. The same goes for missing the small homework assignments, being caught unaware for quizzes or exams, or not knowing there was an essay due until the night before. None of these are setting you up for success. Take note of what your semester look likes, what the grading policies and expectations are, and know what lies ahead. Mark your calendar with key presentation dates, essays, and tests so that you’re not taken by surprise.
- Take your class choices seriously: Plan ahead so that you can spread your difficult courses out over your semesters so you’re not stuck in four murderously hard classes in one semester. If you know you have three math requirements, and it’s not your strong suit, spread them out over a few semesters in order to ensure that you can tackle each one and make sense of the content. Also, pick an overall manageable schedule. You don’t have to graduate a year early with a double major in order to get into grad school or find a good job. Pace yourself! Burning out is a real thing!
- Go to class: Or go at least some of the time. I have a pretty solid strategy for this whole skiving off classes game. I always ensure that I go to the classes before the first exam. I don’t know what I’m dealing with until after that. I can see if slides are posted online, if there are key terms lists provided, how the class is structured, if the lectures are even helpful/related to what is on the exam. For example, I try to attend every single statistics and research data methods class because it’s hard! The exams are totally based off the classes, and I have a really tough time catching up from even one missed lecture. Conversely, my psychotropic neuropharmacology class is useless most of the time and the key terms are posted online. The professor always draws his lectures from those terms. You have to determine what works for you and find your own balance.
- Prioritize: Seriously. Don’t bother yourself with busy work ahead of the important stuff. I have definitely missed a class or two before a midterm to prepare. I’ve also pushed off a week worth of homework to the weekend in order to focus on a test or a tough paper. You have to figure out what’s the most vital thing on your to do list and tackle it first. If cleaning your house and doing that American politics homework needs to take a backseat to your final project, so be it.
- Study with friends: I love doing this. In high school, I always tried to do this, and it never worked out in a way that was legitimately productive. But in college, everyone is focused and aiming to do well. Try to make a few friends in each class or section you have so that you can prepare for tests together or just review difficult material as the semester rolls on. But also, just study with your friends period. I meet my girlfriends for late night or early morning study sessions all the time. We’ll just chill in the library or a cafe until the wee hours reading and telling jokes and working on papers. Sometimes, it helps to have friends there to take the pressure off and keep you company while forcing you to stay focused.
- The library is your best friend: It’s not that you have to got to the library, but you have to have a place that is conducive to studying. I live with a roommate in a very small, broom-closet-esque apartment. I don’t have room for a desk or office, and I simply can’t focus on the couch or in my bed. Berkeley, luckily, has a ton of libraries, but I love the 24/7 library that is constantly filled with kids hitting the books. It’s encouraging, and I know myself. I don’t get stuff done at home most of the time. Plain and simple. Find what works for you and stick to it.
- Know your study style: I’ll be truthful, here. I’m a trash student. I leave everything until the last minute and never study more than a day or so in advance for anything. I’ve always been this way. Always. And it works for me. I study best in intense periods that are long and taxing and would drive some people completely mad. I don’t do well (empirically, as in my scores are worse) if I study way in advance, and I don’t know why. But my trick is to always have my study guides prepped ahead of time. That way, I can crack right into studying and not waste time familiarizing myself with the concepts. I also know that I tend to learn best by using flashcards (I love Quizlet more than life) and handwriting things that are tough for me. I’ll go ahead and flip through my cards a few times, and star or set aside tricky ones. If they’re still proving hard, I’ll handwrite the information a few times. My style may not be the same as yours, but what you must do in order to succeed is isolate and capitalize on the learning methods that are most helpful for you.
- Talk to your TAs/GSIs and professors: They are actually helpful people that are there to aid you in the learning process! Believe it or not (yeah, I imagine them with devil horns too, sometimes). I have had several instances where I’ve talked with my GSIs about my exam and they’ve caught mistakes made by graders or rectified something I felt was misgraded or unfair. Don’t bother them in a whiney manner or for trivial things, but if you have a real point and evidence, they’ll often hear you out, and many are willing to fix it or explain their decision to you.
- Don’t take it, or yourself, too seriously: If you obsess over your grades and school, you won’t enjoy a second of it. Try to shrug off a long week and unwind with friends. Laugh about all of your mutual academic suffering and find fun in the franticness of the whole college experience. Trust me when I say you’re not alone in this.
These are just a few of my most cherished tips and tricks, some most self-evident than others, that have enabled me to get straight A’s in college. You will have to tailor them to you, but I guarantee that if you’re willing to work hard, a perfect GPA (or close to it) is achievable. My dad always said that success is 20% intellect and 80% effort. He’s not wrong.