Cal Newport’s How to Win at College: Surprising Secrets for Success from the Country’s Top Students includes among its 75 short chapters not only those pearls of wisdom handed down by parents since the beginning of time (#4 – Make Your Bed and #59 – Eat Healthy) but also some truly counterintuitive strategies passed along from today’s college superstars (#1 – Don’t Do All Your Reading and #12 – Avoid Daily To-Do Lists).


As someone looking for information to share with new college students on how to be successful, I found the insights on study systems and navigating the college bureaucracy particularly useful.  The amount of material required in a college curriculum is so overwhelming that students who don’t figure out their study strategies early on get swept under in the flood of information.  Also valuable were the specific tips for developing writing skills and staying on top of those long-term projects (the “downright evil” papers of 11-20 pages described in #41 – Use Three Days to Write a Paper).


I was also impressed to see the psychological health of college students addressed in a number of chapters as much of doing well in school is developing strategies to recover from the inevitable disappointments and establishing strong rituals for self-care (#29 – Find an Escape and #36 – Exercise Five Days a Week).  My favorite was #11 – Do One Thing Better Than Anyone Else You Know.  Building a strong sense of identity and self-confidence (which comes with owning a singular skill) carries you through so many of life’s low points and takes away the power of others to dictate your mood. An internally-regulated self-worth, as opposed to being dependent on the approval of others, provides the buffer necessary for success in a world where digital comparisons often leave us feeling lacking.


For me, the most important take-away from Newport’s guide was to recognize college is not just an isolated four-year period to be completed before moving on to the next phase of life but can be a tremendous opportunity to build for the future.  The habits and tactics used to navigate college successfully served as a springboard to a lifetime of accomplishment.  The students interviewed by Newport were not waiting for their lives to begin – they started fast during those college years and gained a tremendous advantage for the rest of their lives (another strategy, #73 – Start Fast, End Slow).


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Source: Newport, Cal.  How to Win at College: Surprising Secrets from the Country’s Top Students.  New York: Three Rivers Press, 2005.

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