The Secret Syllabus:

A Guide to the Unwritten Rules of College Success

The unwritten rules of success that every student must follow to thrive in college

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The Secret Syllabus equips students with the tools they need to succeed, revealing the unwritten rules and cultural norms and expectations not included in the official curriculum. Left to figure out on their own how the academic world works, students frequently stumble, underperform, and miss opportunities. Without mastery of the secret syllabus, too many miss out on the full, rich experience available to them in college.

Jay Phelan and Terry Burnham share the essential lessons they have learned from struggling, unfocused students as well as award-winning college instructors and researchers. The Secret Syllabus draws on Phelan and Burnham’s experiences with thousands of undergraduate and graduate students. Weaving engaging storytelling with practical, actionable advice, they illustrate both productive and counterproductive approaches to achieving academic excellence, and highlight the importance of setting and attaining goals, nurturing strong relationships, developing resiliency, and more.

This fresh, funny, and boldly innovative book enables students to develop the consistently winning and effective behaviors that will equip them to thrive on campus and beyond.

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Meet the Authors

Jay Phelan

Jay Phelan is a biology professor at UCLA. He received his PhD in biology from Harvard and his master’s and bachelor’s degrees from Yale and UCLA. His main area of research is evolutionary genetics and aging. Jay’s research has been featured on, among others, Talk of the Nation and the BBC, as well as seeing his work covered in several major magazines and newspapers.

Jay is passionate about equipping students with the skills they need to succeed, in college and beyond. As a speaker he shares the experience he has garnered from decades of coaching struggling, unfocused students as well as award-winning college instructors and researchers. He is the author of several books, the most of recent of which is the The Secret Syllabus: A Guide to the Unwritten Rules of College Success (forthcoming from Princeton University Press). You can watch his TEDxUCLA talk on finding – and creating - happiness here.

Terry Burnham

Terry Burnham is an economist who studies the biological and evolutionary basis of human behavior. Terry has a PhD in Business Economics from Harvard University, and a masters in finance from MIT. He is currently a finance professor at Chapman University, and previously was a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, the University of Michigan, and the Harvard Business School.

Terry has won teaching awards at Harvard University and Chapman University. Outside of academics, Terry was the director of economics for Acadian Asset Management, an international money manager, the President of Progenics Pharmaceuticals, Inc. a start-up biotechnology company, and worked on Wall Street for Goldman, Sachs & Co.

He is the co-author of Mean Genes and the author of Mean Markets and Lizard Brains. He can be found at: and on twitter @TerenceBurnham.


I know from my twenty years of experience teaching at Harvard that academic excellence requires far more than acing the material. The Secret Syllabus will teach you how to create positive and effective relationships with your faculty. You will learn how to talk to your professors, what to do in office hours, how to stay in touch without being a burden, and much, much more.

Carole Hooven , Codirector of Undergraduate Studies, Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University

The Secret Syllabus covers it all, from the big ideas for living life fully to the small navigations of daily college life. It’s a great read for students looking for the ‘secrets’ for success in college and choosing a career path that is the right fit for them. Who wouldn’t want that?

Roxanne G. Neal , Assistant Dean and Director of the New Student and Transition Programs at UCLA

The Secret Syllabus is unlike any other book I’ve read on preparing for college success. The stories and conversations are enjoyable and the authors don’t just give advice, they explain how to do it. If you have questions about the culture of your college before you even get started, this book is a must-read.

Shellee Howard , CEO of College Ready

The Secret Syllabus should have been titled Rules for Life. The authors take us on a tour of student life in academia and distill the skills necessary for freshmen to thrive. At a time when students seem increasingly ridden with anxiety, this book throws them a lifeline they can grasp. I will definitely recommend this book to my freshmen.

Daniele Struppa , President of Chapman University

Uniquely personal and exquisitely readable. Navigating the ‘secret curriculum’ of higher education is nebulous and difficult, but aspiring college students should look no further than The Secret Syllabus to set themselves up for a successful (and happy) journey forward. This is a book I wish I had when I was starting out in college.

Sagar Desai, MD , Teach For America

I speak with many college students who are interested in the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit. I will add this book to the list of must-reads. Phelan and Burnham have written a dynamic road map for successfully navigating the challenging college years. From setting goals to career planning and every step in between, they are there guiding you with specific, actionable behaviors you should do to achieve your goals and dreams.

Kristen Slater , Special Agent and Unit Chief of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit