14 Qualities of a Good Student | The Prudent Professor

14 Qualities of a Good Student

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the results of a survey I conducted among some high school seniors. The survey asked them to describe their fears about college and to list any questions they had about college.

The results showed that the students had a lot of anxiety about college. They worried most about how to study in college, then about what college classes are like. They also worried about interacting with professors and how to manage their time in college.

Ultimately, students worried about whether or not they’re cut out for college. Wondering if they’re good enough for college is a common fear among incoming freshmen, whether they admit it or not. I thought I’d write a post on that topic. More specifically, I thought I’d write about the qualities of a good student​, the traits needed to be successful in college.

Before we get to that, though, I want to clear up a common misconception among high school and college students.

​What Makes a Good Student (and What Doesn’t)

A common myth among students is that the best students are those who get the best grades. True, good students tend to get good grades, but there’s a lot more to being a good student than grades.

Being a good student, especially in college, involves many things. Certainly, good students exhibit traits like being responsible and respectful. These are socially desirable behaviors, but they make someone a good person, not necessarily a good student.

Here, then, we’ll focus on the personal and academic attributes​ of good students. Some ​of these, like​ being organized, are obvious to everyone. Others ​are less visible qualities that are secretly practiced by ​the most successful students.

​14 Essential Characteristics of a Good Student

​7 Personal ​Qualities of a Good Student

By “personal qualities” I’m referring to how well a student has mastered self-management skills. Sometimes called executive functions, these are the skills needed to function effectively on a daily basis. When we say someone is organized or goal-oriented, we mean they’ve developed characteristics of good self-management.

Self-management skills are among the most important qualities of a good student. I can usually tell on the first day of class which students are good self-managers and which are not. Unsurprisingly, the good self-managers tend to be ​better students.

Which of these personal qualities are most important? Below are the seven self-management skills or qualities I think are necessary to be a good student.

​#1. Good Students are Self-Motivated

Honestly, this is probably the biggest factor in determining who will graduate college and who will not.

Self-motivated students have clear reasons for being in college. In contrast, those at risk for dropping or failing out of college often show a lack of interest. They have no internal motivation so don’t put much effort into school.

Internal or self-motivation becomes increasingly important as you progress through college. In your early college years, you may have a lot of homework, assignments and tests. The chronic deadlines can be annoying, but many students rely on external deadlines for motivation.

By the time you reach junior and senior year, there’s likely to be less homework, fewer tests and more big papers and projects. Without constant deadlines to motivate them, some students start to struggle. They’ve never mastered self-motivation, so don’t know how to spur themselves to work on their own.

This is why a lot of good students start having trouble junior year. Yes, the classes are harder, but a big part of the problem is that students haven’t identified an internal motivation that drives them to do what needs to be done.

​#2. Good Students Persevere

Good students follow through. They do what they say they’ll do. They meet expectations, even in the face of challenges. Good students devote their energy to overcoming obstacles rather than thinking of excuses.

For example, I teach an online class. Over the years, I’ve heard all sorts of excuses as to why students couldn’t turn in work on time. These include dying/dead computers and lack of home internet service.

I’ve also heard stories from students who, when faced with these issues, trekked to campus to finish their work at the computer lab. These students found a way to solve their problem, rather than using it as an excuse to request an extension.

Good students turn in their work on time and meet other deadlines, even if it isn’t always easy or convenient.


​#3. Good Students Achieve Their Goals

This relates directly to the previous points. Good students have the motivation to set goals for themselves, and the perseverance to achieve them.

The best students create goals based on what they wish to achieve, not based on external expectations. These can be academic goals or personal goals. The key is that they’re goals set entirely by the student, not by parents, teachers or others.

Good students also persevere to achieve their goals. They may face challenges, such as a bad test grade, but they persist in pursuing their goal. They don’t face one obstacle and give up. They don’t make excuses for why the goal was unattainable in the first place. They ​accept and learn from adversity and move forward.

​#4. Good Students Manage Their Attention

A big part of perseverance is being able to focus on what you want to achieve. Good students manage their attention long enough to meet an objective.

Good students are especially skilled at managing their attention when they study. They eliminate distractions and focus on fulfilling their objectives for each study session (more on that later).

Managing attention can also mean following along for an entire lecture. Or following the conversation and responding appropriately in a discussion class. Other types of activities require more sustained focus. For example, researching and writing a 15-page paper requires students to manage their attention over a longer period of time through different types of work​.

​#5. Good Students Prioritize

Another important part of managing attention is knowing what to focus on at a given time. The ability to properly balance competing priorities is one of the key qualities of a good student.

Good students prioritize their work so that the most important tasks get the most attention. These students also balance their time between school, work and social life. They often intentionally build relaxation time into their schedules.

The ability to properly prioritize is very important in students’ post-college careers and lives. If prioritization and life balance are areas in which you struggle, you need to take a look at your time management.

​#6. Good Students Manage Their Time Well

You can be the best prioritizer in the world, but things will fall apart if you don’t manage your time well.

A common time management problem among college students is underestimating the time tasks will take. Even if students have their priorities straight, they’ll still get behind schedule if they don’t allot enough time for each task.

If you struggle with time management, try out the time management activity in my free resource library. You can sign up for it by filling out the form below. The activity will help you understand how you really spend your time. Knowing that is the first step in improving your time management.


