Some people think getting a 1st or distinction is all slog, IQ and luck. Secret is, it’s not. Here are 10 tips you can implement to get that top grade.
1. Play to Your Strengths When Picking Your Degree and Modules
‘The only way to do great work is to love what you do.’ – Steve Jobs
If you want to get a 1st or a distinction, it all starts here.
If you’re excited by what you’re learning, you are more likely to be able to dig deep and dig deep for longer when the going gets tough.
You’ll also be more interested in coming up with own ideas and incorporating them into your work: one of the best ways to climb towards top marks.
Having said that, you also need to consider if you are better at exams or coursework. Before selecting a module or even a degree programme, take note of the ratio of exams to coursework. If you are better at exams, select exam-heavy modules and vice versa.
2. Attend Lectures and Ask Questions
You will be tempted to skip lectures, especially if they are recorded. But this is a bad habit, especially if you have a tendency to procrastinate and thereby end up with a long backlog of lectures to catch up on.
Not to mention, if you’re not physically present in lectures, you won’t reap the benefits of being able to ask questions there-and-then.
’The only stupid question is the question that is never asked.’ – Ramon Bautista
If your attention starts to fade during a lecture, force yourself to ask the lecturer a question. Something relevant, of course. Doing this will not only force you to figure out what they’ve been talking about for the past 10 minutes, but also to reset your focus for the remainder of the lecture.
3. Run Marathons, not 100m Sprints
‘It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.’ – Albert Einstein
Who hasn’t done an all-nighter and crammed for a test the night before? Even though it’s probably worked great in the past, to keep it up at degree level can be exhausting. It’s also risky if your goal is to get top grades consistently.
My advice is to develop the following habits:
- Complete recommended pre-reading before lectures;
- Make written notes during lectures, focusing most on extracting key points (research has shown that writing notes by hand helps you remember information better than when you take notes on a computer,1);
- Post-lecture, glance back through your notes and make flashcards (see Tip #4);
- Start an assignment within a few days of it being set.
4. Use Electronic Flashcards
Unless you have superhuman memory, you shouldn’t rely solely on reading notes and re-watching lectures to ace your exams. Instead, use flashcards to commit key information to memory.
Most people immediately think of little pieces of cardboard when I mention “flashcards”. Less people think of electronic flashcard apps such as Anki and Quizlet. They are amazing study tools.
The major benefit of these apps over traditional flashcards is that they utilise spaced repetition: they test your recall at increasingly longer intervals each time you remember a flashcard correctly. In turn, they capitalise on the brain’s most effective way of committing information to memory.
Ideally, you should make flashcards from day one of lectures and review them regularly, say fortnightly. By doing so, by the time the exam period rolls around, you will have comprehensive flashcard decks ready to use in your revision. You’ll also already have much information stored in your long-term memory.
5. Ask For Help From Lecturers, Personal Tutors, Supervisors and PhD Students
‘I not only use all the brains that I have, but all that I can borrow.’ – Woodrow Wilson
It’s not surprising that lecturers, personal tutors, supervisors and PhD students are rich wells of advice, tips and knowledge. They’re the ones marking your work after all! What is surprising, however, is how few people ask them for advice outside of the formal feedback channels.
Granted, the reality is that while we feel we should be able to ask university staff for help at all times, sometimes they are too busy, or simply unhelpful or disinterested. If you’ve had this experience, just like I have, don’t let it deter you however because some academics are really keen to help. You just have to find them.
When you’re seeking advice and feedback, decent people skills will come in handy too. If you’re polite and nice about asking for help, busy academics will be more likely to find time in their schedules to help you.
6. Study With Friends and Ask For Their Advice
‘Encourage, lift and strengthen one another.’ – Deborah Day
One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to adopt the “lone ranger” mentality.
I did this during my first degree. I was proud when I tackled academic work completely on my own. I seldom asked for help. “I can handle it,” I’d say to myself. Yet, if I had just asked for help once in a while from coursemates and friends, I probably would have had a less stressful time and boosted my grades too.
Asking a friend how they approached a particular question, whether they’ve come across any good references or to explain a concept to you that you’re really stuck on, and similar asks, are not the same as asking them to do the work for you or copying them word for word.
So, as long as you’re not doing the latter, ask away for help. Guilt-free.
7. Find Your Best Study Space
‘Clear clutter – make space for you.’ – Magdelena Vandenberg
When I say “best” I mean a study space that helps you work at your optimum. Having such a place to work can be indispensable.
Some people swear by the silence of libraries, others, the slight buzz of cafés and some prefer the convenience of their own homes.
