How to Become a Straight A Student - Cal Newport

How to Become a Straight A Student - Cal Newport

Video Book Summary

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Book Summary Notes 


How to Become a Straight A Student

“While most college students toil arduously through the study and paper- writing processes, there exists an elite group of undergrads who have discovered unconventional strategies for earning much higher grades in much less time." 

"I wanted to share these secrets with other students, and thus the idea for this book was born."

"In the pages that follow, you will discover the details of these often surprising study strategies. I’ve included examples and case studies throughout the book to demonstrate how to apply the advice in many different real-life academic situations." 

"You will learn how to:"

"Manage your time and deal with the urge to procrastinate.

Take targeted notes in class.

Handle reading assignments and problem sets with ease.

Prepare efficiently for exams.

Master the art of exam-taking.

Write incisive critical analysis essays.

Write standout term papers.”

Learning more in much less time.

This book doesn't just need to be for college students!

Imagine in your career if you could learn more useful and actionable information than other people.. 

Then imagine if you could do that with only an hour or two a day vs spending a full day studying!

That would help you get ahead right?  That's what this book is all about!

There are secrets to learning that we don't know..

Not only are the students that Cal interviewed for this book high performers! But they also did it without grinding. 

They are perfect case studies for us because most of us don't have the time (or want to) grind out learning for hours and hours everyday!

Instead we want to use the most impactful techniques to help us learn more, remember better and take action in our lives!

These people probably picked their secrets independently..  But they are backed by science!

Lately on the channel we've reviewed a ton of books on learning!

  • Limitless
  • A Mind for Numbers
  • How We Learn
  • Cal's Other Books

What really struck me here is just how many of these students were using the exact techniques in those books..  

Whether they stumbled on them, were taught them early or just used them naturally the students advantage wasn't brains (everyone interviewed was smart) but it was their techniques!

Good news for us!


“In fact, when asked what one skill was most important in becoming a non-grind straight-A student, most of them cited the ability to get work done quickly and with a minimum of wasted effort."

"So how do these students achieve this goal? A big part of the solution is timing—they gain efficiency by compressing work into focused bursts." 

"To understand the power of this approach, consider the following simple formula:"

"Work Accomplished = Time Spent x Intensity of Focus"

"Pseudo-work features a very low intensity of focus. Therefore, to accomplish something by pseudo-working, you need to spend a lot of time. The straight-A approach, on the other hand, maximizes intensity in order to minimize time." 

"For example, let’s rank intensity on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being the most intense). Assume it takes ten hours to finish studying for a test by pseudo-working with a low intensity score of 3. According to our formula, this same amount of work can be accomplished with only three one-hour bursts, each with an intensity of 10. The work that took you all day Sunday to complete could instead be finished by studying an hour after breakfast, an hour after lunch, and an hour after dinner—the rest of the day being free for you to relax.”

What did you expect from a math teacher?

I love how simple Cal makes these complex topics!  Breaking them down into a formula.

  • Work Accomplished: Words written, projects done, books read (all the stuff we want to do). 
  • =
  • Time Spent: Studying, Reading, Watching or Listening.
  • x
  • Intensity: Scale of 1-10 how focused were you during the session?

So how does this formula work? 

  • Do you want to get something done?  Well you have two levers to pull..
  • Spend more time on the project. 
  • Increase your intensity.
  • Why increase intensity vs increase time?

Time is a finite resource!  Spending time studying one subject blocks you from spending it on other subjects or just other activities..

Focus intensity is also a finite resource..  But it can get stronger and better over time!  Meaning you can get more done in the day by training it. 

Read Cals book on Deep Work for more on that!

Hint: Some people call this the #1 Skill of the 21st century.

Let's do an intensity check!

  • 1. What are you trying to learn right now?
  • 2. How hard are you focusing 1-10? 
  • 3. What are some ways you could increase that intensity?  (More on this later). 


“Over time, these extended responses began to paint a clear picture."     

