Top Students: What do they do differently?

What separates you from someone that's doing better? What do they do differently? Do they know something you don't know?
tagged: studying, better
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True story: Two students go to the library Saturday morning right when it opens. Instead of enjoying the beautiful weather, both students work hard until the library closes. Here’s the kicker: they put in the same amount of time but I bet they likely each learned very different amounts of material. Same input but very different output.

We live in unprecedented times. This generation more than ever has the opportunity to delay entering the workforce in order to develop skills. The tools and technology at our fingertips blow away anything available 20 years ago: laptops, mobile, online tutorials, search. Human potential is boundless, and it’s a shame when anyone squanders the opportunity to learn.

This is a big topic, and these are just some cursory thoughts. There’s a lot of “right” ways to study, but there are even more “wrong” ways, so if your grades suck, then you’re probably doing it the “wrong” way.


We often look at high achievers and see them as different. We rationalize why they’re doing so well: they were a Bio major so they’ve already seen this med school stuff before, all they do is study so they won’t have anything cool on their resume, they’ve just got more brains, etc. These are all excuses and do nothing to improve your own personal performance. Recognize them as simple excuses and instead turn them into inspiration. So what if they are better? That’s got nothing to do with your success but relying on excuses is one way to guarantee failure.


Top students don’t endlessly peruse their Facebook feed several times an hour. Your job is to learn. Your job is not to check email. You’re not going to get an A because you checked email a lot or had the most pithy tweets. Your job is not to carry on text message conversations throughout the day. All of those things are secondary to learning. All of those things in fact take away from learning. They cause you to break focus, and then it takes time to get back in the zone. Your output is a function of both time and intensity. Instead of checking your phone between classes, put your phone in your locker and only check it during lunch.

Another secret weapon of mine is software that simply blocks internet connection to certain sites (SelfControl for Mac OSX, ColdTurkey for Windows, or StayFocusd Chrome extension). Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, Buzzfeed, Upworthy, ICanHasCheezburger … whatever is your thing…block it.

I often whine that these are ways I relax and it’s all justified distraction. It’s mostly an excuse. If that were all true, is this really how I want to spend my free time? After a month of regular Facebook, Twitter, news, etc., add that all up into one big lump and what do I have to show for it? In the end, these are all distractions. They truly add nothing and each of them consumes 100% of your attention when you are giving it to them. Block them and reclaim this time for other non-studying activities that will bring you lasting happiness.

Personally, I’ve found that blocking social media and batching up all my consumption has made me realize how much time it really consumes. A few minutes here and there throughout the day feels like nothing, but if you put all those together in one block, you notice an hour fly by.


Top students simply put in the time. There are no shortcuts here. They consistently schedule and prioritize blocks of study time. Not just 30min here and 1hr there, but big chunks of time. They treat it like a job consistently starting in the morning and continuing the full day. Taking off an afternoon or a long lunch here and there is important, but not the norm.


Top students have a knack for understanding what is important, and what is just context. Their study time is active learning. Creating your own study guide will force you to wrestle with the material in a way that passively reading doesn’t achieve. Underlining key words or phrases focuses your attention. Studies show that hand written notes are more effective than typed.

In addition to knowing what’s important, top students seek to understand. Memorizing only provides short-term results. You’ve probably heard that knowledge is like a tree: you fill in the branches, then the leaves. Taking the time to understand Why something is the way it is will last much longer than simply What something is.


Reading the same material over and over bores me. My mind often drifts and my energy wanes. I’ve found that I’m most engaged when I’m doing practice questions. Instead of passively reading and nodding along, doing a few practice questions and getting stuff wrong gets my attention. There’s plenty of research into this testing effect.

Doing practice problems also helps me keep clear on what’s important. What’s important testable material and what’s just context. While doing these practice sets, I try to refer to the study guides I created and make marks to indicate what material came up in questions. Put a small dot in the margin every time a question hit on a concept, and then you’ll quickly start to see what are the high yield topics.

Read more on Tactical Test-Taking Skills and r/medicalschool

Spaced repetition

Making a study guide is a good start, but you need to circle back to study that study guide. Not only that, when you circle back matters. Knowledge tends to drop off on a curve: 1hr spent reviewing 24hrs after lecture is more effective than 1hr spent 5 days later.

Spaced Repetition is a technique that attempts to model this timing to queue up review items when most effective. Simply reviewing your books and notes from the first page onward is terribly inefficient; spaced repetition algorithms optimize your review schedule.

There are great flashcard systems like Anki that implement these models and provide cute graphs and numbers so you can gamify learning. For standardized classes, chances are someone already created the deck you want to study, e.g. med school boards. Read more about incremental learning, spaced repetition, and best practices for making notecards.


School isn’t everything, and you’ll be punished if you try to make it so. Find what balance means for you. What makes you happy? I found that I like to leave all my books at school and do all my studying there. Now I feel so relaxed when I get home. I make work/school a distraction-free environment, and home is my personal space. Having strong barriers defining zones of study and relaxation helps me avoid burnout.

Manage Your Energy

All the tips in the world won’t help you if you don’t have the energy to execute. I often find that I know what the best way to study is, but because I don’t want to put in the energy, I go with an inferior study method because it’s easier.

Get good sleep. Figure out personally how much sleep you need to consistently feel 100%. I’m not impressed when I hear people brag about running on X hours of sleep. I’ve done that plenty myself, and I’ve found my mood and energy sub par for a day or two after. A few extra hours of cramming often affects an entire day or two after.

Read more on Med School Strategy about managing your energy and study time.

Parting thoughts

Don’t expect to become a top student over night, but you should be better than you were yesterday. Pick a few of the tips above and run with it. Stop wasting your Saturdays, and start studying hard so you can play hard.

Lots more could be written on the topic, and I’m sure I’ll come back to it. I’m constantly trying new things, borrowing from the best, mixing and matching to suit my personality, always trying to become better.

Read more: Ace Your Exams: Study Tactics of the Successful Gentleman Scholar

tagged: studying, better