Each year, one of U of T's more than 70,000 undergraduates finishes top of their class. It's the kind of achievement that leads others to ask how it can be done.
It turns out the reasons for their success are no secret. All you have to do is ask. Three of U of T's past students with 4.0 GPAs spoke to U of T News about the strategies and work habits that helped them succeed. What worked for them may not be for everyone, but their advice could be a good reference for the new semester.
Bachelor of Science in experimental psychology, class of 2018
Now: PhD student in cognitive neuroscience at Duke University
I didn't know anyone in Toronto when I moved here for university from Albuquerque, N.M. U of T is a massive school, and it's really easy to feel lost in the crowd, which can be pretty disheartening. But I was in the Vic One Program, in the life sciences stream, which has classes of about 25 students. I was glad that through that program – and also just by talking to people – I was able to make friends and find mentors.
That was something that made the biggest single difference in how well I did in university. I had a voice, I had someone to talk to if I was having a problem, and it made my university experience more satisfying. I wasn't worried anymore about taking harder courses because I knew I would be OK as long as I had profs to answer my questions.
In later years, I found new mentors, like Morgan Barense, [an associate professor] in the psychology department, by volunteering in labs.
What else was helpful? It may sound obvious, but I always tried to do my readings before my classes whenever possible. A lot of my friends had to play catch up or skip readings to keep up. But by doing the readings before, I found it a lot easier to pay attention in lecture and know what was going on.
As for writing papers, I suggest getting an early start. I don't mean you should start writing essays weeks in advance, right after you get the topic. Frankly, I think that's really unrealistic. What's more attainable and really helpful is to think about your essay topic far ahead of time. Jot down a few ideas. It can just be a really messy Word Doc of notes. But it's so helpful because it'll help you realize that you actually have good ideas for a paper, and you came up with them a long time ago.
Bachelor of Science in mental health studies and economics with a minor in French at U of T Scarborough, class of 2014
Now: Intellectual property law associate at Shift Law
You may hear some students talk about “bird courses” or easy As, but in truth the difficulty of a course is subjective. Instead of looking for easy courses, I thought it was better to look inward and think about my own strengths. I looked for course content that interested me and evaluation methods that suited me.
Take the time to look at different course syllabuses to find those that work best for you. You may want to take a class with more essays or group work instead of heavily weighted exams. Personally, I tended to go for courses with more individual work and weightier evaluations, usually just a midterm and a final – even though I know many students dread this.
Secondly, it helps to get involved in activities. You often hear about joining clubs or groups on campus, which are great, but some students forget to look beyond the university. It's important to engage not just with fellow students but with professionals outside the university who might be able to further your career. I was the president of the Ontario Young Liberals in Oak Ridges-Markham and on the board for my riding association.
And then there's procrastination. You might think that straight-A students don't procrastinate; in reality, we all do. Procrastination is one of those things we sometimes take as given, something we can do nothing about. But it's important to look at why you procrastinate because different reasons call for different solutions. For me, I often needed the time crunch as motivation. For some people, they genuinely don’t like the material. The two require different responses. One might lead you to reconsider what you're doing and your goals, while the other might mean you have to create a study plan with targetable goals.
One last tip: If you do create a study schedule, give yourself more time than you think you need for each assignment. Your life will be a whole lot less stressful if you do since we tend to underestimate the time it takes to get something done.
Bachelor of Science in neuroscience with a double minor in biology and psychology at U of T Scarborough, class of 2016
Now: Second-year medical student at the University of Ottawa
I may have had the highest overall average in my graduating class, but I don’t think I’m special. I was lucky enough to find ways to learn that worked for me and I had great teachers.
If you find a system that works for you, and helps you remember and learn efficiently, I think anyone can get the grades they want.
Here are a few things I learned along the way.
I was part of the Physics Aid Centre at U of T Scarborough, a tutoring program offered to first-year students in physics, and I found the best way to learn is to teach. Teaching someone forces you to delve into the basics behind a concept. By going into the basics and connecting ideas, you're reinforcing your own learning. If you can successfully teach a concept to a friend who has a limited background on the topic, that's a sign you know your stuff.
Another important tip is to connect new concepts to things you already know. It doesn't have to be related to the same subject. In neuroscience, for example, we often learn about neurons. While neurons are cells in the human body, we can take that connection beyond biology. Neurons are also like wires in a circuit for physics that are generated from chemical gradients we learned about in chemistry.
Creating strong connections gives your brain multiple pathways to remember the same idea when you need it in the future, such as for tests and exams.
And lastly, while things start to pile up, it's important to balance studying with your social life and especially sleep to avoid getting overwhelmed. It was really helpful for me to create a mental schedule. Scheduling scares many people because it feels like you're forcing yourself to do specific tasks, but scheduling doesn't need to be rigid. You can change your schedule depending on the circumstances – as long as you remember to complete the most important and urgent tasks on time.