Alright, confession time: I was the worst kind of high school student. I looked over my notes for about 15 minutes the night before a test, often while watching TV, and wrote almost all of my AP Literature papers in the computer lab the period before they were due. And I coasted right into the top 10 percent of my class, thereby making my peers (I assume) want to punch me right in the face.
And then I went to college, and I got my well-earned comeuppance. My program was filled with smart people, and they all seemed to be armed with the strong work ethic I had failed to develop in high school. And now things were suddenly a lot harder. My first few grades were such a shock—I did the same thing I’d always done (the absolute bare minimum), except now I was barely passing. And so, alongside all the other massive changes college afforded me, I had to learn how to study and be a good student.
Below are some of the study tips I wished I had learned back in elementary school but instead learned the hard way as an undergrad.
Set Aside Some Time
It’s easy, when you get to college, to get swept up into all the fun of it—the parties, the club meetings, and all the new people to meet—but it is school. And it’s harder than school has ever been so far in your life. If you’re going to do well, you need to dedicate time to sit down and work. Figure out at what time you feel the most focused—first thing in the morning, just before dinner, whenever works for you—and block that out as study time. Hold yourself accountable for using it. Because guess what: If you actually use the study time you give yourself, then you won’t have to feel guilty for not studying outside those times, no matter how much your parents ask you about it.
I never thought of high school as tough to keep track of. Mostly you got a homework assignment, and it was due the next day. For anything with a longer timeline than that, teachers would remind you about it every day until it was due. College is different. Professors hand you a syllabus, and you’re expected to keep to it. End of story. The only way to make sure you’re turning in your best work is to keep organized—because no one else is going to do it for you.
My college organization method relied on two things: having everything I needed at hand and keeping together what I would need later. I had one folder that I kept in my backpack—it held all my readings, handouts, completed homework, whatever I was given in class or needed for an upcoming session. I also had one folder for each of my classes that I kept in my dorm. These held syllabi, old assignments, previous readings—anything I’d need to reference for an upcoming paper or exam. This method ensured I always came to class prepared and that I always had all my study materials in one place. I wrote important dates on post-its and stuck them in plain sight above my desk. I finally started keeping a calendar, like my mother had begged me to do all my life. Trust me on this—the best way to make sure you’re not pulling a Red-Bull-fueled all-nighter is to know when your major due dates are and plan for them appropriately by keeping everything you need at hand.
Do the Reading
Okay, I know this one sounds obvious. We all know we should do the reading. But really, I’m serious.
You have to do the reading.
I don’t care if your professor gave you an entire book and a 30-page article from The New Yorker (those triple columns, man—they’re killer) to get through before the next class. Read it. Annotate it. Understand it. Your ability to participate in classroom discussions, to write papers, and to communicate your knowledge on an exam comes from doing your homework. And it’s easy to skip the reading because unlike math problems or take-home quizzes, there often isn’t much accountability holding you to it. Anyone can nod along in class like they totally know what everyone’s talking about, even when the reading never once left their backpack. If you want to actually be the person who knows what they’re talking about, doing the reading is step one.
Join a Study Group—If It’s Helpful
This is something I decided not to do in college, but it does help a lot of people. Studying with a group can be a good way to get motivated, if only because peer pressure is a powerful force. I’d advise keeping it small—a seven-person study group may have been perfect for Community, but did those guys ever get any actual work done? Keeping your group capped at three or four people is ideal, if only to have fewer schedules to coordinate.
However, if a study group isn’t helpful to you, don’t try and force yourself into doing it. Personally, they never did much for me—any study group attempt usually devolved into a social hour (often because of me, I’ll cop to that), and even when it didn’t, it always seemed like someone came unprepared (like by not doing the reading) and dragged everyone else down. That doesn’t happen in all study groups, but it’s the kind of thing that should send you running if it happens in yours. I’d suggest trying a one-off study sesh before committing to something regular, as a trial run. You need to make sure that you’re getting the most out of your study time, so don’t be afraid to try new methods—and to drop them if they’re not working for you.
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