A Rulebook for Students

Success in College
& Beyond

This is a work in progress, combining independently developed student-success guidance materials by Nathan Nobis and Trevor Hedberg. Check back for updates!

Available here in a Word file: 


This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0



Some rules are meant to be broken and there are exceptions to many rules. For college students, though, there are rules they can follow that will contribute to success in their classes: they will learn more, have more enjoyable and rewarding class experiences, impress their professors with their involvement and quality work and, perhaps most importantly, get better grades.
College is an opportunity that can open the door to greater opportunities, and the more you make of your opportunities in college, the greater your chances for success beyond college, in many ways. Following these rules below will increase your likelihood of success, in many ways.
Below is first a list of rules, and below that list is a discussion of each rule. When any rule seems obvious, consider it a good reminder of what you should do. If any rule is new to you, think about how you can integrate into your practices as a student. And since a basic rule of college is to think critically, if you think some rule is a bad one, let us know why: you may be right!
With this all in mind, let us turn to the rules and the discussion of them.

Nathan Nobis, Ph.D.
Philosophy, Morehouse College, Atlanta, Georgia, USA

20 Tips for Becoming a
Better Undergraduate Student

Many undergraduate students perform below their potential in college courses, and even those who perform well often do so in very inefficient ways, usually by studying excessively and limiting their engagement in other activities. While some students simply lack the discipline to do what conventional wisdom suggests they ought to do (e.g., attending class frequently, avoiding allnighters), some so-called conventional wisdom is actually misguided, and students’ adherence to it actually hinders their ability to develop optimal study habits.
This list is my attempt, based on my experiences as an undergraduate student and as a teacher of undergraduate students, to help current undergrads develop better study habits, achieve higher grades in their courses, and have a more fulfilling educational experience in the process. A few tips are reiterations of messages that students have probably heard before, but many are not as widely known. And some of them even oppose traditional study norms. Tips 1-10 represent the advice that largely aligns with common sense, and most of this advice will be familiar to most readers (although some of these tips are rarely followed). Tips 11-20, in contrast, tend to either conflict with common sense, or – despite their intuitive plausibility – to be rather unknown to most students. I follow each tip with an explanation of how students (generally) will benefit from following it. 

University of Tennessee, Knoxville


20 Tips 

1.      Know your course syllabus and schedule.

The syllabus is the most important document you will receive in any course you take. Any experienced student knows the basic features of the syllabus – grading standards, office hours, and course times – and this information should be perused line by line. The course schedule, which should include a list of readings and assignments, is almost as important. Mark the important dates on your calendar as soon as you can: this will help you see which weeks of the semester will be the most difficult. 

2.      Prioritize the assignments that will make (or break) your grade.

Don’t waste your time fretting over a missed quiz or a blown extra credit opportunity if these things constitute a minuscule portion of your grade. Anything worth more than 10% of your semester grade should be your top priority: generally, there will only be 3-5 of these items in a semester. (It’s theoretically possible for a professor to assign an outrageous number of small exams worth 5% of your grade, but I’ve never seen such a course.) Everything that constitutes less than 10% of your course grade should not be a great cause for concern. An example may help illustrate this point.

Suppose you have two examinations on Monday of next week: an exam worth 20% of your grade in Class 1 and a quiz in Class 2 worth 5% of your grade. Each class has 1000 possible points, so this translates to 200 points for the exam in Class 1 and 50 points for the quiz in Class 2. You have a B average in each class up to this point in the semester, but you think you could do better, so you resolve to study equally for each over the weekend. Sadly, things don’t quite turn out how you had hoped: you get an 84% on both the exam and the quiz. In other words, you earned 168/200 in Class 1 and 42/50 in Class 2. So in total, you earned 210/250 points.

Now let’s suppose the same situation arises again. This time you prioritize the exam and neglect the quiz almost entirely. As a result, you ace the exam but do poorly on the quiz. You earn 188/200 (94%) on the exam in Class 1 but only 32/50 (64%) on the quiz in Class 2. So you did a full 10% better on the exam, but you did 20% worse on the quiz. Whoa – isn’t that worse? Didn’t the more balanced studying strategy yield better results?

