How to Survive and Thrive in School

As a student, I have maintained a near 4.0 GPA without having ever cheated. As I reflect upon my accomplishments, I realize that they were not difficult to attain; indeed, every student should be able to easily maintain a GPA of 3.5 or higher. More important in school are the organizational, classroom-ready and test-taking skills than raw brain-power or natural affinity for the subject. True, being “good” at a subject helps, but it isn’t crucial to achieving success. Though results will definitely not arrive overnight, your grades are guaranteed to improve if you seriously apply several of these rules.

Rule #1: Don’t fool around in class.

I know, this rule a letdown. You were expecting a magical formula for good grades, and instead you get a seemingly obvious and useless statement. Duh, I need to pay attention in class to get good grades, you think. However, stay patient; this is a much more important rule than you think. In fact, I have identified this as the rule most commonly broken, and hence the one that most commonly prevents students from reaching their goals. But first, notice how the rule isn’t labeled “Pay Attention in Class”, but rather, “Don’t fool around in class”. It is okay if you aren’t focused 100% of the time during class; in fact, it is beneficial for you to not pay attention all the time, or else you jeopardize your ability to retain information. The key is to not disrupt others during class or offend the teacher in any way while you aren’t paying attention or begin to lose focus. It is normal for you to lose focus on the subject at hand, especially when your teacher has a boring teaching style; the important thing for you is to manage your spells of boredom to avoid disrupting others. Rule #2 will teach the times when it is beneficial to lose focus; however, you must always make sure that you never disrupt others during these spells. Even if you make sure to not disrupt the learning environment, however, you still must ascertain that your individual activities won’t irk or annoy the teacher. For example, you shouldn’t text, do homework for other classes, eat food, read books, sleep, or do anything else that could potentially upset your teacher. Never disrupt others by talking, making jokes, playing pranks, pulling stunts, etc.; though funny, these actions will hurt your grade in the long run, as will be explained in Rule #4. If you feel compelled to talk at all during the class period, keep it to an absolute minimum. The main thing that a student can do to anger a teacher is disrupt the class while they are trying to teach a lesson. Don’t raise your hand and ask stupid questions or voice personal concerns when your teacher is in the middle of teaching the lesson, as this behavior is just plain annoying; also, don’t excessively argue a point with the teacher, because even if you are right, you lose in the long run. The points listed are very important; when you follow them, you will never get on the bad side of a teacher (see Rule #4 for more elaboration). Now that we know the behavior guidelines when you aren’t paying attention, we will move on to identifying the times when it is okay for you to tune out.

Rule #2: Pay attention when it counts.

I will be the first to admit that I don’t always pay attention during class, and I am sure that you don’t always either. The school day is very long; class periods can range from 45 minutes to several hours depending on how advanced your studies are. It is ludicrous to expect you to focus for that entire length of time, especially when you consider that you would have to multiply that accomplishment by every class period you have. (I agree, it is hard to believe that the person behind your schedule is not out to get you.) Clearly, to pay attention 24/7 is impossible; instead, the key for you, as a student, is to pay attention only during important parts of the class. If you can manage to focus during these important parts, it is okay if you aren’t always mentally checked in during the rest of the time. Important times during which you must be listening include: -at the beginning of class, when the teacher gives you instructions or outlines the day’s lesson plan; -at the end of class, when the teacher will tell you about homework or remind you about upcoming quizzes; -when the teacher draws a diagram or writes notes and/or solves problems on the board; and -when the information being covered is important, or the teacher subtly hints that it might be on a test. At first, this doesn’t seem like a whole lot, and in fact it isn’t. However, it is up to you as a student to know your teacher and classroom, and identify the important parts of class. I’ll be honest, it is also a long period for the teacher, and they have to fill their lesson with fluff to make their lesson last the entire period. (That explains why your teacher is so interested in what you did over the weekend.) As we already mentioned, it is almost impossible for you to pay attention all the time; however, you must make sure that you choose a good time to tune out. You must tune in to the important parts of the class, while tune out during the fluff of the lesson. Fluff might come at the very beginning or ending of class, during transition periods in the classroom, or when your teacher unexpectedly launches into a long story during the middle of the lesson. This technique of identifying the “fluff” parts will allow you to never miss important information, as you will always be paying attention when that information is given; at the same time, you will managed to “mentally recuperate” or “rest your eyes” without ever missing anything important. As the school year goes on, you will begin to become familiar with your teacher’s style of teaching, and it will become easier to identify the patterns in his or her lesson plans. (Of course, some teachers are better than others, and you might need to be focused for a larger amount of time in one class than you would need to in others.) Once you can identify these patterns, you will have a better idea of when to pay attention and when to drift off. During the first several weeks of school, you should pay attention more than normal; even though the fluff parts are still there, you must still trudge through them so that you will enable yourself to become familiar with your surroundings and learn what each teacher expects of you. When employed properly, this technique will ensure that you never miss important information while preventing you from dying of boredom. NOTE: When you are drifting off, make sure that you don’t drift off too much! Always stay aware and focused enough so that if the teacher suddenly calls on you or starts giving important information, you will be ready.

