How to Study Properly in College

If reading in the bathtub is the only way you can concentrate on your calculus homework, why not?

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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 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. Margot Pass, Stanford '10, studies in a coffee shop—the farther from campus, the better, to decrease the likelihood of being distracted by someone she knows.

Karrie 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 them 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—and PowerPoint entries too. As Jackie Bousek, Oberlin '08, discovered midway through her freshman year, some 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 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 study group members are your good friends, you might end up not studying at all.

Yet a study group can motivate and educate. Jackie 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).