Good study skills are the key to success in college. We
know you studied a lot in high school; after all, you wouldn’t have gotten
into college without having some study skills. But you have to take
studying to the next level once you arrive at college.
A habit is a pattern of behavior defined by frequent repetition.
Many college students don’t ever really catch the habit of studying,
and end up doing it on the fly, as time allows. We suggest you make
studying a habitual part of your week, something that becomes part
of your routine, so much so that you do it without thinking. (Clarification:
we want you to think while studying, just not when you sit down
Studying is often about recalling information for the
short term, like memorizing dates for a history test, which you then
promptly forget. Improving your memory is tough: some of us are
just more absent-minded than others. But what you can do is improve
your memory habits—that is, how you remember things.
You should employ all of your senses when trying to memorize
facts. Here’s how you do it:
- Sight: Write down everything you have to
remember and then look at it over and over again, visualizing what
it means. The act of writing adds “muscle memory” to the memorization
- Sound: Say everything you need to remember aloud. Tape yourself
reading the facts and play the tape continually before the test.
- Scent, Touch, and Taste: These three senses are a bit trickier.
The simplest way to exploit them is to attach a smell, a texture,
or a flavor to something you need to remember. For example, smell
an onion and then recite a fact you need to know that begins with
the letter O, then do the same with a lemon for something that begins
with the letter L, and so on. While taking the test, recall the smell,
texture, or flavor and the fact attached to it will come back to
You may find it difficult to associate everything you’re
trying to memorize to one of your five senses, so try to assign
the facts that are giving you the most trouble to each sense. If there’s
a math formula you keep forgetting, create a sensory clue that helps
you remember it.
- Pay attention. This may seem obvious, but it’s important.
If you’re drifting and daydreaming, you won’t remember a thing.
- Plan to recall. If you actively know that you have to remember
something, you are more likely to remember it.
- Review facts just after class. If you spend fifteen minutes just
after class reviewing your notes, you are far more likely to retain
- Study a lot. This also seems like common sense, but the more
you go over the material, the more you will retain it.
- Link a new fact to an old one. Let’s say you’ve just been
told in class that lemons grow on trees. You already know that apples
grow on trees. Link lemons to apples and you’ll remember where lemons
- Don’t cram. You’ll remember more if you study the material
in short bursts rather than during marathon all-nighters.
- Use shapes. Visualize the fact inside a shape, then write
it inside the shape, and cut the shape out so you can feel its curves
and edges. You can even color the shape if that helps, or make the
shape out of something textured, like vinyl or sandpaper. Draw the
shape on a piece of scrap paper during the test, and the fact should
come back to you.
- Create diagrams and webs. Linking facts together with diagrams
and webs can help you remember details. For example, write the names
of different Civil War generals in boxes and draw lines connecting
them to the battles they fought in. That way you’ll also memorize
where they overlap.
- Link numbers to one another. If you need to remember new
numbers, think of how they relate to numbers you already have memorized.
Let’s say you need to remember that the Civil War began in 1861.
Let’s also say your dorm room phone number ends with 61. Is your
relationship with your roommate civil? Either way, you’ve linked roommates
to civil. Now all you have to do is remember the 18 and you’re one
answer closer to an A.
- Learn to rap. Well, not really—learn to rhyme. Rhyming
is one of the most effective mnemonic devices. Find a rhyme for
one of the most important words in the fact you need to know. To
use an example you’re probably familiar with, rhyming “1492” with
“ocean blue” helps you remember when Columbus first came to the
Concentration is essential to learning. If your brain
is running like a hamster on a wheel, facts won’t sink in. With
that in mind, here are some tips for maintaining your concentration
- Put what you’ve just studied into your own
words, as if you’re going to teach it to another student.
- Write down what you don’t understand and then find the answers
in the text or your notes.
- Visualize yourself studying. Imagine that you can see yourself
from the outside. Do you look like someone who’s concentrating?
Or are you tapping your pencil and daydreaming?
- Don’t eat while you study. Save that for study breaks.
- Study in a quiet space. If people are talking around you,
or if music is playing, you may find yourself tuning in to those sounds
and tuning out your work.
- Study alone. Having a friend by your side when you study can
be a real distraction. If your physics textbook is boring you to
tears, you can bet the farm you’ll suddenly remember some crucial
piece of gossip you need to share with your best buddy that very
- Don’t study right before you have a meeting or appointment.
You’ll be stressed about the next thing you have to do, and you
won’t be able to focus on the task at hand.
- Give yourself an antidaydreaming mantra. When you find yourself
drifting off, you can say, “Come back, [your name],” or some other
- Think about what’s motivating you to study. Are you trying to
pass a test, pass the class, get extra credit, impress your parents,
keep your status on the Dean’s list, or meet a personal goal? Keeping
your eye on the prize should bring back your focus.
