Advice for Student Excellence

Read widely

Books suggested by your teachers (ask them!); books related to your interests; bookstotally unrelated to your studies or interests. Then read some more, just for the sake of it. Don’t forget things which aren’t books – magazines, websites, audiobooks etc. Libraries allow you to consume as much reading matter as you like, for free. Literacy is vital for everyone, even (especially?)  if you really want to do Maths and Physics – people are hugely impressed by a mathematician who can read and write at a high level. Of course you are already literate at a basic level, but are your literacy skills up to the level of your abilities in your best subjects? If not, you may find it hard to convince people that you are really that good, even if you feel you understand everything. You will write better if you read things which are well written. 

Listen to Educational Radio and TV Programmes

Listen to radio and TV programmes which are intended to educate. Radio 4 is particularly good – there is a programme to suit every subject and interest you might have (e.g. Leading Edge, In Business, All in the Mind, Case Notes, In Our Time (my favourite), Analysis, More or Less). To combine entertainment and education: Q.I. (not suitable for younger students), University Challenge, Mastermind (of course), lots of programmes on BBC2 and BBC4. 

Surf the Internet

Surf the Internet, starting with things you want to know more about, and ending up somewhere quite different.

Ask/Answer Questions in Lessons

Put up your hand to ask/answer a question at least once in every lesson – it reminds the teacher you’re there and helps to keep you focussed.

Talk About Your Learning

Talk about your learning. It may not be easy to find people to talk to who share your interests, but try: friends (maybe you can interest them in your favourite topics); family (older people are useful for ‘grown-up’ conversation, and younger ones to try explaining your ideas); teachers (always busy but will welcome talking to an interested student – choose your moment). Blogs and forums can be useful, and there will be at least one for your particular interest, but this does not replace real face-to-face talking. Perhaps you could set up a ‘study group’ with people who have similar interests. 

Find a Challenging Hobby

Find a hobby which you are not naturally very good at, and enjoy/suffer  the experience of going through the early stages of learning. For some students, every lesson is like this, but you may not recently have experienced the sheer terror of not being able to do something (but wanting to). Learning a musical instrument may be particularly useful here, particularly if you have always thought that you’re not musical.

Do Something to Help Other People

Do something to help other people, thereby avoiding getting closed into your own world. The inside of your brain is a great place to be, but you do need to get outside as well. Voluntary work is great for your own development, and impressive to others if you need to impress. Mix with different sorts of people (old/young, social groups, interests) 

Take an Interest in News and Current Affairs

Take an interest in news and current affairs. Basic news bulletins can be depressing, boring and superficial, but there are plenty of programmes with proper analysis and discussion of issues. Try Channel 4 NewsWorld News Today on BBC4 and BBC World Service radio as well as magazines (Prospect (my favourite)Time, Newsweek, New Statesman, The Spectator, The Economist, New Scientist) and websites. Find a particular issue which gets to you, and really inform yourself so that your views are based on evidence, and can be defended from those who take the opposite view.

Learn a Foreign Language

Learn at least one foreign language. This can provide the ‘stretch’ you may not always get from other subjects which you can do easily. With a foreign language you are always learning something new and developing skills to higher levels. As a British person you will impress everyone simply by being able to speak a little French (particularly if you are a scientist) but remember that for most people in the world a knowledge of 2 or 3 languages is a perfectly normal part of everyday life, even for people who can’t read and write. There are loads of free podcasts for learning languages.

Be Patient with Your Teachers

Have some sympathy for your teachers, who are trying to meet the needs of students like you, as well as people who have a lot of trouble even learning the basics. However, do remind them that you’re there, and in particular let them know if you’re getting bored by repetition of routine tasks which you can already do. Some repetition is vital, but not too much. You can’t blame your teacher for this if you keep it to yourself. 


Do some puzzles – there are so many types that you can definitely find one to suit you. Cryptic and general knowledge crosswords are particularly valuable, but any of the ‘sudoku style’ puzzles and ‘logic problems’ will fill some time while improving your logical reasoning. 

School Council

Join the School Council. There is usually no problem getting on this if you want to (though an election may be needed). This will give you opportunities to discuss things with other people who like to talk and listen, and you will learn about the realities of management, politics and leadership.

Think About Your Future

Think about your academic and professional future – it may seem a long way off, but this is a potential source of motivation for you. Don’t jump to conclusions about courses, jobs and careers, or be influenced too much by others. Maybe you could be a doctor, but most clever people aren’t doctors, so you don’t have to be! What do you really enjoy studying, even when it’s difficult and you’re on your own? (This is not the same as which lessons you enjoy at the moment.)

Read Examiners Reports

To help you get the very top grades, try reading the ‘Examiners’ Reports’, as well as the full specifications, on the exam board websites. Most students would find these difficult to understand, but you may find them useful in making sure you get the grade A* rather than the A. By the way, it does matter which grade you get, if you want a place at a ‘top university’; many universities are setting the bar at 6 or more A* grades at GCSE to be considered for interview for popular degree courses. It may not seem fair, but that’s what they’re doing.