How to Get Straight A’s While Studying Less Than 30 Minutes For Each Exam


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There are plenty other traditional approaches available to you where you can learn how to get straight A’s in college. But I’m here to help teach you how to get the best study results using the least amount of time possible. This is the minimalist’s guide for how to get straight A’s while studying less than 30 minutes per exam. 

You don’t have to be any special kind of brilliant either. I’m definitely not.

My GPA was a consistent 3.2 during my first two years of business school at Penn State, and I easily studied for at least five hours before every exam I took during that time. I knew, however, in my last two years before graduation I would have much less study time at my disposal.

That’s why I needed to come up with a formula that got me from point B to point A (literally) in significantly less time.Thus how to get straight A’s while only studying for 30 minutes or less was born.

My results were incredible. I ended up raising my average GPA to a 3.8 over my last two years while also taking more difficult classes. I believe my formula will help plenty of college student get similar results.

Disclaimer: The majority of my courses were not analytical in nature. Had I chosen a path such as computer science or engineering, my approach probably would have been different.

The Tipping Point

Early in my undergraduate career I associated the word “study” with hours of intense mental labor. I spent my childhood, high school, and my first couple years of college putting in unconscionable amounts of study time to achieve grades that were very good, but definitely not great.

My junior year, while reading a book by Stephen Covey called the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, I came across a concept called Pareto’s (80/20) Principle.

Pareto’s Principle is an observation that 80% of effects in life generally come from about 20% of the causes, or 80% of outputs are the result of only 20% of inputs, sometimes more…

Here are some examples of patterns that follow this trend:

  • 20% of workers producing 80% of the results
  • 20% of people holding 80% of wealth (or in most cases more)
  • 20% of weight training produces 80% of muscular gains
  • 20% of sleep produces 80% of its benefits (REM)
  • 20% of customers create 80% of revenue
  • 20% of features cause 80% of the usagePareto's Law

This is a rough guide meaning every situation is not split exactly 80/20, but the trends holds true

How to get straight A’s using the 80/20 rule

Now, the cornerstone of this article. When examining my study habits through my first two years of college, I found that 80% of the positive learning I did was a direct result of only 20% of the work I did. 

It became my goal to find that 20% for every single class and only study for that amount of time.

Let me be clear. My goal wasn’t to achieve a score of 80% on my exams. It was always 90% and above, however, I knew it would only take me 80% of the results from my current studying input to get me there.

So how could you apply the 80/20 rule to learn how to get straight A’s in less time? Just figure out what 20% of your studying is producing 80% of your results. Simple, right?

No, not really. It took months of trial and error, and some terrible grades along the way.

Lucky for you I took the hit as the guinea pig because I think I’ve found a formula that can be used by just about anyone. Here are the three steps to get it done.

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Step 1: Read only the headings, first sentences after headings, and vocabulary of assigned readings… Before Class!!

(Estimated Time – 10 minutes)

Step 1 is by far the most critical because you cannot execute steps 2 and 3 without it. I am making the assumption here that the classes you are taking are not unbelievably easy and you are not within the top 1% of human academic minds. If either is true, my sincerest apologies.

How to get straight A’s while reducing study time is all about the prep.

Step one is all about laying the mental foundation of the course material before class! And doing so as quickly as possible.

All you need to do is create a mental outline of the content, so you can more easily fill in the details during class in your head. 

Here’s something you may or may not have noticed. 20% of my five study hours is equal to a full one hour, not 30 minutes of study.

Here’s why. I do break up the first 30 minutes into 10 minute increments of prep time before class.

If you don’t have 10 minutes to spend before each week of class, you should stop reading now. Creating a mental outline of the content is the engine behind your results. 

Professors tell us to do this all the time. It’s called reading the textbook… But let’s face it most students don’t read the text. I hardly read the assigned text, barring a few classes where the textbooks actually had great content and relevant material. <<< That was rare at Penn State unfortunately. 

But the textbook doesn’t need to be all that great for it to help you to get Pareto’s Principle to work. It just has to lay down the basics of the material so you can organize it in your head. 

Here’s how to get through reading assigned material in 10 minutes

Read only:

  • heading and subheadings
  • the first sentence after the title
  • the vocabulary words for that chapter

In that order. If you don’t get to the vocab words by the end of 10 minutes, skip it. Know for next time that you need to get through the heading and first line after the headings quicker.Speed Reading

Sometimes I also find outlines of the section headings at the beginning of chapters helpful as well. It showed me where everything fits, which is the entire point of this exercise.

