Skip to main content

Essential Study Skills for College Students

I recently returned to school after a fifteen year break. In spite of a pretty daunting start I’m doing better, enjoying school more and getting better grades than I ever did first time round. I don’t believe I’ve actually become smarter over the last fifteen years, just a little wiser, and that wisdom translates into the way I study, and the way I organize my life. Studying seems much easier this time round, but that's only because I finally mastered a few essential study skills.

Whether you’re returning to school after a long break or heading to college straight from high school, learning good study skills will make a huge difference to your grades and your stress levels. Most of these skills are just common sense, which was something I was definitely lacking at 18, but I’ve acquired at least some over time. The following tips should help anyone lacking in common sense, or just looking to optimize their study time.

Show up.

This sounds like a no brainer but it’s amazing how easy it can be to cut class in college. The responsibility is yours. If you don’t turn up to class, your professors won’t chase you up or send a note to your mom! They’ll just let you fail. Some people cut class because they’ve been partying all night and some because they have a sick kid to look after. Either way the results are the same. Try to get organized, attend classes and have a back up system in place to deal with emergencies (like sick kids) that can throw you off balance. Don’t party on a school night, or, if you know that partying is going to be a major part of your college experience, don’t pick classes that start at 8 am.

Do the reading.

Depending on the subjects you study you will probably have assigned readings to do for each class. The idea of doing these before the class is to ensure you have some idea what the hell your professor is talking about. Even if you do the reading you may struggle with this sometimes, which is another reason to get it done. You can ask intelligent questions and clarify anything you didn’t understand. It’s been estimated that college students may need to put in 2-3 hours of study time outside class for every 1 hour of class time, and a lot of this is reading assignments that cover the material to be discussed in class.

Pay attention.

Another no brainer but it’s truly shocking how many students spend an entire lecture huddled behind their laptops playing games and facebooking. Why are they there? The professors don’t usually give marks for attendance (and incidentally anyone with a Phd can tell if you’re fully engaged with the lecture and taking notes, or just checking your friends’ status updates). Listening to what goes on in class is just as important as actually being there.

Find a note taking system that works for you.

Laptops can be a useful tool, as long as you don’t spend your lecture on facebook. Most people can type faster than they write and typed notes are easier to review than hand written ones, but some people still find it easier to take notes by hand. Different techniques work for different people so experiment a bit. Some systems work better with different professors. If a class usually follows the textbook fairly closely you may want to take notes from the text book first and then flush them out in class. Some professors post power points online that you can print out and add to by hand or download and add to on your laptop during class.

Get organized, and manage your time.

This is one of the things that really helped me when I returned to school. Years of having to coordinate a family schedule had made me obsessively well-organized. Your life will be so much easier if you devise a good filing system and keep all notes, study materials, hand-outs, assignment guidelines and class schedules easily accessible. Buy a good day planner to help you organize your time and work towards deadlines. Many colleges provide a very good free one (with every few thousand dollars worth of tuition!) that is specifically geared towards students.

Develop good research skills.

Knowing how to research can make the difference between spending an hour gathering useful information and spending ten hours gathering largely irrelevant information. Develop good research strategies. Use your library resources (that includes the members of staff). Learn to use the internet wisely. There’s a huge amount of misinformation in cyberspace and Wikapedia may be a fun resource but it's not an acceptable source to quote in an academic paper. Talk to your professors about the best way to carry out research in their subject areas. Learn to do a proper internet search on an academic database. Use advanced search options to narrow or widen a search.

Identify reading and writing strategies that work for you.

Those assigned readings won’t do you any good if you don’t absorb what you read. At college level you need to be reading in a very active kind of way. Take notes, highlight key concepts, list definitions, summarize sections or chapters, do whatever you have to in order to make the information stick. College writing assignments require a lot of time and should be broken down into stages: research, planning, drafting, revising, editing, and proof reading (at last twice). Find out if your school runs writing skills workshops if you’re not sure how to go about your first few assignments.

Improve your test taking skills.

Nobody likes a test, but they’re an inevitable part of college life. Last minute cramming really is the least effective way to study for a test. The most effective way is probably to follow the tips above. If you study consistently throughout the semester then tests will be a time for review, not a time to sit down and learn the concepts for the first time. Make a note of tests early on and draw up a realistic schedule to work towards them. If you know other students who have taken the course you’re taking ask them about the tests, and don’t be afraid to ask your professors too. OK, they’re not going to tell you exactly what’s on the test but they may give you tips and pointers and at very least will be able to tell you about the format of the test (multiple choice, short answer, essay) so you don’t have any nasty shocks.

Dig deep.

A major difference between high school and college is that you’re expected to develop a more in-depth understanding of the topics. Read around the subject. Get hold of supplementary texts (there’s often a whole list of ‘suggested reading’ at the end of each chapter). Consider subscribing to (or at least reading) magazines and journals (print and online) in the areas you’re studying. Find websites related to your studies and add them to your favorites list so you can refer to them regularly. Develop an interest in the subjects you’re studying and related issues.

Scroll to Continue

Lastly, don’t stress out.

Studying can be stressful, and at times completely overwhelming. Find ways to relax and chill out, whether it’s exercise, meditation, or partying with friends on the weekends. Make connections with other students, form a study group, and see a counselor at your school if you’re having trouble coping (counseling services are another thing you usually get free with every few thousand dollars worth of tuition). Most of all don’t forget to enjoy the process of learning. Rumor has it that gaining new knowledge is potentially one of the most satisfying things you’ll ever do.

You may also like:

  • Jobs for students
    Some of the best jobs for students are some of the ones not necessarily always associated with student employment. Tuition fees are high and employers are looking for graduates with relevant experience, so...
  • Going back to school as a mature student
    Hi, my name is Karen and I am a mature student. I am twenty years older than some of the people in my classes but, surprisingly, Im also more than 20 years younger than some of them as well. Going...


AdventurousDave on April 08, 2013:

These are fantastic suggestions that really work. I also Like Kevin Mincher's 7 strategies for success in school. He also show's students how to develop that essential ingredient of believing in yourself. You can watch his instructional videos at

prince raj on December 01, 2012:

you have helped me more thank u

Karen Banes (author) from Canada on August 16, 2012:

Thanks for your kind comments, everyone. I thought about blocking the comment immediately above as spam. Then realized there's no link or anything that could be considered spammy. That is a reader's genuine opinion - don't think I've ever been offered such a luke warm one :) Must try harder!

student44 on August 15, 2012:

this is ok advice

Cecilia Kaimika on August 14, 2012:

thank you so much for the great advice!! it was my tutorial question and i didn't really think i would find it enjoyable but i did! i have learnt a lot. thanks

htodd from United States on March 18, 2012:

Interesting post..Thanks a lot

mathan42 on November 10, 2010:

good tips...great writing skill...

mikiy on October 06, 2010:

Great info. I wish I found this hub sooner. Thanks

kims3003 on December 15, 2009:

Loads of great information. Great writing style. Super job! A+++

Sheila from The Other Bangor on February 15, 2009:

great hub -- wish you had been in some of my classes!

Wendy Iturrizaga from France on February 13, 2009:

Excellent advice. It is not always easy or evident to go from school into further education. A little bit of organization can work wonders!

Related Articles