When I started high school, I decided I was going to become a straight-A student, even though I’d never done that before. It seemed like an interesting goal to pursue as a 14-year old. Since school was the center of my life back then, I figured I might as well succeed at it.
On my first freshman English essay, I got a C+. I was a bit miffed. I thought I had done my best.
Instead of interpreting that C+ to mean that I was going to fail at my goal, I asked, “Why didn’t I get an A? What would an A essay need to look like?”
Whenever I got less than an A in a class assignment, I kept asking, “What do I need to do differently to get an A?”
If I wasn’t sure, I asked the teacher and listened carefully. I told my teachers that I wanted all As on my report card and asked what I need to do to make it so. They gladly told me. I took their advice and followed their suggestions.
Soon I locked onto the mindset and habits that were required to earn and maintain straight As, and I kept that up for 4 years. I graduated high school with top honors, glowing letters of recommendation, and acceptance letters to top computer science universities like UC Berkeley, UCLA, Caltech, Carnegie Mellon, and more.
The surprise is that it probably took less work to earn all As than it did to earn lower grades. When you’re earning straight As, you’re learning the material as it’s presented. You’re not falling behind. You remain caught up and current on assignments. You’re not succumbing to confusion or cluelessness. If you don’t understand something, you figure it out ASAP. If you need help, you ask for help right away. You do NOT fall behind.
Students who earn lower grades often work harder because they use a sloppy approach. They succumb to bad habits like doing assignments at the last minute under pressure. They show up for tests tired and stressed instead of relaxed and prepared. They don’t learn information as it’s presented; they try to cram it in later, when they have less time, more pressure, and less familiarity with the ideas. They get a B or C and think it’s okay instead of going back to learn what would have been necessary to get an A.
To an A student, a B is an error. So is a B+. So is an A-.
When I got an A- on anything, I regarded it as a mistake. I didn’t beat myself up about it. I just kept asking, “Why not an A? What do I need to do differently?”
If I made a minor screw-up that I couldn’t have reasonably prevented, I just forgave the mistake and let it go. But if I could identify a preventable cause for the mistake, I made a note of that and figured out how to change my habits. For instance, if I made a simple arithmetic mistake on a math test, I could largely prevent that type of error by redoing any arithmetic steps again after I’d done each problem once, without looking at my original work the second time through. If the answers came out differently, then of course I must have made an error, and I could go back and fix it before handing in the test, assuming I still had time. I also learned to slowly proofread essays for spelling and grammar mistakes and to look up any word I wasn’t sure about.
Ultimately, getting straight As turned out to involve a series of simple habits. I did all my homework each night at my desk in my bedroom before playing any video games. I always did extra credit when it was offered. I gladly helped other students who wanted help with their assignments, partly since it helped me learn the material better and partly because it earned me more social support among my classmates.
I understand that there’s a lot of variability in grading. Grading can often seem unfair. An interesting study showed that the further after a meal a teacher grades your assignment or test, the lower your grade. Teachers are more generous with grading when they have higher blood sugar. So the best time for your paper to be graded is right after your teacher eats. And you probably can’t control that most of the time.
But you can use teacher biases in your favor too. If you tell a teacher you want to be a straight-A student, it will stick in their mind. They’ll often help you get there, especially if you ask for help and advice. They may even give you the benefit of the doubt when grading something subjective if they know that it’s a serious goal for you to earn an A. They usually won’t give you straight-up charity, but it doesn’t hurt to bend the subjective aspects in your favor by getting your teachers on your side.
Getting straight As has to do with your attitude and performance of course, but it also has much to do with your relationships with your teachers. If you think a teacher can’t or won’t downgrade you because of problems in your relationship, think again. Teachers are human. Even if they don’t consciously realize their biases, these biases show up subconsciously. This has been found again and again in statistical analyses of teachers’ grading patterns.
Because of the subjective nature of grading, especially with some of the softer subjects, I quickly learned that I could do all the required coursework in excellent fashion and still not feel totally secure about getting a solid A. But if I developed and maintained positive relationships with my teachers, the A was fairly secure, and a strong relationship also gave me a little more wiggle room. I could screw up now and then and still get the A if the teacher believed I had done enough (or more than enough) to earn it. Teachers are often willing to forgive a few mistakes if they perceive that a student is making a serious effort.
By committing to earning straight As, I converted my identity into that of a straight-A student. It wasn’t long before I adopted other behaviors that I thought were appropriate for a straight-A student.
In high school I developed positive relationships with my teachers by expressing more interest in the subjects they taught, which was after all their work. Even if I was already getting As, I’d ask for more information about the topics that interested me most. I’d express curiosity to learn more than what was being taught in class. I’d ask my teachers what else they were working on and if they could share some of that with me. I’d hang around after class and joke around. I sometimes joined clubs that my teachers were involved in. I didn’t do this manipulatively, and I didn’t do this with every teacher. I just did it when I was genuinely curious.
Consequently, I was invited to partake in several other educational opportunities that other students weren’t informed about. I got to go on special field trips, such as to Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena, California. I was given access to extra resources like books and software. I was invited to take a college-level course at USC while I was still in high school, which gave me college course credit. I was invited to serve as captain of my school’s first Academic Decathlon team.
We set our own standards. If a B is good enough for you, that’s your choice. But so many of the choicest opportunities in life are reserved for the truly dedicated top performers who continue to strive for excellence. Those people receive an endless stream of positive invitations.
Earning straight As doesn’t require more work. It requires a different mindset and a different set of habits, but in the long run, it’s actually less work, especially when you peer through the lens of a long time perspective. If you earn straight As early in life, you’ll gain knowledge and skills that you can rely upon later in life. You won’t always know how those skills will come into play.
I could have decided that I didn’t need to be good at writing or grammar because even in high school, I knew I was headed for a technical career. I couldn’t predict that I’d end up making a great living from writing and speaking. There was no such thing as blogging when I was in school. But I’m immensely grateful to my past self for committing to these basic skills so strongly. He set me up with some quality habits that serve me well to this day. If he had settled for that C+, he’d have put the onus on me to later relearn how to write, or to settle for weak writing skills.
Even if you’re not in school right now, life itself is a school. You’re still being graded. Your grades are your results. Life is grading you.
Are you happy with your current grades, or do you feel you’re underperforming your potential? What kind of commitment would be equivalent to getting straight As today? What will it take to rise to the top of your class, to become one of the best performers among your peers, and to develop positive relationships with mentors and learn from them?
What is your vision of personal excellence today?
Once you figure out your current straight-A standard, commit to it. Whenever you fall short, keep asking, “What do I need to do to get an A here?” Then do what’s necessary to earn that A.
Moreover, keep thinking of yourself as a straight-A student. That’s not someone else. That’s you. You’re the achiever, the performer, the one who’s dedicated to personal excellence.
October 14 - 16, 2016
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