Actually, your results in the second case are much better than the first one: of the 250 possible points among these assessments, you earned 220 this time around. The first time, you only got 210. But you might worry that the 32/50 will really hurt your grade, right? Wrong! Originally, you got 42/50. Your grade this time dropped to 32/50, a loss of 10 points. But how valuable are those 10 points? You have 1000 points possible for the semester, so 10 points is exactly 1% of your semester grade. That’s not much, and you improved your grade in the other class by double that amount.

We are also now in position to see why you should never prioritize the quiz in this situation. Let’s imagine what would happen. You ace the quiz and earn a 47/50 (94%), but your exam score really suffers. You only earn a 128/200 (64%) on the exam. That means you only accumulate 175/250 points – 35 points less in total than the balanced strategy you started with! We can summarize our findings in the table below, using the balanced approach as our baseline:

Balanced Strategy
Prioritize-Quiz Strategy
Prioritize-Exam Strategy
Exam Score (Class 1)
168/200 (84%)
128/200 (64%)
188/200 (94%)
Quiz Score (Class 2)
Total Score
Grade Impact
Class 1: 0
Class 2: 0
Class 1: -40 (-4%) Class 2: +5 (+0.5%)
Class 1: +20 (+2%) Class 2: -10 (-1%)

Admittedly, you’ll rarely be in a situation where it’s this straightforward to determine the effects of different study habits on your grade. The core lesson, however, remains clear:
unless you have a compelling reason to do otherwise, prioritize the evaluations that count the most toward your end of semester grade.
What’s a compelling reason to ignore this advice? Suppose in the case we’re outlined above that you’re failing the class in which you have the upcoming quiz but have a high A in the course with the exam approaching. In that case, particularly if the exam material seems easy for you to review, it may be reasonable to prioritize the quiz. Just bear in mind that these kinds of cases are rare: the vast majority of the time, you’ll benefit significantly from prioritizing whichever assessment is worth more points. 

3.      Never plagiarize, cheat, or otherwise engage in unethical behavior in your courses.

Plagiarizing or cheating on a paper or exam can earn you an F on your transcript and even get you expelled from the university (if the offense is serious enough). These behaviors are foolish because the consequences of getting caught radically outweigh the rewards of doing so undetected and because the chances of being caught are actually pretty high. Plagiarism detection software has improved a lot in recent years.

But the bigger reason not to plagiarize or cheat is that these practices are morally wrong. They are wrong for at least two reasons. First, they undermine the fairness that is supposed to underlie these examinations by giving you an advantage over your peers that has nothing to do with your knowledge or other intellectual abilities. Second, they are dishonest because you either present others’ work as your own or suggest that you have followed all the rules that bind other students when in fact you have not done so. And even if you think you can get away with cheating or plagiarizing on some particular occasion, do you really want to be the sort of person who has to cheat to achieve (the appearance of) success?

4.      Avoid pulling all-nighters or cramming for tests.

All-nighters wreck your body and radically disrupt your circadian rhythm. It is impossible to produce your best work staring at a computer screen with bloodshot eyes at 5:00 am. To make matters worse, the only way to become well-acclimated to all-nighters is with practice – that is, practice being awake and working at those unholy hours. Since all-nighters are rare events for most college students (only a couple per semester at most), it’s foolish to believe you’ll produce high-quality work during that time. Plan your projects, and work on them in advance to avoid a sleepless night. (See Tip #15 for advice on dealing with those desperate nights when sleep must be sacrificed.)

In a similar vein, never cram for tests. You cannot possibly learn weeks’ worth of material in a single cram session. You’re also likely to burn out during your review session. The better and more efficient strategy is to do a bit of studying each day (e.g., in the interval between classes) and then a solid 1-2 hours the night before the exam. Don’t expect to make up for weeks (or months) of neglecting your coursework with one impassioned night of studying.

