Are you looking for advice on how you can rack up those A’s and boost your GPA? In this article, we’ll cover the broad strategies that you’ll need to succeed as well as more specific advice that will help you thrive in a variety of different classes.
How to Manage Your Time
Making good use of your time is one of the most important things that you can do in order to excel in your classes and maintain a high GPA.
If you ever feel like there aren’t enough hours in a day, it’s due to one or both of the following: You need better time management skills. AND / OR You’ve taken on too much and you are overscheduled. You can find a comprehensive time management guide and actionable advice here.
How to Study Effectively
The best study method depends upon your learning style. It will also vary from one subject to another.
You’ll need a different strategy for AP English than you’ll need for this year’s math class. You may even need to take a completely different approach to Chemistry than you did with Biology. Even within a single class, you may find that certain tests require more careful study time than others.
We recommend that you try out as many different study strategies as possible and discover which are the most effective for you.
When considering what worked, look beyond the grade you got on your latest quiz or essay and consider long-term retention. Which methods will help you remember what you’ve learned long enough to ace the final exam and excel in college courses that build on what you’ve learned in high school?
Read the Material Without Taking Notes
This may seem counter-intuitive, but stay with me. For some people and some subjects, taking notes on the first read-through might be an effective approach. But more often than not, taking notes while you read new material can be a confusing process.
Try reading an entire chapter without writing anything down at all. Give it your full attention. Later — this could be after a few minutes of stretching or it could be later in the week — you can go back, read the material a second time, and write down key concepts after you’ve gotten a feel for the material as a whole.
Depending on the subject matter, it may be helpful to read large chunks of material at a time and then revisit them. If you’re reading a novel for English class, kick back and enjoy it. You can comb through it more carefully later, when you’re preparing for an essay. If you know that your history class will cover multiple chapters this week, try getting comfortable and reading them all in one go, then revisiting them individually throughout the week.
Listen to the Material
Are you an auditory learner? Try listening to the material instead of reading it and see if this is more effective for you. You could listen to an audiobook while you exercise. If no audiobooks are available, try reading a chapter out loud and recording yourself; you can listen to this recording later to cement the information in your brain.
Write Down Key Information
Your notes will vary drastically from one class to another. The best method for AP Bio won’t translate to War and Peace. Before you begin to take notes, consider your end goal. Are you looking to stamp this information in your memory for future use? Prepare for a quiz? Create a guide that you can use to write your final essay?
Scott Young, the author of Ultralearning, recommends that you ask yourself these questions:
- What am I trying to remember?
(Alternatively: What did I forget after my first read-through?)
- How am I going to use this information?
(Is this for a test? Will you need to cite the information in an essay? Will you want to refer to it next year, when you’re taking a class that builds on this one?)
- What do I plan to do with these notes later?
(Are you simply taking notes to help yourself stay focused and cement the information in your brain? Or will you use them to study?)
Many students find that pen and paper is the most effective method, while others prefer to use a digital method such as Evernote. If you’re reading a book on a Kindle, you can use its highlight and tag features to save quotes and examples for an essay.
Some students like to make their notes directly on note cards for future study.
Make Paper Flashcards
Flashcards are an excellent tool that can help you to practice your active recall and cement hundreds of important details in your mind. Try them for:
- Foreign language vocabulary and verb conjugations
- Dates and names for your history classes
- Memorizing the Periodic Table of Elements
- Any study guides provided by your teachers
As you move through your flashcards, place them in separate piles. The ones you answered easily can be set aside for the rest of this session. The ones you struggled with or just plain didn’t know can be put back into your main pile until you learn the necessary information.
Use a Flashcard App
Digital flashcards are a valuable tool because you can make good use of images. This can be useful for a wide range of classes, including art history and biology (when I took marine biology, we had to be able to recognize dozens of different kinds of seaweed from their photos).
Just be careful not to get so tied to flashcards that you avoid putting your knowledge to good use.
Flashcards are a great way to increase your vocabulary when learning a new language, but they’re a poor substitute for real conversations, or even writing your own thoughts in complete sentences.
Learning the necessary formulas for your AP Physics class is all well and good, but you won’t pass the AP test if you can’t figure out when each of those formulas should be applied to a given problem (ask me how I know).
Retrieval is a word for the process of recalling memories when you need them. It’s a more effective study strategy than simply reading over your notes.
You can practice retrieval by writing down everything you remember and then using your notes or the original text to fill in the blanks. You can also practice retrieval by telling someone else about what you learned, or simply saying it all out loud.
Copy and Draw
Copying illustrations from your textbook or other sources is an excellent learning strategy. Here are some examples of when to try this approach:
- Draw and label the organelles of a cell
- Create practice graphs when studying for a statistics test
- Make your own maps for geography and history
- Copy the periodic table, including a legend for more information
- Sketch a picture while listening to an audiobook
- Copy the diagrams from your physics textbook
After you’ve copied these things, you can practice your retrieval skills by drawing them blind. Once you’ve filled in all you can, compare your illustration to the source material and fill in anything you didn’t remember. Repeat.
Summarize Sections as You Go
It’s helpful to rewrite information in your own words. After you read a section in your textbook, write a paragraph summarizing the most important information. When you finish a chapter in the novel you’re reading for English, write down the key plot points; include page numbers for sections that stood out to you for easy reference when you go to write an essay.
Work With Classmates
Whether you’re struggling with a new concept or just need friends to hold you accountable and keep you focused, group study sessions can be a powerful strategy. Your friends may be able to share their study tips, or explain that new physics equation in a way that finally clicks.
Just be sure to stay on task. Setting a time limit ahead of time can be helpful. For example, “Let’s work until noon and then we’ll walk around the corner and get some lunch.” Or you can give yourselves a set amount of work to complete: “We can watch that new episode as soon as everyone’s done with today’s trig homework.”
For some people and some subjects, it’s much more efficient to work alone.
Experiment with different subjects and see what’s most effective for you. Maybe you think better alone, and need silence to complete your math problems or write that essay. Maybe you find that it’s easier to study in groups, or that you learn those new French vocabulary words way faster when you practice talking to your classmates and using them in a sentence.
Find what works best for you, and stick to it.
Teach Someone Else
Explaining new concepts or relating new facts to another person is one of the best ways to cement those things in your long-term memory. There are a number of things you could try:
- Tutor another student
- Tell your family about everything you learned in your history class this week
- Talk to a friend about the novel you’re both reading for your English class
- Read your notes out loud and use the recording to study with later
Sooner or later in your academic career, you’re going to need to ask for help.
Team up with friends and share your strengths. Maybe your friend is a math whiz who can explain things in a way that clicks, and you’re an English nerd who can help them to reformat their essays in a way that makes sense. Whatever your strengths, you can enhance them by helping others — and find help for yourself as well.
How to Write
Writing real, coherent essays is an oft-neglected skill in high schools. If you begin to hone your writing skills now, you’ll earn excellent grades and have the necessary skills for college admissions essays and university-level coursework.
Read, Read, Read
The more you read, the better your writing will be. Read all of your school assignments carefully, and then range further afield. Seek out books and articles about topics that fascinate you. Find novels that pull you into another world. Read news articles, blogs, books of essays, short stories — anything and everything.
Do you have younger siblings? Do you babysit? Read to them too!
You’ll be amazed at what you learn if you read as much and as widely as you can. You’ll improve your writing skills without even trying. And if you do try — by taking note of essay structure, for example, or paying attention to how a writer drives their point home — your writing will improve that much more quickly.
Write an Outline
Some students skip the outline stage, writing it off as a waste of time. The truth of the matter is, a good outline will actually save you time, and will probably give you a better end result.
Start by taking notes as you go. Whether that’s keeping careful track of everything that happens during a science experiment or writing down important facts and quotes as you read a book, your final project will be so much easier if you keep it in mind as you take copious notes.
Next, outline your entire project. This might be a sentence describing each paragraph of an essay or the facts and figures that you’ll need for each section of a report. If you draft an outline during the early stages of your research, you’ll have a better idea of exactly what information you’ll need to dredge up.
The more time you spend on an outline, the less time you’ll need to spend on the final product. With a careful outline completed, writing is a breeze.
Use Your Natural Voice
Find your natural writing voice. This will be different from the way that you speak, but not so different that it feels stilted and fake. Think of how you might speak to a respected elder or to a member of a college admissions board. Be conscious of your tone, but let your authentic voice shine through.
Kill Your Darlings
This phrase comes from Steven King. In his book On Writing, he describes just how much of each book gets trashed in the editing process. It doesn’t matter how delightful that verb is or how lovingly crafted that paragraph was. If it doesn’t reveal something about an important character or push the plot form, it’s got to go.
The same is true with your essays. Let your imagination run wild as you write the first draft. Include anything that comes to you. Don’t stop when you reach the minimum word count, because you’re almost certain to remove some of that material as you revise.
When the first draft is done, prune it with an unforgiving hand. Remove any sentences that don’t provide useful information or further your argument. Consider removing extraneous words like:
- Just (when used as an adverb)
- In my opinion…
- I think that…
Every sentence and every word should serve a purpose.
Edit, Edit, Edit
After you’ve edited your writing for content, go through again and proofread it. If you struggle with structure or grammar, find someone to proofread it for you. If you do get outside help, pay careful attention to each change that they make and try not to make the same mistake twice.
Remember Your Priorities
Grades for the sake of grades are a poor motivator for most of us. Try not to lose sight of what you’re working towards. Whether you already know what you want to do in life or simply want to keep a glittering array of options open for your future self, excellent grades will help — and so will the skills and the knowledge that you acquire along the way.