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Study Tips for College Students

Updated on August 12, 2019
Sam Shepards profile image

I'm Sam. I enjoy writing about sleep and mental health-related topics as well as ways to prevent stress and to relax.

When you first go to college, your classes and exams may be more challenging than you expect. It can be a different system of studying than you’re used to, so don’t worry if it takes a little while to transition or if your grades are a little lower than what they were in high school – that’s totally normal.

Of course, you want to be as successful as possible without having to spend every waking moment doing work. Here are some college study tips to help you get through your classes and get the best grades you can, with as little stress as possible.

I myself did everything wrong when I was at university and luckily with a lot of last minute cramming and stress I made it to the finish line without injuries. I skipped most classes, I just read the books and course material by myself. I was busy partying or playing games till morning.

I also didn't think through what master's degree I actually wanted, so I ended up with a degree I don't really need or want anymore. If you study for something you actually have a big interest in, keeping up with regular study and going to classes will also be easier. You can always get a different career or start your own business later on, but doing something you want in university will make it a little easier.

Make a Timeline of Big Assignments

At the beginning of each semester, your professors will hand out syllabi. This may seem like just a collection of boring information (and some of it usually is), but it can also be a helpful tool for getting yourself organized. Usually, professors include the due dates of large assignments and exams right on the syllabus. As soon as you get them, mark out on a calendar when all of these assignments are due.

That way you can see how much time you have between big reports or papers and if there are any clumps (which are especially likely around midterms and finals). That way, there’s no surprise when you have 3 papers all due in one week, and hopefully, you can get started in advance. This kind of long-term planning will help you organize your time so that you don’t get overwhelmed during the difficult parts of the semester.

Use Your Time Efficiently

One of the biggest differences between high school and college is the extra time you have in college. You may have a class for just a couple of hours (or even no time at all) on some weekdays. This is great, as it allows you plenty of time to participate in clubs and sports and hang out with friends. You have to be careful, however, that you don’t get complacent.

If you get out of class at 1:00 pm, it can be easy to feel like you have plenty of time and enjoy relaxing until 11:00 pm rolls around and you realize you haven’t started your proof due in math class at 9:00 am tomorrow. To avoid this, the best study tip is to create a productive schedule ahead of time. If you don’t feel productive in your room, go directly from class to an academic building to do work for a few hours. If you make yourself do work between 1:00 and 5:00, then you’ll be free to enjoy your time for the rest of the evening.

Getting into productive study habits will help you to get your work done in advance so that you don’t end up with last-minute stress (although it’s bound to happen to everyone some time), and you can actually spend more time socializing.

Take Good Notes

Good note taking is an essential college study skill. It starts in class. You can’t write down everything the professor says, so try to focus on recording the main points. You can include important information, such as key terms or references for further study, in the margins.

If your professor uses Powerpoint presentations that are made available to the class, don’t worry too much about writing down the information on the slides, as you’ll be able to review them later. When you’re doing readings that may come up later for an exam or paper, do your best to take notes as you go. This can make preparing for that exam or paper much easier when it’s time to write it. Taking exhaustive notes will make your reading go much more slowly, however. Try to focus on what’s most important to your paper topic, if you’re writing a paper.

Otherwise, try to write down only the most important pieces of information. Then, at the end of each reading, write down the main idea of the article or for reach chapter. This process helps you remember the material much more effectively, and you can use your notes to figure out what to go back to if you need to find a piece of information.

Most importantly, include page numbers for every note you take. This makes preparing citations infinitely easier. You don’t want to have to go back and skim through every page to track down the perfect quote you wrote down a month ago.

Learn to Read More Effectively

For me, one of the most difficult lessons I had to learn about studying in college was that it’s simply not always possible to read everything. You may have a lot of work in multiple classes at once, or you may have a class that assigns an overly large amount of books and articles.

Ideally, you’d be able to read everything. Realistically, you might not always have the time. In these situations, reading strategically is more effective than trying to read every word and not making it very far. Your first step should be to read the introduction. You can skip over any dedications and that sort of thing, but the end of almost every introduction includes an outline of the main ideas of the article or book. If this is the only thing you read, at the very least it will give you a sense of what’s going on so you can follow a class discussion.

If you’re short on time, the next most important thing is the conclusion, which will also help to provide you with the main ideas. In the body of the text, you can skim through to find the main ideas.

