How to get a 4.0

One of the biggest misconceptions in college is that you have to be really smart to get good grades.  Many people think that to come out of undergrad with a 4.0 you need to be some kind of genius or have zero social life.  Neither of these ideas are true.  I am nearly done with school and have not lost my 4.0 (yet, at least), and I hang out with friends regularly and am definitely not a genius.  Getting good grades or even a 4.0 comes down to approaching your scholastics with a certain mindset, studying in the right ways, and working hard.

One thing I want to make clear is that it is never too late to start implementing the advice below.  Are you a junior with a 3.6?  Follow the below steps and try to get it up to a 3.75.  Are you somewhere around a 3?  Do everything you can to fight up to a 3.5.  The better your GPA, the better your chances at getting into the school you want, and even a semester of solid performance can swing your GPA.  Don’t opt to not try because you think you’re already too far behind.  Keep working.  Every point counts.

Course load

This one’s an easy tip.  Don’t overdo it with classes.  If you’re just coming into college, I’d suggest starting with 15 credits.  Most courses are 3 credits (a credit is how many hours per week you’ll be in class), and 5 classes is about the average you’ll see on any campus.  Once you’re comfortable with that, you might opt to ramp up to 16-18 credits if you want to take some electives, do an independent study, etc.  I’ve found that this is a busier but still manageable load for a student willing to work.

Choosing courses

As mentioned in the post on choosing courses,

“In my course search, I often utilized  I have found that the professor is the single most important variable in determining if I will like a course (even above subject matter).  If there are two course sections available to you, and one is taught by a far better professor, but the other is at a much more convenient time for you, always always always choose by professor.  Who cares if you don’t have Tuesday/Thursday classes if your Monday/Wednesday/Friday classes are awful?  My Hip Hop and Social Issues class took place from 7-10 on a Tuesday night…hardly ideal.  However, the professor was so engaging and passionate that I looked forward to class and it flew by.”

There are several variables that are going to affect your ability to succeed in a course and keep your grades up, including:  the course itself, the professor, the day the course falls on, the time the course is at, etc.  As mentioned above, go with the best professor whenever possible.  Great professors make the material interesting, which makes the course enjoyable (or at least tolerable), which makes learning come more naturally, which makes it easier to succeed.  In fact, if I were to rank the factors I just mentioned in their order of impact on your grade, my list would look like this:

  1. The professor
  2. The course subject
  3. The time of day (do you learn best in the morning, midday, even night?)
  4. The day of the week (if you can get an ideal day for you, even better)


I think that this is where a lot of students get tripped up.  Maybe you’ve studied for 10 total hours before an exam and still only pull a B- or C+.  Most likely, this is an error in how you’re studying.  Let’s take a look at some tips.

First, there is the issue of the textbook.  Should you read it?  Should you not?  Etc.  Well, I would recommend that for the first exam, at least, you try to keep up with the textbook, especially if you’re in a class where the professor explicitly says something like, “half of the exam material will come from the textbook and will not be covered in lecture.”  After you get your exam back, reevaluate.  What percentage of the questions would you have gotten right if you just went to class and read the lecture notes?  What percentage of the questions came from material not covered in lecture at all?  5%?

If it’s a low percentage like this, you may really want to consider dropping the textbook from your routine.  From my experience, professors aren’t usually apt to deviate wildly test to test in what percentage of questions come from the textbook vs. lecture, and 5%, especially on a multiple choice test where you will get 25% of that back on average anyway, isn’t worth the time spent drudging through a textbook.  However, if you’re someone who likes the secondary exposure of a textbook or has a particularly bad professor and are thus using the book to teach yourself the concepts, by all means keep going with the book.  For the rest of you, though, your time would be better spent going over your lecture materials.  If I were to guess, I’d say that I could’ve gotten As in about 70% of my classes without touching the book.

But how do you go over lecture materials?  Typically, what I do is I take handwritten notes during the lecture, even if powerpoint slides were provided (this has been shown to aid in memory).  Once I get home for the day or find a break, I pop the important points into a flashcard set on  I do this every time I have class and the flashcard set gradually builds up into my study set for the exam.  Now, there is a right way and a wrong way to study this set.  Here’s the right way:

  • Start early
    • I like to start studying for my exams about a week before the test.  Spreading my studying out leaves me with less studying to do per day, which makes things feel so much less overwhelming (and has been proven as a far more effective studying method than cramming).
  • Repeat
    • Make sure you go through your set at least once a day for a week straight leading up to the exam (around 30 mins a day).
  • Nighttime
    • Studies have shown that if you do your studying in the evening (as close to the time you go to bed as possible), you will retain more.  I’ve implemented this myself and have gone from barely knowing a set to knowing it quite well literally overnight.  It’s pretty astounding-try it for yourself.
  • In the same format
    • If you’re going to be tested multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank style, flashcards are fine.  However, if the format involves short answer or essay responses, you’ll have to be a bit more creative.  What I do is think of all the possible short answer/essay questions that could be asked (this becomes easier once you see what topics the professor is focusing on the most) and try to formulate how I would respond to each of them.  If there are timed portions of the test (say, 15 minutes per essay), make sure you’re timing yourself as you practice.
  • No all-nighters
    • Just don’t do it.  Missing out on a few hours of half-effort, sleepy studying is a far better choice than taking the test with a sleep-deprived brain.
  • Build a memory palace
    • If you’re creative and have a lot of information to retain (say, for a world civ or art history final), try making a memory palace (instructions here).  I have only done it once for a final exam in world civ but it was the best study tactic I have ever used.  I still can remember facts from the test and the exam was nearly three years ago.  The cool thing is that once you have the “palace” set up, you don’t need any materials to study, just your head.
  • Try the Pomodoro Technique
    • The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s.  The technique uses a timer to break down work into intervals traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks.
      1. Decide on the task to be done
      2. Set the pomodoro timer to n minutes (traditionally 25)
      3. Work on the task until the timer rings; record with an x
      4. Take a short break (3–5 minutes)
      5. After four pomodori, take a longer break (15–30 minutes)
  • What about math?
    • If you’re in a quantitative-based course, you can still do the Quizlet method for formulas and concepts, but more of your prep should come from practice problems.  The same rules apply.  Start at least a week in advance and do 30-60 mins a day.
  • How do I know if I’ve studied enough?
    • One way that I can start to realize that I know the material well enough to be tested on it is if I can start remembering what card will be next in my study deck.  Also, when I start to get the feeling that if I have to look at these same words again I’ll lose it.

