Life Of An Undergraduate: 10 Keys To Every Successful Student


If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants. Isaac Newton

No bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings. William Blake

Isn’t it ironic that each year, students gain admission to higher institutions of learning with a steely determination to scale the dizzy heights of academic accomplishments, only to have their aspirations smashed to smithereens within their first year at school. We all start like gangbusters only to lose all of our early contagious enthusiasm at the first sight of our first semester results. So much that recent failure statistics among young undergraduates have come to resemble those on the earliest ill-fated assault of Mount Everest with trip after trip of student expedition ending in crushing disaster.

It has been remarked that “every success has a father but failure is a bastard”. The reason being that people generally tend to gravitate towards achievers than they would with failures. But the painful truth is that success follows a predictable course. It’s all the more reason why there exists tons of self-help books on success in every shade of endeavor. The reason why the majority of students within the university communities often end up with wooden trophies as opposed to getting the medallions at university convocations has nothing to do with any supposed gap between effort and reward. In every university campus, there exists a teeming flurry of study activities comprising of both diurnal and nocturnal students. There are even those who have renounced sleep at night (TDB: till day break reading). Yet only a lamentable few manage to lay their hands on the Holy Grail. The fact is, within the irreversible and forward-only train of undergraduate life, you could only make mistakes once after which, like in Asphalt or Need for Speed, you are knocked off the race for the finish line. It’s an unforgiving terrain and one in which do-overs are few and far in between. So it would be infinitely wiser to learn off the experiences of others. Why look with hind sight when you can afford insight? The secrets I am about to share here were drawn from my 5year LLB sojourn within a Nigerian University campus and have been adapted for surefire success within the four walls of any higher institution of learning be it the Ivy Leagues or Minor Leagues. It’s almost clichéd now that students can go through school and school would not go through them. For one thing, students can be a little opinionated when approaching the four walls of an ivory tower, holding on to their own illusions of campus grandeur without reading the handwriting on the wall. When that is the case then it’s almost certain they would be forever condemned to go down the annals of university mediocrity roll-call. That is exactly what happens to the overwhelming majority of undergraduate’s students at all higher institutions. They come to school with expectations sky high and barely a few months into their chosen course of study they are provided with such a reality check that they are almost led to think they had done a career mismatch or were short on brains even in the face of a prior unsullied academic record. One O’level high flyer prima donna went to her lecturer and enquired how her first semester results could have been so underwhelming in the face of her prior excellent academic record. Guess what his reply was? “It’s because every person in your undergraduate class has had the same records you came here with and now you only happen to be the least intelligent amongst them”. Sounds funny right? That experience can be life altering for anyone especially when you arrive school with that kind of untainted academic record. After your first row of carry-over courses you might be led to think you had been a big fish in a small pond all along or that your previous school didn’t prepare you enough for undergraduate success. The fall out of this thinking is a damaging inferiority complex- a thinking pattern that seems to involve selling yourself short because you think you won’t amount to much solely on the strength of your less than satisfactory undergraduate performance.

The fact is the secrets to undergraduate success have nothing to do with your high IQ test score nor your prior immaculate academic records, as has been shown earlier. It requires that you possess a rare kind of common sense, one that sets you apart from the hapless crowd. One that can only be garnered from the wealth of experience of other successful undergraduates. When I say “experience” I mean mistakes because experience is what everybody calls their mistakes (To quote Oscar Wilde). The things to be shared here are people’s trade secrets and it’s the kind of thing no one will want to share with you. Have you ever heard interviews with successful students and the kind of responses they churn out? Hard work and determination are key! How do you apply those? Those are vague ways of telling you they would rather not share their secrets with you. They are trade secrets. This is especially so since within university campuses are countless persons who are immensely endowed with hard work and determination yet have become like fruitless trees having nothing to show for all their expended efforts. Without smart work, there will be no bridge to link your efforts to reward in the form of good grades. Even the motto of my alma mater further gives support to this view when it had said that “academic success is not a function of how long you read but how well”. I’ve had room mates who had done TDB’s (till day break reading) all through the school session only to see “bloodshed” on their results (a jargon used in Nigerian Universities to signify that someone’s name had appeared on the end of session result casualty list. “Blood” represents the colour of the red pen often used to write “F’s”). Some of the secrets I’ll share here were the product of my own undergraduate experience combined with those of a friend with whom I had stayed and who had gone on  to graduate summa cum laude (with first class distinction) in Accountancy from the same university. Throughout our time together, I studied him like a lab rat (pardon the expression) and I held his every act to laboratory scrutiny just to find the borderline line between the successful student and the one who was not. Again, I must say here that undergraduate GPA is expressed in a percentage of 100 and this percentage is in turn split across the entire duration of your undergraduate study. Your first year in school might take 10% while 15% might go to your second year with your third year taking 25% and the remainder to your penultimate and final year – assuming it’s a five year course. Once you miss it at any of these stages, you may spend the rest of your undergraduate days playing catch up.