I group all-nighters and cramming together because they often go together: students will often pull an all-nighter to cram for tests. In my estimation, however, this is the second-worst preparation strategy one could ever adopt, and it should never be done. (As you might guess, planning to cheat on an exam would be the worst test preparation strategy and should also never be done.)

5.      Attend and participate in class frequently.

There’s plenty of evidence that attending class directly correlates with better performance on exams and papers. Even if there is no attendance policy or participation grade, it’s usually to your advantage to attend class consistently. Many students skip class because they believe it saves them time: they reason that they can learn the material faster on their own, without the hassle of attending class. Unfortunately, this assessment is almost always mistaken.

During a typical lecture, the professor will draw your attention to the most important components of the reading and provide explanations that go beyond the reading material. Thus, normal class sessions are usually the perfect time to ingrain the material into your memory. After all, what seems like the faster method for learning: studying material on your own without any significant guidance, or studying the material with the assistance of someone who is an expert on the subject? Almost always, the latter will be quicker.

Now one could object here by pointing out that some professors just regurgitate the textbook material or post their lecture notes online for anyone to download (whether they attended class or not). Three responses are in order. First, even if a professor bases their lecture or class session solely on material you’ve read, that does not mean that you’ll still be able to learn the material just as effectively on your own. The professor’s presentation of the material will likely be more articulate and better organized than what you can gather from the reading alone. Second, even if PowerPoint slides and other notes are available to you, they will not exhaust all the material covered in a single class session, especially in classes that feature open discussion. Inevitably, some insights will occur in class that cannot be gathered from the notes alone. Third, sometimes changes to the schedule, including due dates for assignments, will be made in class and not mentioned elsewhere. Not all professors will go to great lengths to inform members of the class who are not present about these schedule changes; if you’re absent, you risk not being privy to this important information.

As a final point, don’t be content to just sit passively in class and take notes, particularly in discussion-oriented courses. The best way to solidify your knowledge of the readings is to discuss the controversial or unclear ideas presented in them. Minimally, this means paying attention to what others say about them and occasionally offering your own input. Don’t feel like you have to say something every day, but don’t hide in the back row and try to stay hidden from your peers and professor.

6.      Never use your phone during class.

Phones can prove helpful in courses occasionally – for instance, when you want to look something up immediately on the internet – but for the most part, they are a distraction and will hinder your ability to participate in class and retain information. The temptation to check your email, browse Facebook, or send text messages is strong enough that it should be avoided entirely. Just turn your phone off during class and leave it alone. No college course has more than about 90 minutes of uninterrupted class – even 3-hour night classes will usually have a break at about the halfway mark. You can return to your phone on a break or when class has ended.

The same reasoning can also apply to keeping your internet connection active on your laptop or iPad. These devices can be very useful with regard to taking notes, but if you’re prone to browsing the internet during class, disable your network connection until class is over. 

7.      Ask about course material that you do not understand.

This piece of advice might seem self-explanatory, but students are often quite hesitant to ask about material that confuses them. Perhaps they feel intimidated by the professor’s knowledge and worry about looking foolish to him or her. Or perhaps they feel awkward admitting they don’t understand something in front of their peers. These concerns are understandable, but don’t let them deter you from asking questions.

Professors generally want students to ask questions. Most professors are uber nerds when it comes to their areas of expertise. (Since I just used the word “uber,” it goes without saying that this applies to me, too.) They love having the opportunity to explain the details of a perplexing topic. Rather than perceiving you as ignorant, they’re more likely to applaud your intellectual curiosity. Your peers, of course, might not have the same judgments, but there are easy solutions: email your professors with your questions, or talk to them about these matters during their office hours.

