The 10 Characteristics of Top Students

Don’t almost all parents want their kids to become top students? I mean if you take out the ding-dong parents, the kind that if there were a licensing agency which controlled which people had permission to procreate and which people didn’t, and you siphoned off the clear REJECTS from the “allowed to become a father/mother pool”, most of us would agree that seeing our children become a “top student” would be supremely well-received news in our home.

And yet, there are far fewer top students in our schools than I believe our schools ought to have. But why?

Well, part of the reason stems from an I-don’t-know-why-it’s-so-well kept secret about top students. It’s that…

Top students aren’t born; they are made.

Through initiative.

Through work ethic.

Through the intelligent actions and consistent effort that they demonstrate in a day-by-day-by-day manner.

Of course, it’s easy to think of the top students in school as “Baby Brilliants”, kids who came into this world with more grey matter between their ears than all the other little angels which grace our halls. However, extensive experience tells me it’s not brains that determine which kids rise to the top.

It’s actions. Behaviors. Conduct. What kids do trumps what kids could potentially do, but don’t.

And it trumps it every day of the week.

Fantastic Fallacy #1: God-given talents are the deciding factor as to which kids end up as the top students in school.

Simple truth: Top students out work – and work more intelligently than – most all of the other kids on campus.

Of course it’s comforting to think that the top students are born with more ability, aptitude and acumen than all the other kids. (Much less more spirit, spunk and heart). But it’s not the tools with which they were born that matter most; it’s the tools that they display that ultimately carry the day.

And I see this play out almost every day of the week during the school year. Really, it’s almost trite to think of the kid with so much potential, so many brains, that are just “going to waste” in a wayward kid.

On the other hand, it’s certainly refreshing (if not downright unique) to meet a young person who gives you all they’ve got, and does it to the best of their ability with the most consistency they can muster, day in and day out.

Some of my classes have more than two score of the former and none of the latter. None of my classes have ever had two score of the latter and none of the former.

Accident? I think not.

Thankfully, though, the common characteristics which top students often display are easily identifiable. And easily explainable.

However, let’s be honest. Identifying intelligent behavior and getting people to behave intelligently are two entirely different things. Yet, if one does not even know the tenets of what constitutes intelligent behavior, and thus forms the backbone of becoming a top student, we have a big problem.

Thus this mini-escapade of mine.

I believe top students share certain common characteristics and my belief is that by exploring these common traits, shedding some light on them and sharing them in this format, we might be able to better get the word out and create more “top students” in our schools.

After all, there is room at the top. How do I so confidently know this?

Because if American education today is plagued by anything, it’s that our schools show a heck of a lot of congestion at the bottom.

And bloating in the middle.

But at the top? Well, the summit has a gigantic “We’re open!” sign plastered on the door.

Yet unfortunately, too few kids are walking in.

So buckle up because what’s coming up next is a discussion about Top Characteristics of Top Students: What They Are & How to Cultivate Them

One last note: Yes, smarts does play a role in a student’s life. However, lots and lots and lots of kids are smart and they never amount to squat when it comes to reaching their own potential.

I say, give me a kid with C- brains and an A+ work ethic any day over a kid with A+ brains and a C- work ethic because over the long haul, refined, disciplined effort trounces natural, but unrefined and undisciplined ability from Sunday to Sunday.

Every bit of my professional experience leads me to believe that top students are created, not born. So why not, I say, unlock the door to creating more of them.

Of course as the old saying goes, you can lead a student to knowledge, yet you can’t make them drink. (More on that later.)

1. A Top Student has a presence in class

There is a dual meaning to the word presence as I use it here. First, this means showing up to class. Essentially, a clear, direct link exists between excellent attendance and top performance in school.

Little sniffle? Get to class. Puking up a spleen? Stay home. Somewhere in the middle? Try to get to class. As Woody Allen once said, “80% of success in this world is merely showing up.”

So show up. So many kids don’t show up consistently that the ones who do inevitably see their stock rise.

Of course, presence in class means more than just physically being in attendance. It means showing up with the tools one needs to be a top student as well.

From mentally showing up (after all, a mere body occupying a chair does not a top student make; you gotta actually hone in and pay attention) to a kid that shows up with the supplies one needs to properly do the job of being a student (i.e. pen, paper, books, planner, computer, and so on) a top student shows up prepared to be successful.

Think about it…

A doctor carries a stethoscope.

A fire chief carries a radio.

A dog walker carries poop bags.

These are the tools of their profession and being a top student is very much akin to holding a job.

Therefore, a top student carries their requisite supplies. Point blank, no excuses they come to class prepared.

They also come to class nourished. (“Hello, breakfast?”). And rested. (Sleep deprivation plagues poor students. Then again, they often nap in class to compensate so it’s kind of a wash). Essentially, top students act like responsible professionals which is why they often reap highly professional results.

2. Has a purpose for coming to school

Many, many kids “just show up” to school. Top students have an aim. They seek to “get something from school.

Aimlessness plagues so many, many young people in society today. In a way, there is an argument which could be made that the Middle Ages were better. Why? Because back then you were born into a role and by the age of 1, you were up and running.

A 19 year old in the year 1310 was already doing something. A farmer. A smith. A stable boy. A mother of 4. They were already something.

