Here's what many freshmen think college life will be like: Party, party, party. Here's what professors think college life should be like: Study, study, study. As Hamlet would say, "Ay, there's the rub." You may meet Hamlet one day in a college English class—he's the star of a play by some dude named Wilson Shakespond.
Now let's say you're reading Hamlet and don't know what "there's the rub" means—you were up late watching drunken puppies on YouTube, and you fell asleep when the professor explained it. And you didn't ask during office hours because you didn't want the teacher to think you were, like, dumb or anything.
The great thing about being a college student is you can look up "there's the rub" on the Internet. So you write down what thefreedictionary.com told you: "there's the rub = something that you say when you are explaining what the difficulty is in a particular situation."
Whew, so you aren't going to fail that class!
Now, let's review what we've learned. You can rock your brains out at college parties. But there's a catch, aka "the rub": You also have to study. Twenty-six or so hours a week, according to professors. Or else you'll flunk out.
There's another rub. Many freshmen do not know how to study. In a survey conducted for this article, 11 out of 14 people admitted as much. Asked if high school prepared her for college challenges, Katarzyna Dolinska, Cornell '07, stated, "Oh, God, not at all!"
"I used to study half an hour for a test in high school," confesses Alana Gardner, Indiana University '11. "Omigosh, you have to study at least two hours for a test in college!"
Prepping for tests is just part of your load. College students must take notes on lectures, read maybe 100 pages a week, and tackle two major tests or two 15-page papers. And that's just for one class. So how do you study properly? We could have asked study experts for their advice. But really, who knows better than real-life collegians?
Rule #1: What color is your study style?
You may not know it, but you have a study style. You just have to figure out what it is.
Visual learners are drawn to computer screens and paper. Their brains retain the printed word; they benefit from recopying class notes. Melody Kramer, University of Pennsylvania '06, says she "created color-coded notecards because I can remember colors." Wielding eight different pens, she'd write down facts in designated hues—blue for presidents, red for vice presidents. Come test time, she says, "I would think back to what color I wrote the fact in and be able to remember it."
A visual learner might need images as well as words. Katarzyna, aka Kat, aka the girl whose name Tyra Banks couldn't pronounce on the last cycle of America's Next Top Model, had the option of buying notes for classes at about $30 a pop. She thought she could skip class. But she came to realize a set of packaged notes wasn't as good as being there. "Seeing the professor write something on the board or show a diagram—that helps me recall it easily."
If you're an auditory learner, hearing words out loud imprints them upon your cerebrum. Karrie Jefferson, University of Maryland '08, used to write things down for study sheets. And forget them. Then she started "reciting everything." Memories were made. Karrie also learns by doing...hand motions. A criminology and criminal justice major, she'd flash gang signs when studying about gangs.
Rule #2: Fear the vampire.
We're not talking about the blood sucking. We're talking about students who sleep by day and emerge from their dorm rooms at sunset.
Here's how collegians cross over from day person to night person: They stay up late because everyone stays up late and there are no annoying parents to say, "Go to bed already; it's midnight." The next thing you know, it's 4 a.m. The students sleep a few hours, then stagger off to class. Where they promptly fall asleep. Later that day, they're still tired, so they take a nap, then stay up late again. Soon the semester is over.
Ari Hartmann, William and Mary '08, has been there. "It's so easy to get behind in a class, then just give up," he says. His way back to academic success: turning in at midnight instead of 3 a.m., and getting up around 9 or 10. Fortified by sleep, he no longer nodded off during lectures.
Of course, at times, your workload/procrastination habits will make an early bedtime impossible. Unfortunately, the later it gets, the less cooperative your brain is. Victoria Ryan, William and Mary '08, had a brain-saving strategy. Say she had a paper due at 11 a.m. She'd labor until 3 a.m. At that point, she knew she could finish in two hours. She'd set the alarm for 7 a.m., and, after breakfast, she'd return to the paper, refreshed by a good half-night's sleep and confident she could wrap it up by three minutes to 11.
Rule #3: Be a time manager.