There is one exception to this general rule. Never ask a question like the following: “I was absent last Tuesday; did I miss anything important?” Professors hate questions like this for a number of reasons. First, all students will usually have access to a full schedule, so you can determine what material you missed without asking the professor. Second, all students will have access to the syllabus, and it will almost always have explicit instructions regarding make-up assignments (and whether they are even available). So you can determine what you need to do without consulting the professor. Third, the question implies that typical class meetings do not involve anything “important,” which is not too flattering to your professor or the course as a whole. In a nutshell, this kind of question is both insulting and a waste of time – a combination that’s not likely to make a good impression on your professor even if it does not directly affect your grade.

8.      Review any comments that professors make on your work.

When a professor takes the time to write comments on your work, be sure to review them. Like some previous suggestions, this seems obvious, but a shocking number of students examine their grade without looking at the explanations of why they received that grade.

These comments give you an ideal opportunity to learn what you’ve done well and where you could improve. Virtually all professors maintain the same grading standards throughout the semester, so this feedback is crucial to ensuring that you don’t make the same mistakes on future assignments.

9.      Visit your professors during office hours.

In most cases, professors are required, as a matter of university policy, to hold a certain number of office hours each week. There are some exceptions, but these almost always apply to semesters when professors are not teaching classes (e.g., when they are sabbatical). If you have schedule conflicts with normal office hours, you can almost always schedule an appointment with the professor after explaining the problem.

For many of the same reasons that professors want students to ask them questions (see Tip

#7), professors also usually want students to visit their office hours. But this rarely happens.

It can be a hassle to track down your professor during the day, and you already spend a few hours each week in class (if you’re following Tip #5). Nevertheless, office visits are the ideal time to discuss the material that has left you most confused or to pitch ideas for a term paper. They are also the ideal time to discuss an exam or paper grade.

10. Do not use Google or Wikipedia as your primary means of conducting research.

Google and Wikipedia can be useful for finding information on a topic quickly and easily, but they will rarely guide you toward scholarly material. If you’re conducting research, you generally want a peer-reviewed article or a book written by an expert in the field, not a blog post from some undergraduate at UCLA. Wikipedia entries are not peer-reviewed (and can contain errors), and Google will give you plenty of sources that are not remotely scholarly. Google Scholar is a better choice, but your best options will usually come from your university library.

Databases of academic journals, which can almost always be accessed online through your university account, are a quick and easy way to procure peer-reviewed articles on your research topic, and checking the library catalog (which can also usually be browsed online) can lead you to a number of books. Checking the bibliography of one of those books will probably give you even further avenues for good research.

Your professor may also have some ideas regarding sources you could examine. Offer a brief description of the topic, and you might receive some very helpful suggestions. But whatever you do, don’t just rely on Google or Wikipedia; they can be good ways to familiarize yourself with a topic, but they should never constitute the bulk of your research.

11. Remember that grades do not measure effort and that they will not always be improved merely by putting forth more effort.

When students get an undesirable grade on an assignment, their knee-jerk reaction is typically to just study more. Intuitively, this strategy seems like it should work: if 2 hours of exam preparation was good enough to earn a B, why wouldn’t 4 hours be enough to earn an A?

The problem with this approach is that it assumes that grades and effort are directly related. In some cases (such as when you haven’t been attending class consistently), you can reasonably expect improved effort to raise your grade. But this will not always be the case: often, the best strategy to improve your grade has more to do with your study habits than the amount of studying you do (as explained in Tip #12). You are also likely to learn some material more easily than your peers and vice-versa. Perhaps you’re a history whiz who struggles with math; you may have a friend who breezes through math but struggles with learning Spanish; another of your acquaintances may pick up Spanish easily but find history quite difficult. These factors (among others) make the relationship between grades and effort quite tenuous, and it is unreasonable to expect that improving your effort will automatically improve your performance on exams, papers, and other assignments.

12. Experiment with your studying strategies.

Different courses will often require different approaches, and you should plan to modify your study habits accordingly. A faster, more superficial style of reading might be appropriate when tackling a novel in a literature course, but philosophy articles have to be read slowly – usually word for word – for you to fully understand how an author’s argument proceeds. A mathematics course might require very little reading from the textbook because most of your learning will come from homework assignments. In contrast, a history course may require you to learn almost all the material straight from the textbook.

