How to Win at College, Cal Newport

How to Win at College by Cal Newport


  • Don’t do all the reading
    • If reading goes w/ upcoming lecture: skim the main pts, read the intros & conclusions, put tick marks by key sentences
    • Fill in gaps in knowledge w/ good notes in class
    • If assignment not covered in class will be on test: skim carefully, get help at office hrs if needed (& take good notes there)
    • Skip any optional reading, only focus on what’s needed to complete the assignment/paper
    • Science classes: more time spent on lectures & HW, not readings (balance based on class and prof)
  • Have study system
    • Specific, regimented, creative
    • Always start w/ plan: what to study, what format, # times
  • Study for exams 2 wk in advance
  • Seek people for specific help, but study majority alone (or study alone together if possible to still be productive)
  • Find study space in secluded area of favorite building (very few distractions, people, etc) – use only for big guns (midterms, finals, huge papers)
    • Everything else: switch study location around regularly
  • Study w/ quiz & recall method
    • 1st step: review notes, write ?s w/ answer locations to quiz self
    • 2: say answers out loud (full sentences) or write it down (subjects like math, phys)
      • Involve emotion: pace, lecture passionately
    • Study until self-quizzes are aced
  • Hr before exam: relax (or light to-do’s)
    • Arrive 15m early, lightly review confident parts, visualize success

Projects & papers

  • Work progress journal for long projects for motivation
    • @ end of day, write work scheduled for that day & work accomplished
  • Start long projects the day they’re assigned
    • ~30m 1st day– outline, plan, skim readings, rough ideas
  • For non-research papers: 3 days actually writing (outlining done before)
    • 1st day: one w/ few obligations (like wkend), get 1st draft done
    • 2nd: fixing arguments, word count
    • 3rd: grammar, polishing, formatting, etc
    • >=15 pg paper: still have 3 chunks, but more days (more days for 1st chunk, some for 2nd, maybe 1-2 for 3rd)

General curricular

  • Do schoolwork each day
  • Drop classes each semester
    • Sign up for extras, drop least favorites based on teaching method, syllabus, reading
    • If unsure: have conversation w/ prof @ office hrs, talk w/ students that’ve taken it
  • Befriend a prof
    • Regular office hr attendee
    • If conversations (starting w/ questions on material in class) going well, move to asking some about general academic advice
    • Keep in touch regularly after class is over (emails, in person, etc)
    • Take their other relevant classes
    • Helps w/ recommendations
  • Take art history & astronomy (intro-level)
  • Blow curve for 1 assignment / semester
    • Pick right time: must be enjoyable class & assignment during time w/ few other obligations
    • Could help to make this the class w/ friend prof
  • 1 ? / lecture
    • Write list ?s night before, hone during lecture & ask if helpful
  • 2 guest lectures / mo
  • Extra major/minor
  • Meet w/ adviser start of each semester to make sure on track, make use of them as resource (& keep in touch betw/)
  • Quality, organized school supplies; organized note-taking
  • Attend major dept events ~1/mo & have something meaningful to say to profs (maybe a paper of theirs you read, etc)
  • Worry about your grades
  • Understanding material & true learning > caring about GPA
  • Always go to class
  • Semester abroad
    • Do research before going (talk to students) & plan early (some have class prerequisites) 

General productivity

  • Have Sunday ritual
    • Start day w/ something that’ll wake you up mentally (walk, jog, coffee, talk w/ friend, etc) then attack the day
  • Avoid daily to-do’s
    • Use hourly calendar for the day: write in scheduled events, then block out rest (w/ mini to-do list off to side): chores, HW, etc
    • If get off, reschedule day ASAP
  • Give up (every now & then)
    • Persevere 1st on projects, HW: talk to peers, TA, try to solve
    • If no solution found & task knocks off your balance & time spent on other important things, give up / step down / delegate more responsibility
    • Lots of time can be spent on task, as long as productive
    • If there’s no timeframe & you could easily work tons hrs w/out doing everything that’s needed, give up
  • 50m chunks, 10m breaks
  • Schedule free time (always either relaxing or working, schedule followed rigorously)
  • Eat alone 2x/day
    • 3rd meal is w/ friends or others, when not busy
    • Use other times wisely: read paper, HW, etc
  • Study (& extracurricular work) @ library, at least not in dorm
  • Long term projects: set immediate hard deadlines (break the work down into smaller chunks)
  • Maximize summers, start planning right after winter break
  • w/ ambitious goal: have ultimate goal decided, explore many ways to get there, constantly reevaluate & focus on successful routes (explore vs exploit)
  • Keep momentum going by using small breaks betw/ classes for small tasks/chores
  • Start fast, end slow on all assignments
    • Brunt of work up front much as possible, preferably finish w/ extra days left

Organization & cleanliness

  • Keep dorm rm clean
    • Even if messy roommate: make bed, take care of your side & communal chores, keep things organized & dusted/vacuumed
  • Dress/present self nicely for class
  • Decorate/furnish dorm nicely
  • Have paper organization system (like filing cabinet– or go paperless & be organized)
  • Organize inbox
    • Use folders, including general “important” folder, until inbox empty

