How to Graduate at the Top of Your Class


It’s really simple. Simple (really!) as 1-2-3.

I graduated from my college with a 3.92 Grade Point Average (GPA) out of a possible 4.0. That meant that I received all A’s and two B’s, and was one of only two dozen or so students out of the 3,000 in my class to graduate Summa Cum Laude. Pretty good, but I’m here to tell you that it wasn’t  all that difficult to do.

I didn’t work really hard to get it done, and I’m not all that much brighter than others who received marks considerably lower than mine. In fact, I’d venture to say there were many who received lower grades who were a good deal brighter than I. I’d venture further to say that they worked harder than I did, and still received those inferior grades.

Here’s the simple 1-2-3 “recipe” I followed to get “A’s”:

  1. First: do at least the basics. Show up for class; participate in class; ask questions; do the homework; take the tests.
  2. Next: Read ahead…take a look at the syllabus that the professors give you and read a week ahead…typically a chapter or two. When the professor assigns the material, read it again. Kind of a review, but concentrate on those areas that gave you the most problems in the first reading.
  3. Then: Visit the professor in his office hours. Say something like: “I’m interested in [subject] and would like to know more about it. Can you suggest other readings or sources of information?” Or: “Is there a web site  or web sites that I can visit to learn more about [subject]?” Write down what he says.

Then: Just do it.

How does it work?

Pretty simple. First  — Do the Basics — sets up a foundation of good will with the professor that helps to make the professor positively pre-disposed toward you. Do at least the Basics — this goes without saying. Go to class; do the homework — on time. Participate in class…ask questions. Don’t be overbearing or show-offy…look attentive, pay attention, look interested. Heck, if you can pull it off — be interested. 🙂

Next — Read Ahead. The advantage of this is simple, and works like this:

  1. Read ahead in the syllabus. You’ll read, say, a chapter or the equivalent of a week ahead. Don’t obsess over difficult parts. Just read the material. Do, however, note with a highlighter those parts that are difficult or that you don’t understand.
  2. Then, as per the syllabus, your professor assigns you the reading you’ve already done.
  3. Review/re-read, concentrating on the highlighted areas you found troublesome in the first reading. Don’t obsess on these areas. You’re simply teeing up questions for your class time review of the material.
  4. The professor covers the same material in class.
  5. While the rest of your classmates are seeing the material for the first time, you’re seeing it for the third time. Your questions are immediately more informed. Your questions will focus on those things that you didn’t understand in the initial two readings. You know exactly where you might have problems, if any. If the professor answers your question to your satisfaction, then by definition, you understand all the material. 🙂 Now, it’s just a question of locking it in.
  6. When you review/study the material for upcoming quizzes or tests, you’re now seeing it for the fourth time. Your classmates are seeing it for just the second time. You already understand it all…you’re just solidifying it in your memory. 
  7. Then, when you review/study the material for mid-terms or finals, you’re seeing the material for the fifth time. Your classmates are now seeing it for just the third time, and this last time it’s in the context of cramming for exams…cramming is stress-studying. It’s ineffective.
  8. Reading ahead makes it so that you don’t have to cram. You’ve already read and reviewed the material two  extra times. It pays to read ahead.

Then: Visit the professor for his office hours and ask him what ways he would recommend to go beyond the scope of the class he’s teaching, to learn more about the subject. Take notes; write down what the professor says. Then, two or three times during the semester, spend a half-hour doing it. Visit a web site; read some additional material and write a quick note or e-mail to the professor thanking him for the recommendation. Refer to something in the other material that you thought illuminating, or interesting, or fascinating or funny, or uplifting, or inspiring…you get the picture. Prove that you did the extra work.

Also, if you don’t get your questions answered in class for those parts that have proven difficult, your prof’s office hours represent your opportunity to cover those areas.

Visit the professor during office hours two or three times per semester. Be prepared each time with at least one  question that you’d like answered. Listen and interact attentively when he answers. By the way, your question doesn’t even have to be exactly on topic. Ask the professor, for instance, how he became interested in his topic. Professors — like anyone — love to talk about themselves.

know that a couple of my, shall we say, lower “A’s” were kicked across the finish line because early on I had established in my prof”s mind that I was a bright young go-getter, interested in the professor’s subject. Were they wrong?

In other words: to at least some extent, this is about you deciding to be a “bright, young go-getter.” No one ever becomes such a critter by accident or default. You have to decide to become one. The good news, as this small “instruction manual” shows: it’s easy.

Another thing all this “schmoozing” does is give you some buffer room. If, for whatever reason, you have an emergency and can’t take an exam or complete an assignment or project, the prof. will look much more favorably on your request for a make-up or a redo.

Look, you may call this “brown-nosing;” I call it establishing good will, and locking up the subjective portion of the professor’s evaluation of your performance — the grade — at an “A.”

It’s also a valuable life skill.

In years to come, you will not hurt yourself by doing something similar with a future boss.

You might need to make some adjustments for some classes — classes with large numbers of students, for example — but those classes are where the “Visit the professor in his office hours” part becomes crucial. Other classes may force other adjustments, but the professors are human too. They like it when you show interest in the topic they’re teaching. Figure out a way to make that known to your profs. If you make it known, and you do the other parts of this plan, you will get your “A’s.” Period.

Do this simple recipe with all your classes, and you will get at least almost all “A’s” with the resulting very high GPA. You’ll have done half the work of those who receive inferior grades, and, oh by the way, you’ll actually have learned the material!

Oh, and by the way: you’ll have earned your “A,” which is, all in all, the best way to get them!

Let’s put  this another way: if you do (1) the basics, and (2) only the “social” parts of this program, it’s a huge advantage. All close decisions will fall your way. It can be worth as much as a full letter grade better than your tests and homework scores would bring you. If you add in the “Read Ahead” portion of the program, there’s just about no way not to get a solid “A.”

Note bene — Here are some other free “points” to lock up for yourself:

  • If the professor wrote a book and assigned it for the class, ask him to autograph it for you. Cheap brownie points, but points all the same. Believe me, this flattery will not hurt you.
  • Do help others study…other pairs of eyes can help you resolve difficulties you might be having.
  • If you have time, ask your professor for extra credit assignments, and do them. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with getting a professor to commit to five or ten extra points here and there! Those are locked-in points. Grab ’em if you can.

— xPraetorius.

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