How many hours do top students study?

show a top student

You want to be a top student, but does it mean that you should study as much as possible? You probably have heard of top students who are geniuses and do not study at all. But then there are top students who spend studying 12 hours a day. So how many hours do top students actually study?

The hours that top students spend studying vary from student to student. It can be as low as 20 hours per week and as high as 70 hours per week. For example, at Ivy League schools such as Yale, some top students spend about 50 hours per week studying. However, there are top students who spend 30 hours (or less) per week studying.

So why there is such a discrepancy? How can someone achieve the same results studying 30 hours per week as someone who is studying 50 hours per week? Is the amount of time spent studying even important?

Why it does not matter how many hours do top students spend studying?

While it does sound rather counter-intuitive based on several prominent academic studies (1, 2, 3) – time spent studying is not that important. This is probably what explains the discrepancy.

“Contrary to popular belief, the amount of time spent studying or at work had no direct influence on academic performance.” – Sarath A. Nonis & Gail I. Hudson

These studies have tracked students over a period of time and looked into what determines a good GPA (Grade point average). In all of these studies, the amount spent studying did not predict GPA (1, 2, 3). There were students who studied a lot and still got bad grades and students who studied very little and got good grades. And vice versa.

A similar conclusion can be reached after reviewing opinions on online forums and blogs. For example, Cal Newport shared the story of a student who spent about 70 hours studying every week and still got an unsatisfactory exam result. See the student’s crazy study routine bellow:

  • Monday – Thursday – 11 hours
  • Friday – 10 hours
  • Saturday – Sunday – 9 hours

So what is happening here should you stop studying because it means nothing. The answer is NO – don’t stop studying, but study smartly!

What the studies (1, 2, 3) find and what Cal Newport (expert on learning) says is that academic success is not a function of time spent, but is a result of good study and lifestyle habits.

So what makes one a top student?

Based on the studies, one of the most important factors that make one a top student is not how much you study but how you study. In particular, a study by Anders Ericsson (the author of PEAK) and a study by William Rau and Ann Durand found that the following factors resulted in higher GPA:

  • studying alone in a solitary environment
  • having a clear study plan with goals
  • having prior experience (good highschool grades and exam results)
  • attending the classes
  • not having part-time work
  • drinking less alcohol
  • methodical, consistent studying

Of course, you have to keep in mind that these studies are quantitative and as a result cannot account for deeper factors and specific studying methods.

Cal Newport’s book “How to win at college” provides a more in-depth analysis of what makes a top student. Newport interviewed top students from some of the best universities such as Harvard and compiled a set of tips on how to succeed at college. The most relevant tips in the context of this article are:

  • Don’t Do All of Your Reading
  • Build Study Systems
  • Start Studying Two Weeks in Advance
  • Don’t Study in Your Room
  • Don’t Study in Groups
  • Do Schoolwork Every Day
  • Attend Guest Lectures & Always Go to Class
  • Keep a Work-Progress Journal
  • Study with the Quiz-and-Recall Method
  • Don’t binge drink

Although I will not go into each of these factors in-depth in this post, you can observe a pattern here. Top students are not students who study the most. Top students are students who study effectively, consistently, and have lifestyle habits – academic excellence is a habit!

“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, have those because we have acted rightly. we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act but a habit.” – Aristotle

So how long should you study to improve your grades?

The conclusion from the aforementioned studies and the book by Cal Newport is that you should not be asking how long should you study. Rather you should ask yourself how long can I study effectively?

You would be surprised, but most of the people cannot be productive for a very long time. Although there is not much data on students, there are studies about workers. For example, according to one study, an average knowledge worker is productive only for about 3 hours a day.

Here is a list of the most popular unproductive activities:

  • Reading news websites–1 hour, 5 minutes
  • Checking social media–44 minutes
  • Discussing non-work-related things with co-workers–40 minutes
  • Searching for new jobs–26 minutes
  • Taking smoke breaks–23 minutes
  • Making calls to partners or friends–18 minutes
  • Making hot drinks–17 minutes
  • Texting or instant messaging–14 minutes
  • Eating snacks–8 minutes
  • Making food in office–7 minutes

And if we are being honest many students succumb to similar problems – instead of actually studying they check their phones, hang out with their friends and leave all of the studying for late night.

So getting back to the question how long you should study? Well, our recommendation (partly based on the advice from Cal Newport’s book) is that you should study every day (including weekends) for at least 2 hours (excluding time spent at the class).With lectures about 30 – 40 hours per week. However, your focus should be on efficient studying rather than the number of hours!

From my personal experience, I know that sometimes it just seems that you have no other choice – you just have to study for a longer time such as 10 hours a day. But generally, you should avoid such situations as much as possible. And you should ask yourself what I would do if I had only two hours to study? Or how can achieve the same results for 5 hours rather than 10 hours?

How do you study more efficiently? this is a great question and we have already shared some tips from Cal Newport’s book above. However, this is a large topic and if you want to learn more about efficient studying I have written a separate article that you can read here.

Other important factors that affect time spent studying

It is quite clear that the proposition of this article is that the main reason for why some students attain great results with limited work while others not is that they know how to study effectively. However, there are other factors that might determine the time that one needs to spend studying to get a top grade. These factors are:

  • The intensity of your degree & university – some degrees are just more intensive than others. The same goes for university – an environment in some prestigious universities such as Harvard is just a lot more competitive and demanding than in others.
  • Your prior knowledge on the subject – some students can achieve top scores with limited time spent studying because they are already quite familiar with the subject. For instance, many Computer Science students already know how to code before joining the university and as a result have a head start before those who did not learn how to code before starting a CS degree.

What about talent?

Well, research by Anders Ericsson (see the video below) has revealed that talent is not key to achieving success in any field. Instead what is important to succeed is deliberate practice and having a good teacher. Although the topic of deliberate practice is a huge topic on its own in essence it means studying something in a purposeful way (consistently and with a goal mind). If you want to learn more about it I recommend reading this blog post.

Concluding thoughts

A lot of us have the underlying false belief – the more you study the better grades you will get. However, the research is quite clear – your focus should be not on the amount of time spent studying but on the quality.

So asking how long do top students study is a wrong question. You should rather ask how do they study. And in particular, you should look into those students who can achieve great results with limited time since these students are probably those who have found the most efficient ways of studying.

So stop making excuses that you have no talent or that you cannot become a good student because you do not have the time to study. Instead start adopting efficient studying practices and good consistent studying habits. And if you will really take these steps to improve your grades in deliberate way I am sure you will succeed!

Danielius Korsakas

Has a BSc in Economics and currently is pursuing a double master's degree in very fluffy but interesting subjects. Loves learning and building stuff.

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