Why You’re Not a Straight-A Student (& How to Become One)

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Getting straight-A’s in school can feel like an impossible task, but most students make it harder than it needs to be. If you’re not getting the grades that you want, the problem isn’t always time or effort. Instead, it is often your strategies and your approach to studying that are failing you.

Here are 5 reasons why you’re not getting straight A’s and what you should do instead.

  1. You’re Approaching Studying Wrong
  2. You’re Not Optimizing for Memory Consolidation
  3. Your Critical Thinking is Underdeveloped
  4. You’re Not Studying at the Optimal Time
  5. You’ve Taken on an Identity

 

1 | You’re Approaching Studying Wrong

The first reason is that you’re approaching studying the wrong way.

Students often look at studying as a numbers game. They believe that the more hours they put into preparing for an exam, the better their grade will be. Although there is certainly some truth to this, it doesn’t tell the full story.

If you only studied 5 hours per week for an exam and didn’t get the grade you want, you might conclude that you didn’t study enough. For the next exam, you might study 10-, 15-, or 20 hours a week. Although you may achieve the result that you want simply by studying more, this isn’t a sustainable approach – especially when you start getting into more challenging courses. There are only so many hours each week that you can allocate to studying and you will eventually reach a point where you don’t have enough time to just “study more. Instead, a better approach is to reflect on your study strategies and strive to make them more efficient.

Your goal should be to achieve the most amount of learning in the least amount of time.

Most students employ passive learning techniques such as reading through textbooks or notes. Although these methods are easy and comfortable, they are also highly inefficient. They simply aren’t a good “bang-for-your-buck” in terms of the amount of learning you achieve vs the amount of time you spend.

Instead, you should employ active study strategies such as active recall, spaced repetition, the Feynman technique, and practice questions. These strategies are much more effective for learning and will help you get more out of your study sessions.

The reason that most students don’t use them, however, is that they are challenging and uncomfortable. But learning isn’t supposed to be easy. It should be difficult and a little bit stressful. As described by the Yerkes-Dodson law, mild amounts of physiological or mental stress actually improve performance.

If you aren’t sufficiently challenging yourself when you study, you’re leaving a ton of learning on the table.

 

2 | You’re Not Optimizing for Memory Consolidation

The second reason you’re not getting straight A’s is that you aren’t optimizing for memory consolidation.

A large part of being efficient with your studying comes down to retaining what you’ve learned. Spending hours reading through textbooks, doing flashcards, or going through practice questions doesn’t do you much good if you can’t remember any of it.

One of the most important things you can do to improve your memory is to get enough sleep.

There are 3 components of memory: acquisition, storage (sometimes referred to as consolidation), and retrieval. Sleep affects memory primarily in the acquisition and storage phases. At the acquisition stage, acute sleep deprivation has been shown to reduce several components of basic cognitive processes including attention, working memory, and executive function. As a result, when you don’t get enough sleep, you are not able to take in and process information effectively. This subsequently leads to reduced memory and learning.

During the storage phase, sleep has been shown to be important for memory consolidation in the hippocampus. Although the exact molecular mechanisms are not well understood, the general consensus is that sleep deprivation impairs hippocampal function leading to impaired memory and learning.

A 2013 article found that “both slow wave sleep and rapid eye movement sleep play an active role in the consolidation of declarative memory, which in turn leads to improved performance in memory recall.” In short, sleep deprivation on the night following learning was found to negatively impact memory.

Some studies have also shown that studying just before sleep aids in memory retention compared to studying earlier in the day. In addition, better quality, longer duration, and more consistent sleep patterns have been correlated with better academic performance. That being said, there was no relation between sleep measures on the night before a test and test performance. Instead, sleep duration and quality for the month and the week before a test correlated with better grades.

This mirrors my own experience as I’ve found that a single night of missed sleep before a memorization-heavy test does not significantly impact my performance. The caveat, however, is that for more cognitively demanding exams that require more critical thinking, I’ve found that sleep deprivation does negatively affect my performance. This is likely due to the acute effects of sleep deprivation on attention, cognition, and executive function.