A good study tip is to read the first sentence of each paragraph. This will convey the main points and the progression of ideas. If you were assigned a series of articles or chapters for a class, do your best to read one or two thoroughly, even if you have to skim the rest. That way, you’re prepared to actively participate about at least some of the material in class.

Use the Resources Around You

In my opinion, this is the most important college study tip on this list. Colleges devote a lot of resources to providing support services to students. Use them. You might feel hesitant to seek help or advice, but that’s exactly what those services are there for. You can save yourself from a lot of stress and difficulty if you seek support when you feel that you need it.

Your first line of defense if you’re having difficulties in class is your professor’s office hours. Probably it can feel a little awkward going to office hours because I skipped most classes I never really went to ask for advice. The truth is that professors are there explicitly because they want to see students, and they expect students to show up. If you have a question about what was covered in class, are struggling with an assignment, or simply want to discuss the subject further, office hours are a great place to go.

If you’re at a larger university, a TA can likely help you with these problems as well. Most colleges also have a number of academic support services. They may have a writing center where you can seek help working on and revising your papers. There’s likely also a quantitative study skills center. Most of these services offer semi-regular workshops and events and private tutoring. Take advantage of these opportunities while you’re in college; they can significantly help you to develop academic and professional skills.

There’s also a lot of emotional support at colleges. If you’re struggling with something, don’t know where to go for support, or just need to talk, your Resident Advisor (RA) is a great resource. You can also try out your college’s counseling center. At times, college can be stressful, and especially when you’re just starting out, you may not feel like you have the support you’re used to. These services are meant to help you through problems big and small, so don’t hesitate to take advantage of them.

Exam Preparation Habits

Right before the exams people need to study hard and effective, but many people also have some bad habits. Try to counter these habits even when you feel like you don't have the time.

  • Stop studying at least 1 hour before going to bed. Give your brain some time to wind down otherwise you'll have trouble falling asleep. A good nights rest is often more important than an extra hour of study.
  • Many people survive on junk food and energy drinks during those days. Try to prepare a healthy, but simple meal and keep your snacks healthy as well.
  • Take regular breaks from studying. Take a 5-10 minutes break every hour and a longer break every 3 hours.
  • Keep distractions to a minimum and study in a place that triggers you for studying. Keep away from social media, Netflix, games, etc. If you listen to music during studying prefer music without vocals or listening to music you know by heart.
  • Don't do an all-nighter for better grades, an all-nighter is only an option when failure is 100% guaranteed. Many people have anxiety, a fear of failure, if you've studied the material an all-nighter is not for you. If you haven't even read half the study material then maybe it can help to study some extra hours.

The most important thing is to enjoy most of what you are doing and keep up with the work. Enjoy your time in college.

© 2019 Sam Shepards


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    • Sam Shepards profile imageAUTHOR

      Sam Shepards 

      2 weeks ago from Europe

      Having great notes when you are studying is essential indeed. I remember skipping certain classes and reading the 2 criminal law course books of over 700 pages each. I could have done the exams with 150 pages of decent notes. I wasted a lot of time on reading and studying things that the professor didn't deem that important and missed a lot of the practical recent examples he gave in the class.

    • Priya Barua profile image

      Priya Barua 

      6 weeks ago

      Thanks for the tips. I'm in law school and I believe the most important tip is to know how to take good notes in class. It becomes a lot easier when revising for exams.

    • Sam Shepards profile imageAUTHOR

      Sam Shepards 

      8 weeks ago from Europe

      Thank you for the comments Eric. Life is one big education indeed. I learned most things outside the protected walls of a university.

    • Sam Shepards profile imageAUTHOR

      Sam Shepards 

      8 weeks ago from Europe

      Life is indeed continuous study. Likely I came quite efficient in studying for my job so that I have enough free time to educate myself in life. Your articles with your son are one big education in life.


    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      8 weeks ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Why did I read this? I have a doctorate. I read because Sam wrote it.

      You know I am a bit lopsided in the brain so I think this is not limited to education of structure but continuing education of life.

      "when I was going to 'name of university'" Is how we say "in university".

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      8 weeks ago from UK

      If only I had read this many years ago. You give some good tips in this article.

    • EverlynneTika profile image

      Everlynne Mataru 

      8 weeks ago from Port Moresby

      Very true.


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