How do you earn a high GPA? Tips from a top University of Toronto science grad

Charlotte Wargniez didn’t just graduate from the University of Toronto at 17 years old, she was recognized for being the top female science student across the university’s three campuses.

Charlotte Wargniez shares her advice for note-taking, studying, procrastinating and finding opportunities (supplied image)

Now in England working on her master’s degree at the University of Oxford, the U of T Scarborough grad recently took time to share her approach to earning a high GPA.

Here are Wargniez’s top four tips:

1. Use the “folder” technique to take notes

As a teaching assistant, Wargniez endorsed what she calls the “folder” technique for note-taking. Think of your brain as a computer and your course as one of its folders. You’ll better navigate that information if it’s sorted into subfolders, which contain more subfolders and so on.

The technique hinges on gathering all information about a topic or concept (across lectures, readings and course materials) and grouping it into clusters, based on what makes the most sense to you. Each cluster should be tagged with a carefully crafted subheading, complete with colour-coding, bolding and effective summarization. Create accurate titles that conjure memories of what’s in the folder.

“Make titles and group information based on what works for you, even if it’s not how your professor or TAs are doing it,” says Wargniez, who graduated with a specialist in environmental geoscience.

 (Photo by Chai Chen)

2. When studying, create a plan, start easy and build in buffer days

Wargniez studies by starting with easier courses and finishing with the more difficult ones. She says the approach works since you can study simpler material faster, giving you the confidence to move on to more complex content with a course or two already covered. 

“People go straight to the hard courses, then they spend so much time there that there’s little time to do the easier courses, which makes them stress out and forget – then even the easy course isn’t prepared for,” she says.

“Don’t get yourself into that mess. Just plan.”

Wargniez advises building a study plan based how many midterms or exams you have scheduled, their expected difficulty and the time needed to go over notes. Schedule what you’ll study and for how long – and build in at least one buffer day before the exam. An extra day or two can save you from scrambling if your plan goes awry. Buffer days can also be used to go over whatever you’ve missed, or revisit anything you’re struggling with.

3. Forgive yourself for procrastinating

Calling herself “a fellow procrastinator,” Wargniez says trying to be the perfect student simply isn’t realistic and could actually do more harm than good.

“Part of the reason procrastinators fail is because they stress about procrastinating,” she says.

“Be confident, even if you don’t stick to the plan, it’s OK – just do it the next day. Don’t feel like you’re a total failure.”

While Wargniez isn’t advocating for procrastination, she says acknowledging and accepting the tendency is key. Forgive yourself – kindness can keep a missed task from snowballing.

4. Reinforce your learning by getting involved

Wargniez has a rule of thumb: there are no stupid questions. They present an opportunity to build a connection, she says.

She adds many students don’t realize how many doors they can open by reaching out with an email. There are research assistant positions and volunteer opportunities galore at U of T – and a concise, well-researched email to your TA or professor can act as an informal cover letter. It’s not an overt route to a higher GPA, but hands-on learning can bring concepts from your courses both to life and together (while adding to your resume).

“I told my friends all the time, ‘Reach out to professors and ask if there are research assistant positions.’ Some of them had a 4.0 GPA, others had a 2.8, and they still got positions. It’s the matter of reaching out. Not enough people do it,” she says. “Professors are a lot more willing to help than you think they are.”

Not all cold emails will lead to opportunities, of course, but Wargniez says it’s a good habit to speak up when something interests you – clubs, programs, initiatives, or other campus offerings.

“Getting involved can also really reinforce your academics, and you’ll surround yourself with proactive, good students,” she says. “You’ll learn so much.”