Top 10 Habits of Highly Successful Students12 min read

Published by Zach on

Ever notice how certain students just seem to have an edge? They are always answering questions correctly in class, acing exams, receiving acceptances into top schools and then offers from top firms. Of course, there is a genetic component, maybe 50% according to some twin studies on academic performance, but what about the other 50%?1 The other 50% is all on you.

What are your study habits, techniques, and rituals? Of course, I have theories and ideas, but what does the evidence say? What does the scholarly research say are the habits of top performers?

Are you studying based on decades of evidence and research? Or are you studying based on what you think is correct? Certainly, studying using the correct resources is important, but what about when you study, how you study, and why you study?

What makes top students, top students? It’s surprisingly simple: using SMART goals, eliminating distractions, taking advantage of multiple information streams, investing in resources, figuring out the “why,” time and intensity of studying, and using evidence-based techniques.

1. Distraction Blasting

One study looked at medical students and surgeons performing a laparoscopic surgery while being asked math problems like, “What is 11×14?” Their time slowed by up to 40% when they were being distracted.3 Inexperienced drivers are nearly 8x more likely to crash their car while dialing a cell phone.4 Unrelated audio when trying to memorize a set of numbers can reduce memory, or retention, up to 50%.5

A cross-sectional observational study (that just means observing people do something at one point of time) looked at 675 medical students and compared students with high GPAs and low GPAs. Top students (across the board) reported removing distractions distractions.2

Top students find a hole in the library, one of those solo cubbies, in addition to noise-reducing headphones. Or they have a dedicated room or place in their house for studying. Importantly, this place is free from distracting sights and sounds. The lack of distractions, according to the studies above, may help them retain the information longer and allow them to study more information more quickly than other students.

Let’s use our distraction free temple to build some actionable goals, but not just any goals, SMART goals.

2. SMART Goals

Top students set goals. Specific goals of what to study (whether chapter 1 or chapter 2,-30), and or questions 10 when they would complete said goals. For example, questions 10-30 would be done Tuesday night between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., and 100 flashcards would be done Wednesday from 7-8 a.m.

Top students use SMART goals; one study had one group of college students use SMART goals at the beginning of the semester, while the other group was told to “set goals.” The SMART goals students, on average, score significantly higher than the “set goals” group.2

  • S: Specific (what needs to be done? By who? what steps to do it?)
    • “I to improve my Biology grades by 10% this semester by improving my studying”
  • M: Measurable (is the above quantifiable? It should be, what does success look like?)
    • Measuring time spent studying with what resource and quiz, homework, and test scores
  • A: Achievable (am I being realistic?)
    • Is a 10% increase in grades realistic, or will it require 8 hours of extra daily studying? I may need to aim for a 5% increase in grades instead.
  • R: Relevant (Why are you setting this goal?)
    • Scoring higher grades will result in a higher GPA and improve my chances of going to the medical school of my dream
  • T: Time Bound (When will I need to complete my goal by?)
    • By the end of this month (or semester) I should see this rise in my grades by 5%.

So overall, it might sound like this: I will improve my biology grades by 5% by the end of this semester by changing my study habits.

SMART goals can take your academic performance to the next level, but what information should you use to make your study plans?

3. Multiple Streams of Information

Warren Buffet owns stock in 50+ companies; if he is so confident in his abilities (as he should be), why doesn’t he just buy stock in one company? The answer is diversification. If Apple suddenly went under, Berkshire Hathaway (Buffet’s company) would take a significant hit, but it wouldn’t go under because it has 49+ stocks elsewhere.

Top investors know the need to diversify their portfolios. Top students know this as well. They don’t only use their textbook, lecture slides, flashcards, practice questions, or tutoring sessions; they use multiple resources. Likely, two or three of these will be emphasized, but I guarantee they occasionally glance at the lecture slides or textbook to ensure they are getting everything.

Top students know not to base their study only on one resource because it could have low quality information in the sense of the actual content or how it is portrayed.

To be like top students take stock of all the resources you have and briefly look at the information from the various resources, narrow it down to 2-3 resources to study from, never just one.

4. Investing in Resources

Ever notice how Man United did so well for some time? Or the Yankees? How about the Patriots? Or why Mercedes dominated F1 for multiple years? The answer is cash. Yes, they had great skill, but they also had big money wads.

