Getting a First Class: Consistency vs Sprinting on Impulse

Now this could be the singular most important post to read for anyone aiming to achieve academic success. In actual fact, this post might also apply in many aspects of life and the successes that one could enjoy. Should anyone ask for any piece of advice to getting good grades, the answer that I would give them is to be consistent. It’s that simple.

Think about the typical undergraduate study pattern. The first week of school and everything is so nice. Classes are relaxed. There’s no tutorials. We are all busy catching up after the holidays. We sit through the first lecture of each module expecting it to be some introduction where nothing concrete is taught and we are just there to have a good relaxing start to the semester, which would probably become very difficult as the days progress anyway.

It’s week 2 and hey for NUS students, the tutorials only start in week 3. There’s still time to play and enjoy some fun. Week 3, it’s the first tutorial. What could go wrong if we don’t do these tutorials anyway. Soon it’s week 5, there’s a recess week after week 6 and after the recess week it’s the dreaded mid terms. Should we start now? And most people start to hit the books on a more serious note, trying to cram whatever was taught in the first 5 weeks.

The Exponential Cumulative Principle

The Cumulative Principle is simple math, really. As long as you do not clear a piece of work, it comes back to hound you. The work in week 1-4 accumulates and by week 5, you have 5 weeks of information to study. Truth? Except it’s not. What really happens is this:

The studies in week 1 are the foundation for you to understand the lecture in week 2. The studies in week 2 are the foundation for you to understand the lecture in week 3, and so on and so forth. By neglecting the first few weeks, we have effectively found ourselves in a situation where we do not understand what the lecturer is talking about in week 5, and we have wasted these 5 weeks of time. The Exponential Cumulative Principle simply means that in order to make up for such lost time, the effort required to re-learn everything in week 5 is not equal to 5 weeks of effort, but rather, it might be much more than that. Week 1 of effort might become 5 weeks of effort by week 5, week 2 might become 4 weeks of effort by week 5, and adding it up, by week 5 you need 15 weeks of effort just to catch up.

While the tortoise strolls on beyond the hare and finally wins the race.

How did he have so much time?

Sometimes we look at the students who have it all and we wonder, “How did he have so much time?”. How did he manage to study, learn and do those crazy CCAs and activities that boost his resume up a notch? The answer is just that we are catching up and spending more effort due to the Exponential Cumulative Principle when we could have just been consistent and only spend 5 weeks of effort to achieve the same effect. Then we will have so much more time to do other things too.

Now we may argue, we get to spend more time with friends and enjoy ourselves during the initial 5 weeks; surely that counts for something? Yeah I guess, but if what you really want is the best of both worlds then at one point there’s got to be a balance. You could still consistently have time for friends; just that it is not so lopsided that the time spent on friends is exponentially decreasing as you spend almost all your time with friends in week 1. It’s better to be consistent.

Not to mention its impossible to have 15 weeks of effort in 1 week just to do catching up. Your grades will definitely suffer; unless you are some super smart dude to begin with, and if so you probably don’t need to read this post.


Hence the answer to many things in life is consistency, and make it so consistent that it becomes a habit. Here’s what I do in my typical semester.

I attend the lectures and really try my best to pay attention. I try to scribble notes; on hindsight, if I had learnt about mindmapping earlier then I would have been more effective. I do the tutorials that I am required to do so that the tutorial session will be effective (never mind the possibility of inefficient tutors, which is a real threat). And I make use of the forums in school to ask questions if I could not understand the tutor. And I contribute back to other’s queries. Funny how the way the universe works; when you give, you gain so much more in return.

At the end of any week, I spend half a day compiling my own notes (you could do it in mindmap form) from the lecture notes provided. I bring these notes wherever I go in school. By compiling my own notes, I (1) actually did my revision and found parts which I didn’t understand, following which I made sure I found out the answer and (2) build my foundation such that when I don’t understand material in the subsequent weeks, I could look at my own notes so that I can catch up. And if you understand the Buzan’s lesson on building long term memory (which I will have to write another post on), compiling my own notes help in a bit to improve my learning efficiency.

Hence I did not bring any material unquestioned into the next week, ensuring that I would not need to put in twice the effort to reach the same state in subsequent weeks.

That’s all really. The consistency actually helped to make sure exams were easier. I just didn’t need to spent more time as compared to others because I had invested my time earlier.

Consistency will help in other ways other than academic success as well. Consistency at work ensures that work do not pile up and overwhelm you a few weeks later. Consistency increases your credibility, improves your standing etc.

Now that you have learnt the single secret to academic success, what will you be doing?