Study Hacks Blog Posts on Case Studies: The Advice in Action

The Grade Whisperer: Alice Escapes Her Academic Hell

June 15th, 2009 · 11 comments

The Grade Whisperer is an occasional feature in which I use the Study Hacks philosophy of do less, do better, and know why, to help students overcome their academic problems.

Academic HellAdvice

Last December, I received an urgent e-mail from a reader whom I’ll call Alice. At the time, she was halfway through her sophomore year at one of the country’s best known public universities.

“I definitely need advice about switching to a zen valedictorian lifestyle,” she began.

As the e-mail continued, I learned that Alice had entered college as a pre-med major because, in her words: “I considered it a ‘difficult,’ technical major and thought it would be a safe option.”

As Study Hacks readers know, such a poor justification for your major is a recipe for deep procrastination. Sure enough, Alice was soon struggling. To compensate, she decided to switch majors. This time she chose a double concentration in business administration and economics — once again driven by her quest for something that was “difficult” and “safe.”

Not surprisingly, she fared no better with this new direction. By the first semester of her sophomore year, life became grim.

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The Pyramid Method: A Simple Strategy For Becoming Exceptionally Good

June 3rd, 2009 · 58 comments

The Power of GoodSickabod Sane

In early May, I received an interesting e-mail from a reader. After the standard introductions, he said:

Though I’m progressing towards my goal to become a physicist, I’m also very interested in writing a novel.

He noted that before diving into a novel he would probably have to first “write a short story or two.” He wanted my advice for how to kick off this project in time for summer.

“This sounds like a great idea for a Grand Project,” I replied. “But I would first be definite that this is an important goal in your life, because I predict you’d need at least five years of focused work before landing a book deal becomes a possibility.”

My answer reflects an observation that plays an increasingly important role in my understanding of the world: if you want to do something interesting and rewarding — be it writing a novel, becoming a professor, or growing a successful business — you have to first become exceptional. As Study Hacks readers know, I think Steve Martin put it best when he noted that the key to breaking into a competitive and desirable field is to “become so good, they can’t ignore you.”

In other words, there’s no shortcut. If you want the world to pay attention to you, you have to provide a compelling reason. It doesn’t care about your life goals.

In this post, I want to discuss a simple method with a complicated back-story. It’s a technique that can help you move efficiently down the road toward becoming exceptionally good.

The story behind this advice starts with an old friend who possessed an unlikely talent.

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The Grade Whisperer: Eric Prepares to Battle English Lit

May 22nd, 2009 · 13 comments

The Grade Whisperer is an occasional feature in which I use the Study Hacks philosophy of do less, do better, and know why, to help students overcome their academic problems.

Eric’s Literate ConcernsAdvice

A reader named Eric recently sent me an interesting question. Next semester, he’s facing an English Lit course.

“My concern is that the best grade I ever got in high school English was a ‘B’,” Eric explained.

He wanted some feedback on his plan for the course.

“I read about Q/E/C notetaking in the red book, but I’m not quite sure how to apply it to these courses,” he said. “Would it help if this summer I picked some novels and practiced the technique? Or would it help me more to just read some novels for pleasure in preparation?”

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My Focus-Centric Work Day

May 13th, 2009 · 17 comments

Blocking TimeFocused

Earlier this year, I made an important improvement to my infamous 9 to 5 student work day. Instead of treating these hours as one undifferentiated mass, I added the following simple structure:

  1. Writing
  2. MIT #1
  3. Midday
  4. MIT #2
  5. Shoulder

The accompanying rules were simple. The first thing I do when I arrive at my office is write. I wrote my first two books predominantly between the hours of 9 and 10:30 am, and I’ve finished 2/3 of my new book during this same interval.

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The Grade Whisperer: Mike’s Pre-Med Nightmare

May 7th, 2009 · 20 comments

The Grade Whisperer is an occasional feature in which I use the Study Hacks philosophy of do less, do better, and know why, to help students overcome their academic problems.

Mike’s Mixed BlessingAdvice

I recently received an e-mail from Mike, a pre-med major with an interesting problem. “I’ve read both of your books and have had unbelievable academic success ever since,” he told me. “I’ve had two semesters of straight A’s which include 5 A+’s and some of the most difficult pre-med classes such as physiology and biochemistry. ”

This sounded good to me. But then came the catch:

“However, I realized that I’ve become somewhat of a grind during this miraculous transformation. The problem is, in college, there’s literally always more work to do. ”

With some hesitation, he asked: “Do you think maybe I’m using your methods incorrectly?”

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What If My Dream Major Turns Into a Nightmare?

April 22nd, 2009 · 32 comments

Deep Trouble

I recently received an e-mail from our friend Tyler. As you may recall, he found peace last year by swapping a premed major that never interested him for a classics major that did. He went on to pare down his schedule and then focus on becoming an A* student. In short, he was a perfect example of the study hacks philosophy: do less; do better; know why.

Then things got bad again.

“I know you keep saying ‘pick a  major and stick to it.'” Tyler told me in his e-mail. “But the only thing saving me from academic oblivion is the fear of failing.  My major recently has only been sucking up my time and causing me major stress.” He then proposed that he should switch majors; even though he is only 2 – 3 classes away from a classics degree. He didn’t know what else to do.

Tyler is not alone. His e-mail is probably the 5th or 6th I’ve received this spring that offers some variation on the same common conundrum: what do I do if my dream major is turning into a nightmare? In this post I tackle this issue with a series of observations on the lost art of cultivating a healthy relationship with your academic concentration.

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Finals Diaries: Travis Prepares to Battle Calculus

April 16th, 2009 · 8 comments

Caltech CalculusQuiet Study

This is the first post in the finals diaries series, which follows a group of students through their quest to improve their study habits in time for spring exams. We start with Travis, a freshman physics major from Caltech. In May, he faces a brutal multivariate calculus exam. This leaves him a little less than a month to toss out his existing habits, which he candidly describes as “less than stellar,” and embrace a more efficient academic lifestyle.

Plan A

As with all of my volunteers, I asked Travis to describe his current plan for preparing for this test. He replied:

It will boil down to taking a couple of weeks before finals and figuring out what I don’t know, trying to brush up on what I may have forgotten, and doing some example problems.

This, of course, is exactly the type of vagueness that drives students to last minute scrambles and incomplete preparation. Luckily, Travis still has time to change his ways.

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Case Study: How Amy Saved Her College Career

January 30th, 2009 · 13 comments

Amy’s TaleStudent Studys

I recently received an e-mail from a student I’ll call Amy, who is a sophomore at a well-known university. She began: “I’ve really turned my academic life around and because of this my entire life has improved…”

As I read on, I learned Amy transformed a 3.0 GPA to a 3.7 GPA while improving her social life and decreasing her stress. At the core of her transformation where the tactics of the Straight-A Method and the philosophy of the Zen Valedictorian.

“When I read How to Become a Straight-A Student over the summer I thought it seemed too easy,” she told me.

“However, only a few habit changes totally redirected my life.”

I want to share Amy’s story. It provides an important reminder how surprisingly easy it can be to make that transformation from out of control to a standout.

But enough hype, let’s get to the details…

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