Some study habits also prove (generally) more effective than others. For instance, there’s good psychological evidence that quizzing yourself over reading material (whether doing so yourself or with the help of a friend) is more effective in helping you remember that material than rereading or repeatedly scanning your notes. (Psychology professor Daniel Willingham has an informative blog post on this phenomenon.) Additionally, studying for a longer time in a more distraction-filled environment will probably be less valuable than studying for a shorter time in an environment where those distractions are absent.

Many more examples could be offered, but here’s the bottom line: if you want to improve your grades, be willing to change your study habits to suit a particular course, especially if your current strategies are not working. Most importantly, be creative. We all have our own personal idiosyncrasies when it comes to studying, so don’t expect mirroring someone else’s habits to always help you. For that matter, don’t assume that the things you’ve always done in the past are the best way to do things – be open to new ways to approach your coursework, give them a try, and see what works for you.

13. Avoid studying in groups.

An absolute prohibition on group studying is probably too harsh, but this practice should generally be avoided. Having others present creates distractions, and your best work will not get done while you’re mid-conversation with someone else. For group projects, meet briefly (30-60 minutes), discuss the important matters, and then disband and work independently until you hold another scheduled meeting. Generally, this will prove much more productive than having everyone work in the same location for several hours: such sessions risk quickly degenerating into idle chit-chat and internet browsing.

14. Do not complete every single assigned reading.

This is perhaps the most counterintuitive item on the list. It might shock you that a teacher would actually tell you not to complete all the assigned readings for a course, but if we’re being realistic, you probably shouldn’t. Think about it. 

An average course load at most universities is 15 credit hours (or 5 courses). Suppose you have to read an average of 40 pages per course per week. (This could be a significant underestimate depending on your major: in some literature courses, you might read 100 pages per week.) That would equal an average of 200 pages to read per week, and that does not include the additional responsibilities of regular class meetings, exams, papers, other academic projects, and extracurricular activities. At some point, you’re going to get overwhelmed and have too many competing obligations to complete them all. In those circumstances, you’ll need to engage in the academic equivalent of triage: determine which readings are essential and which ones are nonessential, and then prioritize the essential ones. Don’t hesitate to skip the nonessential readings when needed, and never lose sleep over doing so.

To be clear, however, this tip should not be interpreted as an excuse to neglect the course readings gratuitously. If you are not reading at least 80% of the semester’s material, you will probably pay a heavy price for it on your assessments. If you cannot complete that share of the course readings in all your courses, it might be an indication that you should be taking a lighter course load.

15. On the rare occasions where you must pull an all-nighter, do it the right way and make sure to spend the next 2-3 days recovering.

If you’re following Tip #4, then you shouldn’t be pulling all-nighters too frequently, but at some point, you may get swamped. When that happens, you need to know how to handle burning the midnight oil. If you want all the details on how to survive these sleep-depriving marathons, consult my full guide on all-nighters.

Though the guide has all the details, I should stress that an all-nighter will wreck you. It will take at least two days of good sleep to recuperate, and it could take longer. Never try to pull consecutive all-nighters: it’s a recipe for disaster.

16. Do not strive to prevent procrastination.

Preventing procrastination is virtually impossible; the better tactic is to expect it and plan accordingly. What does this mean in practice? Minimally, it means giving yourself buffers for large projects: you should expect that they will take longer (often much longer) than the optimistic projection you had when you began your planning. But it can also mean exploiting your tendency to procrastinate to your advantage: this strategy is known as structured procrastination.

In a nutshell, structured procrastination is the process of prioritizing your tasks in such a way that you put off some project by doing another one. At some point, the project you originally avoided will be superseded by another project that you want to avoid more, and at that point, you’ll get the original project done. Of course, there is a worry that you may simply neglect the item at the top of the list forever. But this just means that sometimes you might actually have to do the thing you least want to do. That should hardly be surprising since structured procrastination is not a cure-all for procrastination. Structured procrastination is a tactic for minimizing the usual damage of putting off what needs to be done and using your incentive to avoid doing some dreadful task as motivation for doing a different, less dreadful task. 

