Secrets of Straight-A Students

Education experts and students reveal the secrets of maintaining high grades.

By Edwin Kiester | Jr. from Reader's Digest
  • Clean up your act. Neat papers are likely to get higher grades than sloppy ones. “The student who turns in a neat paper,” says Professor Olney, “is already on the way to an A. It’s like being served a cheeseburger. No matter how good it really is, you can’t believe it tastes good if it’s presented on a messy plate.”


Speak up. ”If I don’t understand the principle my teacher is explaining in economics, I ask him to repeat it,” says Christopher Campbell. Class participation goes beyond merely asking questions, though. It’s a matter of showing intellectual curiosity.

In a lecture on capitalism and socialism, for example, Melendres asked the teacher how the Chinese economy could be both socialist and market-driven, without incurring some of the problems that befell the former Soviet Union. “I don’t want to memorize information for tests only,” says Melendres. “Better grades come from better understanding.”

Study together. The value of hitting the books together was demonstrated in an experiment at the University of California at Berkeley. While a graduate student there, Uri Treisman observed a freshman calculus class in which Asian-Americans, on average, scored higher than other minority students from similar academic backgrounds. Treisman found that the Asian-Americans discussed homework problems together, tried different approaches and explained their solutions to one another.

The others, by contrast, studied alone, spent most of their time reading and rereading the text, and tried the same approach time after time even if it was unsuccessful. On the basis of his findings, Treisman suggested teaching group-study methods in the course. Once that was done, the groups performed equally well.

Test yourself. As part of her note-taking, Domenica Roman highlights points she thinks may be covered during exams. Later she frames tentative test questions based on those points and gives herself a written examination before test day. “If I can’t answer the question satisfactorily, I go back and review,” she says.

Experts confirm what Roman has figured out for herself. Students who make up possible test questions often find many of the same questions on the real exam and thus score higher.

Do more than you’re asked. If her math teacher assigns five problems, Christi Anderson does ten. If the world-history teacher assigns eight pages of reading, she reads 12. “Part of learning is practicing,” says Anderson. “And the more you practice, the more you learn.”

The most important “secret” of the super-achievers is not so secret. For almost all straight-A students, the contribution of their parents was crucial. From infancy, the parents imbued them with a love for learning. They set high standards for their kids, and held them to those standards. They encouraged their sons and daughters in their studies but did not do the work for them. In short, the parents impressed the lessons of responsibility on their kids, and the kids delivered.