Michael He

February 14, 2022

How to Actually Win in College

Cal Newport's books helped me a lot during high school and college. Now I'm almost done with college, I can finally review his How To Win At College. How do these suggestions hold up? Given its publication date of 2005 and a global pandemic, a lot of the tips don't work anymore. But plenty of them are still helpful!
Particularly good advices are in bold. I will expand on a few. I leave the rest uncommented, in case you find them interesting. This book has actually inspired me to write my own guide to college, with some overlapping tips I borrowed directly.

Before you read this book, this review, or any self-improvement book for that matter, understand that your unique circumstance means there aren't always one-size-fits-all solutions. Things that work for others may not work for you. Worse yet, some things may backfire! Your experiences, contexts, emotions, personalities, and decisions will be different, even for twins. Make sure to think for yourself and not blindly copy everything. That is the most important lesson. 

1. Don't do all of your reading

No one can read everything for a million reasons. Your syllabus is designed that way, so learn to prioritize the necessary readings for class discussions, assignments, and exams. Lecture notes are often enough. My only real tip is to make use of ctrl + F.

2. Create a Sunday ritual

I think Sunday is for rest. Instead, create a Saturday ritual for whatever the book says to get your week started. A corollary is to rethink weekends. You cannot have a productive (regardless of your definition) Sunday without a well-rested Saturday night.

3. Drop classes every semester

This is essential. The opportunity cost of picking a bad (regardless of your definition) class is astronomical. Give yourself a little buffer this way. Also think about course selection carefully. You don't need to plan out everything, but know which classes you need to take at what time with whom (a good professor makes a hard class doable, a bad professor makes an easy class terrible).

4. Start Long term project the day of assignment

5. Make your bed

An uncluttered room signals an uncluttered mind. If you can make your bed in the morning, you are probably going to do other little things that add up to something big. Admiral McRaven famously talked about this in his UT Austin Speech.

6. Apply to 10 scholarships a year

7. Build study systems

8. Befriend a professor

Sometimes all you need is ONE professor who believes in you, supports you, and helps you navigate college. Make sure your personalities click and you can talk about things beyond the class. Send emails, show up, and be genuine. It's not that hard to befriend a professor.

9. Become a club president

10. Read newspaper everyday

11. Do one thing better than anyone else you know

This is less about the specific thing and more about knowing why you should master one thing. You will not truly believe you can achieve excellence until you master something first. Once you become really good at one thing, you can become pretty good at many more things. It about cultivating a mindset.

12. Avoid daily to-do

Most to-do lists are impossible to use because they include four days of tasks for one day. Remember, your schedule doesn't work like a grocery list. You must prioritize, so give yourself a time period for when to do what. Be realistic (including time needed for transportation, queues, and restroom break).

13. Learn to give up

14. Never nap

15. Sign up for something in your first week

This rule isn't so helpful, but the implied lesson is. Don't stay in your room all day. Nothing is more depression-inducing than being alone in a small room. Remember pandemic lockdown?

16. Work on a grand project

The project doesn't have to be fancy. It just has to be something you want to do. It can honestly be anything. When you work on this project, you give yourself the room to be interested in things, to try, and to enjoy the process. It's not for internship or research, but for yourself.

17. Art History and Astronomy

18. Blow the curve once a semester

19. Ask one question every lecture

Asking good question is hard. The only way to do that is to first ask a question. This also helps you stay focused in class (since you need to think of a question during class). Your professors also remember students who ask questions more than the invisible ones.

20. Do research ASAP

21. Pay your dues

This is self-explanatory. You have to show up and do the work. That's how you get somewhere.

22. Study in 50 minute chunks

23. Schedule your free time

24. Dress nicely for class

This means you take your class seriously. No one wearing pajamas actually focuses in the lecture.

25. Decorate your room

26. Start studying 2 weeks in advance

27. Write outside of class

I can talk about the benefits of writing for a long time, but one simple reason will do. You write no matter what you do, so figure out how to express your thoughts and emotions is a priority right now.

28. Eat alone twice

29. Find an escape method

You need to have a space to get away from the chatter. It is hard to have that in your dorm. A place you need to walk or bike or drive to will give you enough time to get ready for focusing or relaxing your mind.

30. Take hard courses early

Aside from the obvious logistical reason, it is also a morale boost. You won't fear most tough-sounding classes if you make through one early in college.

31. Don't study in your room

32. Don't study in groups

33. Honors program

34. Do schoolwork everyday

35. Attend guest lectures

36. Exercise 5x a week

It doesn't have to be five times. You just need to sweat. Exercising helps with your physical health. It also helps with your mental health. It helps you sleep better at night. It can also help you make friends and have some fun. There are many reasons to exercise and being lazy is not one.

37. Stay in touch

Relationships age like fine wine, don't accidentally let the bridge crumble because you don't maintain it. A spontaneous message or phone call will do. If you want, write about how you are doing and send that as a group email to all your close ones.

38. Do an extra major or minor

39. Meet with your adviser

40. Don't get a normal job

41. Use 3 days/steps for paper

This is very useful. Outline, write, and edit. Each step is essential to good writing. The best way is to always make tiny notes, so when you need to write something, you already have enough. Write undisturbed. Then edit hard. Most bad writing is actually bad editing, which is bad thinking.

42. Sleep just right

43. Relax before exams

Panicking doesn't help. If you pay attention in class, do your work diligently, and ask questions when you have them, you won't do poorly. You might as well use that time to relax and pray for good grades.

44. Make friends your number 1 priority

Self-explanatory. Your good memories are filled with people for a reason. Be there for others and others will be there for you.

45. Don't binge drink

46. Ignore other people's grades

You are not them. They are not you. Looking at other people will only bring you stress and all things negative. Never have I heard someone felt positive when comparing himself to the overachievers. Look at where you started and where you are. If you know you can do better, then do better. Otherwise, be proud of your progress and hard work.

47. Seek out over achievers

48. Listen better

This is one of the lifelong skills to practice. You need humility and curiosity/energy to listen. If you lack humility, you will talk over others. If you lack curiosity/energy, you will be ignored. If you lack both, you should probably talk to people. Good listeners pay attention to the other person, but do not make the other person uncomfortable.

49. No all nighter

One all nighter will destroy multiple days of progress. It's never worth it.

50. Laugh


51. Use high-quality notebooks

52. Have a work-progress journal

53. Seek out fun

54. Inflate ambition

55. Get involved with major department

56. Care about grades not GPA

57. Always go to class

Unless you have an emergency, going to class won't be a waste of time. If you pay attention during class and take good notes, one hour in class is probably better than three hours of figuring things out on your own.

58. Set arbitrary deadlines

59. Eat healthy

Self-explanatory, especially since college food tend to be unhealthy and rather not delicious.

60. Volunteer quietly

61. Write ambitiously

62. Attend rallies

63. Maximize summers

64. Choose goals, explore routes

65. Don't take breaks between classes

66. Don't network

67. Write op-eds

68. Use filing cabinet

69. Have a secret study space

This one is important because you definitely need a secret quiet space. It also helps you with knowing your college and its surroundings.

70. Use the quiz and recall method

71. Empty inbox

72. Relax before sleep

Unless you are talented in sleeping, you probably need to relax before sleeping.

73. Start fast end slow

In other words, have a bias for action. If you want to do something, do it now or ASAP. If you need to do something, do it now or ASAP. Waiting doesn't do anything in 99% of the cases.

74. Spend a semester abroad 

75. Don't have no regrets

So there you have it, around 30 tips that still work nicely from a 2005 book. I wish you a great time in college. You don't have to win, because you are already a winner.

About Michael He

Trying to get better every single day.