How to Win at College

Surprising Secrets for Success from the Country’s Top Students

The only guide to getting ahead once you’ve gotten in—proven strategies for making the most of your college years, based on winning secrets from the country’s most successful students.

What does it take to be a standout student? How can you make the most of your college years—graduate with honors, choose exciting activities, build a head-turning resume, and gain access to the best post-college opportunities? Based on interviews with star students at universities nationwide, from Harvard to the University of Arizona, How to Win at College presents seventy-five simple rules that will rocket you to the top of the class. These college-tested–and often surprising—strategies include:

  • Don’t do all your reading
  • Drop classes every term
  • Become a club president
  • Care about your grades, ignore your GPA
  • Never pull an all-nighter
  • Take three days to write a paper
  • Always be working on a “grand project”
  • Do one thing better than anyone else you know

Proving that success has little to do with being a genius workaholic, and everything to do with having the right gameplan, How to Win at College is the must-have guide for making the most of these four important years—and getting an edge on life after graduation.


Winner – 2006 New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age


“Smart and sensitive advice.”
—Jay Matthews, The Washington Post

“This deliberately provocative book is a good way for a smart student to see how out-of-the-box thinking can lead to success in college.”
—Kimberly Marlow Harnett, The Seattle Times

“Clear, concise and organized information that every soon-to-be or present college student should read and use . . . an excellent choice for your college-bound teen.”
—Denise Witmer, Guide for Parenting of Adolescents

“Every college student, and every parent of a college student, must buy this book!”
—Jeffrey J. Fox, author of How to Become CEO

Book Information

How to Win at College: Surprising Secrets for Success from the Country’s Top Students
By Cal Newport
Trade Paperback, 208 pages (ISBN: 978-0767917872)
E-Book (ISBN: 978-0767920223)
Published by: Three Rivers Press, Random House
Publication Date: April 12, 2005


1. Don’t Do All Your Reading

You will be assigned a lot of reading at college. Probably more reading than seems humanly possible for any one person to complete. Social science and humanities courses will taunt you with seemingly short academic articles that turn out to be riddled with Byzantine sentence structures and devilishly complicated logic. Science courses will siphon your time, and help you develop a lifelong hatred of bar charts, with a steady stream of ultradense technical material. And just to keep things sporting, professors will periodically slip entire books into the syllabus, often giving you only a week or so to finish them. Sound bleak? It doesn’t have to be. All you need remember is one simple rule: Don’t do all of your reading.

To a hardworking student, ignoring assigned reading probably seems blasphemous. But as unusual as this may sound at first, covering every page of reading listed in a course syllabus is rarely necessary. Here is what you should do instead:

For reading that covers the topic of an upcoming lecture, it’s often sufficient to just skim the main points ahead of time, and then fill in the gaps during class by taking very good notes. Students are sometimes afraid of skimming, but you shouldn’t be. You need to master the skill of covering hundreds of pages of text very quickly. The secret is to read chapter introductions and conclusions carefully, and then skim everything else. Make tick marks next to sentences that catch your attentionthis is faster than highlighting. Don’t get bogged down trying to understand the significance of every paragraph. Instead, note only the passages that seem to obviously support the thesis. You will definitely miss some key points, but your professor won’t. So pay attention in class when the work is discussed, and you will pick up the arguments that you overlooked. Come exam time, your lecture notes, plus a review of the sentences you marked, will bring you up to speed on the material.

If there is a particular assignment that was not covered in class, but you know that it will be part of an upcoming exam, skim over it more carefully. If you still feel shaky on the topic, go to office hours. Discuss with your professor the conclusions of the reading. Take good notes. This combination of careful skimming and a good record of the professor’s thoughts on what’s important is a very effective way to prepare material for testing.

When multiple books are assigned as background for a paper, find out early exactly what your paper topic will be, and read only the material you need to develop your specific thesis. Skip optional readings. With all due respect to your professors, there are better uses for your limited time.

For science courses, you will typically be assigned one or two chapters of dense technical material to review for each class. These assignments almost always cover the exact same topics that the professor will detail in lecture. Skim these chapters quickly so you know what to expect, but put the bulk of your energy into concentrating in class. Sciences courses don’t test you on your reading. They test you on the concepts taught in the classroom. Your goal as a science student should be to come away from each lecture understanding what was covered, and feel comfortable about applying it. If you find yourself falling behind the professor’s chalkboard heroics, ramp up the amount of preparatory reading you are doing until you are able to comfortably follow along. In general, reading in science courses should consume very little of your time. Put your attention where it matters: class lectures and homework problems.