A family rule passed down to me is to always invest in education. A good education is paramount. What better investment than yourself? Don’t skimp on investing in yourself. An investment in yourself will return better than any mutual fund, index fund, real estate investment, or anything. Usually, the cost is relatively low as well.

Spend the money on tutoring sessions, textbooks, online courses, online resources, lovely notebooks and pens, a solid computer, and anything else that can help educate you. Of course, some of us have more money than others or don’t have much control over our money; what I am saying is your priority with your money (as long as your health and safety are under control) should be on educating yourself. Contact your advisors, family, friends, or teachers if you need more money to afford educational materials. I’m sure they would be glad to help you figure out how to access these materials. Top students do this without thinking because they understand how essential it is to invest in education.

Let’s use these resources to save the world.

5. How Are You Going to Save the World?

Ang’s goal is to save the world from the fire nation. My goal was to get into medical school, clearly of equal importance.

One thought for why many people in Japan live past 100 is that they have an “Ikigai,” or reason for being. Japan, which for many years had the longest life expectancy at birth and today is still #4 on that list.3 The top performing medical students, from the earlier study, 60% reported the highest motivation of self-gratification and fulfilling family dreams.2

Find your reason for being, or as they say in Japanese Ikigai, and your power source is infinite.

6. Grit

The greatest predictor of success is grit.

Angela Duckworth, Grit

Angela Duckworth, in her book Grit, identifies top performers across fields of science, athletics, and literature. Here is her basic formula:

  • Achievement = Skill x effort

Effort is the key factor here, the grit. Grit is the personality trait that combines perseverance and passion, the ability to adhere to a goal over the long term, with the four stages being interest → practice → purpose → hope.

Simply put, top students are passionate about what they are doing and understand that if they consistently work hard, they will succeed in the long run. This is much more difficult than it sounds. Ask anyone trying to be a professional athlete, astronaut, or Nobel prize laureate. Many burn out. Many quit.

Top students are resilient and passionate. They are willing to make sacrifices for their ultimate goal.

7. High Concentration and Time Studying

Students who concentrate harder and study longer perform better than students who study longer but don’t concentrate or study shorter but do concentrate. Two hundred one undergraduate business students were picked apart for their study habits and concentration ability. Those who spent more time studying and had excellent concentration abilities scored higher.7 Makes sense. Unfortunately, most students don’t want to hear it. We want the “quick hack” or “easy A,” just like a free lunch; this doesn’t exist.

If you can afford it

Top students spend more time studying a higher proportion of that studying time focused; they do everything possible to optimize those two factors.

8. Tune Your Instrument

Your brain is the most calorie-hungry organ in your body, using around 20% of your daily energy stores. A damaged instrument won’t perform optimally or adequately like a twisted ankle or a dull knife.

Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax.

Abraham Lincoln

Students with ADHD, depression, obesity, and other harmful conditions have lower academic performance.8 This is unfortunate, but it makes sense. When our brain isn’t working correctly, we can’t think or test appropriately due to an illness. Top students know this and make proper diet, exercise, and, most importantly, sleep necessary.

Top students don’t pull all-nighters.

A few facts:

  • When you drop below 7 hours of sleep your performance suffers.9
  • Our brains can invent solutions to problems as we sleep.10
  • People that exercise have better memory and better sleep.11,12
  • Short sleepers (<6 hours per night) obtained lower grades (GPA: 2.74) than longer sleepers (>9 hours per night; GPA: 3.24)13

9. Use Laser Cannons Instead of Nerf Darts

Ever notice how, in Star Wars, regular troopers don’t stand a chance against a Jedi? I mean, Jedi’s have the force and a frikin light saber. Come on.

Top students know to stand a chance they need laser cannons. The laser cannons of studying are well-studied and known:

  • Practice Questions (active recall)
  • Flash cards (active recall)

The Nerf darts are:

  • Highlighting (passive learning)
  • Rereading (passive learning)
  • Underlining (passive learning)
  • Summarizing (passive learning)

Top students use active recall in the form of practice questions and/or flash cards as their main study strategy.

10. Early to bed, early to rise

Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man health, wealthy, and wise.

