Updated 10 July 2018

Good Students – Made or Born?

A good student is made, not born.

We learned to walk and talk, and then most of us learned to sit down and shut up and listen. Some of us even learned to listen without interrupting.

How does one become a good student at college or university?

With a sports coach, you know that the coach is trying to help you improve yourself. With his outside eye, and his experience of other athletes, he will guide you towards general fitness and your chosen sport.

When he gets you out of bed at 4am after a heavy night drinking, he is not being sadistic. First, you should be up and running at 4am every morning. If you cannot breeze a 4am 10-mile run after a night in the bar, he is helping you to recognise there are choices in life and you made the wrong one.

As you were stupid enough to make the wrong choice you need to feel the pain and discomfort to underline to yourself (1) you are an athlete and (2) athletes cannot drink like that (3) you still have to run the 10 miles at 4am come rain, come sun, or come deathly hangover.

For your education, who is responsible? One of my colleagues had a regular line…

“What age are you?”


“At nineteen who is responsible for your studies?”

“I am.”

“So why have you not prepared for this class?”


I know a Physical Education course where students who are late do 50 full body press ups in front of the class before they can join the class. The teachers tell me that even the dim students learn quickly.

How much do you want to be a good student? There are choices to be made. These choices involve

  • Your time
  • Your finances
  • Your social life


When I was a law lecturer I used to start the academic year by asking the class how many hours one normally works in a full time job. The class discussed and usually said that 38 hours was about average.

Then I asked how many hours a week a full time law student should work. There was always a crashing silence because they all knew the correct answer was “38”.

I would then suggest that the class should rethink their priorities to achieve a 38 hour week every week including holidays. I always had students come to me at the end of the class to thank me for that. They had thought they were hard working but now they realised they had not been working nearly hard enough.

Your Time

Everyone, good student or not, has demands on their time. You need to plan your week. If you have to do paid work, plan those hours. If you are on a full time degree, plan to use 38 hours or so in classes and study. If you are on a science or engineering course you may need more hours.

If you are in an important relationship you need to timetable quality time with your loved one. If as well as study you have some other activity plan that time.

A good student will still have half a day in reserve. It comes in handy for illness, exhaustion, being a good neighbour, or just chilling.

So who are the friends of a good student?

In your first week at college, like minded people are meeting up. Everyone knows the jocks, the fashion queens (male and female), the politicos, and the disruptive elements. The good students also float together. Look for the ones who turn up early, have read the textbook chapter in advance of the class, and who do not rush to leave at the end of the class. Some of them ask questions to display their knowledge or ignorance but many do not.

Try to form a study group of people who are brainier than you are. Make it a social event to discuss the subject of the lecture you have just attended.

Be a bore, a nerd, or an anorak. An anorak in your subject can justify which is the best textbook and why, has read all the academic writing your professor has produced, has analysed the last six annual examination papers your professor set, and knows where and what to study after this qualification. He can actually show you the syllabus and tell you what else should be on it.

If you cannot be an anorak, sit next to him and you too will become a good student – seriously! As a lecturer I have been surprised how often it works.

A nerd has all the charm of an anorak, but less actual knowledge and less organisation. He can still be a good student.

Manage Your Time

Everyone has times when they find it easier to study. Some people love the peace of a library after 6pm. Others like to study after their 4am run. Establish a regular pattern that works for you.

One friend surprised everyone who knew him by obtaining a very good law degree when we all thought he was a drunk.

He explained that from 1am to 6am, 7 nights a week, he read law books because he could not sleep. He was doing 35 hours a week more study than any of us had realised. I still cannot call him a good student, but he was an effective student.

On most courses, you will be set examinations and assignments. When I was a good student, I thought the professors could ask questions about anywhere on the syllabus and I had to revise it all.

When I started to set examination papers, I realised I had to set papers covering the entire syllabus. If you look at the past examination papers, you will see there are patterns. The same questions come up again and again. You can practise answering past examination papers, and ask the anorak to mark them.

In most colleges, there are marking criteria. Ask to see them. When you get a mark, ask the marker to explain why that mark? What would you have to do to earn a mark 5% or 10% better? If you are lucky enough to receive written feedback, read it. Read it again before you hand in the next piece of work because you are probably still making the same mistakes. Find out who gets the best marks and ask to read their assignments. What are they doing differently?

Lack of Knowledge

The most common problem is simple lack of knowledge. A good student should not have that problem.

The typical good student problem is structure. Somehow the knowledge in your head is not getting on to paper.

The way round that is to take a big piece of paper and throw down the points you want to make. Once you have done that, which are the key 3 or 4 points you want to make? Number them 10,20,30,40. There are subsidiary points you want to make. Number those 5, 16, 23, 26 etc., wherever they logically fit in. Now you have got all the points you want to make in the order you want to make them.

Get on with it.

When it is written, ask a friend to read it for style and clarity. Choose someone who is not on your course.

Another good student mistake is not answering the question that was set. You spend a third of your permitted words on something that can only gain 3% of the marks at best. What is the question about? Answer that.

Your Finances

Work out what it costs you to be at College for a year. Add the tuition fees, your living expenses, and how much more income you could earn if you were not a student. It is a lot of money.

Divide into that figure the number of classroom hours you could attend.

Each classroom hour is costing you a lot more money than you had realised. A good student will maximise the value s/he gets out of every classroom hour.


Prepare for the class thoroughly. You usually know what will be covered, so read that chapter of the textbook before the class. Then when the professor tells you things he is consolidating the knowledge you have, not trying to convey raw information in a lump. If you are lucky enough to have seminars and tutorials, they are red meat for a good student. You prepare well, you work with the information you have, and you bounce information around with the professor and any students who have also prepared. You really get something out of it.

If you can, get a job that fits in with what you are studying. It builds your CV, helps you network, and you are being paid to gain useful experience. A good student can make the time for relevant paid work.

You may have some activity or sport. At College activities and sport are often subsidised, so use that subsidy to get really good.

That library? If you are there 8 hours a day instead of 1 hour a day, what is the extra cost to you? How much do you save?

Social Life

Everyone needs a social life. You may not want the company of nerds and anoraks 24/7. Go bowling. Do something mindless or fun and meet people.

Even a good student is interested in meeting a possible life partner. When I was young I would have settled for a considerably shorter period!

Drinking, drugs, and relationship problems will adversely affect your studies, so try to find other ways to fill your time. If you must spend time in bars, be there as paid bar staff or as a musician.

A good student is usually a good person. If you are not a good person, that again is a matter of choice.

If you are already a good student, read how to be an excellent student.