This approach to completing class work is admittedly an acquired skill. At first you should err on the side of caution, doing as much reading as possible. But as you gain a feel for your professors, and the structure of your courses, you can begin to back off on your assigned reading until you find that perfect balance between being prepared and being efficient. If you have ever wondered how top students can accomplish so much work in such limited amounts of time, this rule is a large part of the answer.

2. Create a Study Ritual

For an ambitious college student, Sunday is the most important day of the week. Even though it’s tempting on a Sunday morning to just curl up on your couch and become intimately reacquainted with your old friend the TV, you really must resist. Why? Because Sunday sets the tone for the week that follows.

This is absolutely true. If you attack the day on Sunday, you will start your week with momentum behind you. If you let the day attack you, your week will quickly devolve into one protracted game of catch-up. So how do you overcome the allure of lounging and make your Sundays count? The secret is to engage in the same focusing ritual every Sunday morningsomething that wakes up your mind and gets your day moving. Read the paper with a strong cup of coffee, take a walk with a friend, go for a jog followed by a hot shower, or spend some time browsing in a nearby bookstore. Then, with your intellectual energy piqued, and your focus strong, settle into a quiet spot at the library and start working. While other students slumber, you will have a full, undisturbed day to get ahead of your work obligations.

This weekend ritual will also help you make that vital mental switch from weekend debauchery to workweek focus. When you party straight through the weekend until Sunday night, Monday morning is all the more depressing. The satisfaction you’ll get from starting the week in full command of your responsibilities will provide the good mood and momentum needed to get through the days that follow. If you take control of your Sunday, you take control of your week.

3. Drop Classes Every Semester

If you are a collegiate superman, then bad courses are your kryptonite. You should never underestimate the importance of picking a winning schedule every single semester. Good courses, with engaging professors and reasonable requirements, are the key to a great educational experience. Bad courses, with incompatible professors and unreasonable requirements, are the key to developing an ulcer. You must avoid bad courses at all costs. They will make you unhappy, they will upset your academic momentum, they will sap your will to achieve, and they will hurt your grades.

So how do you keep your schedule solid one hundred percent of the time? Take advantage of the fact that most colleges allow students to drop, or withdraw without penalty, from any class as long as they do so by a certain deadline each semester. You don’t have to pay for dropped classes, and they are never recorded on your transcript. Use this system to your advantage. At the beginning of every term, sign up for one or two extra courses, and then after the first week drop your least favorite(s).

During that first week, when you are deciding which courses to stick with, make note of the professors’ teaching styles, review the syllabi carefully, and skim through the required books at the bookstore. If you are still undecided about whether to drop a specific course, stop by the professor’s office hours and have a conversation about the schedule, the workload, and his or her teaching philosophy. See if you can track down other students who have taken this class with this professor. Find out what they think.

This approach might lead to more work for you during the first week of each semester, but remember, one hard week is always better than sixteen. And there is nothing more painful than working like a dog for a class that fails to interest you. Dropping courses every term is like an insurance policy against academic unhappiness.

Take advantage of this opportunity.

4. Start Longterm Projects the Day they are Assigned

College students dread long-term projects. Why? Because we are really, really bad at them. This is true. At this very moment, at college campuses across the country, students are convincing themselves that just because it’s possible to complete long-term projects in one frenzied night of panicked work, they should follow such a plan. You don’t have to be one of these people.

The lure of procrastination is powerful, but you can conquer it by employing one very simple technique: When assigned a long-term project, finish some amount of work toward its completion that very same day. This doesn’t have to be a major chunk of work. Thirty minutes is enough. Do something simple: jot down a research schedule on your calendar; sketch out an outline; check out and skim the introduction of several relevant books; write a series of potential thesis statements. This is all it takes.

Once you have accomplished something, no matter how small, you realize that starting your project early is not actually all that bad. In fact, it feels good. You are a step ahead of your entire class, and it was easy to do. This sensation is powerful. Believe it or not, it actually makes you look forward to completing more and more work ahead of schedule, until, before you know it, you’ll be finished–and it won’t be four forty-three A.M. the morning the project is due.

