Study Hacks Blog Posts from December, 2007 - Study Hacks - Cal Newport - Part 2

Monday Master Class: The Most Important Paper Research Advice You’ve Never Heard

December 17th, 2007 · 2 comments

The Dark Art of Paper ResearchPaper Writing

You’ve likely figured out how to write a decent research paper. You know how to navigate the library catalog and search through online journal databases. You’ve learned the correct way to cite sources, and are comfortable sprinkling authoritative-soundings footnotes throughout your text.

But what if you want more than a decent paper? What if you want to write the best damn paper your professor has ever graded?

What Top Students Do Differently

In this post I describe five strategies I’ve observed straight-A students use to consistently produce standout papers. The advice is simple, but most students never hear it. Put these tactics into practice and your assignments will reach a new level.

  1. Learn the most possible information about the smallest possible topic. Strong, authoritative writing is born from expertise. The more you know about a topic the more forcefully you can form an argument. Take advantage of this fact. Find the most narrow possible topic to write your paper on. Then: read every single source that has ever been written on that topic. (If your topic is suitably narrow, the number of sources will be reasonably small.) The resulting paper will seem remarkably more confident than what most students produce.
  2. Talk to the reference librarian. Every college has a reference librarian on staff to help students find information in the library system. I’m amazed by how often this resource is overlooked. Ask the librarian for research help and she will guide you to some amazing sources you would have never found on your own. These extra discoveries make the difference between an average paper and one that shines. As an added bonus, this exercise also shaves hours from your research time.
  3. Start from existing conjectures. A cool thesis will excite your professor and push your paper to a new level. A simple strategy to side-step boring questions is to stop making them up from scratch (what do you know!?) Instead, search recent journal articles for open questions or conjectures about the general topic that interests you. Set out to answer the question or confirm the conjecture. A kick-ass paper will follow. (For example, in an art history class I took as an undergraduate, I came across an article that mentioned, in passing, that two artists with no known direct connection had developed remarkably similar styles. I set out to find out some reasons why — it turns out they had mutual friends — and ended up with one of the strongest papers of my student career.)
  4. Construct a fact timeline. Before writing a single word, you need to understand what happened and when. If you don’t have an unshakable grasp of exactly when everything happened, this clumsiness will poke through in you paper. Your first research step should be to consult basic sources (text books, general overviews) and write out a detailed timeline of all events relevant to your topic. Only once you understand the basics can you confidently deploy the advanced nuances that will structure your argument.
  5. Talk to real people. Students often fail to look beyond what they can find on a library computer. The best sources, however, are often found in the real world. If there is a person out there somewhere who knows something interesting about your topic, contact them! Explain you’re a student, and conducting research, and you’ll be surprised how often they are willing to chat (on phone or e-mail.) The resulting interview material adds dynamism to your paper, and catapults it past the dry citations of your peers. (For example, for a paper I wrote last fall for an Art History seminar, I ended up chatting with the curator of the Bell Labs archives, who helped me reconstruct the circumstances under which a certain event, that figured prominently in my paper, might have occurred.)

Related Posts

25 Articles Every Student Should Read

December 6th, 2007 · 14 comments

The Best of Student Productivity Blogging

As I head off for my Internet-free European vacation, I want to leave you with enough content to keep your mind humming. Accordingly, I bravely dived into my blogroll and pulled out my favorite student productivity articles. Read all 25: they will change the way you think about being a student. See you in 11 days!

Study Hacks:

Practical Hacks:

Mindset Hacks:

Productivity Hacks:

I’m on Vacation for the Next 10 Days…

December 6th, 2007 · Be the first to comment

Off to Spain…

Julie and I are heading off to Spain for a much-needed 10-day vacation. To maximize relaxation, the laptops are staying at home. The implications:

  • For the next 10 days there will be no new posts.
  • For the next 10 days I won’t be moderating comments. If you leave a comment, it will appear after I return.

Before leaving, I’m going to post a top 25 student productivity articles list to keep you up to your ears in quality content while I’m away.

See you soon!

