13 Qualities of a Good College Student

picture of a good college student

Good college students come in all shapes and sizes, but what is it that gives good students the edge?

If you’re working hard to be as good as that top student in your class (you know, the one who kicks butt in all the exams), you’ve probably been wondering where they get it from.

I’ve rounded up some pointers for you in this post on exactly what makes a good student great!

Being a good student in college is all about making small incremental improvements over a long period of time. You might remember that I’ve written before about how to build motivation, impress your professor, use feedback to improve your grades, and study smarter not harder. But I haven’t yet dug deep into the whole range of characteristics of a good student that you need to get to the top.

So let’s stop wondering and get started on 13 top qualities you need to possess to become a top student.

1. They have a Growth Mindset

Good college students have a growth mindset. What does that mean?

It means you believe success is in your grasp. You have the power to succeed.

Here’s how Carol Dweck, the person who came up with the term, defines it:

People with a growth mindset think of talents and abilities as things they can develop—as potentials that come to fruition through effort, practice, and instruction. […] In the growth mindset, talent is something you build on and develop, not something you simply display to the world and try to coast to success on.

In other words, a person with a growth mindset believes in themselves. They don’t sit back and think “Oh, I can’t do it. I’m just not quite smart enough.”

No, they believe in their own ability.

Students with a growth mindset know that with hard work, commitment and a lot of trial and error they can succeed!

The best students didn’t become the best students out of the blue. They worked hard – very hard – for what they’ve got.

It’s not that everyone’s equal and our world is a meritocracy. Some people are born with natural skills. But for the rest of us, we’ll get where we will get after pain, hard work and a whole lot of failures.

And that’s okay. Good students know it’s a long path of hard work, but they know they can get there in the end.

2. They make Changes

When things are going tough, good students don’t give up.

And yes they believe they can achieve success through it all.

But they don’t just keep bashing their heads up against a wall. They do something when things get tough.

As Dweck says again:

Students need to try new strategies and seek input from others when they’re stuck.

You can’t just keep trying things over and over again. Good students seek help. They do things like:

  • Ask your teacher for help: When you don’t understand something, you need to find some help. You need to go to your teacher’s open office hours, talk to them after class and send them emails to get through the things you’re finding tough.
  • Get an online tutor: If you’re not doing well, ask for help! We’re in the age of the internet!
  • Study differently: There’s a ton of different study strategies. Choose one and if it fails, choose another!

The point is this: good students don’t just believe they can succeed. They take action to make sure that success is within their grasp.

3. They’re Determined

Dig deep when it gets hard. Don’t give up. That’s what makes you a good student.

People with determination put their head down and study when it sucks, when they’re tired and when the subject is the most boring thing on earth.

There’s a few things I do to help me sustain my determination. Here’s a few:

  • I write down a list of goals I want to achieve: Well, two lists. I write down what I want to achieve in the medium term. This is the next 6 to 12 months: Do I want to raise my GPA? Do I want a particular grade in this subject I’m studying? Then, I write down what I want to achieve today. These small step goals keep me motivated and on track.
  • I visualize my long term goals: You know how I do this? I go onto job search websites and find the job I really This makes me go: this is the reason I’m studying today. This is the reason I’m going to drag myself out of bed and write that damn character analysis essay. And I’ll do it well!

The best students use these strategies and more to maintain their motivation and inspiration.

Put your head down and work. That’s the way you succeed.

4. They’re Resourceful

Good students have many, many resources at their disposal.

And they’re resources you won’t expect.

No, I’m not talking about having a good laptop or every single textbook sitting on your bookshelves.

No, I mean the exact opposite.

Resourcefulness means getting access to things even when it’s hard.

Instead of buying every book ever, they go to the library and use the books on the library shelves. When their laptop breaks they don’t despair. They use the computers at their public library. They talk to their professor whenever they need help.

They also have a lot of different study spaces at hand so they always have a place to study.

And they also make the most of their friends and classmates.

Yes, your peers are one of your greatest resources. Organize group study sessions. Ask around for help. Join Facebook groups. Try your best to make friends. Because your classmates are a great resource.

5. They’re Reflective, Thoughtful and Humble

Was that three things?

But they’re all personal qualities that are interrelated. Reflection means looking at yourself and questioning your choices and decisions. It means seeing how you could do things different next time

Reflection is so, so important.


Reflection helps you to improve in the future. If you don’t look inward at what you’ve done wrong, then you won’t ever improve.

It’s funny, but…

The angriest emails I get are from students who did terribly in their assignments. And instead of asking how they improve, they spray me with self-indulgent anger. They tell me how wrong I am. They blame everything except themselves. And they don’t ask for help.

Those students don’t have a growth mindset.

But other students…

They email me and humbly ask where they went wrong. They ask me for additional support and feedback.

These are the best students. They realize they could do better and they think hard about how they can get better. These students are reflective, thoughtful and humble.

6. They’re A Good Listener

Listening matters.

Sometimes I’m sitting in a lecture and I find it so boring. It’s so hard to listen while the teacher drones on and on and on about … goodness knows what.

But as a student, you’ve got to spend a lot more time listening than talking.

One of my favorite strategies for being a good listener and learner is this:

When you contribute to your class seminar discussion, listen to others and reply to their points. Don’t just say whatever you want. Good contributors listen to and answer others.

Some students just want to tell everyone their opinion.

A good student contributes to and builds upon other people’s opinions.

And to do that, you have to listen.

Here’s another strategy.

Pay very close attention in your lectures.


Because we professors always sneakily squeeze in important tips, tricks and answers for your assessments.

We do this to reward good listeners. And of course, to reward the people who turn up to class.