General extracurricular 

  • Apply 10 scholarships/awards / yr
    • Small awards + diligence = higher % success
    • Search on websites, career services center, field/major dept, companies of family members, companies of interest
    • Choose based on abilities, passions, accomplishments
  • Become club president (or start own)
    • Diligently work up
    • Only start own after 1 yr experience in one– need to learn how they work
  • Read newspaper daily 
    • Preferably paper: easy to get distracted or just read articles w/in comfort zone if online
    • Alternate betw/ opposing papers (NYT & Wall St Journal)
    • Read each front pg article & 2 others of interest
  • Do 1 thing better than everyone
    • Put in tons practice
    • “Standout students… do very little that is ordinary.”
  • Sign up for something 1st wk of college
  • Always working on grand project / big dream
  • Start academic research ASAP if doing it (actual research, helping prof in experiment or study)
    • Start looking into / contacting people end of last freshman semester
  • Pay dues
    • Work hard @ tasks given, don’t grumble about dealing w/ trivial tasks, work up until chance to say: “if you think I can handle this, I’d be happy to help” – in research, clubs, work, etc
  • Write outside of class– practice in clubs, for website, etc
  • Get on-campus job related to major (ask at least 1 mo before semester start)
  • Talk w/ & get inspiration from super high achievers
  • Listen well: lots ?s, little talking should be very thoughtful
  • Increase ambition for most important activities/projects (shoot for moon)
  • Volunteer quietly
  • Write as if going for Pulitzer in all writing (read actual winners in Explanatory Reporting category)
  • Attend political rallies, be involved politically
  • Antinetwork
    • when able to talk to person of interest in field, just be genuinely interested in their work, don’t mention anything about yourself
    • To stay in touch very occasionally send email asking ? or for advice – no favors
  • Publish 1 op-ed / semester

Mental health

  • Escape 1/wk: somewhere off campus, away from life, something fun
  • Keep in touch w/ back home friends
  • Work at friendships 
  • Laugh each day
  • Plan adventure

Physical health

  • Don’t nap
    • If tired: exercise, have cold water & fresh fruit, do simple chores/tasks, & get back on sleep schedule
  • Exercise 5d/wk
    • Maybe: gym Mon, Wed, Fri; cardio Tues & Thur
  • 8 hr sleep (or however much is needed to get good sleep w/out oversleeping)
  • Don’t binge drink
  • No all-nighters
  • Eat healthy
  • Relax at least 30m before bed


How to Win at College was a quick, fun read, easily finished in a few sittings. It’s highly practical and applicable too, getting to the point and unburdened by much theory and philosophizing. I will implement the vast majority of the points mentioned above, but some may need to be modified or entirely left out if I am to accomplish my goal in college of learning (true, in-depth learning beyond the classroom) about electrical engineering, climate change, and entrepreneurship/business, as well as filmmaking and creative writing. Other points are modified for personal reasons and convictions. 


  • Only implement work progress journal if I’m having a hard time on projects (don’t implement necessarily right away)
  • Probably won’t take art history & astronomy
    • The goal with that point was to get students to expose themselves to new topics, be more well-rounded
    • However, I’ll need to really maximize my course load to fulfill my objectives; learning about those “well-rounding” topics will probably be thru books
  • Could turn into 1 guest lecture / mo depending on workload (or less), will want to maximize these lectures ensuring they’re as related to my interests as possible
  • Will likely do extra minor (extra major likely not feasible) – maybe Entrepreneurship or Environmental Studies (could also do these as certificate programs if available)
  • May not be able to attend major dept events as often as 1/mo (would like to tho)
  • Semester abroad in Spanish-speaking country preferably, way to maintain high school Spanish (or improve on it) w/out commitment of minor
  • Need to find better app than Apple calendar, ideally one that can sync w/ email & computer (Google Calendar? Notion?)
  • If feeling really stressed & overworked, may need to eat w/ friends 2-3 times that day
  • Will prefer to go as paperless as possible, may not be possible w/ some classes/profs
  • May not have time to read all those newspaper articles, maybe 1-2 from front pg + 1 extra
    • To go paperless, ideal would be make a program that will scrape news sites & paste just text & images of article into document to send to me (avoid distractions of websites/online reading while avoiding paper also) – will likely want to learn lots of Python before college starts for tasks like these
  • May not have time to write all that much outside of class, but would like to keep website going somewhat regularly
  • Getting good on-campus job related to major may require a few semesters/yrs experience, really good rep, & being persistent in asking for one where there might not be one before
  • May not have time to be super involved politically, but still some (rallies that are close)
  • Probably won’t publish 1 op-ed/semester
  • Won’t drink at all
  • Will want to look into vegan diet/lifestyle (preferably before college starts)


I’ve also realized I will likely need to learn more about productivity and study systems, including seeing if “algorithmic productivity” (algorithm-inspired productivity) is a thing. 

Habit to start: make reminder to review these notes a few weeks before college starts, begin these habits from day 1 at college

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