Picture this. You’re in college. You’ve been working hard, putting in the hours, and studying until your eyes fall out – and yet, you’re still getting Bs on all your exams. Meanwhile, Einstein over there is getting near-perfect scores and setting the curve. How is he doing it? Does he have some sort of X factor that you don’t? Or maybe he was just born smart.
Not quite, and here’s why.
A common misconception is that to be a top student with a 4.0 GPA or a great MCAT score, you must be inherently smart. While intelligence does help, most people have the potential to become top students – it’s just a matter of applying themselves in the right ways. Here’s what separates the top students from the rest of the pack, and what you can do to become a top student yourself.
1 | Ability to Reflect and Adapt
First, top students are able to reflect and adapt their approach to studying depending on the class or type of material they’re learning.
We’ve all heard the saying, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” That being said, it can often be difficult to realize when you’re making the same mistakes over and over again in your own life.
When students don’t do as well as they want to on an exam, they often conclude that they just didn’t study enough. So what do they do next time? They study longer and try to brute force their way through. Although this might work for a while, there will eventually come a time when it stops working – and when that happens, these students plateau.
What makes top students different is that they don’t try to force their way through by studying longer and longer. They reflect on their study strategies and adapt.
Here’s an example.
During college, I was a neuroscience major. As such, most of the classes I took required deep knowledge of the material. To succeed, I needed to understand how brain receptors and ion channels work, how they interact with other body systems, and apply that knowledge to novel situations. I always had to consider the bigger picture to avoid missing the forest for the trees. My study strategy for these classes relied heavily on comprehending the information and applying it through practice problems – and this worked well for me.
The issue is that this strategy is not ideal for every situation. I learned this the hard way when I got to my first psychology upper-division course, which was supposed to be easy. I used these same techniques and ended up with a B on the midterm. But instead of trying to brute force my way through using the same tactics for the final, I reflected on the midterm and thought about how I can approach the final more effectively.
In this case, I realized that instead of trying to deeply understand the material and look at the bigger picture, my time was much better spent going through flashcards and just trying to commit the facts to memory. By refining my strategies and making this switch, I was ultimately able to ace the final and get an A in the class.
Top students understand that you have to refine your approach on a subject-by-subject, class-by-class basis. For example, subjects like psychology and biology tend to be more memorization-heavy, so strategies such as flashcards and spaced repetition work well. For subjects like chemistry or physics, however, it is often better to work through practice problems instead.
In addition, some professors emphasize deep understanding and application on their exams whereas others focus more on memorizing facts. You have to be able to identify what you are dealing with and adapt accordingly. It sounds simple, but most students only know one way of studying and try to apply it to every situation.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but learning how to adapt my study strategies early on in my college career helped me immensely when I got into medical school. It allowed me to approach each subject differently and tailor my study strategies to what would be most effective for each one. This, in turn, helped me excel in medical school and match into one of the two hyper-competitive specialties in medicine.
2 | Time Management & Efficiency
Next, top students are better at managing their time.
People often think that to be at the top of your class you need to be a slave to your schedule and spend 12 hours a day, 7 days a week studying – never taking time to relax or enjoy yourself. It’s actually quite the contrary. There are diminishing returns the longer you work on a given day.
Paradoxically, to achieve the highest degrees of productivity, you must plan time away from your work – and the top students know this.
Top students understand that sustainability is the name of the game. Studying 12 hours a day, every day, and prioritizing school over all else in your life is a sure-fire way to burn out. To get straight A’s and crush your exams, your mind has to be operating at full capacity. This simply isn’t possible if you never give yourself the chance to recharge. The question then, is how do you balance studying and relaxation? The answer is by being intentional with your time.
If you set aside two hours to study, be sure to focus and study. But if you set aside two hours to spend time with family or friends, be fully present and enjoy yourself. There’s no point in trying to combine work and play. You end up not getting much done and not feeling refreshed in the end.