- Set reasonable goals for yourself. If you’re unrealistic
about how long you’re going to study or what you’re going to accomplish,
your concentration will fade as you become increasingly frustrated.
Keep in mind that all these tips won’t work for everyone. Some
people need to listen to music or have a study buddy to keep them
focused. Try all these methods and determine which ones work best
College is a time-drainer. Well, more accurately, college
life is a time-drainer. College classes themselves take up only
about twelve to fifteen hours of your week, far less than a part-time job,
or even high school classes for that matter. But it’s all the other
stuff you have to negotiate—parties, friends, studying, eating,
doing laundry—that can be a real waste of time. Learning to manage
your time will help you get through college, as well as life, successfully.
It’s an invaluable life skill, and you need to start working on
Time Management Tips
- Do the tough stuff first. Work on the material you really hate,
or that you’re not great at first. That way you’ll have energy when
you need it the most.
- Remember the 3-1 rule. Plan to study three hours for every class
credit. For example, if your English class earns you three credits,
you should spend nine hours studying for it each week.
- Avoid all-nighters. Pulling an all-nighter before a test,
or cramming in general, is not only a poor way to learn, but also
leaves you sleepy on test day. You’re better off studying all week
and then getting a good night’s sleep the night before.
- Study on your time. When are you fresh and most alert?
If you are focused first thing in the morning, set that time aside
for studying. If you work really well at 3 a.m., schedule
your study time for then.
- Work while you wait. Use your time sitting in the health center
waiting room or in the laundry room to study.
- Set a study goal. Always ask yourself, “What do I need
to accomplish in this study session?”
- Set time limits. Set aside time to study and stop when
the time is up. This should help you focus while you’re studying,
because you know when it’ll come to an end.
- Take five. Well, fifteen, actually. Allow yourself a fifteen-minute
break for each hour of studying. Get up, stretch, have a snack—then
get back to the books.
- Get in the right frame of mind. Get into the right frame
of mind before you begin studying. If you have something else on
your mind, you’ll find yourself easily distracted by it.
- Try to stick to a schedule. We say try because it’s tough
to keep a set schedule in college. Everyone seems to want a slice
of your time. Do the best you can to schedule everything from studying
to doing laundry.
Creating a Schedule
A big part of time management is knowing where your time
is going. Write down everything you have to do each week so that
you know how much time you’re spending on each activity. By looking
at your commitments this way, you can tighten your schedule as needed.
Here’s what you do:
- Write down when you have to be in class.
- Give yourself between fifteen minutes and half an hour before
each class to review your notes.
- Write down everywhere else you have to be: job, club meetings,
sports practice, and so on.
- Write down three mealtimes a day.
- Schedule study times—remember, three hours for each class
- Block out some time each day for your personal needs,
like doing laundry or buying dorm room provisions.
- Schedule leisure time on two weekdays. Thursday night
is usually “college night”—time to party and go out—so that might
be a good time to set aside for fun.
- Block out most of the weekend for fun stuff. You’ll have
to use Sunday for some studying, but if you work hard during the
week, you won’t have to spend Friday and Saturday night in the library
- Schedule things that don’t necessarily happen every week, like
roommate meetings and dorm meetings.
- Schedule at least nine hours for sleep (that includes
the time it takes you to fall asleep at night and get out of bed
in the morning).
Where to Study
Once you’ve perfected your study habits, you have to find
the right place to apply them. Some people are better off studying in
absolute peace and quiet, while others are happy to play music or
sit in a busy coffee shop. Try both and stick with whichever one
works best for you.
Here are a few tips about where to study:
- Try not to study in your room all the time.
There are too many distractions there, like the television, the
phone, and your roommates.
- Have a regular study area, a place that’s yours, like
a cubicle in the library or your favorite chair in a coffee shop.
- Find a place where you feel safe and undisturbed.
- Find a place where you can sit forever without being kicked out.
- Whatever you do, don’t study in bed. Your body is used
to sleeping in bed, and you’re likely to fall asleep if you study there.
Which is more appealing: taking a nap or finishing that economics
- Choose a quiet place. The dorm is noisy, so the library
is a better choice for those who can’t tune out noise.
- Avoid places with visual distractions. Lots of commotion can
be more distracting than lots of noise.
- Don’t get too comfortable. Your focus will fade if you’re too
- Don’t let others disturb you. If you do study in your
dorm room, hang a “Studying! Do Not Disturb” sign on your door.
Hopefully your dorm mates will respect it.
- If you lose concentration in one study space, find another one
rather than trying to make the original spot work.