The rule is though is that you have to stop yourself at 10 minutes. That’s the part that takes the most self discipline. After a few trial runs, you will get a feel for exactly how much time you should allow yourself to spend on each part of step 1.

If it is still taking you longer than 10 minutes to get through those three steps, maybe you are not reading fast enough. There aren’t many more valuable skills to learn than speed reading. The time you spend learning it will only be a fraction of the time that learning to read fast saves you in the long run.

Step 2: Put Away the Notebook

(Estimated Time – However long class is)

There’s a good chance step 2 will have you stepping out of your comfort zone. I am straight up telling you to take zero notes. 

Multitasking takes away from your brain’s ability to focus at maximum efficiency. Sure you could text your friends while you walk on the treadmill just fine. But in situations where nuance affects retention like it does in lecture conversation, multitasking makes it almost impossible to get the most out of the experience.

I also look at step 2 as preventing waste. No, I don’t mean saving trees. Stop paying $$$ to be in a classroom where all you do is write down details that could easily be found on google later.Efficiency Meter

Absorb the benefits of real interaction with professionals. Understand the nuance of the conversation, and pick out what I call a professor’s topic tells.

Professor tells are when they use social cues, intentionally or not, to stress the importance of a topic. Most times they will be insinuating the topic is likely to be covered on the exam. Some professors will straight up say when information will be on the exam. Others expect you to figure it out for yourself.

Eliminating the wastefulness of multitasking is what convinced me to take the leap toward using step 2 every day. I was willing to let my grades suffer at first to get used to it. 

Inherit Risks of Step 2

Note taking has its benefits. When you are having an off day, you don’t need to retain or comprehend any of the information in class. You can just mindlessly write the professors words on a piece of paper and save it for later. Or if the information is extremely technical in nature, you may need to have specific details written down for memorization’s sake (aka engineering, or computer science terminology)

Also, note taking is a great opportunity to create the mental outline we talked about in step one, but on paper. 

Remember executing step 1 is critical. If you can’t visualize a mental outline of the material for that day of class, you could make things even worse by not taking notes.

Step 3: Review the Professor’s Material

(Estimated Time – 30 minutes)

After completing steps 1 and 2, you should have a good idea of what the important material is to review for the exam. Best bet if you’re lost… start with the professor’s lecture slides or handouts.

Know where the content on the slides fits into the headings in the text. And look for definitional words that could potentially trip you up.

Only go over additional reading assignments if you’re getting good grade/time value. If ten minutes of reading is only going to be worth 3 points on your exam, that’s probably not worth.

Classify additional reading material as prep work at your own discretion. I personally did not unless the content was something I was interested in aside from getting good grades.

Important Tip:

When you get to 30 minutes before the exam, stop everything. Do not try to cram until the last second because it makes switching from retaining mode to critical thinking mode much more difficult.

Most exams have built in hints, or just straight up flaws that make it easier to find the answers. Picking those out with a clear head is much easier.Spongebob meme

I’m not kidding. When I was in my best form of exam taking, my mantra beforehand was “Forget Everything”. Everything is referring to everything I studied up to the exam. I would completely convince myself at that point that I could handle any problem using common sense alone. That allowed me to switch over to critical thinking mode.

Somehow I remembered way more of the material when I cleared my mind that way. This is definitely not science and I don’t expect it to work for everyone. But give it a try sometime. If you’re as crazy as me it might work.

Recap How To Get Straight A’s:

All you really need to practice to make the 80/20 principle work for you in college is 3 things: prep for 10 minutes, focus on listening instead of nots, and limit your review time to the most important content.

Forcing yourself to stop studying past the allotted time can actually be the most difficult challenge. (Who would have guessed?)

As a side note, I encourage you to spend significant time learning about the topics that really interest you. The only real education in this world is self-education, and whether or not you choose to really pursue that in school is on you. You can learn how to get straight A’s, receive a nice looking piece of paper, and land a great job, but that does not necessarily mean you put the effort into educating yourself. The benefits of which will last a lifetime.

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One Comment

  1. Jimmie June 28, 2018 at 6:51 pm - Reply

    Another tip: When you study for more than 30 minutes and take notes, shorten your notes as you review. This exercise forces you to grasp the context of the material and boosts your memory by removing unnecessary words.

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