Brilliant: The Science of Smart

Secrets of the Most Successful College Students

"What the Best College Students Do," a book by historian and educator Ken Bain, draws a road map for how students can get the most out of college, no matter where they go

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College-admission letters go out this month, and most recipients (and their parents) will place great importance on which universities said yes and which said no. A growing body of evidence, however, suggests that the most significant thing about college is not where you go, but what you do once you get there. Historian and educator Ken Bain has written a book on this subject, What the Best College Students Do, that draws a road map for how students can get the most out of college, no matter where they go.

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As Bain details, there are three types of learners: surface, who do as little as possible to get by; strategic, who aim for top grades rather than true understanding; and deep learners, who leave college with a real, rich education. Bain then introduces us to a host of real-life deep learners: young and old, scientific and artistic, famous or still getting there. Although they each have their own insights, Bain identifies common patterns in their stories:

(MORE: Can Tough Competition Hinder Academic Performance?)

Pursue passion, not A’s. When he was in college, says the eminent astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, he was “moved by curiosity, interest and fascination, not by making the highest scores on a test.” As an adult, he points out, “no one ever asks you what your grades were. Grades become irrelevant.” In his experience as a student and a professor, says Tyson, “ambition and innovation trump grades every time.”

Get comfortable with failure. When he was still a college student, comedian Stephen Colbert began working with an improvisational theater in Chicago. “That really opened me up in ways I hadn’t expected,” he tells Bain. “You must be O.K. with bombing. You have to love it.” Colbert adds, “Improvisation is a great educator when it comes to failing. There’s no way you are going to get it right every time.”

Make a personal connection to your studies. In her sophomore year in college, Eliza Noh, now a professor of Asian-American studies at California State University at Fullerton, took a class on power in society: who has it, how it’s used. “It really opened my eyes. For the first time in my life, I realized that learning could be about me and my interests, about who I was,” Noh tells Bain. “I didn’t just listen to lectures, but began to use my own experiences as a jumping-off point for asking questions and wanting to pursue certain concepts.”

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Read and think actively. Dean Baker, one of the few economists to predict the economic collapse of 2008, became fascinated in college by the way economic forces shape people’s lives. His studies led him to reflect on “what he believed and why, integrating and questioning,” Bain notes. Baker says: “I was always looking for arguments in something I read, and then pinpointing the evidence to see how it was used.”

Ask big questions. Jeff Hawkins, an engineer who created the first mobile computing device, organized his college studies around four profound questions he wanted to explore: Why does anything exist? Given that a universe does exist, why do we have the particular laws of physics that we do? Why do we have life, and what is its nature? And given that life exists, what’s the nature of intelligence? For many of the subjects he pursued, Bain notes, “there was no place to ‘look it up,’ no simple answer.”

Cultivate empathy for others. Reyna Grande, author of the novels Across a Hundred Mountains and Dancing with Butterflies, started writing seriously in her junior year in college. “Writing fiction taught Reyna to empathize with the people who populated her stories, an ability that she transferred to her life,” Bain notes: “As a writer, I have to understand what motivates a character, and I see other people as characters in the story of life,” Grande says. “When someone makes mistakes, I always look at what made them act the way they do.”

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Set goals and make them real. Tia Fuller, who later became an accomplished saxophone player, began planning her future in college, envisioning the successful completion of her projects. “I would keep focused on the light at the end of the tunnel, and what that accomplishment would mean,” she tells Bain. “That would help me develop a crystalized vision.”

Find a way to contribute. Joel Feinman, now a lawyer who provides legal services to the poor, was set on his career path by a book he read in college: The Massacre at El Mozote, an account of a 1981 slaughter of villagers in El Salvador. After writing and staging a campus play about the massacre, and traveling to El Salvador, Feinman “decided that I wanted to do something to help people and bring a little justice to the world.”

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40 comments
safdarali083
safdarali083

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thecurlyone
thecurlyone

As a new faculty member at a community college, we were given this book by the people who ran our new faculty orientation. Ken Bain really has a good way of putting things so that they make sense.

MaryKings
MaryKings

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weberhaber
weberhaber

I can send out 30 free copies just let me know where?

Happy week

thewholetruth
thewholetruth

Secrets of the most successful college students..After Daddy and or Uncle "makes calls" that get you accepted in the School... Then

1. Cheat

2. Don't get caught

3.Party all day then Lie on your job application

4, Graduate as an airhead who will probably be the boss in some company


keneckert
keneckert

To be printed and distributed as a discussion paper for my class. I teach in Korea and am continually frustrated by parents and students who feel that the purpose of life is to get into Harvard and anything else is a disappointment. How nice to see my own experience confirmed that to a large extent we don't go to good universities; we are or aren't good university students.