17. Avoid obsessive scheduling.

It’s good to have a routine, but overscheduling can be just as counterproductive as having no schedule at all. It’s easy to spend so much time on planning to do something that you barely make any progress actually working on the task you planned to do. There’s an easy fix for this problem: whatever schedule you use (calendar, planner, etc.), be sure to spend no more than 5 minutes a day on it. Keep it simple. Whatever schedule or to-do list you formulate, a day’s worth of tasks should be tidy enough to fit on a sticky note. This way, you’ll save most of your time and energy for what’s needed most: completing the tasks on that list.

18. Take some notes, but avoid obsessive note-taking.

Taking notes is far better than sitting passively during class, but typing (or writing) every word a professor says is a mistake for at least two reasons. First, frantic typing (or writing) will cause you to inadvertently tone out some of the important ideas and information. You’ll be too focused on getting the information copied verbatim instead of processing the general ideas under discussion or considering their larger significance. In classes where mental regurgitation of facts is all that’s essential, this approach might still be okay, but in classes where critical thinking and analysis are required (e.g., literature, philosophy) or where general concepts are just as important as the details, this strategy is not your best bet.

Second, too many notes can make exam review more difficult because it will be hard to distinguish the most important ideas from the merely peripheral or tangential ones. As a result, you can wind up reviewing a lot of extraneous material or focusing on information that is not actually important as your notes suggest. In either case, you’re likely to do better on an exam if your notes are briefer and easier to navigate.

Fortunately, taking high-quality notes is not too difficult: it’s actually much easier than trying to record every detail that escapes a professor’s lips. It just requires following three general rules. First, have a clear, consistent organizational system for your notes. It doesn’t matter what format it is – it just needs to be something that you can understand later. Second, use abbreviations. Again, it doesn’t matter what system you use so long as you can understand it. They’ll save you a lot of typing time. Third, filter the crucial ideas from the peripheral ones, and do not record all the peripheral information. This skill takes some practice to develop, but it will be worth your efforts to do so.

Perhaps counterintuitively, you might be able to naturally develop these note-taking abilities by ceasing to take notes with a laptop. Some recent research suggests that people generally learn material better when they take notes by hand instead of typing them out. Students can typically type faster than they can write, but a greater quantity of notes does not entail that one is learning more. One hypothesis regarding why students might learn better when they write their notes by hand is that it naturally forces a deeper engagement with the material since you must be selective about what you write down.

19. Install a free cloud-based service (e.g., Microsoft OneDrive, Dropbox, Google Drive) for storing your work, and upload your academic work there frequently.

The excuses are familiar. “My laptop crashed.” “I forgot to save my draft.” “My friend spilled coffee on my computer.” There was a time when it was difficult to backup electronic work, but we aren’t in the 1990s anymore. There are now at least three straightforward options for backing up your data:

USB flash drives: the spiritual successor to floppy disks, flash drives are easy to carry and simple to use. They also boast an impressive amount of space (e.g., 32 GB, 64 GB, 128 GB) despite their small size.  Copy your files from your computer onto the drive, and you can retrieve them whenever you reconnect the drive to another computer.

Email backup: attach important documents to an email and send them to yourself. If you need any of those documents in the future, you can retrieve them from your email account.

Cloud-based storage: in less than 10 minutes, you can create a free online account that gives you anywhere from 2-15 GB of storage, enough space to store thousands upon thousands of Word documents, and configure your account to save various folders on your computer online automatically (so long as you have a working connection to the internet). You can also use the built-in application to sync up all your files across multiple devices.