Benjamin Franklin

One study looked at 410 students and separated their academic performance into average (GPA <3.75/5) or Excellent (GPA >3.75/5). On average, the “Excellent” group had an earlier bedtime and increased total sleep time. (one other interesting finding from this study is, subjectively, independent predictors of success were feelings of obtaining sufficient sleep and not smoking).7

Here’s a quote from a paper looking at 170 college students:

Compared to those with the lowest academic performance, students with the highest performance had significantly earlier bedtimes (p = 0.05) and wake times (p = 0.008). Napping tended to be more common among high performers (p = 0.07).14

Eliasson et. al.

Now, listen to your circadian rhythm, but evidence shows there is a strong association between early rising and improved academic performance. My “Zach Theory” on the cause of this association is the known transitional state of decreased arousal after awakening from sleep known as sleep inertia. Cortisol levels don’t peak until 30-45 minutes after we wake up, and a study looking at people doing math equations showed their performance didn’t peak until about 2-4 hours after awakening.15, 16

The way academics are organized. Usually, exams are first thing in the morning. Late risers, for an 8:00 exam, may wake up at 7:30 after going to bed at 2 a.m. Not only are they suffering from a lack of that necessary 7+ hours of sleep for better cognition, but they are also suffering from sleep inertia. Fortunately or unfortunately, academia is biased towards early risers.

Top students go to bed early and wake up early.

Work Cited

  1. Claire M.A. Haworth , Philip Dale & Robert Plomin (2008) A Twin Study into the Genetic and Environmental Influences on Academic Performance in Science in nine‐year‐old Boys and Girls, International Journal of Science Education, 30:8, 1003-1025, DOI: 10.1080/09500690701324190
  2. / Bin Abdulrahman KA, Khalaf AM, Bin Abbas FB, Alanazi OT. Study Habits of Highly Effective Medical Students. Adv Med Educ Pract. 2021 Jun 8;12:627-633. doi: 10.2147/AMEP.S309535. PMID: 34135654; PMCID: PMC8197661.
  5. Banbury, S. P., Macken, W. J., Tremblay, S., & Jones, D. M. (2001). Auditory Distraction and Short-Term Memory: Phenomena and Practical Implications. Human Factors43(1), 12-29.
  6. Christin Bergmann, Thomas Muth & Adrian Loerbroks (2019) Medical students’ perceptions of stress due to academic studies and its interrelationships with other domains of life: a qualitative study, Medical Education Online, 24:1, DOI: 10.1080/10872981.2019.1603526
  7. BaHammam, A.S., Alaseem, A.M., Alzakri, A.A. et al. The relationship between sleep and wake habits and academic performance in medical students: a cross-sectional study. BMC Med Educ 12, 61 (2012).
  9. Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, PhD
  10. Wagner, U., Gais, S., Haider, H., Verleger, R. & Born, J. Sleep inspires insight. Nature 427, 352–355 (2004).
  11. Roig M, Nordbrandt S, Geertsen SS, Nielsen JB. The effects of cardiovascular exercise on human memory: a review with meta-analysis. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2013 Sep;37(8):1645-66. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2013.06.012. Epub 2013 Jun 24. PMID: 23806438.
  12. Winter B, Breitenstein C, Mooren FC, Voelker K, Fobker M, Lechtermann A, Krueger K, Fromme A, Korsukewitz C, Floel A, Knecht S. High impact running improves learning. Neurobiol Learn Mem. 2007 May;87(4):597-609. doi: 10.1016/j.nlm.2006.11.003. Epub 2006 Dec 20. PMID: 17185007.
  13. W.E. Kelly, K.E. Kelly, R.C. Clanton. The relationship between sleep length and grade-point average among college student.Coll Student J, 35 (2001), pp. 84-86 +
  14. Eliasson, A.H., Lettieri, C.J. & Eliasson, A.H. Early to bed, early to rise! Sleep habits and academic performance in college students. Sleep Breath 14, 71–75 (2010).
  15. Randler, C. (2009). Proactive people are morning people1. Journal of Applied Social Psychology39(12), 2787–2797.
  16. Elder GJ, Wetherell MA, Barclay NL, Ellis JG. The cortisol awakening response–applications and implications for sleep medicine. Sleep Med Rev. 2014 Jun;18(3):215-24. doi: 10.1016/j.smrv.2013.05.001. Epub 2013 Jul 5. PMID: 23835138.
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