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How to Win at Dartmouth

A Young Alum Offers Surprising Advice for Making the Grade as a College Student.  By Cal Newport ‘04

Heidi was my first Rhodes Scholar. I interviewed her as part of the research effort for my book on how to succeed at college. My plan was to track down the country’s most exceptional college students and gather advice on conquering the world of higher education. After Heidi, I would go on to debrief quite a few other Rhodes Scholars, not to mention Truman, Marshall and Fulbright scholars, a handful of valedictorians, some student body presidents, a playwright and one particularly eager young Princeton student who fulfilled his interest in politics by working for the N.Y.C. mayor’s office, the State Department and the U.S. House of Representatives. I would eventually meet enough academic all-stars to build a lifetime of inadequacy issues. But Heidi was my first big interview. And I was eager to get at her secrets. 

We met at Collis to talk over coffee and, almost immediately, I realized something was wrong.

Phenomenal achievements require phenomenal explanations. At least, that was my assumption. Heidi’s academic résumé was, to put it bluntly, stunning. And I was hoping, nay, expecting to hear some grand proclamations about what it takes to reach this level of success. Sleep is for the weak! Start planning for college in kindergarten! Study 18 hours a day!

Instead, Heidi was full of pithy, counterintuitive advice on the simple tasks that define college life—choosing classes, managing your time, finding efficient study strategies, dealing with bad grades, creating outlets for your interests. I recorded these tidbits diligently, waiting for the bombshell. The big explanation of how the Heidis of the world do what they do so well. It never came.

After a while, perhaps sensing my disappointment, Heidi leaned close, and with that wonderful self-deprecating directness so common among high-achievers in the Dartmouth community, she set me straight: If you master the basics, success will follow.

The rest of my interviews all more or less fit this axiom. Though students from certain institutions were more proud of their accomplishments than others (ahem, Harvard) and students from other institutions were, to put it nicely, disturbingly philosophical (ahem, Brown), the advice I received was, on the whole, simple, powerful and focused on the small challenges of college life.

Now I want to share the best of this wisdom with alumni and Dartmouth students. What follows are 10 simple rules for succeeding at college. They come straight from the experiences of some of the country’s more phenomenal undergraduates. Many of the interviews I conducted were with standout Dartmouth students, and I have highlighted advice that seems most suited to the specific challenges of our beloved College on the Hill. Putting these rules into practice won’t automatically transform a student into Heidi. But they’re steps in that direction. >>

Rule #1: Care About Your Grades, Ignore Your G.P.A.
>> Take exams and papers seriously. Always aim for the best possible grade. Why? Because this is where the real learning happens. Reading assignments and lectures are sources of information. When you study or write a paper you are forced to synthesize all of this information into a coherent framework. This is where it all clicks together. If you blow off studying or churn out a mediocre paper then you won’t fully grasp the topic being taught. If you care about leaving college smarter than when you arrived, care about making good grades. At the same time, however, ignore your G.P.A. It’s the act of preparing for an exam or writing a paper that counts. The final tally of your scores is less important. If you care about your G.P.A. you will live in fear of messing up. This is a source of stress—and it will drain the intellectual excitement from your studies. So ignore the cumulative numbers and instead keep your focus on trying to do well on each individual assignment.

Rule #2: Annotate Your Daily To-Do List
>> Most students drastically overestimate their free time. This causes them to put off assignments until the last moment, and the results are stress-filled all-nighters and shoddy work. Daily to-do lists alone can’t alleviate this problem because they don’t force you to associate your tasks with how much free time you really have available. A simple solution is to label every item on your list with the specific times during which you plan to accomplish it. Be honest about how long tasks really take, and don’t fill every waking hour with work. At first you will be horrified by how little you can actually fit into a typical busy student day. Over time this process will help you develop a much more realistic sense of your schedule, which, in turn, will help you spread out your work in a more effective manner.

Rule #3: Drop Classes Every Semester
>> Bad classes cause a lot of damage. They dampen your intellectual energy, steal your time and hurt your grades. You should avoid them at all costs. Accomplishing this goal is a two-step process. First, seek out student feedback for every class you consider. A good place to start is the Student Assembly Web site, which maintains an archive of student feedback on many Dartmouth courses. If past students had major gripes about a course, avoid it. Second, and this is the important part, always sign up for one or more classes than you actually plan on taking. Attend all these classes for the first week or two, then drop the ones you liked least. Combined, these two steps act as an insurance policy against bad academic experiences.

