How to Take Notes in College

Updated: May 23

Everyone talks about how college is a whole other ball game when it comes to taking notes & studying, but it's notoriously difficult to find information on how to study in college. This little blog post will break it down: from pre-reading & taking notes in class to prepping for your big exams.


Before 'first things first' - college students often choose to believe that studying new content starts in a lecture. This is a great misconception! Most courses have a course framework which indicates what topics / chapters will be covered when - it's a great idea to use this to do a little 'pre-reading' for the week on a Sunday afternoon. You don't need to study the content or make notes, but this does help to give you an idea of what you'll be covering during the week. It's a good idea to highlight concepts which don't make sense so that you can be sure to ask questions during that lecture. Besides, sitting on your bed with a mug of coffee on a Sunday afternoon really isn't so bad!


First things first: taking notes in class...

Taking notes in class can be challenging, especially as lecturers often move through content faster than you can write, but it is important to do as it not only helps to keep you awake, but it also encourages you to engage with the content & makes recalling information later on a little easier. I personally like having notebooks for each course (this is manageable because I only have 4 courses, however, if you have more, you may want to try one of the alternative methods). I jot down main ideas / points (especially things that the lecturer emphasizes because this is usually a hint that they'll come up in a test) as well as examples. I then use my notebooks as an outline for making study notes (I find that we often don't need to know all of the work under a chapter, & so having this outline prevents me from studying unnecessary content).

This picture is of my notebook for my Computer Science lectures. I try to jot down a couple of diagrams & some of the examples that we go through.

Notebooks aren't for everyone... I know a number of students who would much rather carry around a single file than notebooks for every course. If you're one of these students, you might want to give the Cornell note making method a try. The Cornell method is simple: it consists of dividing a page into 3 sections (a block at the bottom & 2 columns down the middle). The right-hand column is usually the largest column & is used for taking notes (these are the main ideas of the lecture which should be paraphrased in the interest of keeping notes brief), the left-hand column is about half the size of the right & is used for jotting down keywords & questions. The bottom block is for a summary which should ideally be made after class, but on the same day of the lecture. I find Cornell notes most useful for theory-intensive subjects with few calculations, however they can be easily adapted for pretty much any course & the best part about this method is that, when done right, your lecture notes should work as study notes as well (meaning that you don't have to re-write lots of information from the textbook). If you don't feel like dividing up a page of legal pad, try this template.


If you'd rather carry your laptop around than notebooks or a file, you'd probably also rather have typed notes. Although this method depends on you having a VERY reliable laptop battery, it does allow you to add to your notes at a later date AND if you use something like Google Drive, you will always have access to your notes. I am very fond of using PowerPoint for making notes - I know this is highly unusual, but I suspect that this is because most people don't know that you can adjust the page size & orientation of PowerPoint slides (I hope to have a slightly more detailed vlog / blog post about this coming out soon). Microsoft OneNote is also a very popular program for taking notes, particularly because of the way it allows you to organize notes into books with chapters.

I made these Physics notes using PowerPoint (which is surprisingly easy to do!)

What next?

This next step is important, but often forgotten. Many students leave the notes that they took in lectures lying in a pile on their desk, or even worse, at the bottom of a backpack. It's important to keep your lecture notes organized - a filing system is probably the easiest way to achieve this. When you get home from your last lecture of the day, I suggest quickly going through your notes & adding any information that you left out / touching up anything that you wrote down which you now realize doesn't make any sense, then file your notes in a way that you'll be able to find them a month from now when you're studying for a test.


The 'E' word...

I'm talking about exams of course! Although writing 4 exams in college is a substantially better than having to write 16 (like I did in high school), there is still a significantly larger quantity of work to cover & studying in college entails less 'parrot learning' and a lot more understanding of complex concepts & developing original ideas. In high school, I spent a large amount of time going over past papers & exercises before an exam (if you are in high school - I definitely recommend doing this!) however, in college this is a somewhat inefficient way of studying as examiners strive to set unique tests & exams which prevent students from getting too comfortable with a particular way of testing. I usually start out by making notes & summaries (using either my notebook or Cornell notes from lectures as an outline). If I typed up my lecture notes, I just adapt the document that I created in the lecture.

These are some Physics notes that I made for exams - I tried to minimize the amount of content & include examples which demonstrate a broad application of the ideas.

I strongly recommend using the course framework as a checklist before a test or exam to make sure that you've covered everything that you were supposed to. If you follow my Instagram account (SmartGirlStudy), you will know that I am very fond of using color & diagrams in my study notes, it may feel juvenile, but it still works really well in college (& its a super easy way to organize ideas & visualize information). Closer to the time of the exam, I like to watch a couple of Khan Academy videos (these are great because they are a different explanation of the same topics that we've covered, which sometimes helps me to see things from a different perspective).


If you have a little bit of time on your hands & friends who take the same courses as you, agree to teach each other different topics. Explaining something to someone else & answering their questions will help you to gain deeper insight into the content & listening to them explain something in a different way should also help you to better understand concepts (especially those that you found a little tricky!). Also, exams can be a really lonely time for a lot of students (especially those studying far from home) - this will give you an opportunity to get out of your room & spend some time with other people.


Thinking outside the box. If you live in University dorms like me, your room is probably feels a bit like a box. Unfortunately, this means that your study space can start to feel very cramped very quickly. I like to study in our campus library (something about that place makes me feel very productive & I have access to everything I need - resources, internet, printers etc.), however we aren't allowed to bring drinks other than water in & I really do prefer to study with my mug of tea. If there are any great coffee shops on campus, these can also serve as a nice change of scenery. We have a chain of coffee shops on my campus which serve bottomless coffee & hot chocolate (perfect for students on a study binge!). If you're going to be studying somewhere other than your dorm room, don't forget to take everything you'll need with you (notes, textbook, laptop, stationery, travel mug, earphones etc.).


I hope you found these tips & tricks useful! I'd love to hear your feedback or how you makes notes in college - feel free to leave a message in the comments!


Happy studying!


P.S. If you'd like to learn more about how I make study notes using PowerPoint - check out this YouTube video.


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