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5 Books That Every College Student Should Read


After graduating from high school, I was rather anxious about starting university; on top of moving away from my parents into a new province, I was unsure of how difficult and different post-secondary education would be.

As a result, I began preparing by reading up on books, and after reading over 60, there are a specific few that helped me tremendously during my first year of university. I’ll be sharing the key takeaways that resonated with me for each book, but I’d still highly recommend you take the time to read them for yourself.

By providing instantly actionable tips or paradigm-shifting mindsets, I guarantee these books can help elevate your studying habits or cultivate a healthier school-life balance, even if **you’re in high school or are about to graduate.** Speaking of mindsets...

1 - Mindset by Carol Dweck

If you’re a grades-obsessed perfectionist like me, then Mindset by Carol Dweck is quite the wake-up call to not let such numbers impact your self-worth and mood.

The book compares and contrasts the two main learning mindsets you can have: a fixed or growth mindset.

  • When we have a fixed mindset, we believe our intelligence is fixed. Based on our intelligence, we are either qualified or non-qualified to do things; if I believe I am bad at writing essays, then that belief is a permanent truth I cannot change.
  • On the other hand, a growth mindset reframes our lack of writing skills as a learnable skill that we can improve through time and effort. We believe that our intelligence can change over time.

So, why is this important for school?

A growth mindset frees us from our self-limiting beliefs to positively reframe the obstacles we face while learning.

Upon receiving a poor grade, we may label ourselves as incompetent, and thus start to lose hope of doing well in the course. This is the curse of a fixed mindset; we let outcomes dictate our self-esteem, which then spirals into permanent beliefs about our intelligence.

Fortunately, we can adopt a growth mindset to view these events from a growth-oriented lens. Sure we may have done worse than expected, but we know we can improve our intelligence. Now we can look past the initial feelings of disappointment, and realize that we can use these mistakes as signals on where to spend time and refine our understanding.

A growth mindset also helps accept challenging and new situations, which are key for learning.

Someone with a fixed mindset bases their intelligence on their outcomes, so they will naturally avoid doing new things to protect their ego. Instead, they will stay continue doing things they are already good at. For example, when reviewing for a math exam they may only answer the questions they know how to solve, but then don’t bother finishing challenging problems they don’t immediately know the answer to.

However, someone with a growth mindset realizes that such problems are prime sources for learning. They embrace the fact that they don’t know the solution. They experiment, ask classmates, and try new approaches until they solve the question.

Essentially, growth mindsets value learning while fixed mindsets value their ego.

2 - A Mind for Numbers by Barbara Oakley

As much as we may want to cling to our usual tradition of cramming things in our brain until they stick, A Mind for Numbers helps demystify the learning process.

In reality, there are two modes of thinking that help us learn new information, being focused and diffused thinking.

Focused thinking is the mode of thinking we’re familiar with where we use rational processes to solve problems, much like how you would follow a sequence of rules to solve a math equation.

On the other hand, diffused thinking is the creative, bigger-picture thinking we unconsciously partake in while taking breaks or letting our minds wander. This mode of thinking is perfect for having more of those “eureka” moments where the answer suddenly comes into your mind.

Thus, it’s important to accommodate both thinking methods into your learning approach, whether it be by taking breaks or switching to new subjects.

After finding myself stuck on understanding an assignment or subject, I switch my focused thinking onto a different subject to let it process in the background. After I inevitably get stuck on the new subject, I switch back to the previous one with a magically stronger understanding. Through this constant switching, I also actively recall the subject content as I switch back to it to help strengthen the connections in the brain.

Instead of spending hours brute-forcing a solution without much progress, you let your mind try to make sense of it all by processing it with things you’re already familiar with. This helps both save time and improve learning at the same time!

The same principle can also be applied during tests; during the start, spend some time trying to answer a difficult question, then switch to easier ones to unconsciously come up with a creative solution.

3 - Make Time by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky

Much like the name suggests, Make Time helps us make time for what’s intrinsically important to us and less time on the mundane. It goes in-depth about a structured, daily system of highlighting, lasering, energizing, and reflecting.

Although this system is intended as a structure for the whole day, its principles can be applied to long study sessions:

  • By highlighting our key learning objectives, we can have a focused direction and resolve during our study sessions
  • By lasering, we openly try new methods to effectively learn and achieve our study goals
  • By energizing, we maintain our physical and mental energy to continue our laser sessions
  • By reflecting, we can gauge the effectiveness of the day’s applied processes and decisions to improve tomorrow’s efforts

I found myself already following a similar daily process prior to reading, but nonetheless, value can still be found in their countless actionable steps and principles.