Why I Don’t Regret Getting Straight A’s in College

December 5th, 2007 · 27 comments

Jon Dismisses GradesDebate

Yesterday, Jon Morrow wrote a guest post on the Brazen Careerist blog. It was titled: Why I Regret Getting Straight-A’s in College. It subsequently got picked up by Life Hacker, and, as you might imagine, has since been making the rounds.

In light of my experience with this issue, I want to offer a rebuttal. I don’t agree with Jon. But I do like his post. It is well-reasoned and rational — a perfect starting place for a polite, insightful debate.

Five Reasons Why Jon Regrets Getting Straight-A’s

Jon lists five main reasons why he regrets getting straight-A’s in college:

  1. “No one has ever asked about my GPA.
  2. “I didn’t sleep.
  3. “I’ve forgotten 95% of it.
  4. “I didn’t have time for people.”
  5. “Work experience is more valuable.”

For the sake of concision we can combine (2) and (4), as they both describe the same problem: good grades require too much study time. And we can also combine (1) and (5), as they both tackle the question of what matters when applying for a job. With these combinations complete, we can now tackle the main arguments in turn:

Argument #1: Employers Don’t Care About Your GPA

Jon argues:

I interviewed with lots of companies, received a total of 14 job offers after graduation, and none of the companies asked about [my GPA].

Grades are rarely discussed in job interviews. Does this mean they don’t matter? Of course not! Grades play a crucial rule in the hidden first step of the interview process: the resume screen.

When an organization has a competitive entry level position open, they are going to receive resumes from more candidates than they have time to interview. Accordingly, they perform a quick triage. Their focus: where you went to school, your grades, and, if relevant, work experience. If your grades are low, you will probably get tossed aside without ever being granted an interview.

The reason employers don’t bring up your grades in an interview is because there is no need. They already know your GPA. It’s a big reason why they agreed to interview you. Now it’s time to move beyond your marks and convince them you have the other skills necessary to be a good hire.

This reality does not just apply to investment banks and consulting firms. Almost any company that is hiring an entry level position needs some method of triage. This includes non-profit organizations. Do you want to save the world? Or join Teach for America? You better have a good GPA. These do-gooder firms are notorious for screening entry-level resumes on grades. (They get a lot of applicants, they can afford to choose the best.)

In short: a mediocre GPA will close a lot a entry level doors. Unless you are definite that you want a job in an industry that does not care at all about GPA (for example, the freelance writing gig mentioned by Jon in the post), you should think twice before drastically narrowing your options with a low average.

Argument #2: Getting Straight-A’s Devours Your Free Time

Jon argues:

Unless you’re a super genius, getting 37 A’s is hard work…I had lots of opportunities to build a huge network. But I didn’t have time.

This is an argument I hear frequently. It’s 100% false. It pops up so often because it is built upon the deceptively appealing logical fallacy of the false dichotomy. Jon implicitly assumes the following choice:

  1. Work 60-100 hours a week and score straight A’s.
  2. Work much less and score mainly B’s.

Faced with this choice, (2) is the obvious way to go. Working 100 hours a week in college would be terrible! But this dichotomy assumes that grades are mainly a function of how many hours you spend. As loyal Study Hacks readers know, this is false. Your grades are a combination of: how you study, your energy when you study, and time spent. Smart strategies for the first two can keep the third really small.

Case in point: I studied much less than most people I knew in college, but my GPA was higher than Jon’s, who, as he describes, was “obsessed” with getting an A+ on every assignment. Most students who e-mail me success stories, emphasize not just that their grades are higher, but that they are studying much less now that they’ve cleaned up their habits. The real choice is:

  1. Study with bad habits for 60 – 100 hours a week and get A’s.
  2. Study with good habits for much less time and get A’s.
  3. Study with bad habits for much less time and get B’s.

Faced with this more accurate choice, (2) becomes the best option. What Jon really regrets is having terrible study habits that ate up all his time. The goal of getting good grades is not to blame. Focus on being efficient to solve the problem.