In addition to being intentional with their time, top students are also more efficient with their time. They understand that the goal of studying isn’t to see who can spend the longest time staring into a textbook, it’s to learn.
If you want to be efficient with your time, your goal should be to squeeze the most amount of learning into the least amount of time. You do this by focusing on active instead of passive learning strategies.
The default strategy that nearly all students employ is passive learning. This includes reading through notes, highlighting textbooks, and listening to lectures on repeat. The issue with these strategies isn’t that it’s impossible to learn by doing them, it’s that they are highly inefficient. The reason that we default to them, however, is that they are often easier, require less effort, and overall feel more comfortable.
Active learning, on the other hand, is more challenging, less comfortable, but much more effective. Active learning strategies include things like active recall in the form of flashcards, condensing notes into summary sheets, or going through practice questions.
The key takeaway is that you shouldn’t just look at how many hours you’re studying. You need to also consider how much you’re learning in those hours and try to get the most bang for your buck with your study strategies.
3 | Willingness to Invest in Themselves
Lastly, top students know the importance of investing in themselves – both in terms of their time and their money.
Just as people invest in the stock market to get a return on their investment, investing in yourself can have a significantly higher ROI.
Let’s start with investing in yourself from a time perspective. Top students know that in order to perform optimally, you need to start by taking care of your body and your mind – and the only way to do this is to make your health a priority and actively set aside time for it. Although it isn’t as sexy or exciting as the hot new nootropic or life hack, 95% of your performance comes down to three pillars: sleep, nutrition, and exercise. If any one of these is out of balance, then you won’t be able to function at the top of your game.
Top students make their health a priority. They make time for sleep, exercise, and nutrition to ensure they’re functioning optimally. Skipping meals, opting for convenient but unhealthy foods, skipping the gym, and not sleeping enough are all habits that may work in the short term, but long term they will severely limit your potential. Schedule time for the gym daily – make it a routine. Plan out your meals to make sure you always have healthy food accessible to you. And make sure you get enough sleep.
In terms of investing in yourself from a financial perspective, top students aren’t afraid to invest extra money into their education. I am a strong believer in that your finances should reflect your priorities. If I look at your bank statements, I should be able to clearly see what your priorities are.
In today’s day and age, education is absurdly expensive, and it can be difficult to bring yourself to spend a dime more on your education. I get it. I didn’t come from a privileged background. We pinched pennies, had three of us in a one-bedroom apartment, and I had to work in a library and save for 6 months to afford my first laptop. But even still, my family always reminded me that my education is a priority not to be taken lightly.
Whether it is spending the extra money to live closer to school so you don’t burden yourself with a long commute, purchasing extra study materials, or hiring a tutor, spending a little bit more on your education can be one of the best investments you ever make. By focusing on my education and investing in myself, I was able to get into multiple top medical schools and earn merit-based scholarships that saved me hundreds of thousands of dollars.
One of the most important investments for a premed is how they decide to approach the medical school admissions process. Applying to medical school is a costly endeavor, and it is in your benefit to only apply once. Reapplying to medical school means a year of lost time and a year of lost salary, which averages between $230,000 and $340,000 per year for physicians.
At Med School Insiders, we specialize in helping students achieve their maximal potential, get into the best medical school and residency programs, and surpass even their own expectations of themselves.
That’s because when creating Med School Insiders I took my obsessive interest in optimization, systems, and results, and applied it to the world of medical school admissions consulting and tutoring. By poaching top talent from competitors and working with that talent to identify and address common shortcomings in the industry, we innovated new systems and proprietary approaches never seen before.
That translates to not only delivering stellar industry-leading results for our clients, but more importantly, we do it consistently, for all students, because of the innovations we’ve created. No other company has been able to replicate that.
You’ll never receive a cookie-cutter plan, and can rest assured that we are made up of a vast team of top-performing medical doctors – those 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. Plus, we’re actual MD physicians with actual admissions committee experience for both medical school and residency.
Our results speak for themselves and it’s no surprise that we quickly became the fastest-growing company in the space.