Flash drives are handy, but they can be lost or broken rather easily. Thus, email and cloudbased storage are better backup options (unless perhaps you want to store a collection of music or movies). Cloud-based storage also boasts a number of advantages over email. These accounts, all of which require minimal setup, can be accessed from any computer (just like email) and are easier to organize. Moreover, they save deleted versions of files, allowing you to retrieve older versions that you accidentally erased. So even if you are having the worst luck in recorded history and manage to delete your term paper and destroy all your computers simultaneously, you can still retrieve an old copy of it from a public computer by accessing your account and searching your account history for the deleted paper.

The takeaway from this section is simple: store your most important work online. It typically takes 5-10 minutes to install a cloud-based storage service, and they can be quickly configured to launch automatically when you boot up your computer. (In many cases, this auto-launch is actually the default setting.) While active (and assuming you have an internet connection), any changes you make to any document in the folders linked to your account will be immediately backed up online whenever you save them. It all adds up to nearly foolproof storage with minimal hassle – there’s really no excuse not to take advantage of these services. One of them even boasts a zero-knowledge privacy policy, which is hopefully secure enough for even the most paranoid among us.

20. Be willing to accept a B.

For some students, this last tip is the hardest to follow. I have long since lost count how many times I have heard a student lament that the many hours they poured into my class only earned them a B+. Some feel that the outcome is somehow unfair – that they deserved an A based on their effort. Others explain how this outcome will affect their chances of getting admitted to law school, medical school, or some other graduate program. A few just loathe how their unblemished 4.0 GPA will be tarnished.

My impression is that students who feel discouraged or demoralized about their B+ endorse at least one of the following beliefs:

Grades measure effort, and I put in sufficient effort to get an A.

Any grade less than an A will hurt my chances of employment or admission into a good graduate program. 

My grade is a reflection of who I am as a person, and that means I am somehow defective or imperfect.

We already know that (A) is false because grades don’t measure effort. (See Tip #11.) Grades measure your performance, and putting forth great effort in a course does not automatically mean that your performance will be great. The course material might just be tougher than normal for you to learn, or your study strategies might not be well-suited to the class. (See Tip #12.)

A single B or B+ on your transcript is also unlikely to meaningfully impact your employment opportunities or ability to gain admission into an elite graduate program, so (B) is also false. The fact that your GPA is 3.94 (or even 3.75) instead of 4.00 will not make a significant difference in your post-graduate prospects. After all, there are many other ways to distinguish yourself beyond just your undergraduate GPA, and some graduate admissions committees may even be wary of admitting students with 4.0 GPAs, fearing that such students value grades more than learning or (worse) worrying that such students are brownnosers.

I sympathize with students who endorse (C): it is easy, if one is generally an excellent student, to base one’s self-esteem in large part on one’s academic accomplishments. For such a person, an academic failure can feel like a personal failure. But again, this sentiment rests on a misconception because grades say nothing about a person’s character. Grades represent an evaluation of the quality of one’s work in a particular subject area at a particular time – nothing more. It’s reasonable to be disappointed when you aren’t able to meet your goals or expectations, but getting a subpar grade is certainly not enough to make such a broad generalization about your own self-worth. It’s okay to get a B every now and then, and in the grand scheme of things, you’ll probably be happier if academics aren’t the be-all and end-all of your existence.

21. Further Reading

There is no shortage of literature on how to cultivate better study habits and be more productive, but it’s quite difficult to tell what advice is actually worth following. In my brief forays into the literature, I have only found two books that I could truly recommend to undergrads. Both were written by Cal Newport, an assistant professor at Georgetown University. They are How to Win at College and How to Become a Straight-A Student. These books are short, cheap, and insightful. While I do not agree with every piece of advice presented, they both go a long way in steering students away from unhelpful academic advice. Dr. Newport also runs a blog that contains many archived posts about the topics covered in these two books. Interested students may find it worth browsing.


A Rulebook for Students

Rules Before Class

1.      Get the course materials: books, supplies, etc.

For each rule, eventually add discussion of why this is important, any details, etc. Eventually add ddiscussion of why this is important, any details, etc. Eventually add discussion of why this is important, any details, etc. Eventually add discussion of why this is important, any details, etc. Eventually add discussion of why this is important, any details, etc.

