How to Win at College

by Cal Newport

This book is a series of 75 short essays on succeeding in college, but I found much of it to be good general advice on working efficiently. These are brief summaries of the essays that resonated with me the most.

  • Don’t do all your reading. Make tick marks next to important sentences that seem to obviously support the thesis. Pay attention in class to pick up the arguments you missed. For papers, find out exactly what it will be on and read about that. Skip all optional readings. There are better uses of your time.
  • Drop classes every semester. Avoid bad courses at all costs. At the beginning, sign up for a couple extra classes, and then after the first week drop your least favorite(s). Review syllabi, textbooks, and gather feedback about the professor to help make your decision.
  • Make your bed. When you have to start writing a paper, is it easier to get started while living in a war zone of mess, or a clean, orderly environment with a clear desk and the resources you need readily at your disposal?
  • Befriend a professor. If you want to be a standout student, you must befriend a professor. They’re the gatekeepers to recommendations, informal introductions, and experienced advice. Attend office hours regularly, and be observant of the kinds of things you could talk about: choosing a paper topic, feedback on an idea selected, structure of your argument, clarification on an upcoming exam, homework problems you don’t quite grasp, etc. As the semester ends, this can transition into a more casual relationship, so make sure to keep in touch and swing by their office a couple times in future semesters.
  • Become a club president. You absolutely have the ability to run a campus organization. Find a club that excites you and join as soon as possible. Work hard, attend all the meetings, take positions of responsibility whenever they are available, and follow a path to leadership positions. You’ll gain substantial amounts of confidence from leading your fellow students toward a common goal.
  • Read a newspaper every day. It’s the perfect way to juice up your mental energy and take on intellectual challenges.
  • Do one thing better than anyone else you know. If you want to succeed, you have to develop a healthy sense of self-confidence. You want to be self-assured, proud, and modest all at the same time. One technique to bolster this is mastering a skill. Develop a skill you can be known for. This is about reinforcing your identity and sense of self-confidence.
  • Avoid daily to-do lists. Do time blocking instead. Take a sheet of paper from a notebook, and in the left-hand margin note the waking hours of the day, using every other line as a guide. Now block out the hours you’ll be in class. The white space remaining represents the free time you have available to work with for the day. Partition this free time into one-hour increments, and assign these blocks to specific projects and assignments. Set aside at least one block for chores or errands. If you get knocked off schedule, which will happen frequently, take out the sheet and spend half a minute reorganizing your time for the rest of the day.
  • Learn to give up. Giving up is a tactical skill, not a weakness. If a problem seems unsolvable no matter how hard you try, or a commitment begins taking up a destructively large amount of your schedule no matter how much you delegate, give up. The key word in deciding whether or not to give up is “productivity.” It’s OK to spend many hours working on something as long as those hours are productive. If a commitment has no time frame, and it seems like you could push everything else aside and work for days straight without ever fulfilling all that needs to be done, then that commitment is unproductive. The rewards do not outweigh the tremendous time cost. Productive work is any work that is efficiently accomplishable in a known amount of time. If a task has no end in sight, or serious time spent on it accomplishes very little, you need to give up.
  • Always be working on a “grand project." Most students are content to stay the course, but winning students love to get excited about big goals. The average student sends a letter to the school newspaper; a winning student writes a regular column. If you want to stand out you should foster an attitude of “anything is possible.” The best way to develop this attitude is to constantly be working on a grand project. If you could be doing anything 5 years from now, what would it be? Then design and follow an ambitious Grand Project that moves you toward your answer. If you get excited about the idea of writing for The New Yorker, your project might be to first publish a series of intelligent nonfiction pieces in your school paper, then a local paper, then a second-tier national publication on your way to the big time. It should consist of a group of achievable, nonacademic accomplishments that, when combined, move you closer to an exciting aspiration. Once you accomplish one Grand Project, anything seems achievable.
  • Blow the curve once a term.
  • Study in fifty-minute chunks
  • Attend guest lectures
  • Exercise five days a week
  • Stay in touch
  • Use three days to write a paper
  • Make friends you #1 priority
  • Seek out phenomenal achievers
  • Inflate your ambition
  • Care about your grades, ignore your GPA
  • Set arbitrary deadlines
  • Write as if going for a Pulitzer
  • Choose goals, explore routes
  • Don’t network
  • Find a secret study space
  • “Don’t have no regrets."