When they arrive on campus, most freshmen have only begun to learn to study, no matter how hard they worked in high school.
By finals week of their senior year, they have serious study skills – methods, hacks and strategies devised over four years.
A couple of standout seniors, Lotus Thai ’17 – a double major in business administration and environmental science with a minor in political science — and Alex Himstead ’17 – a biology major with a Spanish minor who plans to go to medical school — generously agreed to share their top tips. (Have more tips? Share them in the comments section below.)
- Get organized. (Technology is your friend.)
“At this time of the year, students get piled on a lot of homework, projects, exams and papers. What I like to do is go through my class syllabuses — syllabi — and make a list of all the big assignments and put those in Google Calendar, which is what I use to organize my life. Then I can be proactive about preparing. Just say as an example I have two big projects due on May 15. I start one early and finish on May 3 and still have time to do the other one before it’s due. Or if I have a final and project, I do the project first.”
- Limit distractions. (Technology is not your friend.)
“When I study for an exam, I put my phone on Airplane Mode or Do Not Disturb. You can get sidetracked by Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat, and 30 minutes pass. I put my phone in my backpack to try to nip that in the bud. That applies equally to an annoying roommate. If I’m clearly studying and they’re talking, maybe I start by saying, ‘Hey, I’m studying.’ If they’re talking while they’re hanging out, maybe I’m like, ‘Hey, go somewhere else, no hard feelings.’”
- Take frequent breaks.
“I read about this study technique online called the Pomodoro Technique. Maybe set a timer on your phone for 20 or 25 minutes, and in those 20 or 25 minutes, do nothing but focus. Then when the timer goes off, take a five-minute break and do anything you need to do. Go to the bathroom, check your phone, send texts, get a snack. Then set it for 20 or 25 minutes again. To say I’m going to sit down and study for two hours is pretty daunting. Saying I’ll study for 25 and take a break is easy. When I was studying for the MCAT, which I did all day for a solid month from the day after Christmas until my test on Jan. 23, I’d study for 30 or 45 minutes, then take a break for 10 or 15 minutes.”
- Make it stick.
“This one is actually my favorite. I got it from this book called Make it Stick. The basic premise is the harder learning is, the more it will stick. It’s kind of a weird counterintuitive idea. So things like re-reading your notes and re-reading your textbook are not very effective. A way more effective way is to do active recall. Ask yourself a question, cover up the answer, and try to say it. Or do the math problems over again.”
- Put your flash cards on steroids.
“A lot of people use Quizlet. Another app called Anki is not as well known. You make your own flash cards. Then, say you get a flash card. If you get it right, the flash card won’t reappear in your deck for longer. If you get it wrong, it comes right back in one minute. If you get it right, it might come back in 10, then a day, two days, four days, eight, a month, two months. I used it to study for the MCAT. There’s so much to learn you start to forget what you already studied. So every morning I would put some flash cards in Anki, then review the flash cards again at the end of the day. It’s awesome.”
- Go to sleep (seriously).
“I always try to get a full night’s sleep before the day of the test. There are studies that show there’s really no point in pulling all-nighters. Your brain needs time to process all you’ve learned. I try to get at least six or seven hours the night before.”
- Use the library a whole new way.
“My friends and I love booking a library room with a whiteboard in it. And then one of us will teach one chapter, teaching each other like little kids, and another the next chapter. We found if we’re able to teach it, we absorb the information. And while you’re teaching it, your friends add to it. We try to book the room for about two hours. We found if we go over two hours, we get a little crazy and get sidetracked.”
- Write it down. Twice.
“I don’t ever type my notes on a computer. I always handwrite my notes. That’s just how I learn. Other people are visual learners or listen better. For me, I’m all about muscle memory. Then the night or two before a test, sometimes I rewrite all my notes. I never use black ink, always colorful ink. I have a set of markers and pens, like 20 colors.
“I never type anything unless the professor tells us the test will be open-note. If it’s open-note, I retype everything on Google Doc. Then you can use Control F on a PC or Command F on a Mac to find what you’re looking for. I do it on Google Docs instead of a Word doc in case my laptop dies just before the test, because Google Docs is cloud-based so I’ve always saved the doc on the internet.”
- This is your life.
“I always try to apply what I learn in class to my personal life. It just makes it easier to memorize. So for example in my science class, since I live by the beach, any time we learn about sea-level rise, I try to relate it to how it would affect me personally.”
- Stay organized. (We can’t say it enough.)
“I have a planner and I use it to keep track of everything. The minute I get a syllabus, I write down the test dates and the project due dates, so nothing ever sneaks up on me and I’m always prepared.”
Whatever you do, make it your own
So that’s a start. Low tech or high tech. Alone or in groups. On paper or online. These two students agree that the best tips are to get organized and stay organized, and figure out which learning methods work best for you personally.
Join the conversation and add your own personal study tips in the comments below.