Test taking

If you’ve followed everything above in regards to studying, you should feel pretty good come test day.  Here’s how to finish the job:

  • Stay confident, but not calm
    • You know your stuff.  You should be confident in that fact.  However, you should not be so confident that you’re not at all nervous.  It is still a test and will still impact your grade so you need to approach it as such.  In psychology, there is a thing called eustress, or good stress.  Your performance on a task peaks when you have a moderate amount of stress on you.  Not too much that you’re crippled but not too little that you don’t go over things carefully.
  • Do the problems you’re sure of first
    • Struggling with a hard problem does four things: frustrates you, makes you nervous, wastes time, and makes it less likely that you will get to a problem you do know.  Leave these for the end, if there’s time.
  • Do the 3 checks
    • Check that you’re comfortable with your answer choices (you have not made a silly mistake)
    • Check that your test booklet choices match your Scantron answer choices
    • Check that your Scantron answer choices end at the number that your test booklet does (the worst thing you can do is skip an early Scantron bubble and have all consequent answers suffer because of it)
  • Chew gum before the test!
    • The chewing motion gets blood going to the head, improving memory.
    • Bonus: Chew the same flavor of gum while studying.  When you do it while taking the test it’ll trigger the memories associated with it form before (the material learned).

Group projects

If you’ve been a part of a group project during your undergraduate career, you know that sooner or later you end up with a group that is just awful.  If you are to keep your GPA high, you will need to be a leader, and do everything you can to keep that group from failing.  That means scheduling group meetings.  That means doing more than your fair share of work.  That means being the one to print out things to bring them to class.  That means being the one who takes the hardest part of the presentation and leaves the introduction to someone else.

Is this fair?  Of course not.  But in an instance where your grade is linked to the grades of others, you can either watch them drag you down with them or you can pull all of you up.  Now, you may be thinking, “well, I’ll just give them a poor review at the end of the project.”  Don’t do that.  First, they also have the power to rate you and even if it’s anonymous they might happen to see what you wrote and enact revenge on you.  Second, you may very well work with that person again (the beauty of random group assignment).  Don’t burn bridges.  If you rate everyone well and do more than your fair share of the work, they have no choice but to rate you well and you’re one step closer to your 4.0.  People who slack off will be weeded out eventually.  Plus, you picked up some practical skills and can talk about the project you led during an interview.

Some more important tips  

  • GO. TO. CLASS.
    • This is an important exposure to the material that you cannot afford to miss.  The professor may say things in a way that makes things click for you or mention something that will/will not be on the exam.  There might be attendance points, bonus points, a pop quiz, etc.  Just go to class.
  • Keep a planner
    • This is the only way to keep everything truly organized.  You need to know when assignments are due and when tests are coming up (so you can start studying a week in advance).  One thing that I also like to do is remind myself to do something that another thing hinges on.  For example, if a report is due on Tuesday, I’ll write “report due” on Tuesday and “print report” on Monday.  If I have a test on Friday, I’ll write “test in class X” on Friday, and “study for exam in class X” on Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.  Putting it on paper makes it that much harder to ignore, and crossing it off makes you feel accomplished for the day.
  • The first ___ matters most
    • In any class, the first report, assignment, exam, etc., matters most (obviously, if the final is worth 75% of your final grade this is not true but you’ll see my point).  If a professor is particularly impressed with the first essay you write, they are more likely to have a positive bias towards your work for the rest of the year.  I’m not saying that this will get you an automatic “A” or anything, it almost certainly won’t.  However, the professor might be that much more willing to overlook a small error on the paper of a student who can show how well they can write than someone who turned their first, poorly written paper in two days late.  As far as exams are concerned, scoring well on your first one gives you momentum and confidence.  I can assure you it is a completely different feeling going into a final thinking, “OK, I just need an 80% on this and I have an ‘A’ in the course” vs. “OMG I need a 95% on this to get an ‘A’ in the course.  I hope I don’t mess up.”  Plus, some courses have an exemption policy where students who have done well throughout the year don’t have to take the final exam.  This comes in handy during finals week, allowing you to focus more attention on the other exams and projects that you have.

Mastering “I’ll pass”

Like I said at the beginning of this post, getting good grades does not mean you have to give up your social life.  However, you will have to make some sacrifices.  There will be those nights where it seems like every single one of your friends is going out and you are dying to join but have an econ test the next morning that you’re not quite ready for yet.  There will be many instances like this, and your friends will inevitably ask or even beg you to come along.  If you are really serious about succeeding in the classroom, you will often have to utilize “I’ll pass.”

Now, I’m not saying you should be a hermit and not see your friends anymore.  You need to take breaks and set aside time for friends.  However, you probably won’t be able to do everything you want to with your friends, and that’s just how time management works.  There are only 24 hours in a day.  Putting the work in and missing out on some fun things is never easy, but the rewards make up for that.

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