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December 1, 2020

Improved Study Skills for 2020


Looking at some recently released Early Decision (ED) and Early Action (EA) data, the results couldn’t be more revealing. Covid 19 turned elite college admissions into a frenzy. Dartmouth, Yale and MIT ED/EA applications rose 29%, 38% and 62%, respectively (source: J Robinovitz). With Stanford’s overall admissions rate hovering at 4%, competition to enroll in America’s best colleges is fierce. Interestingly, despite the holistic approach to college admissions, solid grades and scores are at the core fundamental metric. I’ve come to realize that performing well on tests is more of a technique issue than an intelligence issue. Moreover, memorizing facts leads less to success than understanding concepts and optimizing your critical-thinking skills. The purpose of this blog is to revisit study techniques used by top students at top universities. In the words of Cal Newport, “study smarter, not longer.”


  1. Environment and the Value of Sleep
  2. Distraction – Free Zone
  3. Nutrition
  4. The Science
  5. The Take Home Message

Environment & the Value of Sleep & Music

The importance of a good night sleep cannot be overstated. Studying tired is like studying intoxicated. You must aim for that sweet spot of 7 – 8 hours of sleep per night to assure that your memories are consolidated for the long-term. MIT professor Jeffrey Grossman et al. determined that better sleep habits lead to better grades. Moreover, alternating and changing your study environment, such as a different coffee shop or a different library, improved memory and concentration. Lastly, calming music such as classical or instrumental make quiet background music ideal for studying.


Distraction – Free Zone

Silencing your phone to avoid notifications and calls, avoiding conversations, videos or radio go a long way to enhancing comprehension. Another Cal Newport innovation is scheduling your distractions, such as tending to emails, text messages and voice mail messages at intervals like every three – four hours. This allows for better focus and uninterrupted concentration without trivial distractions.


Reframe from junk food and fast food. Transition to well-balanced snacks such as slices of deli turkey, granola bars and grapes. Avoid chips, cookies and candy! Replace them with a protein smoothies, nuts, fruits or edamame. Consuming snacks that provide essential nutrients such as protein and fiber over unhealthy sugary and salty alternatives reduce sugar rushes, maintain your weight and keep you mentally sharp.

The Science

  • PQ4R
    • To improve your comprehension, use the PQ4R Technique. Instead of reading a chapter passively from beginning to end, active read. First, preview the objectives and introductory paragraph and concluding summary. Then create questions from the chapter title and headings. Follow this by reviewing charts, pictures and graphs; and turn the titles, headings and charts, into questions. Then review the ‘end of chapter’ questions. Then finally, read the chapter in earnest, answering the questions you’ve generated as well as the questions presented within the chapter. Active reading improves your comprehension.


  • Spaced Repetition

The “forgetting curve” shows that within 1 hour you forget about 50% of the material you were taught in class. After 9 hours, retention hovers around 40%. After one week without review, only 10% is remembered. Spaced repetition is an excellent tool to review material at gradually increasing intervals. For example, if lecture was today and the test is in two weeks, review your notes within an hour of lecture, make flash cards. Material that you’ve mastered review it in two days. Material that you are still weak in, review tomorrow. Repeat, increasing the interval of time between reviewing mastered content. In this way, you never have to cram before a test because you already know it.

  • Practice Test & Flash Cards


  • Passive reading creates ‘delusions of competence’ where one thinks they know the material because it is appears familiar. Research shows that top students take more practice tests than poorer performers. Moreover, where practice tests don’t exist, students can create their own practice questions via flash cards. These are tried and proven methods for success.

Final Big Idea

  • Studying straight for three to six-hours without a break, cramming or studying late into the night is not how optimal learning works and memory retention is improved.
  • The study techniques above are scientifically proven to assist you learn easier and retain knowledge longer.

Need help applying to college? Contact Ivy Bound at mrichardson@ivybound.com or text Dr. Richardson at 609.608.6258.