Regardless of where you prefer to study, here are some tips on optimising your work space:
- Be minimalistic i.e. only have the items out that you will be using to study in that particular session;
- Keep it organised and neat;
- Keep all the items you might use for studying but aren’t sure you will necessarily need in your bag or desk draws.
8. Discover Your Triggers to Enter ‘Flow’ States
‘A man is not idle because he is absorbed in thought. There is visible labor and there is invisible labor.’ ― Victor Hugo
You’re in a ‘flow state’ when you’re completely absorbed by what you’re doing.
Your phone rings, you barely notice. Your flatmate asks if you want to share a takeaway, you barely hear them. Your girlfriend/boyfriend texts you saying they’ve won the lottery… Well, okay, you’d probably break out of a flow state in such an extreme case but you get the idea.
Flow states are the key to producing great work efficiently, so you want to learn how to intentionally enter them regularly.
You may have heard that getting up early is the answer to maximum productivity. But this is misguided advice.
While some people will benefit greatly from getting up earlier, others will find that no matter what they do, they work much better at night; their brain has the intellectual capacity of sludge in the morning. Research has found genes that may be responsible for this phenomenon.2,3The moral of the science is, you need to determine if you are a morning person or a night owl. Then, plan around your strengths and either work on getting up earlier, or embrace working into the early hours in order to maximise your chances of entering flow states.
Here’s a seven step plan for entering flow states that I encourage you to tweak to your personal preference:
- In your best study space (see Tip #7), place only the items you’ll need for that study session. Have any backup items in desk draws or your bag.
- Place some (ideally healthy) snacks and water also in your study space (see Tip #9).
- Sit down in a very comfortable chair (you’re going to be sat here for potentially hours).
- Minimise distractions: turn off your phone, turn off notifications on your computer or tablet and put on a pair of noise-cancelling ear phones.
- Press ‘play’ on a playlist of music you enjoy listening to whilst studying. (I personally love lo-fi hip-hop/chillhop!)
- Push through the psychological resistance barrier / temptation to procrastinate. To help, set a timer for 15 minutes and promise yourself to study for at least these 15 minutes. You’ll likely find that once these 15 minutes are up, you can keep going anyway. If not, no worries, no point beating yourself up. Just try again after a 10 minute break.
- Work! Work! Work!
9. Eat and Drink Healthily, and Exercise!
“A man too busy to take care of his health is like a mechanic too busy to take care of his tools.” – Spanish Proverb
When you are living a healthy lifestyle, your focus becomes far sharper, and your energy levels rise far higher. In my personal experience, headaches and lethargy also disappear.
Research has shown exercise to have various benefits on cognition, including: increased blood circulation in the brain, neurone formation, blood vessel formation and protection against age-related cognitive decline.4Healthy eating will provide the brain (and rest of the body) with the nutrients to perform more optimally. A relationship between food, drink and cognitive benefits has been indicated by various studies.5,6In order to reap the benefits of healthy living, you must make healthy living habits sustainable.
Exactly how you can achieve this will be very personal to you. What I mean by this is, my ways of being as healthy as possible despite academic and financial pressures will not be the same as yours, because we are different people with different priorities, likes and lifestyles.
Nonetheless, if in doubt, I recommend starting off by eating far more vegetables, especially green vegetables, and far fewer processed foods (e.g. fast food, most takeaways, burgers, sweets). Try drinking a bit more water too.
Also, find a physical activity you like. You could join a university sports team, try the university gym, download a yoga app or begin jogging or cycling to and from campus.
10. Get a Private Tutor
‘A lot of people have gone further than they thought they could because someone else thought they could.’ – Anonymous
It is well known that freelance private tutors have helped to save many GCSE, IB and A level students’ grades. However, many university students are unaware that degree-level private tutors also exist, even for master’s level.
Private tutors are fantastic additional support when you hit a rough patch.
You might seek a private tutor if the support offered by the university isn’t meeting your needs. Also, if there’s a particular part of the course where you’re very out of your depth – for any number of reasons.
The best thing about private tutors is that they can break concepts down into small chunks which your lecturer might have spent only 1 minute explaining. What exactly you go through together is entirely under your control.
They can also increase your confidence by drawing understanding, knowledge and original insights out of you that have been sat there all along but were hidden behind a cloak of confusion.
Private tutoring can be a significant investment, even for a 1-hour lesson. So, despite its enormous benefits, my advice is to check you haven’t asked for help in all the possible places at your university first.
Here at Hippocrates Tutors we offer private tutoring at higher education level. Drop us a message or give us a call to make an enquiry.
You’ve got this! Good luck.
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