You may think that getting great grades is a matter of pedigree: Your Father is a Senator and your Mother is a Corporate Attorney. While that may be true for someone in particular, nothing could be further from the truth as far as a general rule. Getting great grades is a matter of strategy and time management regardless of family background.
No one in my family got straight As. My beautiful family comes from a working class and middle class background and both sides are immigrants (Samoan and Cuban and Northern European). Lastly, I was raised by my Mother and Step-Father as opposed to both biological parents.
I, however, worked diligently to make it happen, ultimately graduating with a 4.3 gpa in high school (public school in CA). I didn’t earn anything other than an A until I got to college (UCLA) — then I got Bs here and there.
Here is my recommended strategy for trying to earn the highest grades you possibly can throughout your academic career that worked for me:
- Read widely. Of course we all know people who earn the highest marks in their classes without having read too much outside of their regular schoolwork, yet most people who do succeed as >4.0 students tend to be avid readers. Not only does reading help you expand your imagination and ability to learn things faster, but it also slows you down so that you can intensely focus and ultimately grapple with the challenges of everyday homework, quizzes, exams, etc. in your various classes. I read a lot of fiction growing up. Some non-fiction as well. My Mother bought me The Illustrated Classics when I was getting into chapter books. Any book that is a Caldecott Award Winner or a Newbery Award Winner is a good book for young learners. Books about space, animals, and anything else interesting for a young learner should be explored. My Mother also bought us Childcraft books growing up; these books are great for reinforcing a love of learning about the world in general.
- Use non-digital learning tools. Encyclopedias (to go along with Wikipedia.org) may be ideal to have in a living room bookshelf while a dictionary and thesaurus can also be ideal as tactile, non-digital learning tools. While you will obviously be using digital screens a lot throughout your entire life, it’s decidedly important that as a young person, you don’t eagerly jump head-first into the world of screens. Rather, try to learn from books instead of PDFs as much as possible when you’re young.
- Have bookcase/s in your room, not a TV. Surround yourself with tools and resources that will help you achieve your objectives, not hinder you. Hence, you ought to have a bookcase or two in your bedroom with books in them and you should try not to have a tv. You will already probably have a computer and/or laptop and/or cell phone in your room so it’s better that you don’t add more learning and study challenges to the fray by adding another large screen.
- Drilled repetition works. Drilled repetition works. Therefore, I recommend using index cards or Quizlet and drill yourself daily even if it’s just ~10 minutes or so per academic class. If you keep getting the answer right for a specific card, then perhaps take it out of your stack on the weekends and just study the material that is more challenging to you. Make sure that you structure your index cards (or Quizlet cards) so that you can make a guess and then flip over the card to double-check and see if you were indeed correct or not.
- Do all your homework. This probably goes without saying, but you ought to do 100% of your homework if you want to earn the highest marks in school. Show your work, line everything up vertically (in your Math homework), and circle or box your final answer for each problem. Don’t forget to include the units in your Math or Science answers. This way, your teacher will see you as a solid student and not as a miscreant or someone who may not care much for his/her grade in class. Remember that each time you turn something in, you are communicating directly with your teacher; hence, you want your teacher to think of you as a highly-motivated and conscientious student who cares tremendously about his/her grade.
- Study for all quizzes/exams. Unless it’s a pop quiz, you should study for all your academic assessments. This includes your index card drilled repetition study sessions, yet also should include going over as much of your homework as you can (just the homework that the quiz or exam will cover). Remember when I mentioned that you ought to show your work and circle your answers on all your homework? Well, here is another instance where it’ll come in handy because it’s so much easier to study from notes whereby the student showed his/her work and circled or boxed the answers. The Pomodoro Technique is invaluable for both homework and studying; hence, you should study for 25-30 minutes then take a break for 5 minutes. These small breaks can be used to grab an apple, scroll social media, go say hi to loved ones, or even to clean your room — or anything else for that matter. Make sure that you maintain discipline if you truly, madly, deeply want to earn straight As — or perfect grades — in your classes all throughout elementary school, middle school, and high school (or wherever you’re starting this goal from).
- Try to study in silence. While this may be challenging if your social media notifications are always turned on (if you have social media) or your house is always buzzing with activity, I highly recommend that you find a place and time to study in silence. If your house is loud and your family can’t or won’t make concessions for you, then you may wish to study in the early mornings and/or at a local library. You may be studying for long blocks at a time so make sure that you can create a stress-free, silent environment. If you do decide to listen to music, I highly recommend that the music NOT feature lyrics in it so that you can truly comprehend and recall whatever you’re reading and/or learning about.
- Hire a tutoring firm (if possible). If it’s possible, hire a tutoring company. While I was never given the opportunity to work with a private tutor when growing up (and I never brought it up as an option), I am confident that I would have scored even higher on my SAT exam and it may have been a transformational experience for me as well. A quality tutor is worth his/her weight in gold and it should be considered if one wants to take a challenging course (e.g. Honors, AP, IB, etc.) or if he/she is prepping for the ACT, the SAT, or any other rigorous standardized test. Although grades are paramount for college admission, scholarships, and grants, etc., standardized test scores can also help a student garner admission to more prestigious schools and programs if those scores are highly competitive compared to the rest of the student population.
- Use a calendar. You need a calendar to manage your study time. This may be Google Calendar on your cell phone or it may be a smaller daily planner that you may get issued from your school or that your parent/guardian buys for you at the beginning of each school year. I can’t impress upon you how important this one is; you also need to be realistic about how much time each academic course will take you to study on average each night (or to do regular homework).
