How to Be Successful at School

From Jacobs's and Hyman's book "The Secrets of College Success"

In their book, The Secrets of College Success, Lynn F. Jacobs and Jeremy S. Hyman share tips on how to be successful in school. We chose our favorites to share with you from "The 14 Habits of Top College Students."

Jacobs is professor of Art History at the University of Arkansas and taught at Vanderbilt, Cal State, Redlands, and NYU.

Hyman is founder and chief Architect of Professors' Guide projects. He has taught at UA, UCLA, MIT, and Princeton.

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Have a Schedule

Close up of female writing in planner
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Having a schedule seems like a pretty basic organization skill, but it's amazing how many students don't exhibit the self-discipline they should have to be successful. It might have something to do with the proliferation of instant gratification. I don't know. Regardless of the cause, top students have self-discipline.

They also have a great date book, and every single deadline, appointment, class time, and test is in it.

Jacobs and Hyman suggest that having a bird's eye view of the entire semester helps students stay balanced and avoid surprises. They also report that top students divide up the tasks on their schedule, studying for tests over a period of weeks rather than in one crash sitting.

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Hang Out with Smart Friends

Adult students studying together in library
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I really love this one, and it's something you don't usually see in books. Peer pressure is incredibly powerful. If you're hanging with people who don't support your desire to be successful in school, you're swimming upstream. You don't have dump these friends necessarily, but you do have to limit your exposure to them during the school year.

Hang with friends who have goals similar to yours, and watch your spirit soar and your grades go up, up, up.

Even better, study with them. Study groups can be extremely helpful.​

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Challenge Yourself

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It's amazing what we can accomplish when we think big. Most people have no idea how powerful their minds really are, and most of us don't accomplish anything near what we're capable of.

Michelangelo said, "The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark."

Challenge yourself, and I'm pretty sure you'll be surprised.

Jacobs and Hyman encourage students to think actively when they read, to participate fully in class, to "pounce on questions" when taking tests and answer them "directly and fully."

They advise that one thing that's always a hit with professors is looking for deeper levels of meaning and "nuanced points" when writing papers.

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Be Open to Feedback

Instructor in computer class helping a student
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This is another tip I rarely see in print. It's so easy to become defensive when confronted with feedback. Realize that feedback is a gift, and guard against defensiveness.

When you look at feedback as information, you can grow from the ideas that make sense to you and discard ideas that don't. When the feedback is from a professor, take a good hard look at it. You're paying him or her to teach you. Trust that the information has value, even if it takes a few days for it to seep in.

Jacobs and Hyman say the best students study the comments on their papers and exams, and review any mistakes they made, learning from them. And they review those comments while writing the next assignment. That's how we learn.

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Ask When You Don't Understand

student raising hand
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This sounds simple, yes? It isn't always. There are lots of things that can keep us from raising our hand or getting in line after class to say we don't understand something. It's that good old fear of embarrassment, of looking stupid.

The thing is, you're in school to learn. If you knew everything about the topic you're studying, you wouldn't be there. The best students ask questions.

In fact, Tony Wagner maintains in his book, "The Global Achievement Gap," that it's far more important to know how to ask the right questions than to know the right answers. That's more profound than it might sound. Think about it, and start asking questions.

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Look Out for Number One

woman working at laptop with a child next to her
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Adult students are more susceptible than anyone else at putting their own needs aside for everyone else's. The kids need something for a school project. Your partner is feeling neglected. Your boss expects you to stay late for a special meeting.

You must learn to say no and put your education first. Well, maybe your kids should come first, but not every little demand has to be met immediately. School is your job, Jacobs and Hyman remind students. If you want to be successful, it must be a priority.

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Keep Yourself in Top Shape

Running free in the countryside
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When you're already balancing work, life, and classes, staying in shape can be the first thing that gets thrown out the window. The things is, you'll balance all of the parts of your life better when you eat right and exercise.

Jacobs and Hyman say, "successful students manage their physical and emotional needs as carefully as they do their academic needs."

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Have a Goal and a Plan

Graduate Kissing Son
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Why did you go back to school? To get that degree you've dreamed of for years? To get a promotion at work? To learn something you've always found fascinating? Because your dad always wanted you to be a...?

"The best students know why they're in college and what they need to do to achieve their goals," say Jacobs and Hyman.

We can help. See How to Write a SMAART Goal. People who write down their goals in a specific way achieve more of them than people who let their goals float around in their heads.