By Stefanie Weisman
I’ve been a top student for most of my life—high school valedictorian, highest GPA from Columbia University, master’s degree on a fellowship—to name a few. I’m proud of my academic accomplishments, but I’m even prouder of the obstacles I overcame to achieve them.
I have very poor listening comprehension. This means that I usually walk out of class in a daze, with little or no idea of what the teacher has been saying. It isn’t until I read the book or my notes that I understand anything. (I often suspected I had a learning disability, but it felt silly to consider getting tested when I had excellent grades.) On top of that, I had a stutter that turned simple tasks such as saying my name into a terrifying ordeal. However, I refused to let my stutter silence me. Years of speech therapy, combined with the conviction that my ideas were worth sharing, kept my level of class participation high. And when I had to give oral presentations, I came extra prepared to alleviate the nerves that would potentially worsen my stutter.
As you probably can tell, being a top student wasn’t easy for me, and I began to wonder what was making the difference. I paid attention to my classmates and saw that many were cramming for exams instead of spreading out their studying; not re-reading complex homework assignments; taking minimal notes during class; and spending too long on one subject or project at the expense of others. I also realized that I had unwittingly developed many habits and ways of thinking that set me up for success.
I embarked on some research and surveyed forty-five other outstanding students on how they achieved academic success. This group includes Rhodes scholars, Goldwater scholars, Fulbright recipients, a National Spelling Bee Champion, and students in top law and medical schools. The results provide a fascinating glimpse into the minds of some of the best scholars in the country. You might think that they would list intelligence as the key to their success – but determination, hard work, the desire to learn, and pressure from self, in that order, were rated as more important than IQ. This reminded me a lot of my own situation.
Like me, very few of the students in my survey would be considered geniuses or naturals. In fact, they worked significantly harder than the average student. In college, 67 percent of them spent twenty or more hours a week studying and doing homework. Contrast this with most full-time college seniors, who, according to the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, spend ten hours or less per week preparing for class. The top students in my study exhibit what Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth calls “grit,” a combination of determination and self-discipline that is a far better predictor of success than IQ or inborn talent.
Another intriguing find from my survey: most top students don’t have so-called tiger mothers. In fact, 75 percent of them said that their parents were supportive without being pushy, compared to 18 percent who reported feeling pressured by their family to get good grades. It seems that most high-achievers don’t need helicopter parents because their motivation comes from within. And when asked to describe their most important study technique, a remarkable number of top students expressed a similar, surprisingly simple strategy: start early and space it out.
Am I saying that anyone can become a top student? I wouldn’t go that far, but academic success is based far more on effort and perseverance, and much less on talent and smarts, than most people think. So if your teenager lacks some raw ability, they can overcome many weaknesses with lots of determination and hard work.
Stefanie Weisman is the author of The Secrets of Top Students: Tips, Tools, and Techniques for Acing High School and College. Follow Stefanie on her website, www.valedictoriansguide.com, or on Twitter @StefanieWeisman.