How to Become a Straight-A Student Summary and Review

by Cal Newport
Has How to Become a Straight-A Student by Cal Newport been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary.
For a lot of people, college is the most amazing time of their lives – a time when they get to learn who they are, to explore their personality, to party with their friends, and, of course, to study the things that they are interested in. For others, however, college life is extremely stressful as they worry about their GPA constantly. This anxiety, of course, is completely understandable. Let’s just take a moment and think about the immense pressure that students are under. The grades that they get on papers and tests can shape and affect their entire future - be it for better or for worse. The good news is, college life doesn’t all have to be marked by stress whenever you have a hard time keeping up or focusing on your studies. Whether you’re worried about your exams or about writing a research paper, this book summary will give you valuable tools that will help you become more efficient. These studying techniques are not written by random people. In fact, they come from actual U.S. students who managed to get straight A-s in a wide range of academic disciplines. In other words, you’ll learn from people who have actually succeeded. It is extremely important to point out that studying longer doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll study better. Studying better consists of successfully fighting procrastination, taking useful notes, developing important time management skills, and many other tricks that have been proven to help people study more efficiently. Additionally, these techniques can also help you free up your weekends and enjoy college life to the fullest. By reading this summary of Cal Newport’s How to Become a Straight-A Student, you will learn:
  • why is it that when it comes to studying less is more;
  • why investing in academic disaster insurance can be a great idea; and
  • why finding the perfect coffee shop can greatly improve your grades.

How to Become a Straight-A Student Main Idea #1: Working in short, intensive bursts and managing your time will help you study more efficiently.

How do you manage your social life, your homework, your English essay, and basketball practice? Most people will feel that 24 hours in a day are simply not enough to do all these things. It is important to understand that that’s not true at all! Most students waste a lot of time pseudo-working or working slowly and at a very low intensity. Pseudo-working consists of having numerous concentration drops during the working process. This type of “work” occurs when they study in an environment that is too distracting, such as in noisy places, or in front of the computer or TV. For instance, while pulling an all-nighter will generally feel like “hard work”, the repeated loss of concentration that happens when you are sleep deprived means that you were actually pseudo-working. A much better way to stay focused is by working in short bursts with very high intensity. That is exactly what a lot of straight-A students do, they study during several short but intense intervals, while less-successful students will choose to work longer at a much lower intensity. In fact, according to a lot of different studies, the optimal learning period is around 50 minutes, so working longer than one hour before taking a break is not a good idea. Let’s think of it this way: the accomplished work equals the amount of time spent doing the work times your focus intensity. In other words, if you were to spend three hours studying at maximum intensity and taking the required breaks, you would probably be as efficient or even more efficient than you’d be pulling an all-nighter at an intensity of “4”! Furthermore, by reducing the study time and maximizing the intensity, you’ll have seven extra hours to do other things like relax, party, go out with friends, go to the gym, etc. It is worth mentioning that you will need to learn how to manage your time more carefully in order to switch your studying schedule and to start working in short but intense bursts. Keeping a detailed calendar where you write all your upcoming tasks and deadlines will be extremely helpful. It is also important to carry a list with your daily schedule and to write down any new tasks that might pop up during the day. Spend at least five to ten minutes in the morning checking your calendar and making updates. And don’t forget: You will manage your time more efficiently by keeping a calendar only if you actually use it.

How to Become a Straight-A Student Main Idea #2: Because the urge to procrastinate cannot be avoided, it’s important to learn to fight it.

