How To Be An Excellent Student
Updated 10 July 2018
There is no secret to being an excellent student.
It is not just about working hard. It is much more about working effectively and thinking outside the box. It is also about confidence.
A Different League
When I was 16, just starting on my pre-university studies I asked a teacher why a novel called “Clochemerle” was on her History reading list.
She said it was to find out if any students read the course reading list! That was the competition I was up against, so I did well.
Actually I would have done better if everyone on the course was bright, because I might have had to struggle. If there are three or four of you who are bright you gravitate together and you spark off each other. So find the other bright ones.
In any area of study your library has a lot of books around your subject which 99% of the students ignore. They only read the textbooks.
Get stuck in! You really want to be reading the practitioner books that as a lecturer I tell my students to ignore. I tell my students to ignore them because most of my students will not be able to master the subject to the point where practitioner books are useful. You are good enough to master the subject and to gain from the practitioner books.
One surprise for students is that a text book is not the summation of all the knowledge there is in an area. It is that area of knowledge deconstructed and made simple so students can get a grasp of the subject.
You the excellent student should be looking at more advanced text books, journal articles, research papers, etc. If your textbook has footnotes are you going to those source materials and reading them? If there is a bibliography, have you read most of the bibliography?
To give you an idea of the difference between the knowledge a student needs and how much knowledge is out there, the leading textbook on British Immigration Law has less than 30 pages on British Nationality. The leading practitioner book on British Nationality has 1,181 pages. I do not even tell my students that the practitioner book exists, because they do not need to know. If you are an excellent student in any discipline the practitioner books are out there!
And A Different Outlook
The good student uses two or three textbooks. The excellent student does this, but also reads journal articles and looks at related fields for comparators.
Why are you not writing journal articles? At the best American universities the students publish journals, some of which are prestigious. If you are editor of the Harvard Law Review you immediately stand out from all the other very bright students at Harvard Law School. A skinny black student who was editor of the Harvard Law Review went on to be President of the United States.
Even if you are at a bad University there is nothing to stop you researching and publishing.
A good student deconstructs past exam papers to understand what will be in the next exam paper. You may do that, but you are beyond that. You actually do not care what is in the examination paper because your depth of knowledge is such that you can handle anything. I remember one examination paper where I had to answer 4 questions out of 20, and there were 16 I could answer well. I deliberately chose questions from across the paper just to show I was wonderful all over. I got an A of course. In those days A was the highest mark you could get.
I once knew personally a young barrister (American equivalent is “trial lawyer”) who, to put it tactfully, needed more work. He was bright but as yet had no reputation. You get the cases from having a reputation, and you get the reputation from winning the cases. Chicken and egg!
So one day he went into the largest legal bookshop in London, looking for a book that was not there.
He found an area where there was no book at all. He wrote the book, a simple “How To” book for lawyers on this topic. The book sold reasonably well because it was cheap and it met a real need.
When lawyers found they had such a case, they then needed a barrister who knew about this topic. They went to the man who wrote the book! He got the cases, he built the reputation, and he became famous in legal circles for this kind of work. He eventually was elected leader of all the barristers in England and Wales, was knighted, and later became a judge.
Does this example give you an idea how you could establish yourself as an expert in something – preferably where there is no competition?
If he could write a book, surely you can write just one article?
One world famous Education academic while writing his PHD also churned out an academic article a month for two years.
Do not be surprised if your library does not have practitioner books. Go to a better library that does have these books. Go to people working in that industry who can lend you the books from work.
It is good to be an excellent student. It is even better if you are recognised by your fellow students as extremely bright.
Social skills help, because if you are bright and disliked your fellow students will not select you for anything. If you are bright and liked you may be elected to things or be given opportunities.
At the best British Universities there are clubs and societies for debating and for drama which are world famous, and success there often leads to success later on. In the USA sport seems to be important. For your mental and physical health you need to do something you enjoy outside your studies.
Now think about your CV. What can you do while a student that will build your CV? Try to work in your chosen industry to earn money of course but also to build your knowledge and experience.
To be an excellent student is hard work, but it is also about confidence and a willingness to explore. Some of your time will be wasted, but it is surprising how much you can gain from reading around the subject and lifting your eyes to the hills.
Note what I have not said. I have not suggested that you suck up to your professors or you try to impress your professors.
When your professors are coming to you – then you are an excellent student!