Rule #4: Find a Secret Study Place
>> A simple truth about studying: Location matters. In terms of material learned, one hour spent reviewing in a quiet and secluded space is equivalent to five hours spent reviewing on your bed, in your one-room triple, with your roommates watching an Iron Chef marathon in the background. If you want to reduce the total amount of time you study and improve your grades, confine your review efforts to distraction-free areas: places without many other people, noise or easy access to your dorm or dining halls. Try Dana Biomedical Library or the Feldberg Business & Engineering Library. The basement of Berry is nicely isolated, as is high up in the Baker stacks. Choose a secret study space to call your own, then use it regularly to maximize your effectiveness.

Rule #5: Jump Into Research as Soon as Possible
>> Getting involved in an undergraduate research project sharpens your academic proficiency in an area of interest and bolsters your intellectual curiosity. It also builds a foundation of experience useful for gaining entrance to many interesting post-graduation pursuits. Fortunately, Dartmouth offers many research opportunities for undergrads from all academic concentrations. The Presidential Scholars program, which provides research funding starting sophomore summer, is a great entrance into this world, as is writing an honors thesis. Don’t be afraid to contact professors directly, after you first spend time familiarizing yourself with their work, to politely inquire if they need a research assistant. Dartmouth, with its undergraduate focus, leaves many professors without a large contingent of graduate students, opening many opportunities for conscientious under-grads.

Rule #6: Do One Thing Better than Anyone Else You Know
>> Confidence in your abilities is crucial for success at college. It builds your resistance to bad experiences, stokes your intellectual energy, sharpens your arguments and motivates you to explore your passions. A simple technique to build your confidence at college is to find a skill you enjoy, and then work until you are better at it than anyone else you know. The skill can be anything: writing comedy for the Jack-O, drawing cartoons for The D, holding a Student Assembly position, publishing short stories, playing guitar in a band, perfecting your jump shot—whatever. Just find one thing you can be known for.

Rule #7: Always Go to Class
>> For $35,000 a year, you better be able to find time in your “busy” student schedule to get to class. Spending 10 hours a week listening to an expert in his or her field lecture is a key component to your college experience. It doesn’t matter if the lecture notes are posted online. Flipping through PowerPoint slides is not the same as hearing the professor explain the concepts in his own words in an environment where students can ask questions and clarify complicated ideas. Here’s an added bonus: Every hour spent in class, paying attention and taking good notes, will save you three hours of frantic review time come reading period. So drag yourself out of bed and get to class. Sitting bleary-eyed during a Thursday morning lecture, shaking off last night’s pong game with a Venti Starbucks in one hand and taking notes on the Spanish influences to Mesoamerican social hierarchies with your other hand, is what being a Dartmouth student is all about.

Rule #8: Start Long-Term Assignments the Day They Are Assigned
>> Procrastination is the college student’s most insidious foe. Defeating the desire to put off that tedious assignment for just one more day requires a serious mental effort. But fear not, here’s a simple technique that swings the advantage back in the student’s favor in the battle against procrastination: When assigned a big project, do some amount of work toward its completion that very same day. Twenty minutes is enough. If the project is a research paper, then go to the library and check out a few books that overview the general subject area. If it’s a big exam, then sketch out a simple study schedule. Once you begin work on a tedious project—even just a small piece of work—it becomes significantly easier to convince yourself to continue. If you make this rule a habit, you’ll find yourself defeating procrastination with much greater ease than before.

Rule #9: Don't Do All of Your Reading
>> It’s rarely necessary to read every assignment listed in the syllabus for a given class. With practice, it’s possible to identify which readings are important for discussion, exams and papers and which are optional. No need to feel guilty about skimming or skipping past these optional readings. It’s impossible to read everything assigned in every class and still find time for important activities such as eating meals or sleeping. Instead of taking detailed notes for all of your assignments, identify the question being asked and the author’s conclusion and then move quickly through the remaining material, jotting down only the most interesting pieces of supporting evidence that catch your attention. This approach is time efficient and still captures the key arguments. 

Rule #10: Maximize Your Summers
>> It’s sad, but true: After high school, summer vacation should no longer be seen as a vacation. Instead, treat summer as a period where you are freed from the time constraints of classes to concentrate fully on pursuing your passions. If you love politics, look for a position with a congressman or think tank in Washington. If journalism is your thing, scout out newspaper internships. The key is to start planning early to maximize your chances of landing a thrilling opportunity. The Christmas holidays are a great time to begin the process. Many of the best internships have January and February deadlines. And you often need time to gather recommendations, find helpful contacts among family and friends and write solid application essays. Take this task seriously. If you maximize your collegiate summers, you will maximize your opportunities after graduation.                

CAL NEWPORT is the author of How to Win at College: Surprising Secrets for Success from the Country’s Top Students (Broadway, 2005). He is pursuing a Ph.D. in computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Originally printed in Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, January/February 2006

Last Updated: 12/10/08