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How do top students study? 

Publicat în Quora.com

If you went to or are going to a top school like MIT, Harvard, Columbia, Berkeley, Stanford, Cornell, Caltech, Wharton, Princeton, Yale, Brown, what is your studying method?

Could you please give me advice on how to study the best possible way (especially for math classes)? How do you get good grades at the top universities? Please give me directions, like what you do before lecture, after, during weekends, how you study the book, how many books you read, how you take the tests, how much do you study, etc.

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MIT normally does not rank its students. So if you hear that someone graduated "magna cum laude" from MIT you can instantly know that this claim is a lie.

But MIT does occasionally rank students based on grades when it comes to scholarship applications. During one such ranking I discovered I was the top ranking student in terms of grades in my graduate class.

I maintained a 5.0/5.0 GPA in one of my MIT masters and 4.9/5.0 in my other MIT masters until my very last semester when I had to fly to job interviews and couldn't attend all my classes.

I achieved these grades while doing a double research load. That is I worked simultaneously for an MIT professor and two Harvard Medical School professors.

I consider myself a professional student/learner and believe that there are definitely techniques that I learned that can also be used by others to improve their grades.

I offer the following advice based on my experience:

1. Write your notes in a way where you can test your retention and understanding. Many people write notes that do a great job summarizing their materials but their notes are not designed to promote learning, retention or diagnosis of their weaknesses. But my notes can -- and so can yours.

Simply put my notes can be used like flashcards because I write them in a form where I separate a "stimulus" from a "response." The stimulus are cues or questions (think: front side of flashcard), while the response is the answer to the cue (think: back of flashcard). But the stimuli are to the left of a margin, while the responses are to the right. The key advantage of this is that just by putting a sheet of paper on top of your notes, you can hide the responses, while leaving the stimuli visible. You can have multiple margins and multiple levels of stimuli and response for greater information density. When you get good at this you can write notes in this form in real-time. To get some idea of what I'm talking about google for "Cornell Notetaking method". My notetaking method is a variant of this. I usually use completely blank paper to do this because regular lined paper has too small a margin.

To give you an idea of how powerful this notetaking method can be, I learned several courses just hours before the exam and still got an "A" in all of them during a difficult semester where I had too many competing priorities to spend long hours studying. Had it not been for this notetaking method I don't think that would be possible.

2. Develop the ability to become an active reader (this is the perhaps the most important advice I have to share). Don't just passively read material you are given. But pose questions, develop hypotheses and actively test them as you read through the material. I think the hypotheses are part of what another poster referred to when he advised that you should develop a "mental model" of whatever concept they are teaching you. But a mental model can be much more than simple hypotheses. Sometimes the model resembles a story. Other times it looks more like a diagram.

But what they all have in common is that the explain what is going on.

Having a mental model will give you the intuition and ability to answer a wider range of questions than would be otherwise possible if you lacked such a mental model.

Where do you get this model? You creatively develop one as you are reading to try to explain the facts as they are presented to you. It's like guessing how the plot of a movie, before it unfolds.


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