"When the straight-A students answered ‘I don’t defeat procrastination,’ they really meant to say, ‘I don’t defeat the urge to procrastinate.’

"And this makes perfect sense. To put it simply, some work just plain sucks, and you, like the straight-A students interviewed for this book, will want to procrastinate on this sucky work. It’s unavoidable.

"Therefore, the goal in this step is not to teach you how to love all the work and never feel like procrastinating ever again. Instead, I’m going to describe some targeted strategies to help you sidestep this unavoidable urge when it arises—not destroy it altogether.

"This is how straight-A students prevent procrastination from destabilizing their schedule. They don’t rely only on willpower and good intentions, but instead deploy an arsenal of specific, tested rules that help them short-circuit their natural desire to procrastinate.

"These students, of course, aren’t perfect, and they still occasionally put off work for no good reason. But overall their strategies made them significantly more effective at following a study plan than their peers—and this made all the difference.”

This part of the book is called: Declare War on Procrastination!

Why? Well procrastination is probably the #1 thing keeping you from your goals..

  • Nobody will ever completely overcome the urge to procrastinate..  The mind simply isn't going to want to do uncomfortable things!
  • Trying to get rid of procrastination is actually a trap..  Instead Cal tells us to prepare for the inevitability of that urge!

Five Strategies to Win the Battle:

1. Keep a Work Progress Journal

Each morning write down what you plan to get done..  (Don't be over optimistic). 

The goal is get all of these things completed!

But if you don't write down why..  Nobody wants to do that!

2. Feed The Machine

How can you get to work if you don't have energy?  

Eating healthy food, getting rest and enough exercise is just as important as anything else!

3. Make an Event Out of The Worst tasks

Do you have something that you just don't like to do?  Make an event out of it!

Studying a boring subject?  Go study in a park.. 

Have to create a slideshow?  Do it at a coffee shop..

4. Build a Routine

This one is self explanatory!  When deep work is a part of your day you're going to get more done..

Generally you want it to be first thing in the morning if possible!  (Not always possible). 

5. Choose Your Hard Days

Space out your work..  Don't let yourself have too many hard days in a row!

The Mind and Body both need rest..  That's okay.

How about you?  Ever procrastinate?

  • Let's cut it off now!  
  • Which one of these strategies are you going to adopt?  
  • What is one small thing you could do now to kick that into gear?


“The little things count." 

"This is especially true when it comes to studying. Before we get caught up in the details of exactly how to review and synthesize material, there are some basic questions that we must address first:"

"When during the day should you study? Where should you go to study? How long should you study before taking a break?"

"The right answers will boost your productivity, allowing you to squeeze more work out of even less time. The wrong answers will slow you down and make this process more difficult than it needs to be."

"Straight-A students, I found out, devote a lot of thought to these questions; they recognize how these seemingly little details can make or break their study efforts and have experimented extensively to discover the most effective strategies.”

Choose when, where and how long!

These small choices are going to be the difference between struggling and thriving!

  • Choosing the right answers here is going to make intensity an easier part of the equation!
  • Bonus points for the fact that it also allocates time to the act of studying which is important.

When is the best time to study?

  • The answer (of course) is early!
  • Generally we're more effective between the time we wake up and dinner.. 
  • Getting more studying and deep work done before dinner therefore should be our goal.

Where should we study?

  • This is HUGE for intensity: Isolation. 
  • Don't set yourself up in an environment of distraction or you won't do the time or intensity. 
  • Find a place away from other people, social media and the internet if possible!

How long should you study?

  • Counterintuitive..  Less than an hour at a time!
  • For me this is actually about 45 minutes..  I set my pomodoro timer for 45 minutes and take a 15 minute breathe break.. 
  • Find a time that works best for you (shorter in the beginner generally) and get going!  


“Whether it’s philosophy or calculus, the most effective way to imprint a concept is to first review it and then try to explain it, unaided, in your own words." 

"If you can close your eyes and articulate an argument from scratch, or stare at a blank piece of paper and reproduce a solution without a mistake, then you have fully imprinted that concept. It’s not going anywhere.

