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8 Secrets of the most successful college students

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“What the Best College Students Do,” a book by historian and educator Ken Bain, draws a road map for how students can get the most out of college, no matter where they go.

A growing body of evidence suggests that the most significant thing about college is not where you go, but what you do once you get there. Historian and educator Ken Bain has written a book on this subject, What the Best College Students Do, that draws a road map for how students can get the most out of college, no matter where they go.

As Bain details, there are three types of learners: surface, who do as little as possible to get by; strategic, who aim for top grades rather than true understanding; and deep learners, who leave college with a real, rich education. Bain then introduces us to a host of real-life deep learners: young and old, scientific and artistic, famous or still getting there. Although they each have their own insights, Bain identifies common patterns in their stories:

1. Pursue passion, not A’s. When he was in college, says the eminent astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, he was “moved by curiosity, interest and fascination, not by making the highest scores on a test.” As an adult, he points out, “no one ever asks you what your grades were. Grades become irrelevant.” In his experience as a student and a professor, says Tyson, “ambition and innovation trump grades every time.”

2. Get comfortable with failure. When he was still a college student, comedian Stephen Colbert began working with an improvisational theater in Chicago. “That really opened me up in ways I hadn’t expected,” he tells Bain. “You must be O.K. with bombing. You have to love it.” Colbert adds, “Improvisation is a great educator when it comes to failing. There’s no way you are going to get it right every time.”

3. Make a personal connection to your studies. In her sophomore year in college, Eliza Noh, now a professor of Asian-American studies at California State University at Fullerton, took a class on power in society: who has it, how it’s used. “It really opened my eyes. For the first time in my life, I realized that learning could be about me and my interests, about who I was,” Noh tells Bain. “I didn’t just listen to lectures, but began to use my own experiences as a jumping-off point for asking questions and wanting to pursue certain concepts.”

4. Read and think actively. Dean Baker, one of the few economists to predict the economic collapse of 2008, became fascinated in college by the way economic forces shape people’s lives. His studies led him to reflect on “what he believed and why, integrating and questioning,” Bain notes. Baker says: “I was always looking for arguments in something I read, and then pinpointing the evidence to see how it was used.”

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