Argument #3: I’ve Forgotten 95% of It

Jon argues:

I majored in English Literature and minored in Communication Theory…I spent all my time reading classic literature and memorizing vague, pseudoscientific communication theories. Neither are useful at all, and I’ve forgotten at least 95% of it.

College is not vocational school. Its mission is rooted in enlightenment thinking: By being exposed to great minds you become a better citizen of the world. True, you will probably never need to explicitly discuss much of what you read from the Western Canon. But there is a reason why we have been studying these books for the last 300 years. They equip you to tackle life. They add nuance to your understanding of ethics and morality. They complicate your view of the human condition. They change your reception of the signal of life experience from black and white to HD.

The same holds true for social science and physical sciences. You might not use a specific communication theory, but you have learned to view information flow in a more critical, nuanced light. Do you really think 18-year-old Jon is equally equipped to tackle life as 22-year-old college graduate Jon? Or did four years of exposure to the detailed thinking of smart minds perhaps facilitate some mental maturing — even if you didn’t agree with everything you learned.

In the end, however, I’m not qualified to provide a great defense for the liberal arts. For this, I should defer to those that have done so with informed eloquence.


I appreciate Jon’s thoughtful essay. We differ because of the following three observations that I hold to be true:

  1. For a large number of entry-level jobs, your GPA does matter.
  2. Getting good grades does not require you to work more than most students.
  3. Their There is a value to learning things that you don’t have immediate practical use for.

If you agree with these observations, then you fall into my pro-grades camp. If you believe them flawed, Jon’s conclusion will seem more rational. Either way, it’s nice to have the opportunity to engage in well-reasoned debate on the topic.

What are your thoughts? Do you regret trying to score good grades?

Monday Master Class: Don’t Use a Daily To-Do List

December 3rd, 2007 · 23 comments

To-Do Lists Are DangerousAdministrative Day

Many students are tempted to run their day based on a comprehensive to-do list. In practice, these lists are hopelessly ambitious. Few things get completed. Many small tasks get punted day after day. And frustration mounts.

In short: to-do lists are a terrible daily planning tool. Why is this? They are missing two key pieces of information:

  1. How long each task requires.
  2. How much and where your free time is available for the day.

Without these two facts, you are stumbling blindly, hoping your random decisions of what to do (or not do) at a given moment will lead to an efficient schedule. Here’s the secret: it won’t.

Case Study: A Typical To-Do Debacle

Consider the following case study. On the left is a standard student to-do list. On the right is a standard student schedule. The arrows connect the tasks to when the hypothetical student, running his day off of the list, tackles them:
Schedule Run By To-Do List

The student procrastinates until after dinner when he feels the time is right to get some work done. He sorely underestimates how long his tasks will take. His reading assignment gets split by office hours, and the econ problem set takes him until midnight. In the end, his evening was exhausting and a lot was left unaccomplished.

The Time Blocking Solution

There is a simple addition to your to-do list that solves these problems. The idea is simple: Assign specific times on your schedule for when you want to complete specific tasks. This approach provides a surprising number of immediate benefits:

  1. Starting from your schedule, you are more likely to take advantage of smaller chunks of time open earlier in the day. (Chunks you would have otherwise wasted).
  2. Assigning work to times reduces the urge to procrastinate. You are no longer deciding whether or not to work during a given period; the decision is already made.
  3. You are more likely to fit in urgent small tasks between the bigger time-consuming tasks.
  4. Over time, the technique will increase your ability to predict how much time work really requires — leading you to start things early enough to get them done without late night pain.

Case Study: Time Blocking Cleans Up the Schedule

Here is the same to-do list and schedule as before. This time, however, the student uses time blocking to lay out a reasonable schedule in advance.

Schedule Run By Time Blocking

Notice how much more work gets done and how much earlier. Those five minutes, first thing in the morning, to work out a blocking schedule, provides the student full control over his time landscape.

Weekend Links: Uncover Bias, Write in Phases, and Converse Solo

December 2nd, 2007 · Be the first to comment

Interesting links from around the web to help you through your weekend Study Hacks withdrawal…

A Productivity-Addled Aggregation of Austere Advice