- Study ~4 hours per day (on average). This is the one that makes some students NOT want to try to earn the highest marks in his/her classes: the amount of time of study and/or homework undertaken each day it will take the average student to earn straight As. Oftentimes my twin brother and I would run down to the park to play basketball right after school for ~2 hours most weekdays during the school year. We would walk home, then eat dinner and do homework until bedtime at 9:30. How much time does each academic course take to study for each night? Most students have 5 academic courses most years: Math, Science, History, English, and a foreign language. If it takes on average 45 minutes to study and/or do homework for each academic course, that’s 45*5 minutes, or 225 minutes which is 3.75 hours. Math will probably be 1 hour per day on average since it takes careful and dedicated focus to truly mastering Math; hence, you will hit 4 hours of daily study and/or homework time with this general schedule.
- Don’t waste weekends. Of course any young person’s schedule won’t always be perfect throughout the week and allow for 4 hours of study per day. This is where weekends come into play. Why do some athletes like Kobe Bryant win so many championship rings and/or break so many records while many other top competitors in the same sport don’t? A lot of times it boils down to daily work ethic and intense focus on your craft. You’ve got to treat this experience of being a young student like you’re an athlete who is trying to perform at the highest levels. Could you have a challenging home life? Of course. Many of us do (or did). Can you still garner all As? Yes. We have all read inspiring stories of a student who earned all As while being homeless for much of his/her childhood, for example. Weekends ought to be seen as the opportunity and privilege of being able to study more, learn more, read more, and devote more to one’s craft of scholarship and academic success. Some weekends you’ll finish that History or English essay you’ve been working on. Other weekends you’ll study for that mid-term on Monday. And still other weekends you’ll do a bit of everything. Will some weekends have you studying for 6-hour marathons both Saturday and Sunday? Yes. Will other weekends have you staying up late on Sunday after an 8-hour study marathon? Probably, if you want to earn all As. That’s the sacrifice needed to pull this exercise off. If you can steal time on the weekends while still being able to spend time with your loved ones, friends, or even spending time alone doing something else non-academic that you love doing.
- Student-Athletes should study on the bus (if possible). It’s very challenging to study on the bus, but if you can do it, you should. This takes even more discipline because there is a lot of horseplay on the bus sometimes, yet your ability to focus especially on a long road trip for a tournament or to play your school’s nemesis, for example, can be tested during these outings and can allow you to get those all-important 3 or 4 hours of study time in on that day even if you’re an athlete traveling to another school. Lastly, you probably won’t be studying while you’re watching the Varsity or Junior-Varsity team play, yet you should probably try to make bus study something that is a mainstay for your schedule if you want to — as a student-athlete — garner all As in your academic courses throughout middle school and high school.
- Your attitude determines your altitude. Having a joy of learning and a curious nature with regards to the acquisition of knowledge cannot be understated for a young person. You are well-equipped for rigor and challenge at these ages; hence, these are the days, weeks, months, and years when you must tackle your courses with aplomb — and tackle reading, learning, and scholarship with aplomb.
- Details count. Always write your full name on each assignment, your teacher’s name, the date, and the period number. Use capital letters and punctuation at the end of each sentence (even in Math class). Be thorough and specific. Try to write neatly (though I’ve never written neatly myself — yet I always tried). Always proofread multiple times, especially each essay you turn in though you should also proofread your homework as well for each class. Invariably, you will find errors — even cosmetic ones — which shows your teacher that you really want an A, not a B, in his/her class. Lastly, make your homework and/or assessments presentable (so staple the pages if it’s an essay, etc.) and don’t plagiarize.
- It doesn’t matter where you sit in class, but take notes and focus. It doesn’t matter where you sit in the classroom, yet if possible, you should try to sit in the front third of the class. If you’re a good student, an A-student, everyone (including your teacher) knows it or will know it soon enough. Just make sure that you listen and take notes in class. You can use those notes when you study or when you write papers, etc.
- Know your syllabus. Lastly, you should try to get to know your syllabus for each class at the beginning of the course or semester, etc. If you have a teacher who offers 10% of the final grade for participation, then you should raise your hand at least a few times a week to get full points. If you have a teacher who makes homework worth 20% of the grade’s points while assessments (quizzes and exams) are worth 80% of the grade’s points, then you should study more diligently and strategically for his/her in-class assessments while also turning in every assignment since you won’t be getting participation points in this class.
- Take rigorous courses. Don’t be afraid of rigorous courses. Studies show that taking a more rigorous course-load will help your brain develop even stronger than if you were in a class to try to get an easy A. Also, if you don’t want to be bullied, generally the better students are too busy trying to get great grades to bully others. (And of course don’t be bully yourself! This is terribly uncouth and should never be considered especially if one wants to get great grades.)
Lastly, I believe that if you start early enough as a reader and a learner, anyone can build up his/her academic acumen enough to garner all As (or at the very least all As and a few Bs here and there). The single solitary thought that aided me in my goal since I was a wee lad of about ~5 was:
“Every single minute that I read, study, and learn will help my life a hundredfold in the future.”
If you can keep this thought permanently glued to your mind, you too can garner straight-As on those report cards. Seeing those straight lines that make up each A all the way down those report cards is an exhilarating experience each semester. Indeed, if you follow my recipe, I believe that you will have an excellent opportunity to achieve this in your academic journey.