Setting Yourself Up for Success in Studying

By Grayson Harris

A running start is downright invaluable in college. Here are a few tips on getting one!

Once you have chosen a college and settled in, a “honeymoon phase” tends to follow, not unlike that of a romantic relationship—you get familiar with college, get a glance at some of its more hidden treasures, try to guess its middle name.

Most incoming freshmen are highly motivated; many study diligently for hours on end, and if hard work were the only ingredient in success, that would be the end of this post! Unluckily, the saying Work smarter, not harder exists for a reason. “Obvious” study strategies (cramming, for example) are not always rewarding, and a bad semester can dampen your enthusiasm for the years ahead of you as completely as having an actual wet blanket thrown onto your head.

The good news is, that initial honeymoon period is not just a mood. It is your opportunity, if you take it, to build up habits that will encourage and support you in the long term—even when you find yourself fatigued and frustrated. Act quickly! At most, you have a few months in which to establish these habits, and they’re going to take a little planning of their own.

Now, college success will always involve meeting academic goals with a minimum of stress, but this looks different for every student. Academic goals vary, major by major and school by school, and stress varies for every individual and environment. There is no “silver bullet” or “one weird trick” for determining exactly which habits you need to form or drop to stay on top of your game. For instance, one person may find the idea of making their dorm bed every morning an irritant that only stresses them further thanks to how easily they forget to do it, while another may find it a soothing habit that imparts a sense of orderliness to the coming day and boosts their confidence.

So what you need to pinpoint are not the “habits of highly effective people”: you need the habits that help you be the most “highly effective” version of yourself. Here are three tips for spotting them.

1. Use the Scientific Method

To find the right study habits for you, you must be willing to try dozens of tactics and think about your work from different angles. Buy different kinds of pens to find out if you like gel, ink, or ballpoint. Make sure you have a comfortable chair to sit in, or good music to listen to. Don’t be ashamed to seek out your creature comforts or accept your own foibles—if you simply can’t stand the skritch-skritch of a fountain pen against notebook paper, don’t use those to take notes! If you study better alone and during the day, you might search for a secluded spot on campus to study in, or try a pair of noise-canceling headphones. If you’re an early bird or a night owl and find you retain things best in group study, keep an eye out for flocks of your feather. It may help you to have a cup of coffee while you work, or it may help you more to reward yourself with one once you finish the next page of your essay; try both and see which is preferable. In short, there is no shame in throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks.

I'll talk a word with this same learned Theban. What is your study?

2. Plan to Waste Time

Caesar Augustus popularized the Roman saying festina lente, which literally means “make haste slowly.” More than just a challenge to avoid the social blunder of being visibly impatient, the maxim encourages people to deliberately schedule themselves time to think things through and act prudently.

Time management is one of my strengths; I tend to get ahead of tasks and finish tasks well before the deadline. This leads some of my fellow students to treat me as if I am working harder than they are, when in reality, I am usually expending less energy. When I wake up at 7 am, it allows me to waste time in a planned, practical way: I know that before I write a word of an essay or read a single page of any textbook, I will surely watch a thirty minute YouTube video, spend twenty minutes in the shower, make myself coffee, and probably get distracted by several things in turn on my computer.

Your time is valuable, but trying to work under conditions that make you feel rushed and anxious won’t help you to achieve your goals. The earlier you begin working on your next goal, the more that you can waste time along the way. Remember Augustus: make haste slowly.

3. “All For One and One For All”

Professors tend to appear in their classrooms, naturally, and most offer some amount of office hours outside of class time; but between their students, their college’s administration, and their own professional research into their subject, they can be as overbooked and exhausted as their pupils.

If you’re feeling stretched thin preparing for your next task, identify students that are doing well in the class. Ask them what they are doing, and do your best to listen and imitate their success. There are no rules against approaching classmates for ideas, and they might surprise you. I’ve received entire Quizlet sets and study guides by walking up to someone’s table in the library and saying something like, “How are we going to survive this exam on Thursday?”

I hope that these tips help you to get your college experience started off right. Good luck, and festina lente!


Grayson Harris is a junior in Communication Arts at Union University in Jackson, TN. He writes monthly for Stoa (a homeschoolers’ speech and debate organization) and tutors students in reading at Lindamood-Bell Learning Solutions, located in Nashville. He hopes his writing will encourage readers and clarify their minds for the momentous decisions of life.

Thank you for reading the Journal. If you enjoyed this piece, you might also like our weekly series profiling figures from our Author Bank, like St. Gregory of Nyssa, Margaret Cavendish, and Blaise Pascal, or our posts on the great ideas of history, such as experience, quantity, and revolution. We hope to see you again soon—have a great day!

Published on 11th July, 2023.

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