Procrastination is a concept most college students are extremely familiar with. Think of procrastination as a sneaky troll who whispers stuff like “you have plenty of time” or “let’s just watch one more episode” in your ear. And because of this troll, you end up having to study continuously for two days without getting to eat or to sleep. But how can some people avoid procrastination? How are they capable of going against their instincts and do work regularly. Well, it might help to learn that even the most hard-working students are struggling with procrastination. The difference, however, is that they know how to actively fight the pesky procrastination troll and how to choose work over Youtube videos. A great way to avoid procrastination is by keeping a progress journal that will prevent you from straying too far from your goals. Here’s how it works: Each morning, after you wake up, write down the key tasks of the day: exams, important classes, chores, meeting friends, etc. Then, before going to bed, check the calendar and see which tasks you managed to complete and which ones you didn’t. By finding out why you couldn’t complete all the tasks, you’ll be able to manage your time more efficiently in the future. For instance, if you go to bed late having failed to study for an exam, the most common excuse will be “It is already too late and I won’t be able to concentrate now. I’ll do it tomorrow”. Unfortunately, instead of going to bed early as planned, you listen to your procrastination troll who tells you to play some videogames first or to watch some TV. Five hours later, it’s 4 a.m., and you just fell asleep. After only 5 hours of sleep, your alarm goes off and you wake up groggy and more tired than ever. Because you stayed up so late, you are now unable to study so you find an excuse along the lines of “I’d better get something to eat first and maybe I’ll study after” which will turn into “I’ll get more sleep tonight and study tomorrow” and the story repeats itself. By recording these excuses, you will finally see the real reasons why you are not able to study efficiently and maybe you’ll be able to ignore the procrastination troll.
Being a straight-A student is just the start - learn how to build a solid work ethic for life

How to Become a Straight-A Student Main Idea #3: To study efficiently, you must have the optimal place, time, and energy levels.

Your exams are approaching, so instead of going out with friends to have a few drinks, you decide to spend Friday night alone in the library trying to read just a few more pages. If this is a familiar situation, then your approach is all wrong. First and foremost, people study more efficiently early in the day, rather than at night. In the evening, our body starts to naturally prepare for reduced activity and it becomes slower. This means that it’s extremely difficult to concentrate and work at night. You should also keep in mind that your classmates, the ones who are not going out for drinks, have probably studied earlier and are now much more relaxed. If you want to avoid the struggle, try to study in the morning or at noon. Second, try to study alone. Find places with no distractions where you can focus on your books. Make sure there aren’t any comfortable couches nearby that might tempt you to lie down for just one minute and close your eyes. Isolating yourself while studying is not as drastic as it sounds. It can mean anything from finding a quiet corner on the campus, finding a quiet coffee shop, or going to the parc. What’s important is to find a place where you won’t be distracted by friends, comfortable furniture, TVs, or Video Games. To keep your mind stimulated and prevent boredom, rotate between these study places. If you are studying in your room, you can change things around and add posters, move the chairs around, and find things that can prevent you from becoming tired of seeing the same scenery every day. Additionally, having more than one study spots around the campus means that you’ll be able to sneak an hour or two of studying whenever you get a break from classes. And finally, if you want to be efficient, you should always be as energized as possible. It is important to understand that your mental and physical resources are limited, so you should use them carefully. Make sure you don’t forget to take a break after 50 minutes or 1 hour. Breaks will help you recharge your batteries and you’ll be able to study intensively for at least another hour. Drink plenty of water, don’t drink too much coffee, and don’t skip meals. Otherwise, you will become exhausted and unable to focus. Now that we’ve discussed some of the main principles, the following chapters will provide essential tips on how to get better results while studying less.

How to Become a Straight-A Student Main Idea #4: Smart note-taking will allow you to make the most out of each class.

