How I Broke All the Rules and Graduated With Highest Honors

You wouldn’t think that I graduated in the top 1% of my class at UC Berkeley if I told you what kind of college student I was. Because we all have an idea of what a straight A college student should look like, and I was its opposite. You could find me in a café blasting dubstep in my headphones working on an essay that was 3 days late. Or I’d be emailing a note to my professor saying, “Sorry to miss class…again!”

And all of the spazzy wildness that I embodied as a college student actually helped me get straight A’s and launch an impressive career while a 22-year-old undergrad.

I’m here to tell you that the way we think of straight A college students is a lie.

Lies like:

A straight A student should be well organized.

A straight A student should attend every class.

A straight A student should turn in papers on time (brownie points for turning them in early).

And above all, A straight A student should play the part of a college student perfectly.

Because when I was in college I broke all the rules and found massive success as a student — and I reached a higher level of success, studied less, and was way less stressed than the other students in my classes. And I formed better relationships with my professors that led to scholarship opportunities, nominations to speak on panels in front of my peers, and, to be perfectly honest, a better chance of getting great grades.

Now, as a college success coach who’s helped thousands of students in 20 countries, I want to tear down the myths about straight A, or high-achieving students, and show you how breaking the rules can actually help raise your grades with little effort.


How I Broke All the Rules and Graduated with Highest Honors

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of how to break rules for massive success, I want to talk about one simple rule for breaking rules (haha).

Knowing why you’re breaking rules is essential. I didn’t break rules just for the sake of breaking them…I broke rules strategically when I knew I needed to (to stave off college overwhelm or to spend time finishing an important paper, or to work on something for my business).

When you break rules strategically, you can…

  • Raise your grades
  • Become closer to your professors
  • Create more time to turn in better projects
  • Limit stress and boost motivation
  • Stand out from among the crowd

So now let’s talk about what rules you can break to achieve more success in college.


#1 Going to Class

Some of the advice I hear most often from other college advisors and bloggers are that in order to get straight A’s, you should go to every class. But I’m here to tell you there are certain advantages to missing class, other than the obvious one of not having to sit through another 1.5-hour lecture about managerial accounting.

When you need to miss class (after all, you’re paying all that money and spending 4 years of your life struggling through college in order to learn) use this as an opportunity to become closer to your professor.

  1. Send your prof an email (let it be as quirky as you are — your personality should shine here, not hide) letting her know you’re missing class and you’re soo sorry about it but the craziest circumstances are preventing you from coming.
  2. Stress how bummed you are about missing her lecture on Huckleberry Finn because it’s been your favorite book since you were a kid.
  3. Ask if you can meet in office hour to discuss the finer points of the lecture and also the upcoming paper because you have a really beautiful idea you want to get her opinion on.

This way, you seem like an enthusiastic maniac of a student, AND you get the chance to separate yourself from the anonymity of the crowd.

The absolute worst thing you can do as a student is to remain anonymous.

Missing class actually gives you an excuse to communicate with your professor. And it provides a unique friction by showing that you are a good student (which you’ve communicated through your enthusiastic email) but you’re doing a “bad” student thing.


#2 Turning Assignments in on Time

Similar to not going to class, not turning assignments in on time can work to show you’re a great student while causing that sticky cognitive dissonance as you perform a “bad” student act.

Use the same strategy as missing class, emailing your prof to ask for an extension, and making your reason for requesting the extension align with “good student” attitudes.

Here’s a real example from my first year at Berkeley. I’d blown past the “request or an extension” date, but I knew I could ask for more time with this strategy.

I met with the professor the day before sending this email to suggest a second paper topic than the one I was originally working on (which was causing me much struggle and grief).

Asking for an extension can get you better grades in college

To which she replied:

asking your professor for an extension can get you better grades in college


#3 Doing all the Reading

There’s a high statistical probability that you won’t be able to complete all of the required reading for college. Don’t stress. It’s going to be ok.

Instead of freaking out over the 80 pages you have for one class, 40 for another, and the 6 impossibly hard problem sets you to have to do all by Tuesday, learn how to prioritize reading so you don’t fall behind.

There are three categories for college reading:

  1. Slow
  2. Skimming
  3. Skipping

Slow reading is for primary texts — the text that is a main focus of the lecture, or the one that is essential to understanding what’s going on in class.

Skimming is for secondary reading material that’s supposed to supplement your central text. This could be a reading that gives historical context or a theoretical framework.

Skipping is for anything that isn’t directly relevant to class (and a lot of professors will assign texts that are nice to read, but not entirely useful for the topics discussed in lecture or on tests.)

I can’t tell you the number of times I skipped even the primary text reading because of time constraints. If this happens to you bring that book with you to class and crack it open as soon as you get there and start skimming like mad. You’ll pick up on a lot of themes and content that will become expanded upon in lecture.

Don’t think that just because you didn’t have time you have to skip — skimming even at an insanely fast rate will pull information into your brain!


#4 Playing the Part of the Student

I saved the best for last because if you really want to be a high-achieving student, reading to the end of this article shows you have what it takes. Kudos to you my friend.

The absolute best rule to break is out of your role as a typical college student.

Typical = average = the kiss of death for greatness.

Because you don’t just want to be a student, you want to be outstanding.

Really an essential piece of advice I can give you is to stop thinking of yourself as a student. This is a limiting belief — because you’re not just a student, you’re a richly diverse human being.

Whatever your end goal is, hold that insight as you move through college, and you’ll ratchet up your college success immeasurably.

While an undergrad at Berkeley I petitioned to enroll in graduate classes, because I wanted a greater level of education (and cause why not?!).

While an undergrad at Berkeley I opened one (then two, then three, then four) amazingly successful art galleries.

I stopped thinking of my professors as these unapproachable authority figures and started making them my friends, in the way you build out any friendship…by hanging out in office hour, inviting them to events, or showing up at events that they were going to (like poetry readings or outside lectures, etc).

And this, perhaps more than anything, helped in my path to achieving highest honors at one of the nation’s top universities. And by following these strategies you can too.

All those things you think a straight A student “should be” are just hollow little rules holding you back.

1 Comment

  • katlynharrisfit
    I love this! It's SO important to stay true to yourself (especially if that's weird) in college! I know I used to think of all my professors as unapproachable, but they after getting to know them, I realized they are all just as quirky as me! These are really important tips that go beyond just getting good grades. By bettering yourself in other areas and as a person, you are going to come out of college so much more successful, accomplished and happy.

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