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The Principles of Academic Success

Written and contributed by Tan Jye Yee, NUS Law School Class of 2012

I can isolate three important ingredients to academic success: proactivity, consistency and knowledge of the assessment system.

a) Being proactive means to pay total attention in class, ask questions when you don't agree with the teacher or need clarification, probe deeper than what is "required for the syllabus" to enhance your understanding and not accept what you are taught unless you are genuinely convinced through self-learning and validation.

b) Consistency would strengthen your grasp of what you learn through continual reinforcement. I would recommend at least 3 hours of study every week day, even when examinations are not near, and you should increase the number of hours towards the examination period.

c) Knowledge of the assessment system allows you to tweak your learning and studying process to prepare yourself for the questioning style, content and difficulty of the papers. Find out what you are likely to be tested on through whatever means and try to understand an examiner's point of view: why is the question asked (i.e. what is being tested), what answer would suffice to fully solve the question, what is expected of reasonably competent students of your educational level and what are pitfalls to avoid that might reveal your shaky understanding of the subject at hand? The last part is a crucial balancing act between providing adequate explanation and not revealing what you don't truly understand.

Apart from these instrumentalist tips, it's important to get your mind in the correct paradigm. The "how" question is often asked of academic success, but the "why" question is rarely examined by many students. Do you think academic success is important for you to earn a lot of money in the future? Do you want to truly learn and develop an educated, highly cognitive, analytical yet creative mind? Do you enjoy the compliments and credibility that you get with excellent grades? What are you doing in the classroom, where is it taking you? Think really hard about the real reason, see the world a little more, then decide again on your motive. While your objectives might remain practically stagnant (to succeed), your reasons for succeeding are supposed to be dynamic.

I have always been outstanding at examinations (10 A1s at O Level's and 6 Distinctions at A Levels) but have never really understood what I wanted from studying so persistently. In primary school, I did well because I wanted to make my parents proud. I wanted to earn their respect and increase my worth in their eyes. Now, I study harder to enrich my mind, to broaden my world perspective, to attain crucial, indispensable knowledge and skills as well as to learn how the world works so that I can thrive in it.

It might seem like a waste of time to ponder on this, since it's not as urgent as actual preparation for the examinations. But what is not urgent may be more important than what seems to be so pressing at the moment. Learn to snap out of your hectic life once in a while and do a re-evaluation of your life objectives. Write a personal mission statement and change it from time to time.

Most people are more keen to learn the "how" of success because we all know doing well in examinations generally brings positive outcomes. Yet knowing "why" brings assurance, happiness and a sense of inner stability, and would shift our fundamental paradigm and transform our attitude towards learning. In a sense, knowing "why" ultimately underlies your "want" and determines how successful you will be at utilising the "how".

If you do conclude that there is no good reason for you to study, to learn, so be it. I, however, recommend that you speak to others first about how you feel, get some more exposure in life and be truly convinced that your thinking or decision is the right one for you, taking into account your friends' and family's possible perception and treatment of you, your would-be status in society, your range of probable opportunities in the future, etc. Don't delude yourself just because you don't like to study or are not good at it. Your dislike can be overcome by cultivating an interest, and your competence can improve over time through guidance and effort, but a lost opportunity for education is gone forever.

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