SedonaCole
SedonaCole

What a great, practical guide. I think the most important of the list is to pursue passion! I also think there is one more item that could be mentioned, and that is to believe in yourself. A lot of people set the bar far lower than what their potential is, and therefore really don't give themselves a chance. A great solution for that is having a coach or mentor. I found a site that had a brilliant quote on it, which said 'The definition you’ve placed on yourself – or have allowed others to place on you – is precisely why you have what you have, do what you do, are what you are and act how you act'. (Source: www.FTRnation.com, an online mentoring/coaching site). It helped me break down my own limitations and go way beyond what I though was possible. Great post!! Loved the insights.

epov111
epov111

INDEED, VERY INFORMATIVE AND AN ENLIGHTENING GUIDE!  EDUCATION IS A TICKET TO THE FUTURE FOR OUR YOUNG STUDENTS. IT MAY NOT GUARANTEE THAT THEY WILL REACH THEIR DESIRED DESTINATIONS BUT, AT LEAST, THEY GET TO RIDE THE TRAIN. OTHERWISE, THEY WOULD ONLY BE LIKE THE COWS IN THE FIELDS OR THE  STANDBYS IN THE STREETS WATCHING THE TRAIN GO BY.

weberhaber
weberhaber

tips

Most importantly the key to success is to focus on what you are doing in the present time. The thinking and the concentration follows the action, shifting around for less stress and overwhelming notions.

When we embrace and learn to love everything we do not just do what we love we embrace studies and overall life. We are content and that is the door opening our success.

Have something to look forward to from the smallest event to the most significant one and let go of past troubled memories carried out to your present time

Ana Weber

author of number 1 best seller book the money flow how to make money your friend and ally have a great life and improve the world

qa
qa

Grades are next to meaningless in society outside schools.  It's all about who you know or who likes you for reasons completely unrelated to grades.  Good luck!   

enzoborja
enzoborja

I think so many commenters are missing the point, thinking that the argument of this article puts good grades at odds with true learning. I agree with this article. The irony about getting good grades is that you will be most successful in achieving them when you are driven by something BEYOND it. Grades can probably get you in the door since as someone pointed out, scanning through so many applicants via their grades is so much easier than evaluating the true knowledge and skill of a person. That takes time. But if you got in the door only with high grades but don't really know your stuff, then it will eventually show because you won't be able to solve the problems posed to you. 

Think of the bigger picture of your life. You can have your grades to get you certain jobs. But to truly be capable of leading your life towards the direction you want, then you have to BE good and not just LOOK good.

With regards to failure, maybe you dont have to be comfortable with it. But you have to accept it. You should NOT be afraid to fail. Because restrictions on failure are restrictions on creativity and drive to pursue great things that are by their nature risky.

miker8898
miker8898

Also, I pursue A's, not really "passion".  My passions are not careers, and that's OK.  It's OK to work hard and do a good job in your field, and have your passions outside of it.  I realize that my A's will help me pursue a career that will help me later pursue separate passions.  A career for me is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. 

miker8898
miker8898

I'm sorry, but being comfortable with bombing a test is NOT a key to success.  And this is coming from a hard-working student that had a 4.0 this past semester.  

meah
meah

no more datas...you will have to cl

ZachBashevis
ZachBashevis

as Rachel explained I'm impressed that a student able to earn $6631 in 1 month on the computer. did you see this page... Buzz75.ℂom


MS01
MS01

Dr Tyson - Grades are very important!  I went to top national schools that had reputations for tough grading and I took aggressive courses (electrical engineering - EE) and ended with a 2.43 grade point average (GPA) and a class standing of 600 out of 900.  Class standing was in competition with all other majors (like English, History, Government, and Management) which I thought was unfair.  While I had a successful 35 year career in EE I feel like I was denied opportunities to advance because of my GPA.  Often, the plum positions that I really wanted were denied me mostly because of my grade point average.  For instance, I couldn't start a master's program because the university required a 2.5.  I finally found a school that needed the money bad enough to let me in for a master's degree.  Now I find myself in premature retirement because I was unable to advance to a position commensurate with my skill and experience that would allow me to continue at my salary level.  My advice is:  GRADES ARE THE ONLY THING THAT MATTERS,

aphivantrakul
aphivantrakul

Professional schools put a lot of emphasis on numbers (admission test scores) and letters (grades) because it's easier to scan through your file and see these things than to take the time to figure out if you are passionate about what you are learning.  Passion is important, but so are grades.  In an ideal world, the the two would go together, meaning if you are passionate about learning, you will get good grades.  This, however, is not always the case.  The best students keep in mind how to get good grades while pursing subjects that they are interested in.

DavidSeward
DavidSeward

I think if you follow your passion the grades will come naturally... imo!

RobbieMedved
RobbieMedved

What of those of us who desire to be deep learners but find it difficult due to the time restratins of having a full time job, and a full time family, both of which are for the most part more important than school.


KimHartshorn
KimHartshorn

There is really only one secret....all non-traditional students (the best students in general) know this secret.

Show up to class.

MHawthorne
MHawthorne

With all due respect to Mr. Tyson, people WILL ask about your grades.  You will struggle to get into a good graduate program (Master's, Ph.D., law, medicine, etc) unless you have solid grades in undergrad.  I doubt Mr. Tyson got into a good astrophysics grad program with poor grades.  You will also struggle to get an interview, let alone the job, when applying for your first professional position, especially in the highest-paying technical or business fields, unless your grades are better than most of your competition.  

While pursuing your passion is fine in theory, like it or not, grades are hugely important for the first few years after school.  When you're on your third or fourth job, few will care by then but you have to get there first.  If college is paid for and you just want a well-rounded education, then study whatever and worry not about grades.  If college is about preparing for a professional career and you will be seeking a high-paying position (or grad school), then grades do matter - which is quite sad given their inherent inability to provide a meaningful basis for differentiation.

JohnTheys
JohnTheys

My three rules:

1) Sit on the front row in every class

2) Find out who the best professors are and take their classes even if there are outside your field of study

3) Never - ever - cut a class unless you are in the hospital.

RobertBaker
RobertBaker

I wish I had spent more time with my professors asking questions that were not specfically related to their subject as opposed to relentless study . It would have given me a broader view.

ChikuMisra
ChikuMisra

@thewholetruth doubtful. Most any viable company provides a service unlike you who only issues slurs on the Internet.

weberhaber
weberhaber

So glad you like it.

I am also launching next month a new on line course program "THE CIRCLE OF SUCCESS IS WAITING FOR YOU"

This course is a fast track passage providing you simple, effective, user friendly and totally realistic tools how to reach success in the area you seek and passionate about in 90 days

PASSION CONVERTS TOMORROW'S ILLUSIONS INTO TODAY'S REALITY!

miker8898
miker8898

Also--there are individuals in academics that also have employment connections, etc...and if you're one of their top students...it may land you a job opportunity or other form of career advancement.

miker8898
miker8898

@qa Often times you need a degree to get a better job.  To get that degree, you'll need some grades, and to get into that particular degree program,you may need some grades as well.  So--you can call grades meaningless all you want, but they are actually relevant for career advancement in a number of fields.

miker8898
miker8898

@enzoborja  Well I think the author of the article is undermining the significance of good grades.  Grades gets you in the door, and often times shows you're willing to put the effort and sacrifice in to be successful.  And grades are generally an evaluation of what you know.  So getting good grades often times goes hand in hand with "knowing your stuff". 

Getting good grades and "truly being capable of leading your life" both generally require hard work.  The tools you use to get good grades can be the similar to the ones you use to be successful in the rest of your life.  

In regards to failure, I'm not comfortable with it, and quite frankly it's unacceptable to me in some situations.  If you fail at pursuing one of your goals, and accept it, you will probably move onto something else.  It is almost akin to giving up on that initial challenge.  For me, instead of accepting an initial failure, I will continue to try to overcome the challenge at hand.  


If you're determined to succeed, often times you will find a way.  You could say I care about my grades because I'm passionate about my future interests.  It doesn't mean I'm passionate about learning or school.  Quite frankly I'd rather be at the beach or playing some game.  But I generally try hard at whatever I do--whether it is a job, school, a game, etc...and generally I do a pretty damn good job.  On the outside, people see a hard-working guy.  On the inside, my motives are towards my hobbies.  And honestly that's OK.  If your product is good, it doesn't matter what motivates you.

JenniferBonin
JenniferBonin

@MHawthorne You're right, of course, that especially to get into grad school or get your first job, grades mean a lot.  After all, they're pretty much the only clear standard potential employers have, if you're too young to have any real-job experience!

But at the same time, my experience has been that most people who get good grades aren't only doing it because they like to see A's on their transcript.  They're doing it because they're legitimately interested in their subject matter, which makes them willing to put the time and effort in to doing the job well, which gets them A's.  Similarly, learning to be motivated for reasons other than only grades is important since it's what you're going to have to do once you HAVE that first job.  After all, you'll never get a second job if you're not both competent and motivated to work hard, right?  So while I agree that grades are important, I think the reason WHY you get good grades is more important than whether you got an A or A- in second-semester physics, or whatever.

qa
qa

@MHawthorne Bull.  Grades are meaningless, especially in the scant years after graduation. 

miker8898
miker8898

@JohnTheys I never sit in the front row, and I'm the top student in my program.  Sitting in the front doesn't guarantee success, nor does sitting farther back necessarily translate into lower grades.  The key has more to do with showing up to class and paying attention while in class.

judecaserta
judecaserta

miker8898 is spot on. Grades are meaningless only when you have a few jobs under your belt. Until then, they have great importance.

enzoborja
enzoborja

@miker8898 Understood. :) I guess the take home message is, if you are really passionate about what you are studying in school, then it can only help you do even better. 

But even in your case, I can see that your end goal is still your passions. You want to do well in school because you want time to pursue your passions, right? So that end goal is still driving you to excellence, which is good.

TaylorSteele
TaylorSteele

@qa @MHawthorne not if you want to go to  med, pharmacy, or even nursing school! have you see how competitive that is? after that i totally agree but most grad school degrees that are not based on finance require a decent GPA.