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The Grade Whisperer: Alice Escapes Her Academic Hell

The Grade Whisperer is an occasional feature in which I use the Study Hacks philosophy of do less, do better, and know why, to help students overcome their academic problems.

Academic HellAdvice

Last December, I received an urgent e-mail from a reader whom I’ll call Alice. At the time, she was halfway through her sophomore year at one of the country’s best known public universities.

“I definitely need advice about switching to a zen valedictorian lifestyle,” she began.

As the e-mail continued, I learned that Alice had entered college as a pre-med major because, in her words: “I considered it a ‘difficult,’ technical major and thought it would be a safe option.”

As Study Hacks readers know, such a poor justification for your major is a recipe for deep procrastination. Sure enough, Alice was soon struggling. To compensate, she decided to switch majors. This time she chose a double concentration in business administration and economics — once again driven by her quest for something that was “difficult” and “safe.”

Not surprisingly, she fared no better with this new direction. By the first semester of her sophomore year, life became grim.

“I would go to the main library on campus and find myself unable to focus,” she recalled. “I would read passively for about 2 hours, check Facebook numerous times, check my cellphone for text messages, or stare at a study guide until I thought I ‘knew it’. ”

“Everything was basically going downhill.”

Alice eventually fell “far, far behind” in her classes.

“I was taking 17 units and felt like I was in academic hell,” she recalls.

Eventually, things got so bad that Alice had to withdraw for the remainder of the semester. When she wrote me, a few weeks before the new semester began, she was worried about her impending return. She didn’t want to repeat her past mistakes.

My Advice to Alice

I didn’t want to overwhelm Alice, so I extracted from the Study Hacks philosophy a few simple suggestions

  1. Choose a major you really like. There’s no such thing as a “safe” major. You’re always better off sparkling in a major you love than forcing yourself through an econ major because it impresses your dad.
  2. Choose courses you really like. Keep a normal to light course load, and use the abundant free time this generates to kick ass (i.e., become an A* student).
  3. Limit your extracurriculars to one or two things. Make them things you love. Focus on them exclusively for the remainder of your time at college.
  4. Use efficient, tested study strategies. Refuse to simply “work” until you feel done.

“Thank you so much for your advice,” she responded. “I can’t wait to implement it.”

A couple weeks ago, near the end of her first semester back on campus, Alice wrote me to report on how things had gone…

Alice’s Turnaround

Returning to campus this past winter, Alice tackled her deep procrastination head on. Her first step was to drop her hated business and economics major. She replaced it, instead, with something chosen purely for its intrinsic interest: a double-major in political economy and political science.

(I would have preferred a single major, but at least these two majors are highly correlated and therefore overlap in course requirements. Heeding my advice, she did drop the ethnic studies minor she had briefly considered adding.)

She also revamped her academic schedule.

“I spent a great deal of time picking what I considered to be the easiest possible course schedule,” she said. “Three history courses and a physical science course.”

The light course load immediately reduced her stress and gave her the opportunity to try out the A* approach to academics.

“It ended up working out really well,” she reports. “I was interested in my courses and forced myself to speak out in lecture, even if it was in front of 200 people.”

“Asking questions was nerve-wracking as hell, but my professors remembered me. My African American history professor, for example, told me I was the only student in his class who was ‘really that engaged and very on top of things’ and my American history professor told me I was one of her brightest students.”

Alice received an A and an A- in those classes, respectively, and she did it without hating her work.

Aiding those efforts was a renewed commitment to the straight-A method.

“I employed your ESS method and began my papers ridiculously early,” she said “I also used a paper research database for two research papers and received solid A’s on both.”

“I hate to admit it but I didn’t feel bad when my classmates were complaining about getting B+’s on those papers”.

“I employed the morse code method for my readings, the textbook method to simplify my studying for my physical science course, and even took the time to create those 3-minute outlines inside my blue books.”

“Small changes that had an incredible impact.”

On the extracurricular front, she promptly quit the IM soccer team and resigned her position with a campus fashion magazine. (“I would never have done this before,” she told me.)

This left her extracurricular time free to focus on the squash team and her job as a writing tutor. As predicted, the increased focus on a small number of activities not only reduced stress but also increased her impressiveness.

“Having more time to spend on squash meant I was able to run the team better and I ended up organizing the team’s first trip to Nationals,” she reported.

“And having more time to spend on tutoring meant I was better able to help my tutees and devise strategies to help them overcome their writing woes. Many of them who had started the semester with C’s in their writing courses ended the semester with A’s.”

These results didn’t go unrewarded.

“My supervisor noticed the impact I had on my students,” she said. “He called me one of their ‘best and brightest’ and offered me a paid position in the fall — an honor given only to the top 5 to 10% of all campus tutors.”


