11 secrets for… getting good grades

Bea graduated this summer in Comparative Literature with Film Studies BA.
Bea graduated this summer in Comparative Literature with Film Studies BA.

So, you want to know how to get good grades at university or college?

Having powered through so many different methodologies of how to tackle university assignments and exams and get good grades, I now have a degree! No idea how that happened, but let me assure you it did. There’s photos and all. And frankly, in the past three years, I have learnt a lot. For instance, pulling an all-nighter isn’t exactly something to aspire to, in fact, avoid it best you can. But in case you do find yourself working on an essay at 3am in the morning and there is no sleep in sight, do order pizza to the library. It’s the little things that get us through those hard times…

But that kind of advice isn’t really why you clicked on this article, now is it? Ideally, you don’t want to find yourself in the library at such an ungodly hour with food delivery being your only saving grace. Trust me, there is another way. And just for full disclosure, I have walked both paths, loud and proud(ish).

So, here are 11 secrets about getting good grades and being on top of your assignments in order to avoid the nocturnal existential crisis that may creep up on you if things slide too much.

1.  Know the timeline you are working with.
That means being familiar with the syllabus – what is happening when and what kind of things you need to prepare. A deadline should never come as a surprise. Write down hand-in days and exams dates as soon as you know about them. Best, have them in red in a planner, or whatever form of diary you are using. Personally, if I don’t write things down, I will most likely forget about them, so just making a little note goes a long way!

2. Plan ahead.
This goes hand in hand with what I said earlier – it just goes one step further. The specifics of the assignment come into play here and it’s good to pay attention to detail. Look at the essay questions, decide which one you want write on. The earlier you make this decision the better you can prepare. Same goes for exams, find out as much as you can as early as you can. Knowing all these things makes the study process so much easier. Oh, and please do take notes in class – notes are an absolute life saver. It’s astounding what a brain can forget in just a week’s time…

3. Lists, lists, lists!
There will come a time when you have to deal with competing deadlines, or simply a very large amount of work and it will feel like it’s an absolute impossibility. The trick is to not let yourself get intimidated or overwhelmed. If something seems too big, break it down! This is where lists come in handy. Make lots and lots of to-do lists, really break down the workload into small tasks and plan what you need to accomplish each day. Even prioritise things on those lists. Plus, it’s just oh-so-satisfying to be able to cross things off of your lists – you can track your progress!

4. Involve your tutors / teachers / professors.
Even before attending university I’d really advise you to speak to your teachers about whatever assignment that lies ahead. Bring in an outline, have questions, clarify what it is you really need to work on. There are just so many things one could possibly say in an essay – so mostly I need to narrow things down drastically and actually figure out what I want to focus on. Speaking to your teachers is such a valuable thing to do, after all, they are the ones marking your work.

5. Find an interesting angle, make it yours!
This is a bit more paper specific, but when you decide on a topic to write on try and find something you care about. In my experience people do so much better when they are invested in the subject matter. It will also make it easier to spend more time on the task and if you are honestly enthusiastic, that will be clear to anyone who reads the essay. An engaging and genuine text is always better than a lifeless paper.

6. Think outside the box, go the extra mile.
This, goes hand in hand with my previous point, but I do think it is worth it considering ways in which you can make your work stand out. That might be doing some extra reading with a completely new perspective, or making unusual connections, or perhaps an interdisciplinary twist on it. The choice is yours! I still have a file on my computer from a module I took in my first year that is a collection of my favourite Nietzsche quotes. I have used them for so many of my essays since. For some reason you can almost always use Nietzsche. Or Freud. Most definitely Freud. (Disclaimer, do check with your teacher that you are not going off topic though!)

7. Don’t ramble.
Which brings me to this piece of advice. Having an interesting take on a topic is one thing, going on confusing tangents another. Be clear about what you want to say and stick to that. An easy way to make sure you are staying on track is actually outlining your work. Break it down into sections and know what you want to get across in each part. And then check that all of it relates back to your main thesis in one way or another.

8. Be social.
You don’t have to spend all of your time alone studying or writing. Take breaks and give your brain a chance to think about something else. Involve others in what you are doing. You can be social, who knew?! Time spent talking about what you are working on is not wasted – it helps a lot to discuss your paper / exam prep. You might end up discovering new perspectives or being forced to find a more concise way to explain your point to someone. The more you engage with a topic, the more you get out of it. And talking about it is definitely a form of engagement, so don’t underestimate it!

9. Choose your environment.
Work / study environments contribute immensely to my productivity. Obviously, this is all down to personal preferences, so see what works best for you, but I really like getting out of the house and then rotating study spaces so I don’t get too fed up with a place. There’s just something about getting dressed and looking like a functioning human being (as opposed to PJs all day at home) that motivates me to act the part.

10. Feedback!
If you are writing an essay, get someone to proofread for you. After reading your own words over and over again, you often won’t be able to spot any typos. Proofreads can also go deeper than that, such as suggestions regarding style or content. Regarding exams, see if you can have a look at past paper. And always try and get feedback on your work, be it an exam or a paper or a presentation. Knowing exactly what to improve on next time is such a crucial part of fast progress!

11. Lastly…take care of yourself!
Your mind can’t function at its best if your body isn’t well. So make you sure sleep enough, drink enough and eat healthily. Additionally, and this is again far from news, I’d say get some exercise. Especially when you have to spend a lot of time sitting at a desk it’s very important to move your body enough. It will also help you sleep. Bottom line is, a healthy body makes your life just so much easier. Any assignment will be at least twice as challenging if you have a raging headache, you are hungry or your eyes just keep falling shut. So please don’t forget about looking after yourself!

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