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The Secret to Getting Straight A's While Maintaining (Most of) Your Sanity

How to get good grades without going totally insane, from a student who's never received a B.

Photo by Pamela Rayburn

Picture this: it’s spring of your senior year and the one shred of continuity in your life is your record of straight A’s from freshman year. Your life could be falling apart around you, but at least you got all A’s, right?

If this title called to you, you must be in the same boat as many other students who are up to their ears in class work (myself included). I can attest that since I stepped foot in my high school, I have never gotten a B. I have somehow managed to maintain my sanity these last four years, crying over assignments or complaining about how much work I have to do to anyone who will listen only a few (hundred) times.

Getting good grades is more about wanting it yourself than anything else. Some people get good grades because their parents force it on them, but self-motivation is usually more impactful, and learning discipline early on in your education will keep you in check once you get to college. Here are some tips on how to get good grades without going totally insane.

Related: Your Grades Don’t Define You…But They Do Matter

Befriend your teachers/professors

Honestly, getting good grades often depends on how you act toward your teachers. They will not round up your 89.9% if they don’t like you. From the first day of class, be patient and they will be patient with you. You will get teachers or professors who aren’t friendly or aren’t interested in your sarcastic or witty banter, so for those, just do your best.

Over my last few years of school, I have befriended the teachers that everyone else hates. Maybe they’re strict, odd, or annoying, but many of them are genuine people trying to teach to the best of their abilities. Getting through to them means they will be more sympathetic of circumstances and more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt. Your teachers are dealing with their own problems and want to be validated as much as you do. Being compassionate with them goes a long way toward improving your relationships and your grades.

Make lists

Lists are a quick way to get everything you need to do on paper. When I make a list, I split it into three: what I must do, what I should do, and what I could do. “What I must do” are the immediate goals. This list comprises assignments that you actually need to do today. Think of it as a way to guilt-trip yourself. The word “must” is important. This is what’s due tomorrow.  Put boxes next to each entry so you can check them off when you’ve finished. That’s the best part; you’ll feel validated for your work.

“What I should do” is more about long-term goals—for example, any assignment not due the next day. Things like “apply for scholarships” or “buy a dress for prom” also belong on this list. These are things you probably won’t do or don’t want to do, but having them on paper will remind you that they exist and should be addressed soon.

“What I could do” are the self-indulgent things you want to do instead of homework. This may include watching YouTube, re-watching episodes of The Office, or often in my case, listening to the same five songs over and over again. I will also put trivial things like “buy a passion iced tea from Starbucks” or “take a nap.” Make this list with a sense of humor; it’s there to remind you that while there are better things you could be doing than writing about Frankenstein, you just have to grit your teeth and get it done. Then you can enjoy these things afterwards!

Make friends with people smarter than you

This is especially important if you take Advanced Placement or otherwise difficult classes. People who are smarter than you or who have better grades will encourage you just by existing, and being friends with them means you’ll know their processes and habits. They say imitation is the highest form of flattery, so copy what they do if what you’re doing isn’t working (not their homework—just their study habits! ;)

One of my best friends has a 5.0 GPA, and I see her as a goddess of sorts. That kind of GPA takes more than a little dedication. I come to her for help in math; she comes to me for English. Everyone can benefit from friends with different skills and good work ethics.

Do work in places you can actually focus in

If you try to do homework in a place that doesn’t allow you to focus, you won’t get a thing done. Sometimes your home is not the most productive place to be and you need to find comfort in other locations. For me, this is my town’s library, the Starbucks nearest to my house, or nearly any coffee shop within 20 miles. Living near LA means these types of places are nearly endless, and when I actually need to get something done, I seek them out. For reference, if you work best in places where there is good lighting and/or good food, consider searching Yelp for some nice restaurants or cafés.

Another distraction may be your study buddies. At times, studying with your best friends means there will be more talking and less working. If this is the case, kindly tell them that you’ll get milkshakes with them another day. You need to decide for yourself how you work best; where, when, and with whom. If you never figure this out, good luck getting anything done on time.

Related: So You Think You Can Study?

Listen to music, every moment of every day

If music isn’t your thing, kindly skip to the next step. But I can confess that music is the main way I stay sane while doing anything, especially school work. Find music that you like, the kind that fits your mood. There are endless playlists that can be found for free on YouTube, Spotify, or SoundCloud. Seek out music you can write to, sing to, vibe to, and cry to. Playlists that are instrumental work best for studying or writing, and there are hundreds of songs to be found on multiple platforms. Songs with lyrics generally aren’t best for reading a textbook, and you’ll end up getting distracted.

Listen to music to brighten up your school day and to stay focused when everyone and everything gets loud. Make your music inspire you to work harder, and if people in your classes annoy you, simply drown them out with your sick tunes.  

Related: Great Study Playlists for All Your High School Classes


I think we all have trouble with this one. I usually don’t follow my own advice here, as I am a night owl, but getting the right amount of sleep makes literally every school day easier. If you’re like me, you think everything should be done after 10:00 pm, which usually goes pretty poorly. Sleeping in class or not falling asleep until 3:00 am every night is honestly the worst thing you can do.

It’s all about balance. If you can balance your school work, all-nighters are not necessary. I have never in the last four years pulled an all-nighter, and while college may change that streak, if I can do it, you can too. If you really can’t find a sleep schedule that doesn’t involve getting to bed at 2:00 am, then comprise a nap schedule. Just sleep, or you’ll be miserable.  

Find your strengths

If you’re lucky, you will have already discovered this. What suits you best? What classes do you enjoy? And if you’re thinking, “I don’t enjoy any of them,” then why? Finding your strengths and employing them is a big part of finding success in any aspect of your education and career. That seems obvious, but some people give half of their effort, even with things they enjoy.

Don’t do that. Try, put effort in, and complain less. The secret to getting straight A’s is simply that you must try. Your strength may not be math, but it’s someone’s. We all have strengths, and maybe education is not where you succeed. But if you never attempt to find your strength, you’ll spend your education wondering how anyone could enjoy school (because would you believe it, some people do). For many people, strength and purpose go hand in hand. More often than not, what you are good at is what you are passionate about. Find yours and cling to it, hone it, and find ways to use it to your advantage.

Still need help acing your classes? Check out all our study advice here.

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About Pamela Rayburn

Hello! My name is Pam and I am a full-time try-hard, lover of music, the beach, and writing. I'm excited to share my knowledge with anyone who is as stressed as I am on a daily basis. I played tennis for my high school and took way too many AP classes. I'm ready for college in the fall and ready for the next step in my life. At any given moment I am either listening to music, doing homework, pretending to do homework, or writing a story idea mysteriously on my laptop.


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