High achieving students
The habits of some of the UAE's highest achieving students Image Credit: Shutterstock

There’s no doubt that 2020 has been a school year like no other. But one thing that hasn’t changed is parents wanting the best for their children – and for many that means academic achievement.

As schools recommence in-person and online across the UAE, it's important that the country's students get the best possible start to this new academic term. We spoke to some of the UAE’s brightest achievers – many of whom are just starting their terms at Oxbridge or the Ivy League – to ask for their revision and university application tips and the secrets of their success…

“Daily Pranayama gave me energy to concentrate”

Diptasri Gupta, 18, was a student of Dubai College and, as well as receiving 4 A*s at A-level (Maths, Physics, Chemistry, and Economics), she secured a place at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to study Computer Science. She is also Grade 8 in Piano, Grade 8 in Music Theory and Grade 6 Violin.

Meditate for success

Diptasri Gupta

"I was honestly the furthest thing from a perfect student – I'm naturally not a routine-oriented person, although I work hard.

"I did 15 minutes of Pranayama (deep breathing exercises) most days - I've been doing this ever since I was a kid when my mother introduced me to it. I was sceptical for a really long time, but it’s a practice that's steeped in Indian tradition and is surprisingly effective at providing energy."

Download apps to help with your weaknesses

"To any forgetful people that find it difficult to tote around an agenda or planner, I'd recommend downloading a To-Do list app on your phone and laptop that syncs both. I rarely forgot a task when I put it down on an app because I'd see the reminder-literally-a hundred times a week."

Don’t forget spontaneity

"I had some activities I stuck to regularly, like Indian Classical Dance, debating, and music. But I tried to keep an element of spontaneity in my life: midnight beach trips, impromptu art pieces, and day-long Netflix binges (which I wouldn't recommend anyone do very often). My A-Level school-work was very quantitative so engaging with my creative side was a must. I also became very intrigued by animation as an artistic medium. I've spent hours creating my own videos and cartoons and wrote a long impassioned essay for my university application about 'The Lion King'."


"I'd give the same advice that is widely circulated (don't procrastinate, learn actively instead of passively by testing yourself etc.). I'd also advise students to find what constitutes their 'zone environment'. Whenever I was feeling productive and inspired, I'd try to analyse what made me feel that way-whether that was a cup of tea, or the specific time of day (mine, unfortunately, happened to be at 2 am). Whenever I had something important to do like university applications, I'd try to replicate those surroundings to induce the same headspace. Use classical conditioning to your advantage!"

“Taking regular breaks kept me productive”

Mikail Khawaja, 18, was a student of Dubai College and secured a place to study Medicine at Cambridge University as an international student. His other accolades include receiving Gold in the British Biology Olympiad, representing his school in an international mathematics competition in Vienna and being president of his school’s Medical Society before graduating.

Prioritize quality of studying over quantity

Mikail Khawaja

"Studying for 8+ hours a day may seem awfully productive, but it is unrealistic to expect that you will be fully focused within those hours.

"Instead, I put in work every day, giving myself breaks when needed to refresh my mind or change the subject I was revising. This allowed me to ensure that even the hour I spent on a subject was effective and productive."

Look at the bigger picture

"Since I am currently pursuing a career in medicine, I have always understood the importance of patience in academics. A lot of people think of academics in the short term, looking only towards the next test or exam. However, I implore anyone reading to try to take a step backwards and look at the bigger picture. This philosophy has helped me to keep sight of what is important in the long run rather than worrying about a small classroom assessment".

Beat remote-learning laziness with a schedule

"I knew that if I did not create a sort of schedule for remote learning I would progressively become more and more lazy. To combat this, I kept a quite regimented schedule which mirrored the one I originally had for school. I'd wake up early, go for a morning run and shower before school so I felt like I was ready for the day. I also told myself that I would complete any homework I received as soon as possible to avoid procrastination and letting it slip my mind. Self-discipline was definitely the key trait which allowed me to maintain high performance during remote learning."


“Consistency trumps intensity when it comes to revision. Start early, practice often. Organize your days so that you have periodic breaks in your study sessions, allowing you to focus better and unilaterally perform better. When it comes to Univeristy applications, Your best friend should be anyone in the year above you. Having just gone through the process, they will know what to do, how to do it and common pitfalls you may find yourself in.”

“An education counsellor helped me stay on track”

Ananya Singhal, 17, is a computer science major who secured a place to attend the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania, following her studies at the International School of Choueifat in Abu Dhabi. Ananya is also an AP Scholar with Distinction, a recipient of the AP International Diploma, and an SAT high-achiever with a score of 1580.

Keep stress at bay

Ananya Singhal

"Scheduling time to relax as often as possible has definitely ensured that stress doesn't overtake my mental health.

"Moreover, bi-weekly check-ups with my Hale Education counselor - who we hired to help me with my university application choices, preparation and editing over a period of two years - helped me keep things in perspective and envision my end goal throughout high school."

Nip procrastination in the bud

"I think effective time management is vital to juggling multiple responsibilities. While there have been times where I have returned home from a model UN conference in Sharjah at 1am and then stayed up through the night studying for my periodic exams the next day, this has often been due to a lack of foresight and planning on my part. Although procrastination used to come easily as a coping mechanism to an overly full workload, I have learned to complete tasks well before their due dates and plan exam prep around my extracurricular activities."

Holidays are another learning opportunity

"Typically, over the past few years, my summers have consisted of attending summer programs (Yale Young Global Scholars & SABIS Student Life Training Conference), travelling for pleasure (Russia, Armenia, Greece), and completing internships. This summer, I spent weeks honing my coding skills on Codecademy, exploring various courses on Coursera, catching up on my reading, touching up my résumé, and preparing for my fall semester at Penn."