Here’s a  great study tip that is guaranteed to save you a lot of trouble: don’t skip class! It doesn’t matter how hungover, tired, or busy you are – the most efficient way to understand the material is by going to class. When you are lagging behind and skipping class, you will more than likely have to spend a lot of time getting back on track, so it’s important to avoid missing classes as much as possible. Of course, you won’t get straight As just by going to class. You also need to find an effective way to record the things that you hear in class such as taking smart notes. Depending on the class that you are currently attending, you’ll have to take a certain type of notes. For nontechnical classes, such as literature, philosophy, history, or politics, it’s extremely important to write down the main ideas. Try to pull out the key theories, arguments, and concepts discussed during each lecture. Once you’ve written everything down, you can then choose a question/evidence/conclusion type of structure. The majority of your notes should focus on answering important questions such as “Why did the First World War start?” After answering the aforementioned question, you should always find a good conclusion that will outline the evidence. Technical courses like engineering, economics, or maths will require a completely different approach. The good news is that taking notes in technical classes might be easier, as you won’t have to follow the main ideas. In general, technical lectures are filled with sample formulas, equations, and problems. Therefore, it would be ideal to take notest that record the problem and the steps that lead you to find the solution. Occasionally, you might lag behind your professor, who will go through the material at a high speed. You shouldn’t panic if you lost track, make sure you ask questions after class to clear things up or ask for your classmate’s notes and fill in your missing information. Make sure you don’t forget about the half-finished notes, as you won’t be able to use them to study for the exams.

How to Become a Straight-A Student Main Idea#5: Make sure you study the essentials.

If you want to climb a mountain, you won’t get very far by repeatedly running head-first into it. Efficient study habits work in a similar way – they depend on the right technique and not just on brute force. To be effective when learning new things, it’s extremely important to know the main parts that need to be covered. When studying, you might be tempted to cover as much information as possible in the time that you have. However, this is not always the right thing to do. It is important to understand that more often than not, you won’t have to learn everything. To ace your papers and exams, it might be sufficient to learn just the key parts. In addition to selecting the topics that are relevant for your current study session, you might also need to decide which key details you should focus on. Ask yourself the following questions might be extremely useful: Will I have to know the names and dates for this test? What did the teacher focus on in class? Will I need to explain certain concepts or theories? Once you’ve managed to narrow your focus to the right aspects, quiz yourself until you know everything by heart. A great way to check whether you’re ready or not is by choosing a difficult topic and discussing it in your own words. Another great option is to create a small test for yourself and check whether you can answer different questions that might be on the actual test. If you are able to explain all the important concepts and to answer all the questions, you are ready to take the exam. Nevertheless, there will always be one nightmare scenario: showing up for the exam and realizing that the questions are not at all what you expected and that you are not familiar with the topics. This usually happens when students skip one or more lectures, or when they missed some of the important parts when studying. So, if you want to avoid being in a terrible situation such as this one, it might be a good idea to consider academic disaster insurance. This is not your traditional insurance, but actually, it consists of asking your classmates and your professors questions about the different topics that you’re unsure of. Although ensuring that you have all the necessary information might be a bit time-consuming, it will be worth it in the end.

How to Become a Straight-A Student Main Idea #6: To score high in your exams, use the three Ps.

You find yourself in the classroom, sitting at your desk and struggling with a statistics exam. You’re starting to feel the first signs of anxiety, your hands are shaking and your mouth is dry. You feel that failure is imminent. Yet, you shouldn’t need to worry. If you studied thoroughly and if you’re using the following technique, you will succeed. When you first get your exam paper, the first thing that you need to do is to plan what you will write before writing anything down. It is extremely important to review the entire exam and skimming through all the questions. This will allow your brain to think about the topics and you’ll have a better understanding of the overall difficulty and length of the exam. The next thing that you need to do is to formulate a rough schedule for answering the questions. If you are pressured by time, you should keep a few minutes as a safety buffer and distribute the remaining time as needed among the questions. By doing this, you ensure that you have enough time to go through the entire exam and that you won’t get too absorbed by a single difficult question. Once the plan has been made, you can start writing down the answers to the questions that you are comfortable with. After you’ve completed the easy parts, you can start working on the difficult ones. Doing it the other way around and answering the difficult questions first will most likely make you feel nervous. This can even affect your answers to the easy questions, that you’d normally nail. And last but not least, you should never skip the part where you thoroughly proofreading your exam. Remember when we suggested saving a few minutes as a safety buffer? This is when those minutes come in handy. Check all your answers, fix any typos and double-check your grammar. If you have spare time, you can check whether or not you might be able to improve any of your answers. While many students brush off the proofreading stage, this process is extremely important. Furthermore, using all the extra time to check for typos and mistakes can make the difference between a straight-A student and an average one. Now that you have all the necessary tools to study more efficiently, these final chapters will teach you how to write great, A+ research papers and essays.