Cognitively demanding courses, like physics, math, organic chemistry, or neuroscience require you to be fresh and work through novel problems – not just regurgitate information – so a fresh mind is critical.

While sleep deprivation is often unavoidable in medical school and residency, there’s no excuse in college. There will be several times in your career when you don’t get enough sleep, but even the act of optimizing for higher quality sleep during these few hours can make a drastic difference.

 

3 | Your Critical Thinking is Underdeveloped

The third reason you’re not getting straight-A’s is that your critical thinking is underdeveloped.

Although your ability to work through complex problems and think critically is linked to your sleep, it is also affected by your study strategies. Contrary to popular belief, studying shouldn’t be perfectly organized and easy to follow. Effective studying is often messy and challenging. If it feels easy, you probably aren’t developing your critical thinking skills.

You should challenge yourself to make connections between different concepts and ideas and ask yourself questions like: What would happen if I take away this? Or if I add this? Or how does this affect the overall process or system?

One of the best ways to develop your critical thinking skills is through practice problems, but it involves a slightly different approach than most students use.

To get the most out of each practice session, you need to approach each question as if it were the real thing. If you don’t know how to solve it, don’t just read the correct answer and explanation. Give it considerable effort before you review an equation or other helpful piece of information.

And if that’s still not enough to answer the question confidently, go back through your notes and create your perfect answer. Only then should you check the correct answer and see how yours compares. If you still get the question wrong after all of that, then you know that there’s a major gap in your understanding that needs to be addressed.

Although this method of going through practice questions takes longer than the normal technique of viewing the correct answer, reading the explanation, and moving on, it leaves you with a much better understanding of the material. Shortcutting by viewing the correct answer and explanation when you’re stuck severely limits your rate of progress and prevents you from deeply understanding the material.

Making mistakes and learning from them is the whole point of practice problems.

Approaching them in this way allows you to hone your critical thinking skills so you’re prepared for anything on exam day.

 

4 | You’re Not Studying at the Optimal Time

The next reason is that you’re not optimizing for your energy state.

Everybody has a natural rhythm to their energy throughout the day. They are more focused during certain times of the day and less focused during others. The trick is to pay attention to your own rhythm and find what times you are most dialed in and what times you are not.

For instance, I begin my deep work block around 8:00 AM. For me, I am freshest and think most clearly in the mornings. As such, I am able to do my best-focused work at this time. In the afternoons, however, I find myself less motivated or willing to put up with difficult work.

But everyone is different. You may find yourself most focused in the afternoon and are ready to hit the books first thing after lunch. It’s all about finding what works best for you and your energy state.

If you’re not a morning person, don’t expect yourself to get your best work done at 7 AM. Trying to do so is setting yourself up for failure. Similarly, if you are a morning person, waiting until 9 PM when you’re exhausted at the end of the day is also less likely to be fruitful.

 

5 | You’ve Taken on an Identity

The last reason that you’re not a straight-A student is that you’ve taken on an identity about what you’re good at and what you’re bad at.

When you identify as bad at something, it often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you take on an identity that you’re bad at math. Now, whenever you take action to improve at math, you’ll experience cognitive dissonance because your actions conflict with your identity. You tell yourself, “why am I studying when I know I’m bad at math?” As a result, you’re more likely to get frustrated and quit. We don’t like contradicting ourselves. If our identity is that we are bad at something, it makes it much more difficult to improve.

Instead, you should avoid identifying as good or bad at things and identify as the type of student that is always improving. By adopting this sort of growth mindset, you’re less likely to get caught up in failures and more likely to learn from your failures.

This is what makes Med School Insiders different. Instead of focusing on simple tactics like other medical school admissions consultants, we focus on overlooked foundational components and more advanced strategies to help you become the best student you can be.

Our team is made up of top-performing medical doctors who have been at the top of their class, earned sizable merit-based scholarships, and matched into competitive specialties at top programs. We know how to help you achieve stellar results because we’ve done it ourselves.

Our results speak for themselves and it’s no surprise that we quickly became the fastest-growing company in the space. Learn more about our admissions consulting services.

If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check my piece on What Separates the Top 1% of students or another article in our study strategies series.

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