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How to Succeed in College

Santa Barbara–Raised Author Paul Smith Rivas Offers Advice for Students and Their Parents

Photo: cara robbins Paul Smith Rivas, author of 'This Book Will Not Be on the Test'

Paul Smith Rivas has a blunt message for parents of high schoolers: Your kid is not ready for college. 

While tutoring a wide spectrum of students in the Washington, D.C., area, this Santa Barbara native, San Marcos High grad, and UCSB alum watched kids from the best high schools struggle in college because they had no clue what was in store for them. “The road to college is littered with kids who were not prepared or who never had a chance of paying for college,” said Rivas. He wants to change that, at least as far as preparation is concerned.

Photo: Courtesy‘This Book Will Not Be on The Test’

He hopes to change by publishing This Book Will Not Be on The Test: The Study Skills Revolution, in which Rivas takes everything he’s learned about conquering college and presents it in an accessible way that often challenges conventional thinking. The study-skills specialist argues that college today is largely a scam, a system guilty of “overcharging for on-campus housing and extorting you emotionally by charging you for knowledge available free online or at the public library because students will think less of themselves if they don’t graduate from a respectable college.” Rivas is certainly not echoing the rosy platitudes one might hear at a high school college-night presentation or campus visit. 

The tone of the book is that of a straight-talking coach — the wisdom of John Wooden grafted with the intensity of Mike Krzyzewski — who honestly wants you to succeed, but who will never let you fool yourself or accept anything but your grittiest effort. Don’t be misled by the book’s slender appearance — it’s packed with practical advice about what college is really like, and what it takes to squeeze every ounce of value from it. The chapters on reading, note-taking, and tests are particularly useful. 

High school teachers might take offense when Rivas writes that “high school is set up to make teachers unhappy and kids dumb,” but he says his book is not anti-teacher. At one time, Rivas considered becoming a high school Spanish teacher, and he acknowledges that being a high school teacher is a tough job with numerous bureaucratic obstacles, high demands, mediocre pay, and difficult working conditions. 

Instead, he sees how the system also works against students. As any parent knows too well, high school students have little time for reflection. They dash from activity to activity, cranking out assignments and meeting requirements rather than learning beyond a superficial level. “The highest performing high school students in the country are all sleep deprived,” Rivas writes. Many are not equipped to make decisions on their own, and college is nothing if not a smorgasbord of decision-making. 

The core of the book is seven rules for success in college that Rivas distilled while writing. The rules are not a magic formula. Succeeding in college takes diligence, planning, and self-motivation. Students must figure out how to manage their time, find and use all the resources available to them, connect what they’re learning to what they already know, and, perhaps most importantly, take responsibility for their own learning. If they succeed, college can be a life-changing experience, worth every penny it costs. 

Rivas is evangelical about extracting value and doing so as efficiently as possible so that students have time to mine the myriad experiences college life has to offer. As he writes, “If you want to get your money’s worth in college, you need to have much higher standards for yourself than your school has for you, because life lasts a lot longer than school and is also a lot harder.” 

This Book Will Not Be on The Test: The Study Skills Revolution, by Paul Smith Rivas, can be ordered via smithrivas.com.

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