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Study Tips From a Straight-A Student. How to Study in College. Study Skills, and How to be Successful in College

Updated on February 19, 2011
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Justin Aptaker graduated summa cum laude from the University of Tennessee, earning a B.A. in psychology and a minor in religious studies.

My College Study Tips / College Survival Guide

As a senior at the University of Tennessee with a 3.9 cumulative GPA, I feel it my duty to share some of my study methods for maintaining my high grades in college. So without further ado…

Reading Done Right

First and foremost, I study as much of the textbooks as possible for every course. The goal is always to read every page of that textbook. I rarely take notes in a class, unless the professor makes it clear that this is important. I find that for most courses, the assigned books, plus any study guides that the professor might provide, plus simply listening attentively, are more than sufficient. I do keep a pen and notebook handy in class, of course, to jot down something that might particularly catch my attention or seem important. But my “notes”, if any, are very, very sparse. But generally, I find that trying to keep a full set of notes distracts me from actively assimilating the lecture, thinking critically, and contributing during class.

But I don’t just read the textbooks. I study them in specific ways:

  • I read as much of the textbook as possible before the semester begins. For example, last summer I knew that I planned to take a course on Hinduism in the fall. So I found out which books were required for the class, bought them, and read through them before the Fall semester even began. Needless to say, I had a tremendous advantage going into that class.
  • I read with a pen. That is, I underline a lot, as well as make notations in the margins. I am not the type to sell my college books when I’m done with them, because I am never really done with them. I read several pages of a book in a given day, underlining as I go, thinking critically and expansively, and notating the margins with my deep ruminations.
  • The day after I read a section of the text, I go back over it, re-reading everything I have underlined, and any notes I have made in the margins.
  • I closely study the introductions, pre-chapter summaries, post-chapter summaries, and key-word lists at the end of chapters. When I study for tests, I always review my notations in the text, the post-chapter summaries, and the keyword lists.
  • Rather than spending an entire day reading for just one class, I read a little bit for each class each day. This way, the reading doesn’t get monotonous, so my attention doesn’t wander. Also this way, I can better stay caught up and balanced in each of my classes, rather than falling behind in some while getting ahead in others.

Master the Mnemonic

Having a hard time memorizing everything you are expected to memorize in college? Master the mnemonic. As you probably already know, a mnemonic device is a mental contrivance which one may utilize to make memorization easy. The secret to the power of mnemonics is simple: don’t wait around for people to give you mnemonic devices; master the art of creating them yourself, and then do it continually.

No information in our brains is stored on an island. Our knowledge, instead, is all stored in groups and relations to other knowledge that we possess. When we learn something, our brains automatically place the information into any number of categories and relations to the things we already know. The trick to creating mnemonics is to think up possible relations and categories to put new information into. These can be natural or “unnatural”. As an example of a natural mnemonic: during my study of ancient Greek, I memorized the Greek word for “remember” as follows. The Greek word for “remember” is “mimnesko”. I already knew that a “mnemonic” device was a mental tool for remembering things. So to learn the Greek word for “remember”, I simply noted how “MNE-monic” was naturally derived from “mi-MNE-sko”. And just like that, I had memorized the Greek word for “remember”, by putting it into its natural relation with something I already knew.

Often, we can not expect to stumble upon such perfect “natural” mnemonics, so we must contrive one.

When I learned to read Hebrew, for example, I created a mnemonic for almost every letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Most of these were utterly absurd. For example, I decided that the Hebrew letter that produced a “D” sound could be thought to resemble a backwards-pointing pistol. I thought of an immortal line from the movie “The Matrix”, in which a character named Trinity points a pistol at someone’s head and says, “Duck this.”

Duck this”…. “Duck”… “D”. And thus I knew the shape of the Hebrew letter that made a “D” sound. My mnemonics for the rest of the Hebrew alphabet were similarly inane.

But as absurd as such mnemonics may seem, they work.

So the question is, are you willing to feel ridiculous for the sake of getting good grades in college? If you are, you are ready to begin mastering the mnemonic!

Notice that I have built mnemonic devices into my headings in this article, to make my main points all the more memorable to you, the reader. “Reading Done Right”, “Master the Mnemonic”…

Take the Test

Don’t let the test take you. One thing that always amazes me about college tests is how many students “finish” their test well before the allotted time for taking the test expires. And then the class’ grade distribution for the test ends up looking like a bell-curve that some madman with a sledgehammer beat flat on the right side (that is to say, the class doesn't do so well on the test). And everyone is shocked.

But why should anyone be shocked? Here is a revelation: just because you have answered all the questions on a test, this does not mean you are finished taking the test. If there is still a half-hour of time left for taking the test, and you have answered all the questions in the test, that means you have finished the first part of the test. The second part of the test, which is just as important, is rigorously checking your answers, evaluating each one to make sure that it is the best answer. For me, the second part of taking the test lasts until the time for taking the test is expired.

Love to Learn

I guess this one isn't exactly a skill-set. Either you love to learn, or you don’t. If you don’t love to learn, I don’t know if you can learn to love to learn. I guess the biggest reason for my success in college is simple: I get no greater pleasure in life than from reading, learning, writing, studying, exploring. When I am not reading for school, I am reading because that is just what I do. It is my pleasure. Writing a school paper becomes a lot easier when one loves to write more than one loves to do almost anything. I write constantly (you are now reading one of the products of this obsession), and would do that whether I was in school or not. And when you read as much as I do, and write as much as I do, reading and writing comes naturally enough when it comes time to do these things in a college setting. So my single greatest piece of advice is this: love to learn. Love to study. The day that I no longer learn, I will no longer live.


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    • Taleb80 profile image

      Taleb AlDris 

      6 years ago

      I think we can love to learn.

      Thanks for sharing this informative hub. I voted Up & Awesome, shared on twitter & with Hubbers.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Voting up! Great study tips. this is a hub worth re-visiting. Congratulations! you have an awesome GPA.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      This is the reason that i come to Hub.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      wow thank you for this awesome hub :) it's inspired me to do better in college and study hard!

    • simeonvisser profile image


      8 years ago

      Most importantly, whether or not you pass the exam is not decided during the exam itself. It's decided well before the exam and it can be seen in your study behaviour and thoroughness of preparation for the exam.


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