The secrets of top students

Top students aren’t made, they’re born. After effortlessly absorbing whatever the teacher throws at them, they spout it back on tests and watch the A’s come rolling in
Brainstorm By Stefanie Weisman
Published on January 28, 2014
Thumbs-up-students

Top students aren’t made, they’re born. After effortlessly absorbing whatever the teacher throws at them, they spout it back on tests and watch the A’s come rolling in. They have exceptionally high IQs, making it next to impossible for the rest of the class to compete with them. They’re the ones who leave exams early and breeze through the most complex material in the syllabus. They are eggheads, nerds, geeks, and their success is the result of innate talent and ability.

In case you haven’t realized it yet, these are all unfortunate misconceptions about students who excel academically. I was a top student for most of my life – in 1999 I became valedictorian of Stuyvesant High School in New York City, and I graduated from Columbia University with the highest GPA in my class – but it never came easy. For starters, I had very poor listening comprehension, which meant that I usually walked out of class in a daze, with little or no idea of what the teacher had been talking about. It wasn’t until I read the book or my notes that I understood anything. I often suspected I had a learning disability, but it felt silly to consider getting tested when my grades were all A’s and A+’s.

Learning From Real Students

While conducting research for my book, The Secrets of Top Students, I surveyed forty-five other outstanding students – including Rhodes scholars, Goldwater scholars, Fulbright recipients, a National Spelling Bee Champion, and students in top law and medical schools – on how they achieved academic success. The results provide a fascinating glimpse into the minds of some of the best scholars in the country. You might think that they would list intelligence as the key to their success – but determination, hard work, the desire to learn, and pressure from self, in that order, were rated as far more important than IQ.

Hard Work

In fact, very few of the students in my survey would be considered geniuses or ‘naturals.’ They worked significantly harder than the average student. In college, 67% of them spent twenty or more hours a week studying and doing homework. Contrast this with most full-time college seniors, who, according to the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, spend ten hours or less per week preparing for class.

Sacrifice

Nearly 80% of the surveyed top students said that they made sacrifices to get good grades, and when asked to describe these sacrifices, the answers were uniformly about cutting back on their social lives. Reducing time spent with friends may be hard for many to accept, but is it really such a bad thing? According to Professors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, U.S. college students are“defin[ing] and understand[ing] their college experiences as being focused more on social than on academic development,” which is part of the reason why up to 45% of them fail to improve in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and written communication. It’s also worth noting that the students in my survey were, on the whole, very satisfied with their high school and college experience. When asked to rate how much they liked school on a scale of 1 to 10, the vast majority gave it an 8 or higher.

Support At Home

Another intriguing find from my survey: most top students don’t have so-called ‘tiger mothers.’ 75% of them said that their parents were supportive without being pushy, compared to 18% who reported feeling pressured by their family to get good grades. And when asked to describe their most important study technique, a remarkable number of top students expressed a similar, surprisingly simple strategy: start early and space it out.

Am I saying that anyone can become a top student? I wouldn’t go that far, but academic success is based far more on effort and grit, and much less on talent and smarts, than most people think. This is important to remember at a time when kids are spending fewer hours reading and more time on social media than ever before. When so many American schools are failing and there’s no consensus on how to save them. When students in foreign countries are leaving their U.S. peers in the dust on tests measuring math, science, and reading ability. Whatever your goals are, whatever your definition of success is – you can learn a lot from the drive and determination of top students.

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