Rule #3: Take each class seriously, and do your job.

This rule seems so basic, so simple, so obvious, so annoying,yet students break it all the time. So many students fail or get poor grades for simply not turning in assignments or not taking a class seriously. Whenever you enter a classroom, you must respect the subject and all the things that you can learn from it. Though you might not enjoy a class, and even view it as useless, you must always take it seriously, if only to maintain a good Grade Point Average. Wouldn’t it be dumb if your GPA suffered because you failed gym class, merely because you didn’t take it seriously? Some classes are a grind, but if you resolve to get through them as painlessly as possible in order to attain the easy A, you will become a very successful student. Once you take each class seriously, you will realize that it is very important to turn in all of your assignments. You would be amazed how not turning in a small piece of homework worth 10 points or so can bump your grade down several points, depending on your teacher’s grading system. Trivial assignments take small amounts of time, but are still important; all the more so the major assignments and essays that students perennially procrastinate! You would be amazed at how many of my classmates only wrote essays the night before they were due, or saved a memorization piece in Spanish class for the hour before they were supposed to present! Need I tell you that those students aren’t in my honors classes anymore? Some things are out of a student’s hands; perhaps they aren’t a good writer, or a math problem stumps them. Students often freak out about those things that are out of their control. But then they go ahead and completely ignore the things that they have the most power over: turning in assignments on time and doing quality work! I guarantee you that if you do at least A- work on every assignment, even the trivial ones, you won’t need to worry about the things that are out of your hands, because you will already have a solid A.

Sounds simple enough. But you still have a problem: how to keep track of all of your assignments? Even if you maintain an assignment book (which I don’t, because it isn’t that hard to remember what homework you have each day), you still will probably forget a piece of homework at home or lose it somewhere along the way. The answer is Organization (yes, with a capital O). That word is the most important and complicated word you will ever need to know as a student. Organization, contrary to popular belief, is actually quite easy; once you organize your schoolwork for the first time, your organization is extremely easy to maintain. Here is a brief, step-by-step guide to staying organized: 1) Keep a small three-ring binder for each class; everything from that subject should go in there. 2) Buy organizational tabs to place in your binder; they are cheap yet critical to your organization. 3) Using those tabs you just acquired, separate each of your binders into “classroom notes”, “handouts”, “tests”, “homework”, and any other topic that you need for that subject. 4) Keep loose-leaf paper in the “classroom notes” section in each of your binders, and keep graphing paper in your math binder. 5) Keep a pencil case in your backpack equipped with about a dozen pencils and black pens, white out, and a handheld paper sharpener. You may also keep other things too in your pencil case if you like. 6) Whenever your teacher gives handouts, hands back homework assignments or test papers, or talks about something that you should be taking notes on, file them into their appropriate section within your binder. If you follow these steps and become organized, you are already halfway on your way to becoming an honor-roll student. You will almost never lose assignments, nor will you have difficulty keeping track of notes or old tests to study from. Also, you will become popular among your classmates, as they will sometimes need to borrow paper or writing utensils, and they will also come in droves to use your white out and pencil sharpener.

