Succeeding at College

Success in college can take a lot of different forms, and as a student you may feel that you need to succeed in multiple of the following ways to actually feel like you're succeeding. As usual, perception defines our self-image and sense of accomplishment.

Without further ado, I present a list of common metrics of success, generally in order of popularity:

  1. Obtaining a high Grade Point Average. What exact GPA makes you feel content varies from person to person.
  2. Creating a community for yourself. 
  3. Preparing for a career, either through actually learning necessary skills and/or knowledge or by obtaining the necessary set of credentials for grad school.
  4. Finding a boyfriend or girlfriend.
  5. Leaving a mark of some sort on the broader community. This can take the role of running a club, competing on a sports team, doing exciting research, publishing creative materials, and a thousand other things.
  6. Building soft skills for the workplace and society. These skills include networking, dating, self-discipline, time management, dressing well, and becoming well-read, among other things.
Obviously these things include the whole spectrum of self-development efforts, and taken together, they're far beyond the scope of this one piece. What I'd like to do now is go over some concrete strategies for a) determining what's most important to you during your years in college, b) reducing stress in such an overwhelming environment, and c) learning as much as you can while bringing up your grades.


There's more to do at college than you can possibly do in four years. Way more. There's way more that you will want to do at college than you can possibly do in a lifetime. Therefore, you absolutely must simplify. Cutting out commitments gives you peace of mind, time to explore, and time to recharge. I absolutely promise you that you will never be bored if you don't want to be, even without any commitments.

As a general rule, you should take four to five classes (12 to 18 credits). You can have as many extra curricular things going on as you want, but don't commit to more than one. By "commit" here, I mean that you should never have more than one activity for which other people are depending on you. You're welcome to join as many clubs as you want that don't require commitment.

Remember the rule of one. Unless you're really feeling like you have a lot more time and energy to devote to something, it's better to work a thousand hours on one thing than one hour on a thousand things. Have one mindbogglingly hard class. Have one club that you lead to greatness. Have one workout routine. Have one major.  Carefully prioritize each and give them your all.

Reducing Stress

I don't know where you go to school, but my university is an unforgiving pressure cooker. Students are expected to spend between 45 and 60 hours a week on their coursework, have leadership positions, socialize on a regular basis, volunteer, prepare for grad school entrance exams, and work out in PE classes or at the gym, all while being tempted by a revolving door of famous speakers, an awesome concert lineup, constant parties, readily available drugs (alcohol, sugar, caffeine, porn, tobacco, and somewhat-harder-to-find narcotics), television, beautiful surroundings, an art museum, myriad student-run events, an on-campus movie theater, surfing the internet, etc.

Needless to say, it's too much.

So the first thing you do, as I've said, is prioritize. Make sure you're focusing on the important stuff and then fill in the gaps with other things.

Besides that, if you're struggling with stress, try the following three things. 

  1. Meditate for 3 minutes every day (I do it after I get out of the shower every day).
  2. Sleep the absolute maximum amount your body will allow (I get about 9 hours a night on average).
  3. Give up on competing with others.
I'll go into a little more detail on this last one. College can quickly turn into an arms race as students compete for precious academic, career, and social resources. Here are some stressful competitive behaviors to avoid doing.
  • Don't ask other people what their grades are on tests or quizzes, in classes, or their GPA.
  • Don't talk to others about their salary, cost of living, or financial aid status.
  • Don't compare your appearance to others. As I've harped on before, body image is 80% perception.
  • Don't complain about how tired you are, how stressed out you are, how busy you are, how unfair your professors are, how uncomfortable the weather is, how much time you've put into studying, or how much you feel you've missed out on. Nor should you give the time of day to "friends" who just complain all the time to you.
You don't know others' situations. Take that gorgeous dime at tri-delt who has 6500 friends on Facebook and over half as many in real life, easily pulls off a 4.10 in mech-e, drives a Bugatti, and has a boyfriend who you think might be Ryan Gosling. Yes, on the surface her life looks perfect. But when it comes down to it, you don't know how happy, satisfied, or content she is. You don't know what's going on in her head, in her family, under her clothes. You simply don't know. So stop comparing yourself to her.

Be happy with the classes you have, with the grades you have, the money you have, your friends, your life, your body. Popularity, brilliance, money, and sex are great, undoubtedly, but they are not the keys to contentment. That comes solely from within.

Learning a Lot and Getting Good Grades

I'm not going to go into much detail on this because you should really just read Cal Newport's How to Be a Straight-A Student. But. Here's some general advice. Good grades and massive learning gains are a product of hard work, focused effort, proper planning, pacing, and asking for help when you need it.

Hard work - expect to put in about 3 hours of time per week per credit. If you're taking 16 credits (like me), put in 48 hours per week, including class time.

Focused effort - figure out what your professors expect and only do that. Don't waste your time with optional readings, guest lectures, and related-but-not-required material. Not testing you on something is your professor's way of letting you know it's not important to her. And professors know what they're talking about. If it's not important to them, it's not important.

Proper planning - write down important tasks, events, and ideas immediately. If you don't, you will forget. Then, spend 5 minutes exactly each morning going through the days schedule, making sure you're on top of everything, and recording in a master database everything you have going on. Plan your day with realistic precision. Don't leave large chunks of time empty if you'd like to make use of them. (I use Workflowy for tasks and Google Calendar for scheduling).

Pacing - work a little bit on all your commitments every day. Spread out long projects evenly over the time allotted for them. That is, if you have a test in two weeks and you have thirty articles to review, review two a day.

Asking for help when you need it - don't you dare start writing a paper until you've discussed your thesis with both your TA and your professor. Don't submit it until you've had a couple people review it and then follow their advice. Go to office hours and tutoring every week for your hard class. That being said, don't study in groups. Never study with others. Lock yourself in a corner of a deserted, far-flung library and get to work on your own.

Go get 'em! May this semester be your most successful ever!