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Case Study: How Amy Saved Her College Career

Amy’s TaleStudent Studys

I recently received an e-mail from a student I’ll call Amy, who is a sophomore at a well-known university. She began: “I’ve really turned my academic life around and because of this my entire life has improved…”

As I read on, I learned Amy transformed a 3.0 GPA to a 3.7 GPA while improving her social life and decreasing her stress. At the core of her transformation where the tactics of the Straight-A Method and the philosophy of the Zen Valedictorian.

“When I read How to Become a Straight-A Student over the summer I thought it seemed too easy,” she told me.

“However, only a few habit changes totally redirected my life.”

I want to share Amy’s story. It provides an important reminder how surprisingly easy it can be to make that transformation from out of control to a standout.

But enough hype, let’s get to the details…

Scholarship Woes

Amy’s story has a familar start:

“I began college with a major in speech, language, and hearing sciences. I didn’t feel particularly passionate about my major…I chose to live in a huge, mainly freshmen dorm in the middle of campus so I could meet lots of people and be close to my classes.”

We’ve heard this before. A student stumbles into undergraduate life with no clear plan. This, in turn, makes the student vulernable to odd beliefs and disasterous habits.

“I convinced myself that I never needed to study as much as my roommate, who had a premed major, and I always compared my studies to her in terms of difficulty,” Amy recalls.

“If she skipped I class I thought ‘so could I,’ if she studied on Saturday I felt like I didn’t need to because my classes weren’t as hard. ”

This neurosis soon spiralled toward to an unsubstainable work schedule:

“On a typical day I would go, or not go, to class, go right back to my room, hang out till my next class, go to that, hang around some more, meet up with people for dinner, socialize until late, and then maybe I’d take a stab at my work around 1 am.

I hear similar stories all the time. I cannot reiterate this enough: if you enter college adrift, with no sense of why you’re there or how you plan on accomplishing your goals, you will get pushed around by the swirl of uncertainy and activity around you. Some students survive this gale. But many others, like Amy, get manhandled into troubled waters.

Amy earned a 3.08 GPA that fall. The next semester she had pressure to raise her grades to keep her scholarship, but she ended up scoring only a 3.06. She lost the scholarship, and her family had to scramble to pull together the money for her return to campus the next fall.

Something had to change.

Over the summer, Amy began to think seriously about her student life. When she returned she was ready to try a new approach.

Amy’s Comeback

“I came back this fall and got a 3.7,” Amy reports.

“It wasn’t painful at all! I never moved into the library, I partied way more than I did my freshman year, and I was never miserable.”

What fueled Amy’s turnaround? She lists the following strategies as the cause of her new found success (I’ve annotated them with related articles from Study Hacks so you can learn more about applying similar techniques to your own student life):

  • I moved into the furthest dorm from campus. I have to walk 20 minutes to class every day. Because of the length, I usually only take the trip into campus once a day, giving me lots of time to work in between classes.” (see The Quarantine Method)
  • It’s not a very big dorm so I don’t have people knocking on my door all the time when I’m trying to get work done.”
  • I don’t always eat with my friends. I know this is weird, but it’s important! Waiting for a big group of people to all want to eat and then going to eat always turned into a long ordeal for me last year.” (see Eat Alone Twice a Day)
  • I stopped pseudoworking. I make flashcards, practice tests, tables, and charts. I’m constantly testing myself, and you’ll never see staring blankly at a book ‘absorbing’ information again.” (See Pseudo-Work Doesn’t Equal Work and Studying is a Technical Skill)
  • I work hard and play hard. It’s a totally different way for me to operate, but the payoff was great. I never feel guilty when I’m supposed to be having fun.” (See Fixed-Schedule Productivity)
  • I’ve gotten close to my major. My major wasn’t important to me last year, but this year I made sure I knew what I was doing before I got any deeper into my studies. I read journals relating to my field, talked to experts…All of this made me realize that I actually love my major…I would never again say that my studies weren’t as important as someone else’s.” (See Don’t Discuss Your Major with Your Parents)

Amy concludes: “I have so much more confidence. For example, I’m involved with starting a new project in my pre-professional group, and I started an undergraduate research assistant job.”

“Last year I never thought I would be doing stuff like this.”

If your student life is feeling out of control, if you’re regularly studying late into the night and always feeling disorganized, if you feel negative about your abilities: follow Amy’s example. Taking control could be as easy as a few simple changes…

13 thoughts on “Case Study: How Amy Saved Her College Career”

  1. I’ve read your book, but have never managed to actually carry out the advice for any great length of time. That is, more than two days. My motivation to work just burns out or something, and I completely stop working. Great to see that others have actually managed to do it.