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​#7. Good Students are Organized

Organization is one of the fundamental qualities of a good student, not to mention a majorly important life skill.

Good students have systems that help them stay organized. These systems are a series of habits that students perform routinely (usually every day or every week) without fail. For example, some students pack their bag every night for class the next day. This way they never have to worry about forgetting something important as they rush out the door in the morning.

Habit truly is the foundation of organization. It’s fairly easy to get organized, but much harder to stay that way. If you want to develop better organizational habits as you prepare for college, be sure to read my posts on the common habit triggers and on how to create new habits.

(Pssst: there’s also a habit worksheet in my free resource library. If you sign up for the time management activity above, you’ll have access to the habit worksheet too.)

So, there are seven personal traits needed for college success. These traits alone aren’t enough to make someone a good student, though. Academic skills also play a role, so let’s look at seven academic traits of good students.

​7 Academic Qualities of a Good Student

​#1. Good Students Care about Learning

If you’re a good student and you’re reading this, you probably think all students care about learning, right? Well, no, that’s not true. In fact, a lot of students don’t care about learning.

I’ve seen plenty of students who are happy to earn Ds, learning as little as possible along the way. I’ve also seen students who only want As, but won’t do the work needed to get them. Either way, these students are grade focused, not learning focused.

Truly caring about learning is among the most important academic qualities of a good student. Professors can easily tell the difference between students who are learning focused and those who are grade focused. And I don’t have to tell you which students get nominated for scholarships and recommended for internships.

​#2. Good Students Challenge Themselves

Following on the above point, students who really value learning seek out new learning opportunities. That includes taking interesting courses outside their major, seeking out research opportunities, or applying for internships.

Students can challenge themselves in other ways, too. They can study abroad or take on leadership positions in student clubs. In both cases, students will have valuable out-of-the-classroom learning experiences.

Good students aren’t content to just do the homework and take the tests. They want to enrich themselves in other ways and actively look for chances to do so.


​#3. Good Students Practice Metacognition

Metacognition sounds complicated, but it just means understanding your own ways of learning.

One of the qualities of a good student is that they reflect on how they learn. For instance, if they don’t do as well as hoped on test, they think about how they could’ve studied differently. They then act on this when preparing for the next test.

Metacognition is good students’ hidden superpower. Most students never think critically about how they learn. Instead, they just keep relying on the same study techniques over and over, even if they aren’t that successful. In contrast, good students learn from their mistakes. They ditch what isn’t working and find something that does.

​#4. Good Students are Adaptable

Because of their willingness to ditch ineffective study methods and techniques, good students develop a broad study toolkit that they can adapt to different situations.

For instance, the study methods needed for a class that relies heavily on memorization are different than those that require analysis. Using the same methods to study French vocabulary and trigonometry probably won’t be very helpful. Good students recognize this and apply different study tools and techniques to different subjects.

Moreover, good students are able to judge which study methods will work best for different classes. They have specific techniques to study for discussion-based classes that differ from those for lab-based classes. Underlying this adaptability is metacognition. It’s vital that you take time to reflect on how you learn.

​#5. Good Students Stick to a Schedule

The best students stick to a regular study schedule. They adjust this schedule as needed, say during midterms, but otherwise follow a weekly study routine.

Keeping to a schedule requires a lot of the self-management skills we looked at earlier: self-motivation, prioritization, attention/focus, time management, not to mention self-discipline. Mastering those skills is a huge factor in academic success. That’s why I spend so much time writing about them.

​#6. Good Students Plan Their Studying

Good students plan and prepare for their study sessions. They don’t sit down and then decide what and how they’ll study. Instead, they plan ahead of time. They have goals or objectives for each study session and a plan to achieve them.

Good students prepare for their study sessions, too. They make sure they have all the materials they need ahead of time. They don’t get to the library then realize they left their textbook at home. They take studying seriously and treat it like a job. They don’t show up unprepared.

​#7. Good Students ​Get Help

Good students know when to ask for help. Sure, they’ll try to solve a problem on their own first, but will ask for help when needed.

I’ve seen lots of very smart students get tripped up on this. They feel like they should be smart enough to figure out everything on their own. They’re hesitant to ask for help because they think it makes them look ​dumb or lazy.

One of the qualities of a good student is realizing you can be smart and still not know all the answers. Rather than just ignoring gaps in their understanding (which most students do), they seek to learn more. Because, again, the best students are self-motivated and learning focused.

I want to conclude by noting that this isn’t a be-all, end-all list. You don’t have to have all 14 of these characteristics to be a good student. So, if you’re heading to college soon (or if you’re already there), don’t freak out if you don’t have them all.

The truth is, these are qualities that develop over time. A lot of students come to college with a limited set of study techniques and fairly weak self-management skills. You know what? Most of them end up doing just fine.

But if you want to get the most out of college – both from your classes and yourself – you need to work on cultivating as many qualities of a good student as you can. And happily, you can start anytime.

​Until next time, best wishes and keep learning,

The Prudent Professor

The Prudent Professor is the alter ego of Amanda Coleman (BS, MS, PhD), who has taught, advised and mentored students for over 20 years. Amanda has worked with students in high school through graduate school, at schools ranging from community colleges to large state universities. Amanda spends most of her free time bookmarking crafts she’ll probably never make and planning trips she’ll probably never take. She also outlines plots for novels she will eventually write (maybe).