a guide by Andrej Karpathy
Here is some advice I would give to younger students if they wish to do well in their undergraduate courses.
I don't mean to brag but it is important for the purposes of this document, and to establish some credibility, to point out that I normally do very well in my classes (and to get an idea for my standards, I generally consider anything below 85% a bad grade). Having been tested for many years of my life, here are some rules I have come up with that have helped me succeed:
All-nighters are not worth it.
Sleep does wonders. Optimal sleep time is around 7.5 hours, with ABSOLUTE minimum of around 5hrs.
It has happened to me several times that I was stuck on some problem for an hour in the night, but was able to solve it in 5 minutes in the morning.
Always attend ALL tutorials or review sessions.
Even if they are bad. The fact that they get you to think about the material is what counts. If its too boring, you can always work on something else. Remember that you can also try to attend a different tutorial with a different TA.
Considering the big picture and organisation is the key.
Create schedule of study, even if you dont stick to it. For me this usually involves getting an idea of everything I need to know and explicitly writing it down in terms of bullet points. Consider all points carefully and think about how long it will take you to get them down.
Always try to look at previous tests BEFORE starting to study.
Especially if the past tests were written by the same professor. This will give you strong hints about how you should study. Don't actually attempt to complete the questions in the beginning, but take careful note of the type of questions.
Reading and understanding IS NOT the same as replicating the content.
Even I often make this mistake still: You read a formula/derivation/proof in the book and it makes perfect sense. Now close the book and try to write it down. You will find that this process is completely different and it will amaze you that many times you won't actually be able to do this! Somehow the two things use different parts of the memory. Make it a point to make sure that you can actually write down the most important bits.
Always try to collaborate with others near the end.
Study alone first because in the early stages of studying others can only serve as a distraction. But near the end get together with other: they will often point out important pitfalls, bring up good issues, and sometimes give you an opportunity to teach. Which brings me to:
Don't only hang out only with stronger students.
Weak students will have you explain things to them, and you will find that teaching the material helps A LOT with understanding.
Always go to the prof before final exam at least once for office hours.
Even if you have no questions (make something up!) Profs will sometimes be willing to say more about a test in 1on1 basis (things they would not disclose in front of the entire class). Don't expect it, but when this does happen, it helps a lot! Does this give you an unfair advantage over other students? No! They were not bright enough to figure this out. (or read this page :))
Also in general it is a good idea to let the prof get to know you at least a little.
Study well in advance.
The brain really needs time to absorb material. Things that looked hard become easier with time. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that novel memories from the Hippocampus seem to be copied into longer term memory during our sleep.
You want to alocate ~3 days for midterms, ~6 days for exams.
If things are going badly and you get too tired, in emergency situations, jug an energy drink.
They do work. It's just chemistry.
For things like math: Exercise > Reading
It is good to study to the point where you are reasonably ready to start the exercises, but then fill in the gaps through doing exercises, especially if you have many available to you. The exercises will also make you go back and read things you don't know.
Make yourself cheat sheet.
Even if you're not allowed to bring it to the exam. Writing things down helps. What you want is to cram the entire course on 1 or more pages that you can in the end tile in front of you and say with high degree of confidence "This is exactly everything I must know"
Study in places where other people study as well, even if not the same thing.
This makes you feel bad when you are the one not studying. It Works!
Places with a lot of background noise are bad and have a research-supported negative impact on learning. Libraries and Reading rooms work best.
Optimal eating/drinking habit is: T-2 hours get coffee and food.
Coffee or Food RIGHT before the test is ALWAYS bad
Coffee right before any potentially stressful situation is ALWAYS bad
No coffee at all is bad.
I realize the coffee bit may be subjective to me and my brain chemistry, but its something to think about for yourself.
Study very intensely RIGHT before the test.
I see many people give up before the test and claim to "take a break". Short term memory is a wonderful thing, don't waste it! Study as intensely as possible right before the test! If you really feel you must take a break, take it about an hour before the test, but make sure you study really hard 30-45 minutes before the test.
Always use pencil for tests.
You want to be able to erase your garbage "solutions"
Look over all questions VERY briefly before start.
A mere 1-3 second glance per question is good enough. Just absorb all key words, and get idea of the size of the entire test.
On test, do easy questions first.
NEVER allow yourself to get stuck on something too long. Come back to it later. I skip questions all the time... Sometimes I can complete as little as 30% of the test on my first pass. Some questions just become MUCH easier later on, I can't explain it.
Always try to be neat on the test.
Surprisingly few people actually realize this obvious fact: A human being will mark your test. A sad human being gives low marks.
Always BOX IN/CIRCLE the answer
Especially when there is derivation around it. This allows the marker to give you a quick check mark for full marks and move on.
NEVER. EVER. EVER. Leave test early.
You made a silly mistake (I guarantee it), find it and fix it. If you can't find it, try harder until time runs out. If you are VERY certain of no mistakes, work on making test more legible and easier to mark. Erase garbage, box in answers, add steps to proofs, etc.
I have no other way of putting this-- people that leave tests early are stupid. This is a clear example of when potential benefits completely outweigh the cost.
Communicate with the marker.
Show the marker that you know more than what you put down. Ok you can't do a particular step, but make it clear that you know how to proceed if you did. Don't be afraid to leave notes when necessary. Believe it or not the markers often end up trying to find you more marks-- make it easy for them.
Consider number of points per question.
Many tests will tell you how many marks every question is worth. This can give you very strong hints when you are doing something wrong. It also gives you strong hints at what questions you should be working on. It is, of course, silly to spend too much time on questions worth little marks that are still relatively hard for you.
If there are <5 minutes left and you are still stuck on some question, STOP.
Your time is better spent re-reading all questions and making absolutely sure you did not miss any secondary
questions, and that you answered everything. You wouldn't believe how many silly marks people lose this way.
Congratulations if you got all the way here! Now that you are here, here's my last (very important advice). It is something that I wish someone had told me when I was an undergraduate: do not put too much emphasis on getting amazing grades in your classes. I always used to say that the smartest student will get 85% in all of his courses. This way, you get a 4.0 score, but you did not over-study, and you did not under-study. What is most important is getting actual experience, working on actual problems. For example, try to get a part-time job in your field. Don't waste your summers away- try to get an internship. These activities don't only provide a lot of useful experience, but they also let you meet more people. Networking is extremely important-- great jobs, unfortunately, are easiest to come by through friends and luck. You may also find people that can write you a good reference letter, which is also very important for everything. It's actually very hard to over-estimate the importance of knowing people that can write you a good reference letter. You can also try to talk to a Professor you know well, and ask if they could take on an undergraduate research assistant. They may give you some tedious work to do, but it's a stepping stone to something better, you may get a reference letter out of it if you do well, and you may even get your name on a publication depending on what you do.
If none of the above works out, try to get involved with a group of people on some project, or start one on your own. Write an iPhone app. Take part in a programming contest. Contribute to some Open Source project... anything. Just get out there and create (or help create) something. This is what people are going to care about a few years down the road, they won't care about your grades unless they are bad. Use your time well.