Today’s 19 year olds are beset by the curse of too much freedom. They can be anything (literally) which causes so, so, so many of them to be, well, nothing.

And often it takes them a decade to figure things out.

They’re finding themselves? This is why I believe that college is not for everyone. At lest not right out of high school.

Status for their resume.

Knowledge for their future.

Top students do not just apathetically attend class but rather demonstrate purposefulness for being in class.

And they come to get A’s. They intend to get A’s. They expect to fulfill their end of the social agreement which exists between teachers and students. This unspoken agreement is that if the student comes, does all their work, shows effort, does homework, displays attentiveness, prepares for tests and meets all deadlines, they can expect to be considered a top performer.

That’s the recipe.

3. Knows they will, at some point, need help… and knows where to turn to find it.

Everyone needs help at some point yet we live in a culture where seeking help is almost seen as akin to being weak.

Do it yourself. Be a man. Blah, Blah.

Every highly successful person I know understands that they need help in order to accomplish their aims. They also know where to find this help.

Seeking help is a positive quality and yet, in my experience, the students who often need it the most ask for it the least. (Completely inverted.)

4. Top students know when to smile, laugh, have fun and crack jokes. And when not to.

I don’t think a kid can truly be considered a top student if they are a humorless droid scoring in the 99th percentile of every test ever given and yet show no true joy in simply being a kid. School is about creating real people, not factory widgets prepared to succeed in the work force.

Students of all stripes love to goof around. But top students understand that there is a time and place.

And top students also know that it feels much better to handle your business first and then go goof around as opposed to vice versa.

Many, many kids play first and think that they will handle their work later. Top students understand that it’s best to handle your business first and then play later. Why? Because the quality of your work is inevitably better when you prioritize it about goofing around and 2) it’s way more fun to go screw off at the mall or go to the movies when you have taken care of all your business. There isn’t a lurking voice in the back of your head that eats away at the fun saying, “You really should be doing your science homework now.”

Top students know that when they have handled their business, heading to Clown Around Town is much more enjoyable. Guiltless smiles.

5. Top students choose their friends wisely.

Peers probably play more of a role in a kid’s school life than almost any other factor. Parents like to think the role they play is huge – and it is – but the older a student gets, the more that peers start to influence, if not downright shape, the behavior of many many kids.

Look to the left. Look to the right.

6. Top students do their homework.

Recipe for instant transformation of a kid, a class, an entire school or an entire school district.

Do your HW all of your classes all of the time all the year long. How many kids do this. They think hw is an option.

When I go out to eat, a waiter doesn’t serve me 65% of the food I have ordered.

The IRS doesn’t collect 71% of my taxes.

Homework is 100% expected. Do it.

A student that does ALL of their homework, in ALL of their classes, ALL of the time, creates outstanding opportunities for their own future.

Teachers give it. Students need to do it.

7. A Top Student is Literate.

Computer literate.

For years and years a grand divide has existed between the haves and the have nots. That same divide is  playing itself out in the world of technology these days separating the people who have good computer skills from people who do not have good computer skills.

There are a host of very critical skills:

  • Know how to word process
  • Have an email address
  • Know how to surf the web
  • Be able to determine whether an internet source is reputable and credible

Obviously, there is MUCH more -- this is at a minimum.

8. A Top student is a skilled reader who writes well.

No one is saying a kid must be able to read ancient Latin and write like Shakespeare. However, if there is a clear, common thread between all the Valedictorians I have ever seen or met, it’s that they can read at or above grade level and they can write in a way that reflects proper usage of the Queen’s English.

There is a ceiling which exists over the heads of kids who do not read and write well. And conversely, there is a ladder available to kids who read and write solidly well.

We can tell so much about a person by the quality of their writing.

9. A top Student Accepts Responsibility for their own education.

Schools are like self-service gas stations. You can certainly get an education...

But you’ve got to get out and PUMP!!!

10. A Top Student understands that they are going to inevitably face adversity.

… and knows that perseverance, tenacity, attitude and faith are tools they ought to very much pack in their backpack, even before their pack paper, pens, laptops, tablets, cell phones and so on.

How many kids show up at top programs having always been the best, the smartest and so on and then become crushed to discover that there are people out there who are just as smart, if not smarter, just as accomplished, if not more so and so on.

That’s when the wheat really gets separated from the chaff.

That’s when work ethic and optimism and perseverance and commitment come into play. In football, coaches teach their players all the time that there is no shame in getting knocked down… get back up and hustle to go make a play. That’s what makes a real football player.

And the same can be said of a top student.

Setbacks will inevitably come. No one avoids them. And no one can predict from where they will come. Perhaps a family member will, heaven forbid, fall sick. Perhaps your love life will take you for the ride of the emotional century rendering your brain too fuzzy to even calculate 2 + 2. (Back in the day I remember 2 + 2 = Joelle… true story.) Perhaps you’ll….

Stuff happens. Life is not about what happens to us but rather about how we respond to it.

Students are not excused from this rule. Top students don’t seek to avoid adversity; they seek to meet the challenges adversity poses for them.

It’s a mindset.

11. There’s more to life than grades.

A top student is a good person.

For ParentsAmanda B