Not everything is perfect for Alice. She did much better this semester, but did not score the perfect straight A’s she desired (the science course, she now admits, was a mistake). Her recent e-mail included a collection fresh questions about how to continue polishing her student skills (it addressed, for example, some issues with her autopilot schedule).

But the big picture gains cannot be ignored. Alice did so poorly during the fall that she had to withdraw. She hated her major and could barely force herself to work — often waiting until the last possible minute. She was constantly behind and always stressed.

By embracing all three components of our philosophy to do less, do better, and know why, she experienced an amazing turnaround — transitioning from academic hell to the life of a happy campus star.

If you’re really suffering through your college experience, consider Alice’s example. She’s proof that major improvements to both quality of life and performance can be achieved fast.

(Photo by laughlin)

11 thoughts on “The Grade Whisperer: Alice Escapes Her Academic Hell”

  1. Wow, great post Cal, Poor poor Alice…

    I keep telling my students that ‘difficult’ subjects don’t exist. I’ve gotten some of my easiest marks in graduate level stats and some of my worst marks in moral philosophy. Each subject is difficult on dependent upon the person and how much they want to engage in the content. I would suggest that Alice pick up a tutor, or at the least a committed study buddy who has the same goals in mind. My tutors cost 23 bucks an hour but there are some that you can get for 15 if you’re lucky. If you have a strong base and a committed community to help, you can usually take on any kind of subject.

    You’d also be amazed how much marks can improve is somebody is there keeping you accountable if you slip.

    Good luck Alice!

  2. This is indeed very likely for someone taking liberal arts classes. But for someone concentrated in technical majors, “study strategies that work” aren’t very viable for mathematics. I want to be a doctor and I’m driven but your stuff just isn’t working for my Pre-Med Organic Chem classes and more technical classes. In addition, I find that the quiz and recall method for history classes doesn’t give me the depth even though I can recall the ideas.

  3. great article! I really want to implement some of your strategies next semester, but your bit about choosing a major you love has me thinking. The way I see it, what if I’m not totally passionate about anything in particular? What if I’m afraid that going deep into a certain area of interest as a major will ruin that interest for me? I did have outside influence picking my current major (molecular and cell biology), but there is still a part of me that feels like this is the path I want and should through. My grades are far from the best but how much should I let grades influence my major? I’m afraid that if I give it up I will have wasted the work I put into my current major for something that I’m not even sure I’ll like – and thus jump around from major to major without any progress. Any thoughts?

  4. I wish I’d been able to read this article, in my sophmore year, that was in 2007. I think that an intense course load can really affect your life. I’ve worked with women and men, who have as a coping mechanism resorted to heavy drinking/ drug taking to avoid deep procrastination. Its something that very few people resort to, but it can have very devastating effects.

    I think the community thing, that has been mentioned – is a very important aspect. We forget sometimes as a culture, that we can’t do it all by ourselves. Think of the Junta of Benjamin Franklin, for example.
    Good luck Alice! I just wish I’d asked for help when I was a sophmore.

  5. Completely agree. I have done the worst in my classes that I am required to take and have no interest in. The ones that are within my major are the ones I love to take and recieve great grades. It’s all about the person as well, if you are determined, hard working, and do something you love then you are on the path to success.

  6. This is why I had decent grades (B’s and some C’s which may sound bad but are actually normal in my school) in some classes, ie science and maths like pre-calc. But in other classes I had straight 100’s and 99’s! I hate how high schools dictate every single class you have to take and make students miserable and left with little autonomy. I can’t wait to implement you’re strategies in college next year! I did well in High School but I know I could have done better, using you’re study skills and implementing more of a ‘do what you love and only what you really love’ mindset will help me!

    Thanks Cal!

  7. Oh my god… So I’ve known about you for a year or two, Cal. And I thought “Hmm… what he is saying is good, but I think I can do it!” Well… now, I am on academic probation and so I am going to follow all your advices. Instead of 18 hours, I’m doing 12. I changed my major. I dropped out of almost every club I was in except the one that I started last year out of passion and the one my friend is in because it is closely related to mine and good friends build good friends.

    Let’s see if I can be another success story lol

  8. @ Doka
    You can do it! Trust me, I’ve gone through some pretty low points in my life. I got kicked out of college after my freshman year, and shortly after went through a serious bout of depression. I had no other choice but to pick myself back up. Due to the fact that I screwed up big time,i moved back home to attend a community college and worked to redeem myself. I applied every single study hack technique I could find to my courses and continually improved them. Now I can confidently say that I am an academic superstar and i am hopefully on my way to a top tier law school.


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