NUGGET 1: Read Recommended Texts

 Education…has produced a vast population able to read but unable to distinguish what is worth reading. George Macaulay Trevelyan

Science is a first rate piece of furniture for a man’s upper chamber, if he has common sense on the ground floor. Oliver Wendell Holmes

Utilize recommended texts to avoid a potential “bloodshed” on your result, stay as close as possible to home. Avoid the temptation to stray. Well everybody knows you are a scholar and that you would love to drive that point home by hogging every book available at the faculty book stand. You won’t even spare online internet resources the full brunt of your scholarly indignation. It’s okay if you feel anything less is intellectual laziness. A class act you are! But have this at the back of your mind. Some of the lecturers you will be dealing with are narcissists of some kind who only care about what little ideas they may have scribbled down their few-chaptered texts, with little or no tolerance for what anybody else might have said outside their recommended texts. It has to be their way or the high way and they wouldn’t have it any other way! Again lecturers don’t usually read all of what you may have written down in the exams since in overcrowded schools like we have here in Nigeria, they may have the scripts of a full house to plough through. They will settle with marking guides (marking schemes) armed with these they may only scan your scripts for key words in your scripts that tally with those in their marking schemes. If they don’t correlate, some lecturers may be lenient enough to use their “church mind” to award you left over marks for your effort even in the face of minor incongruity arising from your “alien textbook cross breeding” (meaning the variations occasioned by combining both recommended and unrecommended texts, since no two authors views will dovetail on the same subject). But it’s worst when your scripts are handed to their “deputies” who in an overzealous bid to please and show their masters how well they can follow their instructions to the letter may just end up marking you down for minor deviations. Put “girl” in place of “woman” and you are done for. You understand now! When in class lecturers give out recommended texts since they form most of their notes using them. I have seen text books having word for word similarity with a lecturer’s dictated notes. But if they fail to disclose, then you owe yourself a self-serving duty to put that question to them in full view of the entire class. Don’t shy away from it. That takes guts. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot, patronize your lecturers, canvass their views, and quote their views in your continuous assessments. Lay it on the thick. It’s music to their ears when you do that. In my first year in school I applied myself but relied too much on online resources and guess what it got me?

Blood shed!!!

Warning!!! Take time to study your lecturers as you’d your books. Get inside their heads like a spy, get to know their individual predilections, quirks and what they want from you. You don’t want to give a man oranges when in fact they may have you asked you for apples. You will only know this attending classes. Don’t play truant. Play to every lecturer’s gallery in every case, it’s your best bet to landing those juicy grades. Some may fancy originality, others the garbage in garbage out method, others would rather you challenged their views in writing of course!

NUGGET 2: Find out what works for you


The unexamined life is not worth living. Socrates

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Albert Einstein

Take the time to find out what works for you especially as it pertains to when, where and how you read. I would say you are king on this turf. Since nobody else can make that decision for you. Take a personal inventory of yourself. The campus herd mentality demands that you follow everyone else without questioning. But you know a well as I do where that would leave you. It might not work out for you. Take me for instance, in my first year in school I ran afoul of this nugget and I didn’t take the necessary time to inventory my strength and weaknesses. Back then I would usually get all busy during the day and later get to hang out with friends long after classes had ended. And just when I was feeling tired I would head back to the hostel in the hope of getting a little sleep and then heading back to hit the books at night. Pigs might have fared better flying compared to the workability of my ideas then. I was so beat that the moment my head had touched the pillow, I was far-gone in sleep. Even on those rare days when I did make it back, I fought more battles than I read. I was always up against sleep and fatigue. The whole experience made me think that I had been flawed in some way, because unlike my peers who could last an entire night out reading, I could barely do half the shift. However, in my third year of school, I stumbled by the revelation that I wasn’t really a night person neither was night reading my thing. Come to think of it, my early childhood experiences with late nights didn’t nominate me as the watchman. When I discovered this I just made the most of my day. I cut down on unnecessary discussions after class and I ensured I took my siesta during the early hours of the day. That way I could stay fresh reading into the early hours of the night. Back then in my first year, I had a roommate who did really fill the watchman mould. This guy would get up to all kinds of high jinks during the day and would never be caught dead reading. Then at night, he would rake his books together and then jet off for TDB (till day break reading). One time I ventured out with him in his late night reading expeditions and sure enough, I had an awesome time out. Guess what happened? I went snoring the moment I had set foot at the reading hall. But the guy himself never blinked an eye the whole time.