  2. I didn’t read the book, but I find a way for myself how I can be succesfull at school. I learned how to plan my work better, and learned to get more sleep, the results are suddenly paying off!
    What a lovely example. Stories like this are so inspirating, it makes you also think about your college life, and what to do and how to do it.


  3. My motivation to work just burns out or something, and I completely stop working.

    You might be suffering from “deep procrastination,” which is caused by a big picture unhappiness with why you’re at college, your major, your future, etc. Search for “Deep Procrasination” on my blog to learn more. I might post some more details on the concept sometime soon…

  4. Thanks for the response! The description in one of your articles sounds just like what I’m experiencing. I’m looking forward to “more details on the concept.”

  5. I cannot reiterate this enough: if you enter college adrift, with no sense of why you’re there or how you plan on accomplishing your goals, you will get pushed around by the swirl of uncertainy and activity around you.

    This is the message that should be drilled into every freshman, not the usual pep talk about making the most of your four years or “the infinite array of possibilities at your disposal.” It’s so easy to gauge the acceptability of your own behavior based on what you perceive to be other people’s behavior and convince yourself that you must be doing relatively okay. But you never know someone else’s story. Maybe he’s failing all his classes. Maybe she’s a night owl who can only study between midnight and 4am. You need to stick to your guns, and to be able to do that you need a level of self-conviction perhaps not often found in 18-year-olds. You need to do some candid soul searching.

    On a different note, a 3.08 GPA is getting manhandled? For me that would be getting away relatively unscathed…But to each his own.

  6. Okay this sounds like the perfect topic to ask a question I’ve been wondering about your method. You say to time block and such to get work done before the evening/night. But how are you supposed to work straight through, even with ten minute breaks, without losing your focus? Isn’t doing a morning work-class-lunch-work-class-work schedule just like doing a marathon work session late at night? I’m just trying to plan out a good schedule that allows me to get work done with maximum intensity.

  7. Hi Cal
    Excellent post. This post is so condensed and comprehensive that even if you post this on your blog every week, we would still take some important lessons out of it every week.

    thanks Great site

  8. On a different note, a 3.08 GPA is getting manhandled? For me that would be getting away relatively unscathed…But to each his own.

    Her work schedule (starting howework at 1 am) was being manhandled. She pulled off a 3.0 because she was smart, her classes were not too hard (yet!), and worked hard, but it was brutal. When she took control of her schedule the higher GPA came easier.

    But how are you supposed to work straight through, even with ten minute breaks, without losing your focus?

    You have to be reasonable with breaks. You might, for example, do an early work push, then go to class, then take a break, then work until lunch, then go to more class, then the gym, then another work push until dinner etc. That is, if there’s enouth classes, meals, and other breaks, it’s not too bad. Some students, of course, have enough classes during the day that scheduling some work later is unavoidable.

  9. Dear Cal Newport,

    I read you book How to be a straight A-student. I already thanked you for its existence in another post, so I won’t reiterate. Considering the Quiz-And Recall Method, I had an environmental geology professor that graciously put a whole practice test at our disposition. Might I use it as my quizz “thing” or should I use the questions I inserted in my notes as a quizz ?

  10. then take a break So should this break be about an hour? That sounds about right.

    Also I got your books and they’re awesome! Straight A fleshes out a lot of your method for me. I will say that reading the textbook in non-technical courses helps me a lot with the big picture and technical explanation. I had a hard time with my AP Chem class only doing practice problems until I read the book AND did practice problems. Reading helps me make connections, see logical progressions and get context and meaning that helps me remember things so now I try to always do it especially the important featured readings.

  11. Dear Cal,
    I’ve read over and over how important a balanced work load is, and I can clearly see it’s benefits. But do you have any suggestions for what to do when a balanced work load isn’t an option?
    I am a junior planning to study abroad my senior year. As a result of this, I have this one unavoidable, terrible term. [Trust me, I looked for a way out of it. Short of giving up my minor or not studying abroad, both of which are very important to me, there’s nothing I can do to make my schedule lighter.] How can I keep from getting bogged down by it all?

  12. Terese-Go to youtube (or Google) and search photoreading. It is an amazing system that has helped me SO much! There are youtube video’s that teach you how to do it step by step. It really is amazing, you’ll never look back!

    Good Luck!


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