For example, here are some tidbits from the book:

  • When highlighting…
    • Make sure the highlight is something you genuinely want to do; find something that you find intrinsically satisfying
    • Have a non-school related highlight, and put it at the end of the day to use as an incentive to make guilt-free time for it
  • When lasering…
    • Remember that quick phone checks are actually longer timesinks since it takes time to readjust our focus, so it’s best to leave them in a different room
    • Use soundtracks and other environmental cues for certain processes and moods; for example, I have a specific light configuration and Spotify playlist for tasks like reading and doing math questions
    • Instead of getting side-tracked by your thoughts, simply write them down somewhere and attend to them after your focused sessions
    • Take caffeine 2 and 8 hours after waking up to counteract the most tiring parts of the day
      • Alternatively, you can also consistently consume tea for a more consistent intake
  • When reflecting…
    • Note today’s highlight; did you achieve it? How do you feel?
    • Take note of any major distractions or obstacles and prepare for when they happen again in the future
    • Try to employ different productivity tactics during your laser sessions, then gauge their effectiveness here to see whether you should continue them

4 - How to Win At College by Cal Newport

I read this book before I started university to face the uncertainty of the new learning environment I found myself in. Thankfully, the book paved an abstract path for me to follow with actionable advice and pointers.

Although the book does mainly consist of insightful study and learning advice, if there was one thing I’d embodied the most, it was this:

College only becomes overwhelming when you let it consume your entire life

During my first semester, I had taken more than the recommended course load and had devoted the majority of my waking hours to schoolwork and studying. I did receive a high GPA because of my efforts, but looking back, enduring such mind-numbing review sessions was not worth it.

Consequently, during my second semester, I committed to doing the bare minimum to focus on other areas of my life: creating YouTube videos, applying for internships, and reading. Sure my GPA might have been lower, but I was also able to grow a passive income stream, land an internship for the upcoming semester, and experience more enjoyment each day.

Once you also find some activities you want to pursue, question their impact on your development:

Take a moment to inventory the various pursuits you have going on. How many of these goals would make you a standout if accomplished? How many would cause a professor to mention you, unprompted, at a faculty meeting? How many would lead to your name being brought up for award nominations? If you answered “none,” then it's time to inflate your ambition

Everyone who graduates from a university will have a degree; when being released into the working world, you need to somehow stand out to the employer from all other applicants. Aside from general advice of joining extra-curricular or volunteering, elevate your ambition one level higher and seek opportunities to make your growth in school one of a kind.

In my case, it was by getting an internship as soon as possible; most students apply during their second year or later, but I built a solid resume to get accepted during my first year.

Alternatively, you can also focus on your network by forming your own clubs or seeking out mentorship from professors:

Make him or her a mentor, someone who is aware of your overall academic plan, your life goals, your concerns, and your triumphs.

Don’t think you’re a burden for trying to develop a closer relationship; they may be bored out of their minds waiting for a passionate student like you to eagerly learn.

By actively getting to know guest speakers and professors, I learned a lot of things not taught in classrooms and even got a mentorship with an alumnus now working for Amazon.

Introduce yourself on the first day you meet them and develop a strong rapport through intense curiosity to lead into mentorship, whether it be doing research for them, seeking academic advice, or discussing their field of specialty.

Even after you’ve finished taking their class, keep in touch with them with the image of an established student for future referrals or opportunities, and also because they’re cool human beings :)

5 - How to Become a Straight-A Student by Cal Newport

While the previous book was more on college as a whole, this book provides some non-conventional advice for improving your studying and learning habits.

Firstly, the book introduces the idea of technical vs non-technical courses to provide case-specific note-taking strategies and studying methods for acing them.

Technical courses, like chemistry and engineering, are courses in the science and mathematics field that heavily use formulas and procedures to solve questions.

Ideal notes to take for such classes would be comprehensive and detailed explanations to solve each kind of problem.

Cal recommends creating a study guide for each unit; these should consist of all relevant slides and textbook pages, as well as a multitude of both conceptual and applied questions from textbooks, assignments, and reviews.

In reality, your studying should have mostly taken place as you first learned the topics, so review helps ensure you recall everything from your head consistently and efficiently.

As you review, be sure to log mistakes and areas of weaknesses, and ask for help when needed instead of trying to solve a question by yourself for 2 hours straight.

During the day of, refer to the mistakes log you made to remind yourself of your blind spots, review concepts, and take a deep breath. You got this :)

On the other hand, non-technical courses comprise subjects like philosophy and english, which have more emphasis on readings and writings.

When preparing for these courses, you will be tested on your critical thinking and understanding of the main themes. This will most likely come in the form of written responses and short answer questions.

To prepare for such exams, organize lecture information and take notes in a Question, Evidence, and Conclusion format:

During your lectures, organize the content based on what questions they answer, and label the supporting details as either evidence or conclusions that can be made.

There is no concrete way to organize such broad topics, so just be sure that your concept maps are understandable to you but are still relevant to the course outline.

Other than that, it also goes into some general tips for the most crucial parts of learning efficiency like time management, and essay writing.


These mental models have helped me tremendously during my transition into university, allowing me to get good grades while attending to other areas in my life.

In summary:

  • Adopt a growth mindset to embrace learning and overcome obstacles
  • Utilize the brain’s focused and diffused thinking modes to maximize learning efficiency
  • During your study sessions remember to highlight, laser, energize, and reflect
  • Stay ambitious and make your education journey unique
  • Remember how to take notes and study properly for both technical and non-technical courses

To read summaries on some of these books and thousands more, try the Shortform app for free using my affiliate link (which also provides a 20% discount!)

I use it as a healthier alternative to mindlessly scrolling during random free time throughout the day and before going to bed, as I get to learn more useful things like the concepts I shared in this post :)

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from the books and content I consume each week.

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