"With regards to revising for the SAT, I always emphasize the effectiveness of American non-profit educational organization Khan Academy’s SAT practice, which automatically assesses your practice test performances and creates an effective training plan for each individual test-taker.

"For University applications, due to the surplus of supplemental essays involved in US applications, I would highly recommend starting early and organizing a number of essays to finish per week so as to be ready by mid-December. My Hale counselor made sure I adhered to this timeline, and in doing so, I was able to avoid the Christmas/New Year rush. Interviews during the US application process are typically conversational alumni interviews, so crucial tips there would be to thoroughly research the university and unabashedly be yourself. Most importantly, however, have faith in the process and have confidence in your abilities, for discouragement waits at every corner and must be avoided in order to maintain a healthy mental attitude during the taxing application cycle."

“I made revision notes straight after a lesson”

Mariam Ahmed, student at GEMS FirstPoint School – The Villa, 3 A*s in Biology, Chemistry and Maths, studying Biological Sciences at Imperial College London, and hoping to do a postgraduate degree in Genetics.

Prep revision as you go along

Mariam Ahmed

"Immediately after a lesson where we covered new content, I would make notes and revision materials on what we just covered in class.

"This meant when I had to revise for an exam, I could review the content straight away with ease."

Split your week into blocks of time dedicated to specific activities

"I balanced my hobbies such as netball and reading with schoolwork by scheduling specific time blocks in my week which were dedicated to hobbies or revision."


"My advice would be to study smarter rather than harder. For example, utilising spaced repetition when studying so you store content as a long-term memory with little effort. Moreover, when applying to university, I would advise researching about your course or taking part in opportunities related to your course a couple of months before your university application deadline. This will allow you to have a lot of detail to include in your personal statement."

“I set aside an hour each day to do something that brings me joy”

Maya El-Chal is an International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme student at Dunecrest American School who was recently shortlisted for the prestigious John Locke Institute 2020 Essay competition, being chosen by professors from Oxford, Cambridge, Princeton, Harvard and Chicago from almost 3,000 other entries. She is planning to study medicine.

Remote learning is tough - keep the body healthy as well as the mind

Maya El-Chal

"In all honesty, remote learning was not an easy adjustment for me.

"Sitting in one room all day can be mentally discouraging to many people, myself included. I learned to cope with this by taking up hobbies such as baking and reading, as well as building in a workout routine at home to get my body moving. My daily routine consisted of me waking up between 7 and 8 in the morning and working out for 30 minutes to an hour. This is what allowed me to get energized and motivated for the day. I would then jump into any assignments I had that day and work for a couple of hours before taking a small break to eat or spend some time with my family. I tried completing all my necessary school work by 3 or 4pm, around the same time school would end. By doing so, I was keeping my daily routine relatively consistent with life before starting online classes."

Keeping an end goal in mind motivates me

"My education is one of the most important things to me and I like to push myself as much as I can when it comes to my academics. I think it is important that people go about life with some sort of purpose or end goal. My dream is to eventually become a surgeon and travel to underprivileged countries and provide medical aid to people who really need it. For that reason, I feel very driven to excel in school and be the best version of myself that I can be."

Set aside time for joy

"While school is really important, I have found that not doing something outside the academic realm can really take its toll on mental health and cause a person to have a very negative mindset. The way I balance my work and activities is by setting aside at least one hour a day to do something that brings me joy. On nicer days, this could be going running, playing tennis, or roller skating. When the weather outside is not ideal, I’ll read a book, write, or maybe play the violin. I also find it beneficial to have one day a week where I do minimal work. I’ll do a maximum of an hour or two of studying and then use the rest of the day to do activities that make me happy."

“I tested myself daily on what I’d learnt that day”

Nathaneal Sajan from Cambridge International School Dubai received 4 A*s in Maths, Further Maths, Physics and Chemistry, and is attending Imperial College London to study Mechanical Engineering

Daily testing helps to learn as you go along

Nathaneal Sajan

"I followed a daily routine of testing myself on the concepts that I learned during that day in school.

"I would come home and practice specific past paper questions to make sure that the concepts that I learned on the day were solidified."

Don’t be afraid of failure

"Always learn from your mistakes, because only if you make mistakes will you be able to learn from them and grow. Whether it be while practicing past papers for an examination, or organising a large-scale event, if you ignore your mistakes you will never be able to progress."


"Understand the mistakes that you make and why you made them, so that you are able to deepen your understanding of the core concepts that are tested by the examination. Furthermore, make sure to put in consistent effort, do not cram everything in a few weeks before examination, but spend time daily to progress little by little so that you are not overloaded come examination day.

"When it comes to university applications, make sure to start the application process as early as you can. Make sure to leave enough time to really develop your statement so that it becomes a personification of yourself. And, for interviews, always remember that the interviewers are there to support you and make you bring out the best in yourself, so make sure to be yourself and express yourself."

“Prioritising my mental health helped me excel academically”

Tayyeb Ali, 18, was a student at Aldar Academies, who achieved grades 3 A*s at A-Level in Maths, Physics and Chemistry. He secured a place at McGill University in Montreal to study Accounting & Finance.

Prioritise your mental health

Tayyeb Ali

"I believe prioritising your mental health throughout school really polishes how you perform in academia.

"Personally, I made sure to reserve a day weekly for my personal hobbies. Not only did this refresh my mind but also prepared me for the week ahead."

Schedule time for passions outside of academia

"I have pursued Cricket professionally alongside my studies for the past 6 years and hope to continue to do so in Canada. Allocating time specific time blocks in my week dedicated to my hobbies and studies played a vital role in me staying on top of both."


"Start early. Having time on your side can be one of the biggest advantages when it comes to exam revision and university applications."