Studying for a high school test is pretty straightforward. In many cases you’ll even be given a study guide. You skim through the book, look over the bolded terms, and you’re good to go.
In college, that won’t be nearly enough. Professors will expect you to think critically, analyze information, and defend an opinion. Crazy, I know. Unfortunately, those skills aren’t really things you can learn from a textbook.
And while I cannot tell you how to answer questions on a college exam, I can provide a few pointers for setting yourself up for success.
Many of these are based on experience. I didn’t study in high school, at all. So when I arrived on campus, I was building my study skill set from scratch. I learned very quickly what worked for me, and what didn’t.
For those who have already formed studying habits, here are a few to break. Or, if you’re like me, here are a few habits to avoid forming.
1. You actually have to study…
Get used to the fact now. You will have to study for your tests. You will have final exams, and they’re usually comprehensive. A lot of your time will be spent reading, writing, and reflecting. Embrace it.
2. Read your textbook and other assigned readings
If you want to get the most out of your time in the classroom, go over the assigned readings before that class. By doing this you’ll be priming your brain for the information coming its way.
Little psychology tidbit: When you read the chapter(s) before class you’re creating little filing cabinets in your brain. Then, when the professor goes over the stuff in class, you’re better able to file the information away. Because these nuggets of information already have somewhere to go, you get more out of the lecture/discussion and it just might be easier to retrieve later too.
Reading before class also allows you to engage in intelligent conversation with the professor during class. You could be the only one in the room that has something to contribute, simply because you’ve done the reading. Or, if you had a question about something you read, now’s your chance to ask.
At the end of the day, professors can tell who has done the reading and who hasn’t. Being on top of your assigned readings will help you stand out.
3. Organize your life
College is a busy time. You’ll have a lot going on and your energy will be divided between your academic, social, and personal life. Do yourself a favor and invest in a planner. Don’t just assume you’ll get it done at some point.
Make sure you are blocking out time in your schedule for studying. When I was an undergrad student I worked about 30 hours a week. I literally had to pencil in time to read, time to eat, and time to sleep.
By blocking off 6-9pm (or whatever time works for you) you’re not just keeping yourself on track. Seeing that written in a planner will also make you more likely to follow through. If you need to take it a step further, divide your study time by class. And make sure you’re scheduling breaks too!
4. Choose your study space wisely
My roommate always studied in bed. I tried it once and was asleep within 5 minutes. Once in a while one of my friends would do homework in the cafeteria at lunch. I would never be able to focus there–way too many distractions, and hello, there’s food.
The space in which you choose to study can have a large impact on your recall and productivity. For example, I tried studying in my dorm for a while. I had a really nice, big desk. However, the lighting was terrible and there were too many of my things around. I procrastinated by doing dishes or I would rearrange my bulletin board.
At the risk of sounding super cliche, I lived in the library. It was the only place I could be productive. And now, as I’m in graduate school, I find myself wishing I could go back to my cubby in my corner of the library, all the time.
Find a place where you can work. If you find yourself consistently distracted, pick a different place.
5. Go lyric-free
Are you one of those people that has to have music on when you’re studying? Do you get distracted when it’s quiet? I do.
For a while I listened to whatever was up next in my shuffle on iTunes. Then I switched to a more calming genre–Disney music. As my coursework became even more difficult, I switched to classical music.
Studying with music can work, you just have to be smart about it. Wild lyrics can be distracting. Pit Bull and psychopharmacology don’t go very well together.
Try going instrumental. Studying to strings can be very relaxing, and when you’re stressing over a final, that might be just what you need. If you’re having trouble finding your “jam” try our Spotify playlists! They’re perfectly curated to help you kick study session butt.
6. Choose your study buddies carefully
You might have been in the same classes as all your friends during high school. That probably won’t be the case in college. If you’re planning on studying in a group or in the same space as your friends make sure you have the same goals.
There’s always that one friend who is super distracting. You’re trying to study and they’re trying to tell you about these awesome shoes they saw online. Studying with them probably isn’t a wise choice.
Yes, studying in a group can be a great way to review and clarify concepts. But if you’re all studying for different subjects, maybe use those sweet Beats you bought with your graduation money.
7. Quit cramming and no all-nighters
Don’t plan on spending the whole night before an exam studying. Break up the material. No one wants to read 12 chapters in one night. The more exposure to the content you have, the better off you’ll be. Waiting until the last minute to start studying is not a good plan.
And on that note, don’t pull all-nighters either. Denying yourself a good night’s sleep won’t do you any good. You’ll be exhausted and unable to recall all that information anyway.
8. Be aware of what you’re putting into your body
Caffeine is a godsend, yes. But 5, 12 oz. Redbulls during an intense afternoon study session is not so good.
Similarly, Sour Patch Kids, delicious. Mindlessly consuming a 5 lb. bag while studying and deciding to skip dinner, poor life choice. Plus, your tongue will hate you.
Be conscientious when it comes to caloric consumption while studying. It’s really easy to get into bad munching habits. I went through a white chocolate mocha and peanut butter m&m phase…If you want to avoid that freshman 15 shoot for healthier snacks. Healthy choices, like fruits and veggies, are usually better at keeping you mentally alert anyway.
9. If the prof offers a review session, go!
One thing I learned during my undergrad years was to make attending review sessions a priority. During high school, these sessions can be kind of pointless, in college they can be a lifesaver.
Other students will ask questions–you should too. Chances are there will be questions asked that you were also wondering about. But, there will also be a few that you hadn’t even considered. Group “brain drain” evenings can be great refreshers.
These review sessions are usually facilitated by a TA. Sometimes these TAs have actually seen the test. Pick their brains too. See if there’s something the group hasn’t discussed that the TA feels y’all should know.
10. Don’t disregard your typical testing tips
How much time you spend studying won’t matter if you don’t get a good night’s sleep and eat breakfast before your test.
Read. Study. Read again. Discuss. Sleep. Eat. Test!
And check out these great life hacks to improve your memory while you’re at it.