Ah, the carefree days of a college student. Go to a class. Eat. Hang out. Eat. Take a nap. Watch nine episodes of South Park on your laptop. Eat. Hang out some more.
Then it's nighttime, and wow, there is a lot of studying to do. Val Lovenheim, Boston University '09, was in that sort of cycle and wanted to raise her grades. The remedy: time management sessions with the dean of her college.
The dean gave her time sheets. Hour by hour, Val filled them out. She saw how much time she frittered away. So instead of gabbing with friends at lunch, she'd read. She'd knock out a couple of hours of work by day, so at night, she wasn't overwhelmed by the studying ahead.
"The whole thing does sound kind of silly," she says. But it worked.
Rule #4: There's a study place for you.
Where to go for a productive study session? Some students swear by the library. Others are too distracted: So many people you know! One solution is to move far from the social whirl of the first floor. At lower or upper library levels, you may find quiet.
Or move far from the library altogether. "It's important to find spots on campus where the only thing you do is study or read," says Melody Kramer. She'd scout out sitting areas in academic buildings or find alternative libraries—the science library, the design library.
Margot Pass, Stanford '10, studies in a coffee shop—the further from campus, the better, to decrease the likelihood of meeting someone she knows.
Then there's the dorm lounge. Good luck with that!
Karrie Jefferson wins the prize for most unusual study locale. "I have to study in a place that's absolutely quiet, and I have to be by myself," she says (as you may recall, she reads her notes out loud). Once she got her own apartment, she began studying in the bathtub.
Rule #5: Keep up with the books.
It may seem fine to do required readings after class or the night before the midterm. Here's a radical thought: Do the reading before class. That way, you'll know what the teacher's talking about!
Alas, reading can lead to sleeping. Helen Fields, Carleton College '97, found herself dozing every time she dived into the 500 pages of Moll Flanders. She timed herself to see how long it took, at a speedy clip, to plow through 10 pages. Then she set up a schedule based on her optimal time. Devoted to meeting her goals, her eyelids no longer drooped.
Rule #6: Duly noted
Some students furiously scribble down everything the teacher says—especially on PowerPoint. As Jackie Bousek, Oberlin '08, discovered midway through her freshman year, PowerPoint presentations are online. You can even print out slides before class, then annotate them with the teacher's comments.
Next comes the question of what to do with those notes. "Going over them after class kept them fresh," says Mike Katzif, Kansas State '05. "Rewriting or retyping helps you internalize them. Spending extra time makes the knowledge stay with you a lot longer."
Rule #7: Spin a web of facts.
The thing about studying in college is, you don't just need to know facts. You need to put those facts into some kind of context. Bummer!
Mike Katzif would take key points from a class or text, then place them in maps or timelines. Or he'd draw a pyramid, with the most important point at the top and supporting points beneath. Or he'd make a "spider web" that would start with a broad statement, then spin out facts to support it. "It helped me connect the dots so when I'd write about something, I would have my main points and my bullet points," he says.
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.
And don't think you're the only one who needs help. "In freshman year, I was intimidated to speak up about needing a tutor," says Jackie Bousek. "I was under the impression everyone was smarter than me." Lots of freshmen feel that way, as Jackie knows now that she's been a mentor herself.
Rule #14: Don't overdo it.
It's time to present a public service message from the National Council on the Dangers of Overstudying: Chillax!
A self-admitted poster girl for overstudying is Sharon Anderson. She worked "a ton of time." A classics and English major, she endlessly translated writings from the Greek. After all-night study sessions for an exam, she'd get "amped up" on caffeine and take the test. Not a good plan. "If I'd slept," she says, "I might have been able to function better."
In high school, she was an athlete and a student government activist. In college, she had no time for extracurriculars. She wishes she'd taken a less demanding mix of classes. And she wishes she'd gone to her teachers and said, "I'm so swamped—I need to figure out a way to do what I need to do."
Sharon's advice: "Challenge yourself, but have fun."
Oh, yes. And don't forget to study!
Make a study pact with a pal and alternate drudgery with sitcommery: Put in an hour, take a break and watch an episode of How I Met Your Mother on DVD, then get back to the grind.