How to Become a Straight-A Student Main Idea #7: A key step towards writing an excellent paper consists of finding a topic that excites you.

Throughout your education years, you will write a lot of papers on a wide range of subjects. Regardless of how long these papers are, each one will be a huge undertaking. So how does one go about writing an excellent paper? Most people fall into a common trap consisting of the following misconception - writing the paper is what will take the most time. However, that is not always the case, as writing a high-quality paper might depend on finding a topic that you find interesting and exciting. Your topic is not the same thing as your thesis, but rather subject or a general observation such as: “World War One has affected the lives of millions of people.” To ensure that you find a great topic, it’s important to start early and to be enthusiastic about writing a great paper. Also: You don’t have to wait for the actual assignment to choose topics that you are interested in. You should keep your eyes open at all times - while reading books, while browsing the internet, while watching documentaries, etc. If somehow, you simply cannot find an exciting topic, you can ask for your professors’ advice. Because they have a lot of experience working with students, they might be able to help you find an interesting topic. Once you have found the perfect subject, it’s time to start digging for information that will help you develop a specific thesis. Start by skimming through different sources that might provide a broad and well-informed overview of the topic (history books, documentaries, etc.). You can also check their bibliographies and find other resources that might be useful for your research. As you start to analyze sources that are more specialized, you might even discover a narrower argument or question that is worth analyzing in your paper. It could be something like: “Ways in which these important leaders changed the course of WWI”. This can now be your thesis. Having found an exciting topic and a riveting thesis, you will now realize that writing and doing research for your paper is so much easier and more fun than you thought.

How to Become a Straight-A Student Main Idea #8: Finding the necessary material for your paper is more often than not a strictly limited and exhaustive process.

Do you sometimes feel confused and trapped in piles of books when you do research? Many people feel this way because they made the common mistake of selecting a bibliography that is way too extensive. Consequently, they have too much stuff to read, to remember, and are wasting a lot of time. Luckily, there is a more efficient way - learning how to do research effectively. When collecting your sources, you should only focus on the information that is absolutely necessary and nothing else. Writing a great paper isn’t about giving your reader more information than they can process. In fact, it is about taking the essential pieces of information, repackaging and organizing them in a comprehensive form. You want to avoid getting lost in a never-ending search for sources, a syndrome also known as the research recursion syndrome. In order to be effective while researching, you should start by outlining the key arguments of your paper and breaking the subject into several parts. For instance, if your topic is “The ways in which the Tea Party movement has influenced the US politics in the Middle East,” the first three chapters of your paper might be:
  • The ideology of the Tea Party
  • The politicians of the Tea Party
  • Main aspects of US politics in the Middle East
Your next step will be researching these three topics on Google, in books, in journal articles, etc. When you find information that is relevant, make sure you print or photocopy it and save it for later. Having physical copies will allow you to check your material whenever you want and will help you avoid feeling like you don’t have enough sources. An essential aspect, however, is to you know when to stop, or to know where your cut-off is, i.e. It is important to know when you’ve gathered sufficient materials and to avoid putting in unnecessary work. In order to know whether you’ve gathered an adequate enough material or not, you should check the following things:
  • That you found at least two good sources for each topic that is central to your paper.
  • That you have at least one great source for a few other topics that might come in handy but aren’t vital for your thesis.
If you have both, you should probably stop doing research and start writing the actual paper.

How to Become a Straight-A Student Main Idea #9: In order to write great papers, you must always actively seek inspiration.

