There is no replacement for doing the work of studying. There are no shortcuts, there is no way to make it more fun. However, there are ways to make sure you make good use of your time and to maximize the chance of a good grade.
Here's a list of prescriptions I took away from my time at the University of Connecticut. I graduated with a 3.99 GPA, taking a Computer Science and Engineering major and a Mathematics minor, and later got a Masters in the same area.
- Do the syllabus reading and homework in advance. This maintains a time buffer that will save you when the going gets rough.
- Write notes by hand, and digitally transcribe them later. This helps cement knowledge in your mind.
- Take practice exams like real exams. This is the best way to practice for an exam. Grade yourself after.
- Foundational courses like calc 1 or or general chemistry don't change much over the years. This means old practice exams and other coursework can be useful studying tools.
- These prescriptions require budgeting your time, and it's okay if you don't budget for all of this. Your time at college shouldn't just be about getting straight As.
Do the syllabus in advance.
This has rewarded me greatly. By doing the readings and homeworks in advance, you maintain an allowance of time in case you suffer a setback. (You also generally build repute as someone who has their shit together.)
This can backfire in higher level courses, especially graduate level courses. In my experience, professors often change or drop assignments, or change the grading to address underperforming students. I found myself punished for my discipline in some rare instances.
But overall, keeping ahead is rewarding. I got As in my courses and earned good repute among my peers.
In one example, I signed up for a digital logic design course. The summer before the course started, I read the textbook front-to-back, and did the first few chapters of problems. When the course started, I watched every provided video in advance and did that too. This is the extreme, and it was only possible because my summer job at the tutoring center had many quiet times. But it was rewarding: I got an A in the course (the highest marking), and the assistant professor (who was teaching the course) was very thankful that I was able to fill in and lecture the class on Karnaugh Maps.
This same semester, I also kept myself in advance on my multivariable calculus course. One of the graduate students who lectured in my physics course was actually a classmate in my multivariable course, and he visited me for an informal tutoring session at my work. It is rare that you can call someone your teacher, your classmate, and your tutee, all at the same time.
In a lesser extreme, the semester prior, I kept myself just two weeks ahead of my General Chemistry II course. At the time, I was living with my abusive parents and I was navigating being kicked out. Keeping in advance by two weeks allowed me to endure this setback, and again graduated with an A.
That same, I was taking Calculus II. I ended up being able to skip the entire latter quarter of the semester. (I could have even skipped the final exam and have finished with an A!) In reward for doing the syllabus in advance, I was able I to skip a class to have icecream with friends at the beach. :)
Write notes by hand on paper, and then later transcribe to a computer.
Here is how I would roughly suggest writing notes.
- Read the textbook chapter before lecture.
- During lectures, take notes by hand onto paper.
- After you've done the homework, transcribe the notes onto the digital platform of your choosing.
I recommend transcribing because this is a fantastic way to refine notes while also committing the knowledge to memory. Transcribing notes only after reading, working, and listening means you're less likely to commit mistakes to memory.
I recommend writing by hand onto paper because digital tools just cannot compete. Right now, the 2022 iPad Pro and the ReMarkable 2 tablet are the best competitors, but even then I find them too inconvenient compared to paper, and too easy to get distracted when using.
If you can write legibly and quickly using a tablet, you might use that instead of paper, but I find it impossible.
Specifically, I recommend Obsidian for digital notetaking
Obsidian is a proprietary notetaking software. I'm a FOSS nerd, but I like it because it works on Markdown files which are trivially easy to copy from one computer to another.
Obsidian has legitimately changed my life with how easy it has made notetaking for me. I use it to write notes, math, diagrams music, code snippets, to journal my finances, and more.
Obsidian is the only recommendation I'm making that I haven't explicitly used in college courses, but in my opinion, it is a fantastic replacement for tools I did use prior,.
Previously, I had used Google Drive, but found the Wordprocessor-like features too cumbersome. I moved to the online LaTeX editor Overleaf, but I found using LaTeX for everything to be too verbose, and it didn't work on my phone. Then I moved to StackEdit, but I found its sync model + browser-only mode to be too limiting. Then I moved to a self-hosted Nextcloud instance with Markdown notes, and it was excellent, but I paid $40/month to host my server.
Then I moved to Obsidian, and never looked back. If something better than Obsidian comes around, I'll edit this post, but I've been loving it for the past year.
If you like Markdown, and want to use occasional LaTeX to write math, maybe write music using
abc, or create diagrams using
mermaid.js, then Obsidian is amazing.
Take practice exams like real exams, as many as you can.
Do your best to recreate the conditions of the exam. Take the exam out and any materials you're allowed to have with you, time yourself, and get to work. If it's not a burden, try to take the practice exam in the same time and place as the exam proper.
Practice exams help you know exactly what kind of content to cover, the format of the questions, how much time to dedicate to each question, and what you need to work on. They will also teach you the quirks of your particular professor, which can help in the case of ambiguous multiple-choice or true-false questions.
For exams involving programming especially, if you are expected to write code on pen-and-paper, it will serve you well to write code on pen and paper. Do not use an IDE. Writing code by hand forces you to maintain a mental model of the programming language and computational state in your head, whereas an IDE will offload that work.
Foundational courses don't change over the years. Use this to your advantage.
Foundational courses, like calculus, physics, probability, etc. cover knowledge that was mostly discovered centuries ago. This means their syllabi and textbooks are mostly unchanging, and this means practice exams from years past can help you.
For example, if you're taking Calc I in 2024, chances are that it's almost identical to Calc 1 in 2014, and that's almost identical to Calc 1 in 2004. This is because Calculus is a freshman-level course and Calculus doesn't change.
This isn't true for courses focusing on the state-of-the-art. For example, when I took a graduate-level computer networking course in Fall 2019, "WiFi 6" was a work-in-progress spec with theoretical applications. Just six months later in May 2020, I bought a phone with a WiFi 6 chip in it!
You need to budget your time-- and it's okay if you don't budget for coursework.
The students who are most successful in courses are ones who have put the time in to their course, and the preceding courses. There is no replacement for doing the work.
Maintaining good sleep and personal hygiene will give you a better return-on-investment for the time you spend. As will eating well and maintaining personal fitness.
All of these cost time, and are part of the labor of performing your life well. I'm not here to go on diatribes on living a healthy life. But avoid staying up to play videogames, or eating garbage junk food if you have vegetables available to you, or drinking heavily during parties.
Courses aren't the only thing you do at college. It's not worth it to obsess over straight-As at the cost of extra-curriculars, friendships, internship applications, or jobs. You probably can't follow all this advice for every course without sacrificing something else.
(P.S. You don't need frats or parties to get the other experiences out of college. My college life was filled with socialization, art, activism, sex, friendships, and wonder without joining a fraternity or getting drunk at parties.)