7. They’re Inspired

Why are you at university?

It should be because you want something. You feel it in your gut. You want to change the world, or build a business, or become like someone you admire.

The best students are always inspired by a big vision. They have the fire in their belly to succeed.

So, what can you do if you’re not inspired? Well for one thing, maybe think about whether college is really for you. Maybe it’s not! Maybe you’ll feel more inspired travelling, or becoming a police officer … or whatever.

I always recommend to my students who are feeling uninspired to do a volunteer work placement to see what your life will be like post-degree.

I find that’s a great way to get my students inspired.

8. They’re Risk Takers

If you don’t take risks, you won’t improve.

Taking risks has multiple benefits. Here’s just a couple:

  • You will push beyond your limits. If you just play it safe, you’ll never progress! Imagine if you didn’t put yourself out there? You won’t learn new things, you won’t ever achieve the benefits of the risks, and you’ll … frankly, just be stuck in the mud.
  • You will change your mindset. As you begin to realize you’re capable of new things, your horizons will broaden and you’ll start taking more and more measured risks. It’s a snowball effect that will give you big rewards in the long run.

So how can students take risk?

Here’s a few ways:

  • Put your hand up in class! As a professor, I get so frustrated when the students sit around starting at me expecting me to perform. It’s your seminar! Get involved, ask questions, and stop caring so much what the boy in the back row things about you.
  • Try different classes. When it’s time to select your next semester’s classes, have a go at something new. I started out thinking I was all about science. Then I took a chance, did a sociology elective, and by the end of my undergrad I became a sociology major. You never know what doors open for you when you try out a new class!

9. They’re Organized

As my scout troop leader used to say. “Be Prepared!”

Organization is a secret weapon of top students. You won’t find many top students leaving their essays to the last minute. Instead, they’ll get started really early and finish well ahead of time. This gives that top student the freedom to make mistakes, change their mind and absorb life’s challenges, all while submitting a top-quality assessment piece.

You’ll also find top students have amazing abilities to sort their study notes. They print and read their lecture slides before class and do the readings every single week. This means when they get to class they’re not playing catch-ups! They know what the teacher’s talking about and they can engage in dialogue with the teacher at a higher level.

10. They’re Curious

There’s a word for people who teach themselves everything: Autodidactic.

An autodidact is a person who won’t wait for their teacher to spoon feed them information.

Instead, autodidacts read books, blogs and trade magazines. When their teacher mentions something interesting, they make the effort to dig deep and do some extra reading on that topic. This gives them a huge advantage when it comes to exams because they end up with a huge base of contextual knowledge.

Personally, I’m very curious. But I also hate reading books.

So, I satisfy my curiosity by listening to podcasts.

Podcasts are an amazing source for getting information by spoken word while you clean your house or do some exercise.

If you want to become a top student, start being curious. Teach yourself things, seek out knowledge, and don’t wait for your teacher to hand it to you. By that point, it’s too late: you’ll be lost in the pack of ordinary, mediocre students.

11. They’re Self-Starters

Look, I tell my students this all the time: getting top marks doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have extracurriculars at the end.

You don’t want to sit around waiting for your degree to end, then go to the job interviews and have nothing else to say but “Look at my degree!”

Everyone’s got a degree, kid. Sorry.

So what makes you look like you were the top student – and top candidate – in that job interview at the end of this road?

It’s that summer you spent volunteering. Top students get up and make things happen. They go into the office of the firm in town and say “hey, can you let me do an internship or volunteer position for a few weeks?” These students have shown they’ve got what it takes: initiative.

It’s that blog you run. If you can go up to a potential employer and say “Hey, I’ve got a degree like the rest of the suckers in the hallway. But look, I’ve also got two years’ worth of info on industry news that I’ve written about on by website. Look how knowledgeable and interested I am in this career.

It’s that college club you’re a member of. If you’re studying environmental studies, join the college environment club. Get some experience doing something. Don’t just rely on your degree to do the talking for you. Great students put their degree into action now. Not later.

12. They’re Involved

The world is run by those who show up.

So show up.

Getting involved in things on campus has some amazing benefits.

One way to get involved is to take a position as a research assistant for your professor.

Here’s a story.

When I was a professor in a British university, I used to hire two research assistants per year. Usually they’d be students from my classes.

These students got a lot more out of the experience than another line on their resume. They really got to know their professor. They learnt how I tick, what I expect of my students, and what I see as a high standard essay.

All of those students ended up getting great marks.


Because they showed up, got involved, and learnt a lot along the way.

I also recommend to my students that they join study groups.

As I’ve written about previously, study groups have great benefits for learners. You get to see other people’s perspectives on topics. You get to make studying more fun. And, social interaction can be good for your mental health.

So get involved.

13. They’re Resilient

Resilience is the ability to bounce back when things get tough.

All students fail to meet their goals at some point – even the best. But what separates the good students from the bad is that good students bounce back.

You see, being a good student isn’t so much about innate ability. It’s about putting in the hours when studying is the last thing you want to do. It’s about being the student who arrived first and left last. It’s about being the student who refused to go down without giving it their all.

Here’s what I recommend.

1. Build a support base. Have study buddies, friends and family to lean on. When things get hard, talk things through with them and come up with a plan moving forward.
2. Have a life outside of University. If college is your whole life, you’ll be extra devastated when things go wrong. Make sure you have sporting events, friends or clubs outside of university so you can take a break from the bubble of university life.
3. Use your feedback wisely. As I argue in my post on using feedback, you need to see where you went wrong in order to improve. Read all the feedback your teacher writes for you. Ask them questions about it. Insist on understanding it. And implement it in your next assessment piece.

qualities of a good college student
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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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