Jan 22

6 Tips to be a Successful Student


Written by Derek T. Mobley

President, Bryan School Alumni Association

Parts Marketing Data Manager
Volvo Trucks North America: Aftermarket Parts

In order to be successful, I think that you must realize that you are and always will be a student. You may not always have an academic institution listed as your primary vocation, but you should have the mindset that continuous learning is paramount.

Since graduating in 2010, I’ve held analyst roles at BB&T, KPMG, and now at Volvo Trucks North America. I think one of the most important skills I picked up during my academic career was learning how to learn. This didn’t happen overnight. It took many years for me to transition from someone who crammed the night before a test to someone who studied diligently (even during the summer) and took pleasure in finding out how one area of knowledge connected to another.

Numerous little experiences and lessons helped shape and improve my study habits, and I’d like to share a few of them with you in the hopes that they might inspire you in your own quest to be a lifelong successful student

1. Take Your Time (All of It)

Fortunately for me, I learned this lesson early. When we took our tests in elementary school, a group of us would compete to finish first. We were all confident we’d get decent enough grades, so the prize became who could put their test on the teacher’s desk before everyone else. One day in fifth grade after we’d taken our practice tests for our end of grade exams, my teacher sat down with me to go over my results. She pointed out that, although I’d done ok, many of the questions I missed obviously came from carelessness, and my scores weren’t good enough to get into the best classes in middle school. So, I had a choice, I could finish first and be in a class without my friends next year, or I could take my time. The answer was obvious. Use all your time to do an assignment

2. Make Time to Study

While at Chapel Hill, I decided to learn a martial art. I picked Aikido because of its focus on passive self-defense. We practiced twice a week for two hours, and initially I showed up diligently. However, as the semester wore on, I started to slack off on going to practice. My progress came to a halt and I think my instructor could sense I wasn’t going to make it. He confronted me after practice one evening to ask why I wasn’t attending. Homework, late classes, needing to go home on the weekends – I had every excuse ready. He motioned for me to stop speaking and said, “I’m going to tell you what I tell everyone else. If it’s important to you, you’ll make time for it.” I just nodded because I knew he was right.

That was when I started planning out my week and budgeting my time, and my budget always included four hours of Aikido practice. It wasn’t long before I realized this applied to my study habits as well. If academic success is important to you, set aside time to study and stick to it. Don’t even give yourself the option to deviate or make up for it later. If something else comes up, it can wait because your commitment to studying is not negotiable.

3. Find Your Sanctuary

Setting aside time to study is important, but so is making that time as productive as possible. You need to find a place that’s a part of your regular environment that you can designate as your “study zone”. Your dorm room or anywhere around friends is usually a bad place for this, because there are too many opportunities for distraction. Find your ideal study environment, go there, and just study! For me, this place was a coffee shop. I realized this when I joined my roommates for a study session at Open Eye Coffee Shop while I was at Chapel Hill and continued this when I moved to UNCG at the Coffee Break on Spring Garden (now Freeman’s Pub). Today you’ll often find me on weekend mornings at Caribou Coffee.

4. Take Detailed Notes

Of all the classes I took in high school, I enjoyed AP US History the most. Our teacher for this course gave us bulleted outlines of every lecture, which he encouraged us to take notes on. For the first time in my life, I did. I still have this impressive pile of notes detailing my entire journey through US History. Normally, if I took any notes at all, they would have consisted of something like the bullet points that I already had, so the genius of my teacher’s method was to give me every incentive to write actual coherent sentences describing why each bullet was important. This set of skills (learning how to properly structure and create detailed notes) served me well during school and still helps quite a bit during meetings at work. Always take notes, and never just bullet points. In the moment you think you’ll remember what it meant – you won’t.

5. Summarize Your Notes

Learning to take good notes is only half the battle. The key to a good review before an exam is having the ability to summarize your notes by only glancing at them. Have you gone through them enough so that you can write key facts, figures, and equations in order without referencing the notes? Can you figure out the logic behind why the information was presented in the order that it was? If you can’t, you’re not done! In my coffee shop review sessions for my graduate exams, I often found that two months of studying and twenty-five pages of notes could be condensed to less than five pages that really got to the point

6. Reinforce Learning with Online Resources

Two of the most valid complaints about classroom learning that I’ve heard over the years are:

A. People have different learning styles.
B. I don’t understand my instructor.

There are difficult instructors and there are different learning styles, and when you run into a bad combination of both you can have a serious problem. Fortunately for you, it’s 2019 and there are countless ways to supplement your classroom education online for no or very little cost. My favorites are: Khan Academy, OpenCourseWare (MIT), Udemy, and YouTube. If you’re frustrated with your course or instructor, you can have all the key concepts with examples explained to you by the best professors in the world at little or no cost. You can also rewind and re-watch their materials at your leisure at .5X or 1.5X speeds! Welcome to the future.

I hope you found this useful and I wish you all the best of luck in your current and future scholastic pursuits!


Welcome to Tips from Top Talent – a new series of blogs and video webcasts with top talent from the Bryan School of Business and Economics. Each month an alumna/alumnus will share their expertise, allowing both students and alumni alike the opportunity to learn from our talented alumni network. Topics range from personal and professional development to navigating everyday life through college and what to expect after graduation.