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 to start.)


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 process.
  • 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.

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.

    Memorization Tips
  • 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 the information.
  • 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 grow.
  • 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 Americas.

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 while studying:

  • 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 moment.
  • 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 short phrase.
  • 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 for you.

Time Management

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 it now.

    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 credit.
  • 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 playing catch-up.
  • 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 paper? Exactly.
  • 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 cozy.
  • 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.
Taking Notes

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 projector.
  • 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 class.

Margin Notes

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 terms.
  • 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.
Study Groups

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.

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