• 7th March 2019
  • 8 minute(s) read

How To Become A Straight-A Student — Cal Newport {Book Review}

One of the biggest struggles in my early life was that for years I did not get the academical results that I was hoping for.

Learning did not come easily to me, I was always a hustler, so here and there I found ways to push through the minimally required requirements.

But, after living in F City long enough, I began to think that I was flawed, that I was not smart enough and that I never will be.

If somebody only told me back then that it was not my brain that was broken, but that I simply did not use the right tactics, strategies, habits, and time management tricks to succeed, I would have been spared of an enormous amount of pain and doubt.

I was recently asked in an interview what book I would give my 18-year-old self, and the answer is pretty clear: Cal Newport’s How To Become A Straight-A Student.

If you are tired of failing or being mediocre academically, this is a MUST read.

30 Second – Summary

Cal Newport gives in “How To Become A Straight-A Student” the hacks, techniques, tools, and time management tricks of real straight A+ students. In this book, you will find case studies from Summa Cum Laude students from the most prestigious universities in the world like Harvard, Yale, Oxford, MIT, or Stanford.

Cal Newport did not just investigate “any” straight-A students; he only chose students who were NOT compromising their entire lives to spend every minute in the library.

If you can’t learn, you can’t thrive.”

― Cal Newport, Deep Work

My 4 Take-Aways

Lesson 1: Swap Pseudo Studying For Deep Work

I think the biggest mistake I made in my past, and that millions of other students make is to think that the more you study, the more you have accomplished.

I still remember how proud I was at myself if I pulled an all-nighter, or if I did not leave the library for weeks.

We live in a culture where we praise people who obsess about things.  We love people who follow their passion and do nothing else but that one thing.

I always thought that straight A+ students and ultra-performers were library rats and did not have any life outside of their pursuit.

This is actually quite wrong, and this is the first mindset that you have to let go off.

If you study 10 hours in one day, it may feel like you are getting a lot done, but what you are really doing is wasting an incredible amount of precious time.

So, say goodbye to your 12-hour workdays!

The studies that Cal Newport uses in “How To Become A Straight-A Student” suggest that the ideal study session length is 50 minutes.

If you spent 50 minutes on NOTHING but your one crucial task (deep recall and memorisation), three of these maximum focus sessions will get you the results you are looking for.

The danger with pseudo work is that you feel like you have achieved a lot, your results, however, will speak another language.

When you spread out your work blocks, you will even feel lazy at times because you have so much more free time, but your results will be much better.

Lesson 2: Build A Time Management Habit

One of the biggest questions that I had when I started investigating high performers and world-class experts for my Podcast was: How in the world do they get so much done!?

The answer is, they all have a working time management system.  This may sound obvious to you, but most students are really bad at managing their time.

Cal has a very simple suggestion for people who still struggle with efficiency.  His idea is to keep a work progress journal.

It is really simple:

  • Get yourself a normal journal.
  • Write down your EVERYTHING you need and want to do during the day. This includes your classes, your job, your assignments, your hobbies, when you are going to meet your friends, your gym time, etc.
  • At night, you check off all of the things you got done. This list is not solely for work; the goal is not to make your life about work only.  The goal is that you create a schedule YOU WANT.


  • Here comes the important point: If you do not check off your desire to do’s, you are forced to hold yourself accountable. You have to be honest with yourself and tell yourself that because of your social media addiction you did not finish this one assignment, or that because you were busy watching Netflix could not go to the gym.  This way, you can design your next day a little bit more realistically, and you do not betray yourself so much.  You are basically becoming your own accountability buddy.

Lesson 3: Study Through “Active Recall”

The biggest mistakes students make is to review the material as often as possible, without actively recalling the information WITHOUT ANY HELP.

Most students read the material until they develop a little sense of familiarity with it, only to then be shocked in the actual exam when they struggle left and right to reproduce the learned information.

The main problem for this phenomenon of “pseudo” studying is that your brain has different cues in front of you.  In your exam, however, you do not have those cues.

A simple example of this mistake is the language app Duolingo.  Duolingo works way too much with passive recall, you get to see cues, and your mission is to get them in the right order.

When you are in a different country, you do not have any cues, no help, just the other person in front of you.

To hack this problem, what we need to do is to swap passive recall for active recall.

Imagine yourself talking to a classroom full of students, now explain to them the important concept that you just tried to memorise.

If you are capable of reproducing the information verbally, in your own words without looking at the textbook, you got it.

The downside to this approach is that in comparison to just reading the text over and over again is that it is way harder.

The upside is that you really learn the information and that you save yourself a lot of time.

Lesson 4: Take Smart Notes

One of the biggest differences between students who struggle and students who kick ass is the way they work through the required material.

Straight A + students always go to class.  When I started studying psychology, I hated going to the lectures, why go if I can just do the work later when I feel like it right?!

Well, wrong.

If you do not go, it will take twice as long studying to make up for what you missed.  This means that going to lectures is not costing you time; it is actually saving time, which will give you more flexibility to do whatever the hell you want.

The key to taking smart notes is to identify the big ideas from the beginning.

For nontechnical courses, structure your notes into three categories:




Professional academics think in terms of questions.  This is how they see the world.  If you adopt this mindset for yourself, you rig the university game in your favour.

Here is an example from the book:

Notes On Excerpt  
Questions Was there really a big “fall” of the Roman Empire.
  • Edward Gibbon — wrote a book blaming the fall on Christians and beliefs replaces heroic virtues.
  • Rstovosteff and Toynbee — wrote books with similar arguments.
  • EXCEPT: Not Christians’ fault, but social and political problems that led to a weak empire.
Conclusion The idea of catastrophic decline and fall of the Roman Empire became popular in European circles, but it overstates realty.  Too much emphasis on what happened to the Empire.

My Opinion In One Sentence

If you are a student, study Cal Newport’s work like your life depends on it — because academically it does.

Drop A Comment And Let Me Know What Your Key Take Away Was From Cal Newport’s How To Become A Straight-A Student.

As always thank you for reading and go kick ass.

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