A word about procrastination: many students blame procrastination when they fail to complete assignments or do a poor job on an assignment. However, procrastination is okay as long as three conditions are met: 1) You are taking both the class and the assignment seriously; 2) You are doing quality work on the assignment; and 3) The procrastination won’t cause you to neglect other assignments or lose sleep. Procrastination is not bad, as long as you complete your assignments on time. In fact, procrastination can be quite beneficial, as it relieves stress and will help focus your mind better when you are working. Like all good things, you must limit the time you spend procrastinating, or else you risk your goals. However, as long as you get all of your assignments completed on time and you do quality work, I see nothing wrong if you want to procrastinate for a little while..

Rule #4: Teachers determine your grades.

Though this seems obvious, sadly many students don’t understand this rule, and their grades suffer as a result. Your teacher is human and makes mistakes, has bad days, is occasionally cranky at students, has certain pet peeves, and the like. Your teacher is also an adult who is surrounded by kids for their entire work day; they don’t have much social outlet during that time. (Think of the class where you sit next to several kids who you aren’t friends with; you feel isolated, and can’t wait to get to the next period where your friends are. A teacher is in a similar situation: they can’t talk to any of their friends (the other teachers) for most of the day.) Your teacher also subconsciously identifies kids whom they like and don’t like, whom they enjoy having in their class and whom they wish would leave the class, and so on. Like it or not, your teacher’s attitude towards you both in class and in the grading book will reflect their unconscious prejudices towards you. Admittedly, your teacher does loosely follow some guidelines in grading your assignments; however, your grade will ultimately reflect your teacher’s opinion on not only how well you did in the class, but whether he/she thought of you as a “good student”. Therefore, it is in your own best interest to act in a certain manner, so that your teacher will like you. (I know, it sounds kind of harsh, but welcome to the real world.) It is incumbent upon you to behave well especially in scenarios like English class where the grading in a class is largely subjective. Once your teacher views you as an adult, and is comfortable talking to you like one, they will grade you like one. But how far must you carry this policy? You can undoubtedly identify in every class the kids that the teacher really likes (the dreaded teacher’s pet) or those that they absolutely cannot stand (the humorous but inflammatory class clown). It is your job to avoid either extreme, and stay in the middle of the spectrum; you don’t want to be a teacher’s pet, as you would then be held to a higher standard (and should you do poorly on an assignment or fail to meet the teacher’s high expectations, your grade will tank), nor do you want to be a jokester or even a kid that the teacher doesn’t particularly like, unless you enjoy having low C’s across the board. The optimum relationship between you and your teacher, and the way to achieve it, are as follows. Your teacher should enjoy your constructive input in the classroom discussion without perceiving you as overbearing or a know-it-all ( ). You must work hard (yes, these rules help, but don’t replace the hours you must put in); your teachers will recognize and appreciate your hard work and will respect you as a student. Turn in quality work; your teacher does not enjoy grading papers that didn’t take much effort. Be respectful towards your teachers at all times; even if you don’t feel that they deserve that respect, you must nevertheless maintain it. Establish a presence in the class, chiming in every now and again to give a correct answer. Depending on your teacher’s personality, endeavor to say hello and goodbye to them when you enter and leave the room. You already know from Rule #1 most of the bad things to avoid. Never cheat; even if you don’t get caught, you are doing yourself a disservice. Why would you risk a poor grade, possible suspension, and put your reputation on the line when it is so much easier to spend five minutes studying and do a good job. Refer to Rule #1 for more things to avoid. If you follow these guidelines, you are guaranteed to establish a situation in which the teacher knows you by name and enjoys having you in the class.

You must always know what your teacher expects in their classroom, both in terms of conduct, format in which to turn in assignments, and grading policy. (The latter must not be ignored, as you should allot the time you spend in a particular class based on this information.) More importantly, however, you must always be conscious of what type and quality of content that your teacher demands from you. Oftentimes, teachers will almost “tell you what to write” in your essays. For instance, a teacher will often tell students their analysis of a passage from a book, or their opinion on what the theme of a book is. It doesn’t matter how well-supported or logical your thesis is: if it conflicts with what your teacher told you, your grade will not benefit. It is sad, but in most classrooms independence of thought is not encouraged. (Again, some teachers are better than others, and in those classes you should allow the creative part of you to shine.) In general, however, most essays boil down to you adducing support for what the teacher told you about the topic during class. Unfortunately, neither novelty nor nobility of thought will earn you grade points; most often, they will detract from your score.