While most of what you hear in lecture will be on the
test, much of it may not be in your textbook. The professor will
hit the main points during the lecture, so be sure to attend all
of the lectures, even if attendance isn’t taken. Make sure you have
the right tools for note-taking: a good pen or pencil and a three-punch
notebook so you can add pages between your notes. If you miss something
the professor says, don’t panic: you can get it later from a friend
in class. It’s better to continue taking notes than to frantically
go back, causing you to miss more of the lecture. Finally, pay attention
and be alert. A daydreamer doesn’t take great notes.
Here are some suggestions we think will help make you
a grade-A note-taker:
- Sit as close as possible to the professor
so you can hear everything.
- Write legibly enough for you to decipher your own handwriting.
- Use a computer or PDA in class if you type faster than
you write by hand.
- Tape record lectures if your professors allow it. This
isn’t a replacement for taking notes, however, because you could easily
have a technical issue with the recorder and miss the entire lecture.
To be on the safe side, do both.
- Put asterisks near important concepts and arrows pointing to
concepts you don’t really understand.
- Copy everything the professor writes on the board or the overhead
- As you take notes, summarize things in your own words instead
of trying to write everything verbatim.
- Identify the main points of the lecture, which are generally introduced
when the professor lists concepts, changes topic, or repeats information.
- Use your own method of shorthand, making sure you’re consistent
and you understand what these symbols and abbreviations mean when
you review your notes.
- After class, take a few minutes to review, organize, and expand
your notes. You will only remember this information for about an
hour, so make sure to take some time for this important step.
Remember: if you miss a lecture because of sickness or
some other circumstance, you can always borrow notes from a classmate,
but be sure to choose a classmate who’s getting good grades in the
Making margin notes in your textbooks is essential to remembering
and processing what you’ve read. If you plan on writing a lot, you
should write in pencil and erase everything at the end of the semester,
which will allow you to resell your books.
Here are some tips for taking good margin notes:
- Read a chapter or section thoroughly before
making any notes. Write notes during your second read-through.
- Underline important points and main ideas.
- Circle important dates.
- Bracket important names.
- Use shorthand marks consistently.
- Briefly summarize each page at the top.
- Write the definitions of unfamiliar words at the bottom
of the page where they appear.
- Use the front and back covers for keeping your own index of
important points in the book, as well as your own glossary of key
- Use a highlighter to mark important points. It can’t be erased,
but as far as we’re concerned, a good grade is more important than
possibly not being able to sell back your book. Highlight away!
- After you’re done taking margin notes, write your understanding
of the chapter or section in your own words on a sheet of paper.
Fold and place the sheet of paper at the beginning of the chapter.
Forming a study group of three to six people is a great
way to share information, get answers, fill in the holes in your
notes, and make studying fun. Find a few people in your class who are
interested in getting together to study. You can meet in someone’s
dorm room, the talking section of the library, the dining hall,
a coffee shop, or you can request a meeting room from the university.
One person should be the group leader, organizing the “where,”
“when,” and “who” of the group. The leader also organizes the agenda
for each meeting, outlining what the group is going to talk about
and in what order. Each person is responsible for bringing some
study material. For example, if you’re studying a novel, someone
will bring research on the characters and someone else will bring
research on the significance of the setting.
Study groups require a bit of trial and error. You’ll
have to meet a few times to really get into the groove of your particular
dynamic. Once the hour or two of studying is over, go out for pizza
together and discuss how you think the group worked and what could
be done better the next time.
Preparing for Exams
Start studying hard for an exam one week before you take
it. Study alone, with a friend, and with a study group, devoting at
least an hour each day to the topic.
Go over your class notes and outline the important points
on a separate sheet of paper. Then, highlight the material you’re sure
you know backward and forward. Once you’ve done that, you’ll know
what you need to focus on.
On another sheet of paper, list the unhighlighted material. Clarify
each point using the textbook, a friend, the internet, or your professor.
Next, make flashcards for any material you’re unsure about, and
have someone quiz you until you know the material cold.
Flashcards are a great way to study for an exam. You probably made
flashcards in high school to memorize SAT vocabulary, or to remember
a mind-numbingly long list of dates for a history exam.
There are many benefits to creating and using flashcards. First,
they can be shuffled, which means you won’t just be memorizing the
order in which facts appear in a textbook or lecture. If your professors
are even half as smart as you think they are, they won’t repeat
facts this way. Second, the act of creating flashcards helps you
remember facts. The simple act of writing a date, formula, or definition
uses a different part of your brain than when you read. Third, you
can always add more flashcards to your pile. Forgot the year in
which the Constitutional Convention convened? No problem: just create
a new flashcard and shuffle it into your stack.
Asking for an Extension
If you’re really strapped for time and you haven’t studied enough
(or at all), or if something has come up and you haven’t even started
your paper by the due date, you can ask for an extension. Try not
to lie. Just tell your professor you need some more time. Most profs
are pretty good about helping you out if you have a valid excuse.
If your grandmother dies four times during the semester and you
have your appendix out twice—well, you may be out of luck.