College is a great place to meet new people, join groups doing things you’re passionate about, and maybe even live in a new city. As exciting as all that is, however, there’s no way to get around it — college is, at its core, a place to learn and grow intellectually.
No matter what path or major you choose to pursue, papers and tests will be part of your undergraduate experience, so it’s important to find what works best. I was a student who thrived only when I had headphones in — silence was not my studying friend. In contrast, my roommate could only work in private study rooms in our library where there were no distractions.
I’ve consulted some friends to round out a list of things to consider when you’re trying to figure out those optimal learning conditions. The essentials for productive studying come down to timing, environment, and organization.
Starting college is an exciting time — you get to bounce around between club fairs and intramural sports teams, the thrill of meeting new people in your dorm, and the occasional frantic feeling of navigating new campus buildings and culture. Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed, though. My freshman year, I rushed headlong into everything — I over-committed and subsequently under-delivered. I sacrificed sleep for being social and, in retrospect, it’s easy for me to see how it impacted my grades my first semester.
Some people need to get everything done before they hit the pillow; others hit a wall when the clock chimes a certain hour. My friend Katie told me, “My biggest takeaway from college was that if I didn’t understand something by midnight, then I wasn’t going to know it in the morning. As a morning person, that helped justify getting sleep and starting fresh when I woke up.”
Are you a morning or night person? Prioritize the time of day when you feel most awake as key study hours if you can. For me, I liked to start with small assignments because I’m someone who becomes overwhelmed with the quantity, rather than intensity, of items on my to-do list. Figure out if you’re someone who prefers a leisurely morning, or a morning where you hit the books right off the bat with a fresh cup of coffee.
If you’re living on campus, it’s likely that your school has a plethora of study spots. Many colleges have study rooms that can be reserved at the library, as well as cafés and even outdoor tables. Your environment has a big impact on how you study. If you meet up with a friend, will you actually write down those bio notes, or spend the whole time talking instead? Taking breaks for some socialization is helpful, but things can easily go off-track (especially for extroverts).
One of my high school friends shared this tip, which she found useful even before college-level courses: “Don’t study in your bed. Keep studying out of your sleeping space so the two parts of your day feel distinct.” It might be tempting to take notes or read a dry paper in a comfortable place where you can doze off, but picking a place where you can stay alert will keep you focused — and it will help you sleep better because your bed will be only a place for resting, not working.
Noise is a huge part of your study environment as well. If you need to have headphones in, learn what playlist puts you in the zone.
No matter what puts you in the study mood, don’t compromise. For too long, I studied in ways that went against the grain of who I was: I tried to study with other people; I felt like I had to take color-coded notes to keep up with classmates; I maintained an “I’ll do it in the morning” attitude when I know I function best with all my studying done before bed. Learning my own rhythms and preferences, and then feeling free to plan around them, made me a better student.
Education is an incredible gift, and fine-tuning your approach to it can do wonders, no matter what everyone else seems to be doing. Find your own way to tackle academics with all you have and you won’t be disappointed with the opportunities opened up by learning.
Whether color-coded notecards or detailed flowcharts speak to you, finding your preferred method of organization will set you up for success. To excel as a student, think about applying organization to your study materials, your time, and even your priorities. For me, a paper planner where I had the satisfaction of crossing things out was key.
If cell phone reminders are your thing, use that. If electronic calendars rule your life, own it. Find the system or practice where you won’t forget what’s on your agenda. And if all your methods leave you coming up short when grades come out, don’t hesitate to ask for help. That’s why professors and support staff are there. My friend Kate agrees: “Go to office hours, even if you think your questions are stupid. Professors and TAs are there to help you — they want you to succeed.”
If you know there’s a big test or assignment coming up, don’t wait to get started — as easy as it is to procrastinate. Emily recommends, “If you’re not a speed writer (or reader), try to go to your designated study space — rather than back to your dorm — right after class every day to finish a few pages of your paper or a few chapters of your textbook. Don’t put it off to a point where you’re writing or reading an overwhelming amount of content in one night.”
Just like with any new endeavor, there will probably be a learning curve to discover the sweet spot of studying. Don’t despair if it takes a while to find your pace and space! Once you get in a routine, you’ll become an expert in knowing what’s best for you. When school becomes challenging (which it will — it is college, after all!), rely on the strong habits and practices you’ve built, knowing that a diploma and opportunity are waiting on the other end.