But on the other extreme, I had this course mate who never spared any minute to chat with anyone at the end of class. He just hurried off in that I-have-business-to attend to- kind of way. We could have been forgiven for thinking he had set up shop elsewhere. The problem was, we were of the same clan. Only that he had realized way earlier than I that night times didn’t favor his reading and had decided he would make hay while the sun still shone. He kept to this routine as you’d a diet. Siestas were set for and that was that. That’s exactly the kind of dedication anyone would need as an undergraduate. Otherwise you’d be on pins and needles the day you hear results are out. Again think carefully the cost of every technique you think would work for you. I’ve realized among our TDB students that they don’t cheat sleep. More often than not, they’d spend the better half of the day trying to recover from the exertions of the previous night. And this could mean skipping classes and important assessment tests. As for where to read, any place would do. For me, my room worked best. After my third year epiphany, I rarely stepped foot outside my room to read. I preferred the comfort it offered me to the chilling and cold biting atmosphere outside. And just when roommates would return from their late night reading expeditions to turn the room into a mad house, I would switch to ear piece mode. These days in school, everyone has one of those, it was for keeping out the oft recurring arguments among roommates as to who was the better player of a Lionel Messi and a Cristiano Ronaldo. It was part of my adaptation to the university environment, where noise making was a given. Still find out where you enjoy reading best. Experiment is the word.

NUGGET 3: Start Reading Early

On the plains of hesitation lie the blackened bones of countless millions who at the dawn of victory lay down to rest, and in resting they died. Adlai E. Stevenson

Inch by Inch, life’s a cinch. Yard by yard, life’s hard. John Bytheway

This one is for our fire brigadiers (a term for those who wait till only a week or two to their exams before they commence reading). Earlier on it was said that “academic success is not a function of how long you read” but how well. The “how well” in that statement implies consistency. Two hours invested in reading everyday will make you quite a force to be reckoned with unlike reading 7 hours a stretch once every week. In my third year, I heard the narrative of a final year Geology class topper who had fried her brain cramming and was given a whole year’s sabbatical from school work to attend to her fried brains. She so crammed to the point where her brain got jammed the moment she set her sights on the exam questions. She went into overdrive. That could only happen when you only read at critical moments. Just save yourself the needless sabbatical trip and attend to your books early on when the semester is still at its infancy. Again, in school you will always see your higher version, someone who can read longer, cram better than you in every aspect. I had an engineering student in my room in my second year of school who put every single one of us in the room in the shade with his overpowering reading schedule. He was one of those breeds who could go nine hours reading without a break. Did you just laugh! He somehow managed it and his reading schedule ran from six to six each day. No one in my room could even hold a candle to him. We had all resigned to the feeling that we had all come to school to be his escorts reading-wise. Don’t feel overwhelmed by anyone around you, stick to your guns. You are not in competition with anyone. You can hold your own!

NUGGET 4: Solve Past Questions

Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it. Edmund Burke

I came, I saw, I conquered. Julius Caesar

In the Field of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind. Louis Pasteur.

I am a great believer in luck, and I find that the harder I work, the luckier I get. Stephen Butler Leacock

Well, no matter how much shift you put into reading, without solving past questions expectations of lofty exam triumph could be nearly a shot in the dark. Past questions are the look of things to come and if your studying is really forward-looking then you had better pay attention to them.  Success at school examinations requires precision and that can only happen when you take the past questions route. Firstly, it may serve as a way of measuring your preparation for the exams. Somehow it does give you a sneak preview of the gray areas you still need to work on before that day of reckoning. When all you do is nod in agreement, as you plow through them, then you know you are all set. Secondly, you should see to it that you run your answers to past exam questions by your lecturers. That way they could spot potential exam gaffs in your work. It’s not a rarity to find lecturers uncharacteristically doling out exam do’s and don’ts when someone approaches them in this guise. The plus side of a habit like this is that you would always find your lecturer’s offices open to you and they will be more than willing to oblige you anytime you show up. This was our accountancy class topper’s #1 trade secret. He solved more past questions than he read if only to gain familiarity with the possible questions he stood to be examined by. Later he would just waltz into lecturers offices with his solved questions as though they were his kith and kin or near blood relatives.

Well I could almost hear someone saying that “if I did that, wouldn’t I be limited in my reading?” Here is my advice to you. Read as wide as you possibly can, but still use the past questions as your guide. In my third year in school, in my Commercial law class, our dean who took us on that course was incurably addicted to repeating a particular question and for four sessions running he had repeated that same question at every commercial law exam. I could only have known this through reading past questions. I simply paid it special attention and voila! There it was again in the exams!

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Patrick Herbert is the Editor-in-Chief and founder of Law Student Hub. He is an LL.B. Law graduate from the University of Benin, Nigeria. He’s a life enthusiast, a budding writer and internet entrepreneur. Patrick is deeply passionate about law and research and has inspired many with his thought-provoking articles. To get in touch, follow him on social media.

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