How To Win At College

How To Win At College

Surprising Secrets for Success from the County's Top Students

Cal Newport (8/10)

Summary

The only guide to getting ahead once you’ve gotten in—proven strategies for making the most of your college years, based on winning secrets from the country's most successful students. (Copied from Goodreads)

Review

The book is very useful and has a lot of specific and practical tips to improve the college experience. Cal's suggestions are well-reasoned and worth trying. I recommend this for any student.

Notes

This is worth your time to read at any point in college. Main points below. I italicized the most impactful/important tips.

Notes from the Cover and Front Matter

  • "proving that success has little to do with being a genius workaholic, and everything to do with having the right game plan"
  • Book was published in 2005, for context.

Introduction

  • Half the battle in becoming a "standout student" is "making the decision to actively try to succeed."

1- Don't Do All of Your Reading

  • Do enough to know what to expect from class, then fill in gaps by taking great notes during lectures.
  • Your goal in a STEM lecture is to feel comfortable applying the concepts covered in that lecture.

2- Create a Sunday Ritual

  • Get a head start on your week by using Sunday to organize, plan, and work.
  • A weekly ritual will help make this a stronger habit.

3- Drop Classes Every Semester

  • Bad courses can ruin a semester
  • Sign up for 1-2 extra and drop what you like least

4- Start Long Term Projects the Day They Are Assigned

  • Make a plan for completion, start the reading, just take a small step toward completion day ONE.

5- Make Your Bed

  • Clean your room, put your books away, put your clothes away.
  • Quality is a habit!

7- Build Study Systems

  • "You should never begin studying without a systemized plan for what you are going to review, in what format, and how many times."
  • "Once you are convinced that this study system will adequately prepare you, you can then free yourself from any worries as to whether you will be ready for the upcoming exam."

8- Befriend a Professor

  • Regularly go to office hours, ask for feedback or clarification

9- Become a Club President

  • Good grades are not enough to make you interesting

10- Read a Newspaper Everyday

  • I usually swap this out for a few newsletters, such as Carnivore Aurelious or Morning Brew
  • I also like reading 10 pages of a nonfiction book, its more predictable and less likely to influence my mood by introducing external events

11- Do One Thing Better Than Anyone Else You Know

  • "Develop a skill you can be known for"
  • When I read this, some potential strengths for me could include writing, public speaking, handstands, cooking, & making websites

12- Avoid Daily To-Do Lists

  • Yes, I'm pretty sure Cal talks about time-blocking in every single one of his books
  • Plan out your day in 30 minute chunks
  • I really like his sales pitch: "Unless you're a big fan of stress, do yourself a favor and give time-blocking a try"

13- Learn to Give Up

  • Similar to The Dip, by Seth Godin. Quitting strategically is often smart. Cal distinguishes between productive work and unproductive work.
  • If a task feels like you could push everything aside on work exclusively on that task for days straight and make no progress, its unproductive.
  • At that point, Marshall some resources (professor, friends, tutors) and get help.

14- Never Nap

  • Instead of napping, switch to easier work (like house chores or small tasks)
  • Instead of napping, do light outdoor exercise
  • Instead of napping, go grocery shopping
  • Instead of napping, drink a large ice water and eat some fruit

16- Always Be Working on a "Grand Project"

  • "winning students love to get excited about big goals" -- so true, also true beyond students
  • "foster an attitude of anything is possible"
  • to generate ideas, "reflect on your most heartfelt aspirations" then "design and follow an ambitious Grand Project that moves you toward your answer"
  • Some projects I've done: learning how to meal prep, training for a half marathon, 75HARD, doing GOMAD for 60 days, making this website
  • Some projects I'm doing (August 2020): The Louis and Kyle Show (podcast), & Gymnastics Bodies training
  • Cal explains the benefits of these projects: "you just did accomplished something exciting, and you did so for no other reason than you wanted to see if it was possible."
  • "Once you accomplish one Grand Project, anything seems achievable" -- very true, sometimes overwhelming how much seems possible

17- Take Art History and Astronomy

  • Cal argues that these make you look cool at dinner parties
  • I think I missed the boat on this one

18- Blow the Curve Once a Term

  • I love this tip, its one of the most important in the whole book.
  • "every semester you should choose one class that you like, and within that class choose one interesting project, and then knock it out of the ballpark"
  • Just take one random project/test/assignment and crush it by going above and beyond expectations. This is a great way to stand out in a class.