2.      Get the course materials before class starts.

3.      Carefully read the syllabus.

4.      Check the syllabus first when you have questions.

5.      Get a folder to hold materials and handouts.

6.      Get emails and class communications

7.      Set up an email auto-forward?

8.      Get or make a calendar, electronic or paper.

9.      Learn to use the Course Content Management System, such as Blackboard, Moodle, or others.

10. Do the assigned reading before class.

Rules During Class

11. Come to class.

12. Get to class on time.

13. Once you get to class, stay there.

14. Bring what you need to class.

15. Get out your materials for class: get prepared before class. 

16. Before class starts, review and discuss with fellow students.

How about adding a rule that students should engage in academic discourse while they wait for the professor to arrive or wherever they group on campus?   Just think of how much more clarity the readings would bring if students discussed them outside of class.

17. Take notes, by hand.

18. Don’t be distracted by computers and phones.

19. Understand the main point(s) of a class session.

20. Participate in discussion: answer questions and offer your perspective.

21. Listen to your fellow students, and ask them questions.  

Rules After Class

22. Review your notes.

23. Do the assigned work and start early.

24. Don’t procrastinate.

Add details late.

25. Assignments are often announced in class. Check the details of those assignments after class and get started.

26. Find a good place to study: eliminate distractions.

27. Organize your schedule and time.

28. Save your work “in the cloud”: avoid lost work.

“My dog ate my homework.” “My computer crashed and so I lost my paper.” Both these problems – especially the second one – can be prevented by saving your work using a (free!) online file storage system in “the cloud,” like Dropbox, Google Drive, and many more. Save your work there so you can access it anywhere there’s an internet connection and, most importantly, so it isn’t lost if your computer breaks or is misplaced. And your dog probably cannot access those files (especially if you hide your password from him or her!).

29. Turn work in on time or early.

30. Seek feedback on your work before you turn it in.

31. Ask the instructor’s permission if you must turn work in late.

32. Meet your professors at their office hours to discuss class, your work and anything else: get to know them.

Rules for Tests

33. Study!

34. Know what you need to know.

35. Get there on time: don’t be late.

36. Once you start, don’t leave: that might not be allowed.

37. Check your work: take time to review your test.

Communication Rules

38. Email a professor (and employers) the correct way.

39. Don’t send unexplained attachments.

40. Contact instructors before you might miss class or a test.

Assignment Rules

41. Use proper formatting.

42. Submit assignment as the assignment requires.

43. Check your grades often.

44. Learn from the instructor’s comments on your work.

45. Understand what you are graded on.

Writing Rules

46. Different courses have different writing styles and practices: learn what’s required.

47. Create an outline to provide structure.

48. Revise and edit: cut the fluff.

49. Share your work to get feedback from friendly critics.

50. Start early.

Reading Rules

51. Underline, highlight, and take notes as you read.

52. Show comprehension by explaining in your own words.

53. Find out what questions are you supposed to be asking about your readings

Rules for Online Classes

Rules for Extracurricular Activities

54. Decide your priorities.

55. Understand what will really benefit you in the long run, and what won’t (or is unlikely to).

Rules for Accommodations

Rules for Emergencies

56. Contact your instructors as soon as possible.

57. Get official documentation, if possible.

Registration Rules

58. Register early, if possible.

59. Don’t just stop going to a class: contact the instructor, first, and then withdraw or drop, if needed.

Rules for the Big Picture

60. Understand why you are in college.



Nathan Nobis, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Morehouse College, Atlanta, GA. He has taught courses, given lectures and published articles and chapters on a wide variety of topics concerning ethics and philosophy. His web page is at NathanNobis.com

Trevor Hedberg, MA, ABD, is a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.  His primary research interests include applied ethics, normative ethics, and epistemology. He is currently finishing his doctoral dissertation which addresses the ethics of procreation in light of the environmental impacts of overpopulation. His web page is at http://www.trevorhedberg.com/