How to Hack College for Crazy Success

Ever wonder why you start off a semester strong, and by the end of it find yourself struggling to keep up with assignments because you simply don’t uh, care anymore?

I often ask my students why they want to be a top-performer in college.

Some of them have said "to get into grad school" or "to find a good job after graduation" another, "the degree..."

This is, a lot of times, how we set vague aspirations for the future.

Students who set specific goals (and successful people in general) are much better suited to achieve them.

So if your goal sounded something like one of these, you need to take one extra step and make your reason specific and actionable.

Because when we can articulate our goal, it not only makes the goal not only more real for us, but our brain and subconscious can jump on board too and help make your goal a reality.

Think about it like this. 

Would you be more motivated if you had a goal like:

I want to get straight A's to be successful and prove to people I can do it.


I want to get straight A's so I can get into Stanford's psychology program to get the best training in Strategic Intervention therapy which I will use to help people make drastic changes in behavior instantly instead of spending years in therapy to get mediocre results.

(Hint: setting your goals SUPER HIGH will set you up to achieve your biggest goals.)

To set a motivational, actionable goal, ask yourself these questions:

What do you want your life to look like after college? What do you envision for the future? Why do you want that degree?

Try and be as specific as possible.

If you want "a high-paying career" ask yourself why.

What does that look like to you?

A huge house? Leading a research lab? Vacations in Barbados?

Action Item: Grab a notebook and a pen and write it out.

Be as detailed as possible. Use sensory words like, it “looks like” and “feels like” and “sounds like.”

Rappers are good at this. They know success looks like a huge house with a pool (filled either with water or dollar bills), and sounds like a hundred million fans screaming their lyrics at a performance.

Sink in and enjoy dreaming about your future for a while. It's fun.

This is your "Big Picture" goal.

In order to work toward your goal, you'll need to break down your Big Picture into smaller, more immediately achievable goals.

If your goal is something like, "to do work that is meaningful and that I love" >>> "become an English professor (focusing on modern poetry) who helps students realize their true potential" (more specific) then you can write down some steps you'll need to get there.

Like, "publish a paper on modern poetry," and"learn how to coach students," and "get into grad school."

Maybe you want to draw it out like this, only better....please.

Setting goals in college

(Yes, my handwriting is that bad. I should have been a doctor.)

Notice that you can write in as many steps to get what you want as necessary.

The more small, achievable goals you can find, the better. (ok, obviously to a certain don’t need to add what color socks you need to wear to attract the right energy for excelling at math...but if you do get to that level, please write to me...I want to be friends with you.)

Now, you don't have to accomplish every single goal. Sometimes just setting a goal and working towards it will bring you suitable reward.

And if you change your goal down the line, you can still add in the skills and accomplishments you made before to your new chart, and see how they fit into your new Big Goal.

Being able to break down what it will take to get to your dream puts you way ahead of those people who simply hold onto an idea and wish. (Don't be one of those people! You can’t wish for something to happen and not take action...or you’ll never get anything you want.)

You now have achievable, actionable steps to take, and you can check things off your list as you go. (It's great motivation!)

If you want help finding your goals and setting your motivation to run high on autopilot, that's exactly what I made this workbook for.

Your accomplishments can be anything....your goals, anything.

Maybe you just want to be able to travel for a year. That's a great Big Picture goal. Just ask yourself (and write it down!) what do I need to DO to achieve that?

All of these mini-goals are going to build into something that should be a major focus for every college student: career capital.

Cal Newport (a total college hacking badass professor) coined the term career capital and defines it thus:

“Career capital are the skills you have that are both rare and valuable and that can be used as leverage in defining your career.”

The best way to earn a staggering amount of career capital (so you can find meaningful work that you love and that you're highly skilled at) is to find FOCUS.

Because why else are you getting a degree if not to learn skills that will be meaningful in the work world?

Ok, so another question (this post is all about turning inward and asking questions!)

Why did you choose your major?

I wanted to be an English major because I love reading books and always did well in my literature courses. I already knew I was skilled in English, so bringing up my skills to an elite level would be much easier than if I attempted say, physics, which I'm also interested in (but I totally suck at math).

Do you know what value your degree can offer you in the future?

There are a lot of mistaken ideas about how what you major in affects your career path in the future.

Pro-tip: IT DOESN'T MATTER WHAT YOU MAJOR IN. Like, rarely ever.

If you're REALLY good at what you do, even if it's something bizarrely obscure like bagpiping, you can make a TON of money, bid for freedom in your career, and find happiness.

Being incredibly good at whatever it is you do = freedom = impact = control = autonomy = value

You can think of your major as your outline for building career capital. It's the core of your focus.

But in order to stand out as a top performer, you need to do more than just take the classes required for your major.


  • Take classes you excel in and enjoy. (Core class/es)

  • For your general ed courses: choose classes that complement your core class/es.

  • Develop a thesis for your course of study.

This last one's a little complex. Here's how ya do it:

1) Assert the reasons for taking your scheduled classes in terms of how they will help you achieve your Big Goal(s).

2) Determine the connections between your classes, that through-line that connects them all.


Ok, let me break that one down too.

If you're into cultural anthropology and evolution specifically, but you also really like neuroscience and the way the brain works, find the intersections between the two courses and follow a path with a proposed thesis statement or question in mind.

Such as, "How did evolution impact our brains today despite cultural influences?" Then take note of how your other classes inform that question.

Doing this lets you build career capital quickly. And if you're crazy nerdy like me, it's fun to establish.

Your question or thesis statement can change as you learn more and become pulled in different directions, but finding questions that link your classes will guarantee that you're engaging with the course material in more targeted fashion.

This strategy also makes learning MUCH easier, because you're able to pull information you're gathering and apply it usefully to an idea.

Applied learning Vs. Surface learning

(which do you think wins?)

And if you write papers that are directed by your overarching thesis, you'll be on your way to becoming an expert and could potentially publish on the topic.

A word of caution: You should never feel pigeon-holed here. You can still take your theater classes and critical theory and geometry...

This is a way of building up your core classes into a directed system that will help you flourish in college and in the world, but shouldn't hem you in and prevent you from taking outlier courses that fuel your passions.

Schedule mapping is a super fun way to organize your classes and actually SEE how your courses will connect and grow your skill set for the future.

It goes a little something like this: visit your course catalog and grab a handful of sticky notes or little squares of paper.

Look for the courses that sound awesome to you and write them out on the pieces of paper. Don't even worry about class time conflicts, or the rating of a professor...just compile the courses that sound interesting.

See if you can develop a thesis (a theme, a reason, a motive, a through-line) for the courses you chose.

Then, go back through the course catalog and add more classes that fit with your overarching thesis.

Bunch your classes together into distinct possible semesters (or quarters, or trimesters). See what combinations yield interesting juxtapositions or coherence.

Now you have a base map for the next 4 years, and you can really see how your course of study can shape what you're able to take next.

Preparing your schedule in this way can be oodles of fun (especially if you're a nerd like me!)

You can also think about it like a video game:

If your first semester is level 1, then you can either move to level 2 and level up your skills with more advanced classes in a similar subject, or you can start a new level 1 where you take different classes that don't build on your previous classes.

There's no right or wrong answer, but if you want career capital, you need to continue to level up throughout your semesters.

Bonus: Challenge yourself. Take a semester of relatively easy courses and throw in one (or two) super difficult course or a graduate class.

If you want to know more about how to set yourself up for massive success by choosing a goal and designing a motivational framework around it, get your goal-setting, motivation-building!