19- Ask One Question at Every Lecture

  • When you are doing the reading, jot down a list of possible questions

20- Jump into research as early as possible

  • I missed the boat on this one

22- Study in Fifty-Minute Chunks

23- Schedule Your Free Time

  • More on time-blocking.
  • "Work time is any time that you are not explicitly relaxing"
  • "Choose an end point for the day"
  • "Decide exactly when you are going to relax throughout the day"

24- Dress Nicely for Class

25- Decorate Your Room

26- Start Studying Two Weeks In Advance

  • If a typical exam requires 15 hours of studying, its much easier to do that over 14 days than over 2
  • you are not increasing the total amount of work required, instead you are just spreading it out over time into manageable chunks

27- Write Outside of Class

28- Eat Alone Twice a Day

  • I would rewrite this chapter title as "only have one social meal a day"

29- Find an Escape

  • Go somewhere that brings you out of the campus bubble (discussions of school work, social gossip, etc)
  • Treat it like taking medicine
  • Some examples: spend a morning at Barnes and Noble pleasure reading, take a nature hike

30- Take Hard Courses Early On

31- Don't Study In Your Room

  • "Studying in your dorm has only one advangtage going for it: convenience... studying isn't supposed to be convenient, it's supposed to be effective"
  • "Libraries were designed to maximize your academic productivity. Dorm rooms seem to be designed to minimize it."

32- Don't Study in Groups

  • "The best way to learn difficult material is to go over it by yourself, with a lot of concentration, again and again and again until the concept become second nature. There is no substitute for this type of learning."
  • "--the truth is that undergraduates learn best through a little lonely concentration"

33- Join an Honors Program

  • "The programs generally represent a slightly better version of your school"

34- Do Schoolwork Everyday

  • "slumps occur when you take a long break form work and then find yourself unable to easily pull yourself back into a working rhythm."
  • "Do an hour right after classes on Friday so you have something to feel good about."
  • "Sunday is a workday, you'll just have to get over it"

35- Attend Guest Lectures

  • You should try to attend at least 2 per month

36- Exercise Five Days a Week

37- Stay In Touch

  • Make at least once per month phone calls with friends and family from back home.

40- Don't Get a Normal Job

  • If you need a job to pay the bills, try finding one that serves a double purpose of advancing your academic career
  • Examples: research assistant, relevant internship, freelancing, tutoring
  • Also, jobs where you sit at a desk and pretty much do nothing most hours (like a library help desk) are like paid study hall

41- Use Three Days to Write a Paper

  • Assuming you've organized all materials, have a thesis, and understand the concepts involved, writing a paper should be done in three steps
  • these steps should not be performed on the same day
  • first, write the entire rough draft. rough is fine.
  • second, make your paper better. I would call this doing some "CI" (continuous improvement) on the paper. Make your arguments better.
  • last, edit. make your writing better. trim the fat. make the intro match the conclusion, and print it and edit on paper at least twice. we also find new errors that way.
  • I spread the work out for publishing this set of notes by only working through 25 pages of reading/ annotating per day

42- Don't Undersleep, Don't Oversleep

  • Find the right amount of sleep that lets you get through an entire day feeling energized and try to stay as consistent as possible at that number.

43- Relax Before Exams

  • Do some confidence building visualization exercises like imagining the professor handing back your exam in a few weeks with a high score and great comments.
  • Frantic studying right before an exam won't lead to much retention or put you in the right state of mind.
  • Take a walk, run some errands, read a nonacademic book
  • In the last 10-15 minutes skim some of the concepts you feel strongly about

44- Make Friends Your #1 Priority

  • Work on setting up recurring social interactions (same person for a meal at the same place same time each week for example)

45- Don't Binge Drink

  • Try having a productive day following a night of puking, drinking till you are sick. Good luck.

46- Ignore Your Classmates Grades

  • Focus on your own performance and progress. Let your classmates worry about their own.

47- Seek Out Phenomenal Achievers

  • Yes! This is the entire purpose of my podcast.
  • This helps you define your notion of success to be as ambitious as possible.
  • Phenomenal achievers help you "expose yourself to possibility"
  • Go out to lunch with people that inspire you or do really interesting things. Become their friends.