Now that the foundation for your paper has been laid, an intriguing thesis has been chosen, and the research material has been organized, it’s time for you to write a great story. In order to make your thesis worth reading, you’ll have to find an interesting way to connect the arguments and theories. Unfortunately, there is no unique system to do this. Because each paper is unique, it requires a different approach. However, there is one thing that every writer needs - creativity. And in order to write creative, compelling arguments, you’ll have to think creatively and draw on inspiration. By watching documentaries, reading books and articles, and discussing your ideas with other students and professors you are more likely to find inspiration. By understanding how others write, how they formulate arguments, and how they approach different topics, you will become more creative yourself. Once you’ve found your creative space and your voice, it is time to check your sources again and see if you can make any new and interesting connections. Finally, take a break and do other things that will relax your conscious mind such as taking a nap, listening to some music, or doing the dishes. This will help you have a more clear perspective over your arguments and your subconscious mind will become more comfortable with the new information. After this much-needed break, your thoughts and arguments are ready to be written on paper. Creating a solid structure should now come naturally. Before you start writing, use your arguments to create a skeleton structure and add details and quotes that can back each argument up. Having all the important ideas laid out logically will make it easier for you to write creatively. Finding the right balance of information is extremely important as you want to avoid having an outline that is too sparse. On the other hand, having too many sub-titles and sub-points might lead to a bloated structure.

How to Become a Straight-A Student Main Idea #10: Before handing in your A+ paper, don’t forget to review your essay.

Now that the research part is complete, you have a good structure that you can use to write your paper. But, before you start feeling like the next Shakespeare or Dostoevsky, remember that your essay might not be the best place to showcase your literary talent. When writing a paper, you should only focus on using the previously-developed structure in the best way possible. It is worth mentioning that thinking beyond your structure is not recommended. Stick to your plan, and make sure you don’t overcomplicate things. As you start writing, avoid any distractions such as doing additional research or perfectly editing the document. By doing unnecessary and irrelevant work, you waste time and energy. Remember when we discussed finding the best places to study? You can use the same places for writing your paper. A small coffee shop, the library, a quiet parc, are perfect examples of places where you won’t be distracted by your Video Games, your roommates, or by taking a quick nap. Writing a paper can be a difficult task that will require your undivided attention, so avoiding any distractions is crucial. Finally, the last step of this complicated process consists of reviewing your work. An efficient review will have three main stages. During the first stage, you should focus on the way in which your arguments are presented. Modify any sentences that are too intricate, scrap any information that is repeated, connect loose ends and enhance thin reasoning. Check your paper for major structural flaws and if necessary, make modifications. However, ignore small typos and grammar mistakes for now. The second stage of the proofreading process consists of print your paper and reading it out loud, marking all the clumsy constructions and tiny mistakes that were overlooked. When you’re done, edit the document again on your computer and made the final adjustments. Finally, print out your edited paper again and read it aloud one last time. If you notice any minor mistakes that happened to slip through during the first stage, you will more than likely spot them now. Congratulations! You can now enjoy the coherence of your A+ paper. Bask in this amazing, rewarding feeling of completing your paper and handing it in, knowing that you did a great job!

In Review: How to Become a Straight-A Student Book Summary

The key message of this book: Efficient studying isn’t about the amount of time that you spend studying, but about when, where, and how you study. By applying a series of techniques meant to help you manage your time better, study more efficiently, and write flawless papers, you will have more spare time to enjoy doing other things. Valuable advice: To avoid procrastination, keep a well-organized calendar. Procrastination is a feeling that affects us all. It can happen several times a day and prevent you from studying and from doing the work that you need to do. In order to avoid procrastination, you should keep a well-organized calendar where you write down all the tasks that you complete and the ones that you fail to complete. This will help you manage your time better and re-evaluate your priorities. Studying in small intensive bursts is much more efficient and it saves a lot of time. Although it might seem counterintuitive, studying in small bursts is much more effective than studying for long periods of time. In general, study sessions that are too long will result in energy drain and distraction. Experts recommend studying in short bursts – 50 minutes to one hour – and without any distractions. You will be surprised how efficient your studying will become.
Suggested further reading: See how you can apply these tips to become super-humanly productive your entire life in  our article on work ethic.