William Wadsworth

by William Wadsworth

The Cambridge-educated memory psychologist & study coach on a mission to help YOU ace your exams. Helping half a million students in 175+ countries every year to study smarter, not harder. Supercharge your studies today with our time-saving, grade-boosting “genius” study tips sheet.

I had a long car journey the other day, and used it listen to the audiobook for “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”. It’s sold over 25 million copies, and has been named one of the most influential books of all time.

In it, Dr Stephen Covey, set out to distil hundreds of years of the “success literature” – from the memoirs of Benjamin Franklin to the findings of psychologists to what people think about on their deathbeds – to figure out what are the fundamental character traits that make people successful in their careers, and in life generally.

His list makes for pretty interesting reading (or listening), and it set me thinking. From my own years spent reviewing the literature about what makes an academically successful and well-adjusted student, from education psychology to learning science, what would the “Seven Habits of Highly Successful Students” be?

If you happen to be familiar with Stephen Covey’s original seven “habits”, you’ll spot some overlap – but there are also quite a few in here which are unique to the circumstances students of all ages find themselves in.

I’d love to know what you think – if you think there’s something missing, let me know in the comments.

For context – Stephen Covey’s original “seven habits” summarised:

If you’re intrigued and want your own copy of the original, it’s available here, otherwise let’s dive into my version of the Seven Habits of Highly Successful Students: Effective Study Habits for College and High School.

1.     They’re proactive

Successful students are architects of their own destiny: success isn’t something that passively happens to them, it’s something they take actively responsibility for, working proactively towards their goals.

They plan ahead, reducing risk and stress by avoiding last-minute panics before assignments and night-before cramming for tests.

2.     They know where they’re going…

Successful students have a plan for the future. This doesn’t necessarily mean having an entire career mapped out in detail, but certainly some firm ideas for for where they want to be in 2-3 years’ time. What do you want to be studying? Where do you want to go to University? What do you need to achieve now to make that possible?

To answer these questions, it may be helpful to look further into the future: what kind of life do you want to be leading in 20 years? What qualifications do you need to earn or skills do you need to cultivate to get you there?

3.     … And they focus on getting there

Successful students put first things first: prioritising long-term ambition over having fun in the moment. That doesn’t mean never hanging out with friends, watching TV or gaming, it just means putting things in the proper order, doing studies first, and relaxing when the work is done.

And when they are studying, they avoid distractions and turn the phone off, to fully focus on the task at hand – as a result, often getting assignments done quicker as well as to a better standard.

4.     They persevere

Successful students are “gritty” [book]: deploying deliberate, sustained effort to get to grips with things that seem tough at first.

They use aspirational language [book] when talking to themselves or others: “I can’t” becomes “I can’t yet”. They know there is always room for growth, for barriers to be climbed.

5.     They study smart

Successful students spend the bulk of their study and revision time on high-quality learning techniques [book]. In particular, they use retrieval practice [article], which means learning by bringing information to mind, using a spaced learning schedule [article] to revisit knowledge over time.

They know that these techniques may take a bit more effort than lower-quality techniques like re-reading, highlighting or making notes, but they know their efforts will be richly rewarded on results day.

6.     They’re helpful

Successful students know that a rising tide lifts all boats: they make good, supportive classmates, exchanging handy resources and always happy to try and explain a tricky concept to a friend.

They also help their teachers by being open about what they still don’t understand, despite making best efforts independently.

7.     They sharpen the saw

Time invested sharpening a saw is time well spent: the tool becomes more effective, and it’s far easier to cut wood as a result. Without any time looking after mind and body, any student, like a saw, will gradually become blunt and ineffective.

Successful students therefore take time to look after themselves, so they can continue to be effective, day after day, year after year. That means looking after physical health: eating a balanced, nutritious diet; getting exercise through the week; and having a regular bed-time to get enough sleep. That also means looking after mental and emotional health, having some time to unwind, and cultivating kind, warm relationships with family and friends.


Of all of these Seven Habits, I believe the one that can make the biggest impact – virtually overnight – to the majority of students is #5: study smart. Switching to effective study methods and better revision techniques has been proven, over and over again, to have a profoundly positive impact on grades achieved.

Even when students know about principles like retrieval practice, they often don’t apply them well.

Fortunately, we have some detailed information to get you started: check out our article on smart study methods and how to use retrieval practice like a pro to set you on the right track right away.

William Wadsworth