Of course, this approach is not a miracle cure for completing long-term projects on time. Big college assignments are still really, really hard, and you’ll still need to work diligently in order to complete them (see Rule #52, Keep a Work-Progress Journal, for more help on this subject). However, for whatever psychological reason, doing some work the day a project is assigned seems to have a near-miraculous effect on reducing the tendency to delay. So give this rule a try. There is no reason to let long-term projects force you to scramble like a maniac at the last minute. Start small and start immediately.

5. Make Your Bed

It turns out that mom was right; you need to make your bed every morning, preferably immediately after you wake up. Make this an unbreakable habit, like brushing your teeth. But that’s not all. You should also never leave clothes lying around your room—put them in a hamper or in your drawers after you change. Put books on the shelves where they belong, and when you are done with papers and notebooks, put them away in your desk. Empty your garbage basket daily.

These are the basic conditions for keeping a clean and organized dorm room, and they are essential. How could something as simple as making your bed have a dramatic impact on your college success? Because a clean room creates a focused mind; a messy room creates a distracted mind. You want a focused mind. The more focused you are, the more effectively you can handle the challenges of being a student. When you are tripping over discarded pizza boxes, sniffing random piles of clothing to find a clean pair of socks, and constantly searching under furniture and behind appliances to find that book you need, it’s really hard to get energized. Imagine that you have a paper to write. In which instance would it be easier to get started: living in a war zone of a room where your desk is best identified as the boxlike shape under that pile of laundry and discarded Twinkie wrappers, or, alternatively, living in a clean, orderly environment with a clear desk and the resources you need readily at your disposal?

Of course, there is also the possibility of getting stuck with the dreaded messy roommate. In this instance, there is probably not much you can do to change his or her behavior. Trust me, thousands before you have tried. However, this doesn’t get you off the hook. Keep your side of the room clean, and take responsibility
for the general actions, like emptying wastebaskets, vacuuming, and periodically dusting. This may not sound fair, but it’s a small price to pay to win at college.

If you cannot maintain an organized room you will never truly feel that your life is organized. By keeping your living space in order there will be fewer distractions, and you will feel in control of your environment. These traits are absolutely necessary to support ambitious achievement. It hurts, I know. But it is important to keep your room clean. And it will make your mother happy.

6. Apply to Ten Scholarships a Year

One of the most striking elements of a standout student’s résumé is typically the awards and honors section. It’s hard not to be impressed when you see scholarship after scholarship piled on top of one another into an inferiority complex-inducing avalanche of accolades. Here is the secret that your neighborhood Rhodes Scholar doesn’t want you to know: Any student can create an impressively large list of awards. The key is to stop thinking of scholarships and awards as gifts handed down from above to only the most deserving students. The reality is that many scholarships and awards are actually handed down from an overworked, uninterested administrator who was assigned the unfortunate task of choosing a winner from the depressingly small pool of students who actually bothered to apply correctly. Therefore, for a lot of small awards, if you take the time to apply, and demonstrate diligent effort in your application, your odds of winning are quite good. Take advantage of this situation!

Here is what you should do: Contact your dean’s office, Career Services Center, and departments relating to your field of study. Ask them for information on scholarships, fellowships, and awards. Also, use Web-based services such as FastWeb ( and FinAid! ( to search for additional national scholarships for which you are eligible. Talk to the companies where your parents, aunts, uncles, and siblings work; find out if they offer any student scholarships. And finally, look for scholarships from companies or organizations in any industry of interest to you. From this large hit list, choose up to ten scholarships that best fit your abilities, passions, and accomplishments. Mark the deadlines on your calendar and apply to every single one of them when the time is right. Do this every year.

While this aggressive approach may force you to sacrifice some hours, by the time you graduate you will have amassed a head-turning list of honors. Think about it. For every ten wellselected scholarships and awards you apply for, you probably have a good shot at winning at least one, and maybe even two or three. And of course, the more scholarships you win, the better your odds on future applications. This means that after four years you can approach the job market (or grad school admissions committees) with quite a few honors listed on your résumé. This is unusual, this is impressive, and it is a great way to gain access to elite opportunities.