Rule #5: Do all of the little things (and the major ones too).

This rule should be the easiest for you to follow. You must keep your body in great shape in order to perform well mentally, physically and emotionally in school. Don’t stay up late on school nights. Don’t do illegal drugs or drink alcohol; don’t party too hard if at all, and certainly never on school nights. Keep your body in good health: eat enough of your essential nutrients, and never skip breakfast. Get eight hours of sleep each night; even in emergency situations, never go to school on less than six hours of sleep. As far as time management goes, you have already learned about procrastination in Rule #3; still, always allot enough time for assignments due the next day. Try your utmost to ascertain that homework assignments are done in the late afternoon/early evening, as opposed to late at night. Students usually find this rule the hardest to consistently obey, though you will never get a bad grade on a quiz/test if you get an ample amount of sleep the night before. (Of course, you would never save all your studying for the night before a test, as this type of procrastination is not just unhealthy but cancerous.) As far as your life outside the classroom: it is critically important for you to have hobbies and become involved in clubs and extra-curricular activities, as it is bad to become exclusively focused on academics. As long as you leave enough time for studying and homework, and you don’t put too much stress on yourself, you must pursue your hobbies. School can be fun or boring, depending on what you make of it. It is very hard to succeed in an environment that you don’t enjoy being in; it is your responsibility to make school a positive environment for yourself. This rule is the most important of the five, as your personal happiness trumps any grade or school-related matter. Follow the other rules, and you will be a successful student; follow this rule, and you will be a successful human being.

As a final word, I would like to advise you on how to prepare for tests or examination, as this topic is somewhat related to what we have been discussing until now. The most important thing for you to do is to determine test-taking strategies that work for you. This requires time and thought; there isn’t a magical formula to give you a photographic memory. You know yourself best; determine what your strengths are, and cater your test-taking strategy to that information. Seriously, no two people prepare for exams the same way; indeed, you should alter your test-taking strategy depending on whether you are preparing for a small quiz or a final exam. Your teachers will have many words of advice for you; the main thing is to determine a method that works for you, and to consistently apply it. If you can develop a consistent studying routine, you will never need to worry about curveballs the teacher might throw at you on a test. Nevertheless, here are a few universal test-taking tips: -Cram as much as you can on the day of the test. Not the night before the test, but on the day of the test, as the information will stick in your mind. If you review the information 30 minutes before a test, chances are that you will remember about 75% of it; you may still dig up the other 25% from the recesses of your brain while you are taking the test. -Allot a certain amount of time for review each day leading up to the test; it is much easier to study 30 minutes every day in the two weeks before a test than it is to study 7 hours the day before. -Take occasional breaks from studying to engage in healthy physical activity, such as stretching, yoga, or playing sports. This will help you focus more during the time that you are studying.

I know that I covered a lot of information; I don’t expect you to remember even half of it. However, I do hope that the general picture is now crystal clear for you: it is not hard to be a good student, as long as you give remain dedicated and persistent in your studies. Some rules are more important than others; ultimately, it is your school, your teacher, your grade, and your job to determine when and where to apply these rules. Remember, school is less about your intellectual abilities or knowledge of a subject than it is about knowing the system and adapting to it. Develop healthy test-taking habits and organization skills; develop a positive relationship with your teachers. Your studies will require hard work; these tips will only get you so far, as there aren’t any shortcuts at your disposal. One way or the other, you are going to put in x amount of hours; however, if you follow these rules, you will be able to spend those x hours in the most efficient manner possible. Most importantly, always maintain the proper perspective; uphold the utmost standards of academic integrity while balancing your extra-curricular activities. If you can successfully apply just one or two of these rules, you are well on your way to success.