Advice on How to Study in College

Our panel of experts reveal their secrets for hitting the books without letting them ruin your life.


Rule #8: Group therapy

Study groups don't work for everyone. You can't work at your pace. If the group members are your good friends, you might end up not studying at all. Yet a study group can motivate and educate. Jackie Bousek is a devotee for several reasons. She benefits because she has to do work to get ready for a group and because she must explain what she knows to others (as they must explain to her what she doesn't know).

A group can also get you out of a bind. Ezra Deutsch-Feldman, University of Chicago '10, recalls a class in which nobody did any readings—the teacher made them seem optional. But then he said the final would be based on the readings. "We all panicked together," Ezra says. They took action together, too, summarizing various readings into pithy paragraphs and creating a website for their summaries.

Rule #9: Avoid laptop temptation.

You bring a laptop to class to take notes. Or is it really because you want to check E-mail and troll around Facebook? Paper and pencil present far fewer temptations. In a similar vein, when you take the laptop out to type up study sheets or work on a paper—will you end up doing other stuff? Sharon Anderson, Williams '07, would take her computer to the library but not "plug into" the Net. She knew that if you're looking for something to do instead of studying, "you'll find it on the Internet."

Rule #10: Quantity can lead to quality.

When prepping for a math or science test, the strategy is simple: Do sample problems. The more, the better. Take practice tests, usually available online. And as they taught you in first grade, do your homework! "If the teacher is nice, the homework is pretty much what will be on the test," says math major Anna Katzif, University of Kansas '08. A period of concentrated study can also make up for lost ground. Josh Gardner, University of Maryland '08, was getting C's and D's in calculus. One option: The grade on his final could wipe out previous grades. "I studied the hardest I ever studied," he says. "I went over every chapter, I did every problem in the book, and if I didn't get it right, I worked it out." His final grade: A.

Rule #11: Motivate yourself.

No one knows better than you what will keep your nose to the grindstone. Karrie Jefferson likes cake. And she likes to bake. She'll put a cake in the oven—one that takes a long time to bake. She'll set the timer for an hour and start studying. When the timer dings, it's time for a cake break.

Josh Gardner likes percentages. When writing a paper, he'll keep track of the word count and calculate: 25 percent done, 30 percent done, and so on. Josh posts his percentages on his away message on Instant Messenger. "I update it every time I get 5 more percentage points. It's so exciting!"

Rule #12: Do not fear your teacher (or TA).

A certain percentage of students stop by the professor's or teaching assistant's office during office hours. Others do not, lest the teacher think they're stupid. They are stupid—for not seeking help.

Teachers are happy to meet with students. Really. They don't want you to fail. Your teacher may even tell you what to study. Organic chemistry sent Steven Kramer, College of New Jersey '08, to his professor. "It wasn't like I didn't understand. It was just that there is so much. The teacher would say, 'This is an important chapter; these are important pages.' "

Professors may also be willing to look at a draft of your paper and give feedback. "I would E-mail my paper to the teacher and meet the next day," says Jackie of Oberlin. The teacher would tell her, "This is good, you should include this, make sure you write this." Result: a paper that's "10 times better."

Rule #13: Colleges will hold your hand—let them.

Professors (or TAs) typically hold review sessions before a test. Do not miss them! Some schools offer classes that help freshmen learn the art of paper writing. Can't hurt! There are study centers. Go to them! And free peer tutors. Sign up! If you get a tutor you don't like, go back and say the tutor's style isn't right for you.