"The same is not true if you merely read over something. Passively reviewing a concept is not the same as actively producing it." 

"Most students make the mistake of relying only on passive review; they read and reread their notes and assignments, and assume that the more they read, the more they will remember. But as Ryan from Dartmouth warns: ‘Simply reading it over doesn’t work. You have to make the extra effort to get it into your head.’”

The best way to learn anything is to teach..

When we teach we're forced to know a subject from the group up!

  • There is no where to hide if you have to explain something to someone and have them understand!
  • Not only is this good in the moment but it clearly illuminates what you don't know well enough yet which allows you to circle back to that topic in another deep work session.. 

Why teach?  Fluency illusion!

  • The Fluency Illusion happens when you feel familiar with a subject..  It's easy to believe that means you know it!
  • But by teaching we take away all of our crutches..  Close the book and have to start from scratch without any help.

How can we teach without teaching?

  • Mind maps is a good example.. 
  • Collapse the Mind Map fully and see if you can explain each piece of it before opening it!
  • Maybe you start making videos as well!  My learning has skyrocketed since I made this commitment!

S P A C E 

“If you have material that must be truly memorized—dates, chronologies, formulas—there are, unfortunately, no real shortcuts." 

"You just have to keep working with your flash cards until you have no trouble providing the right answer, even after you shuffle the cards into a random order."

"Memorization is particularly dependent on your available mental energy. It doesn’t work if you try to commit items to memory for eight hours straight, but it does work if you memorize only an hour at a time and only one or two hours a day." 

"So separate the task of memorizing from your other review. Spread the work out over many days, and never dedicate too much time to any one sitting with your flash cards. Melanie from Dartmouth recalls how some of their peers would ‘review their flash cards at any opportunity—eating dinner, waiting in line at an e-mail terminal,’ which is the most effective way to commit the necessary items to memory.”

Want to memorize something?

The BEST way to do that is recall..

  • Recall is asking your mind to retrieve a piece of information without any cues or help!
  • This forces the brain to go back over the path it used to store the information..  
  • After you recall that piece the brain insulates that pathway and makes it easier to recall the next time!

Some great recall tricks!

  • Flash cards..  I love this idea so much I'm going to put it into my courses in the future! 
  • Are you studying with a mind map?  Pull up powerpoint or a graphic design tool and make digital flash cards.
  • Then when you're not busy use them to recall the information!  Ah what a hack.  

How about you.. 

  • What was the equation we talked about before?
  • What are the five strategies to win the procrastination battle?
  • What three things do we need to choose?


“As our generation finds itself increasingly stressed and disillusioned with life paths that we feel have been imposed upon us from the outside, this lesson takes on a particular importance." 

"By mastering the skills in this book you are, in effect, taking control of your own young life. You are declaring to the world that you’re not at college just because it seemed like the thing to do; instead, you’re there to master new areas of knowledge, expand your mental abilities, and have some fun in the process."

"You’re also denying your major or the climate of the job market the right to dictate what you can or can’t do after graduation. By scoring exceptional grades, you are opening the door to many interesting and competitive opportunities that allow you, and not anyone else, to make the decision of what post-college pursuits will bring you the most fulfillment."

"In the end, therefore, this book is about so much more than just grades; it is about taking responsibility for your own journey through life. I wish you the best of luck in this adventure, and hope this advice helps you to launch an exciting future.”

Studying isn't about 'knowing' something..

Knowledge only becomes useful through action!

  • Autonomy is one of the core things we all want as humans..  
  • Because of that it's a very competitive game!

When we know something it's one thing..

  • But when we can put that knowledge into action is when it becomes valuable..
  • When we can demonstrate our ability to create value then we can more easily find autonomy.. 

One part of the autonomy game though is staying ahead..

  • That's what this book is really all about! 
  • Don't learn to study to do well on a test.. 
  • Learn to study to create autonomy for yourself and others!
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