The Secret to Success at School

If I ask “what skills do you need to succeed in school” what would you say?

Perhaps the first things that sprang to mind were academic – biology skills for days or fantastic writing prowess. Don’t get me wrong, if you’re the very model of a persuasive essay writer or a star when it comes to the Krebs cycle that’s excellent. Seriously. One of the keys to academic success is working really hard to master the material you’re learning in class. The stuff you’re being directly graded on. The things it’s easy to see yourself learning.


There are other skills, though, that don’t get nearly so much attention. You rarely get a report card on them and here’s not really a rubric for you to follow. But the “soft skills” you’re learning along the way are essential to academic success.

But Katie, you might say, if there’s no grades and no rubrics, how will I know if I’ve got them down? Maybe I’m bad at all of them and I’ll never even know?!?

Fear not. I’ve got you. Read on for five top soft skills to master for your school life and beyond.

Find Your Pace

While movies and TV shows might show students pulling all-nighters and working to make frantic deadlines, I’ve got to say, in real life it’s less glamorous than it looks. That’s why learning to pace yourself (emphasis on yourself – more on that in a minute) is so important.

If you’ve read this blog before, I bet you know what I’m about to say. But just in case, here’s a refresher. Plan things out in advance. Keep a calendar, in whatever format works for you, of all your assignments and obligations (that includes everything from volleyball practice to your weekly dog-walking gig). Break large assignments into small, manageable parts. You know the drill.

Okay, with that out of the way, let’s get back to that “yourself” part. To really be a boss at pacing yourself, you’ve got to know what works best for you. For example, I love writing, but I can’t just sit down at a blank page – I have to spend lots of time thinking it out. So, if I have to write a paper and I have a week to do it, I know I’ll spend the first three or four days just thinking and organizing my ideas. Then the writing goes fast and I save some time for editing at the end. That’s my pace. If you’re a person who needs to do a lot of free-writes, my pace would be horrible for you.

Think about how you work and set your pace accordingly. Are you a fierce procrastinator? Pretend the deadline is earlier than it is. Do your best work at night? Plan for some p.m. study sessions that still let you get your zz’s. Thrive on repetition? Leave yourself plenty of time to review. Learning how you do your best work and how to make time for it sets you up for success long after you’ve turned in your last final paper.

Reach out with Confidence

To be an academic success, you’re going to have to find ways to communicate effectively with your teachers, professors, coaches, TAs, tutors, and other academic advisers. If you have questions about an assignment or are confused by a lecture or even if you’re just curious to learn more about something – a lot of your academic success depends on you feeling able to reach out to the people teaching you. I know it can feel intimidating, but we’re all here to help you!

The best way to get good at this is to practice. If you’re nervous, feel free to make notes of the things you’d like to cover. Or, if you feel unsure if your instructor has time to talk, go to their office hours or ask them to set up an appointment with you. Think about what makes you avoid reaching out, then find a way to make that less of a challenge.

On the plus side, being an effective communicator isn’t just applicable to academic success – it also helps you feel confident in job interviews, ask the essential questions when you’re buying a car, and a million other interactions with the wide world of adulting.

Become a Great Listener

This might sound like the simplest one on the list, but it’s actually a little tricky. When I say you need to learn to listen, I don’t just mean paying attention in class. I mean you need to cultivate open ears and an open mind to go with ‘em. Learn to listen to the voices around you, really listen to them. It can be all too tempting to listen with half your brain while thinking about what you’re going to say next – but put that impulse aside. Focus, instead, on taking in what you’re hearing. Practice mirroring it back to the people you’re talking to. Think about where they’re coming from. 

Empathy, the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, is one of the most valuable soft-skills you can develop. Being able to listen and shift your perspective can help you both work in a team and lead one effectively. It can help make you a savvy reader and bumps your analytical skills up to the next level. Keep those listening ears tuned in.

Practice saying “I don’t know”

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again – being comfortable saying “I don’t know” is the closest thing there is to a scholarly superpower. I’m not saying it’s the best superpower there is, I’m just saying, if you asked me if I’d rather be able to fly or confidently admit when I don’t know something? I’d take that last one every time.

Being able to say you don’t know helps you communicate better. It lets you be a student (and friend and teammate and employee and…well, you get the idea) who can put aside worries about “being smart” and ask important questions that others might be afraid to ask. It lets you learn things more deeply and completely. It helps people around you feel at ease admitting that they, too, might not know the answer. Being willing to say you don’t know helps you be a champion student and is the setup for lifelong learning.

Cultivate Curiosity

This last one shares a little territory with each of the four previous tips. Taking care to nurture your own curiosity is a prime way to set yourself apart, both as a student and in the wider world. Staying curious means going above and beyond – learning as much as you can and never asking “but will this be on the final?” It means a hearty dose of intellectual risk taking – sign up for that astronomy lab even though you’re not a science major or take a painting class even though you haven’t painted since you were six. 

Speaking of six-year-olds, they’re excellent examples of what it means to cultivate curiosity. If you’ve spent any time with a little kid lately, you know that they’re often overflowing with questions – about the world around them, the people they meet, the books they read, and their favorite dinosaurs. They want to know so much! Harness your inner kiddo. Learn about the world, learn about yourself. Keep being interested and engaged, even if you’re not getting credit for it. It’ll help you solve problems in innovative ways and see solutions you wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. Keep asking questions and seeking novel solutions.

Even though they might not be on your syllabus this semester (or any other), working on these five soft skills is just as important as your core academic ones. They work together to make you a collaborative, imaginative, and communicative powerhouse. They’ll help you stay organized and create ways to work that are perfect for you. Best of all, these skills stay with you and transfer to practically everything you do in the future. 

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