48- Learn to Listen

  • Don't be the annoying person in arguments.

49- Never Pull an All-Nighter

  • "after around two A.M., your mental ability is reduced to roughly that of a toaster oven"
  • "when you are seriously sleep deprived your brain activity is basically indistinguishable from that of someone who is fully asleep"
  • staying up all night "should never be considered a viable approach for getting things done"
  • the antidote is to start your work way ahead of time

50- Laugh Every Day

  • "make a conscious effort to seek out avenues of laughter each and every day"

51- Use High-Quality Notebooks

52- Keep A Work Progress Journal

  • This is very similar to "The Power List"
  • Make a daily habit of keeping yourself accountable for making progress on longer term plans
  • Cal recommends that at the end of the day, you make the following entry in a small journal -> today's date, what long-term work I scheduled for today, the work I actually accomplished today
  • This is inspiring because "no one wants a permanent record of their temporary laziness."

53- Seek Out Fun

  • College isn't like the movies, you can't count on stumbling on adventure and fun. You have to actively seek it out.
  • Adventures only happen to the adventurous -- Elliot Bisnow (from The Third Door)

54- Inflate Your Ambition

  • Look at what you are already involved in, and pump up the criteria for success.
  • Don't add an outrageous number of involvements, instead take "your reasonable slate of existing goals and take them to the next level."

55- Get Involved with Your Major Departement

  • I've not done the best job of this.
  • Go to events put on by your department, networking events, guest speakers, conferences, etc. Try to hit about one a month.

56- Care About Your Grades, Ignore Your G.P.A

  • "treat each class as an intellectual challenge to conquer"
  • focus on the learning not on the number

57- Always Go to Class

58- Set Arbitrary Deadlines

  • This is the concept of positive constraints
  • "always be scheduling your time as if a deadline is near"
  • for a large assignment, break it up into specific smaller deliverables with intermediate "nonnegotiable" deadlines
  • these help to "blur the distinction between small and large assignments, and turn your schedule into one manageable flow of many small tasks"

59- Eat Healthy

  • During the week think of food as fuel. Optimize your eating around what will make you most alert and energized.
  • If you really want junk, just wait till the weekends for cheating.

61- Write as if Going for a Pulitzer

  • Have the goal of all written communication (essays, emails, etc) be an experience for the reader.
  • This makes it more fun to write and more fun to read.

62- Attend Political Rallies

63- Maximize Your Summers

  • Start planning your summer in January

65- Don't Take Breaks Between Classes

  • Just do lightweight tasks instead (shopping, email, office hours)

66- Don't Network

  • Don't network in the sense that you are asking random people at events for a job.
  • Network with the goal of asking interesting people interesting questions
  • "Not once do you show even a hint of underlying self interest."

68- Use a Filing Cabinet

  • This is a major key 🔑

70- Study with the Quiz-and-Recall Method

  • "You should build your entire approach to studying around the concept that making yourself recall specific information is the absolute best way to learn.
  • Studying should have two key pieces
  • First, review all the material that could be on the test -> while doing this, jot down your recall questions
  • Second, quiz yourself on your practice questions until you ace the practice questions

71- Empty Your In-Box

  • Go to bed with inbox 0 (at least as of the last time you check for the day)
  • I also recommend only checking email once a day if possible. Twice is fine too if at two scheduled times.

72- Relax Before Sleep

  • Don't go straight from your work shut off into sleeping
  • Spend ~30 minutes or more~ doing something relaxing so you don't go to sleep with the stress of the day.

73- Start Fast, End Slow

  • Approach all projects with this goal in mind.
  • If you have two weeks to finish something, plan to have most done by the first week.

74- Study Abroad

  • Agreed

75- "Don't Have No Regrets"

  • You need the right attitude for success.
  • Success isn't for attention, proving yourself to others, or for adulation and praise.
  • Instead it should be very intrinsic. You find it exciting to push yourself, explore your potential, and see what is possible.

I reread this book for a few reasons. First, I reread a Cal Newport book before every semester. Second, on his podcast, Cal shared an in order guide to reading his books for college students. If you've spent much time on this website, you probably know what came next...