Midterm season is rapidly approaching, and it seems like everyone around me is cramming for exam after exam, trying to make sense of the scribbles in their notebooks in the hopes of getting that ‘A.’
Taking notes, whether you’re in lecture-style classes or in smaller, more text-heavy classes, can be extremely difficult, specifically in terms of trying to find the important facts and separating these from everything else.
After years of experience of trying a bunch of different styles of note-taking, I’ve finally found a way to make sense of the seemingly meaningless textbooks and the long, detailed lectures to ensure productive studying and retention.
Here are my top six tips on how to take killer notes and rock any exam you’ll ever take.
1. Don’t Waste Time Making Them “Pretty”
I feel like in today’s world, we are all so preoccupied with trying to make things look creative enough to make for a solid Insta post. I’ve seen so many people (and have done this myself) use at least six different colors when taking notes, trying to color-coordinate literally everything. While this makes for a beautiful, colorful-looking notebook, it’s counterproductive when you take into consideration how much extra time you spend doing this when you could be reading a little more critically.
Instead of spending so much time trying to make every color count, I suggest picking two or three different colors and sticking to black ink for the rest of the text. For example, you may use blue to write your key points/facts, red for definitions and green for people, dates, and locations. This way, you are still emphasizing the important information and differentiating between the different kinds of information, but you aren’t overwhelming your brain or eyes with too many colors.
2. Don’t Take All Your Notes in One Location
In an age where virtually everyone is busy trying to balance jobs, school and social activities, sometimes it feels like the only way to really be productive is to block out a certain amount of time, lock yourself up in your room (or a cubicle in the library) with a coffee, headphones, laptop and books and get all of your work done in one sitting. While this may work for some people, research has shown that sitting in one place for too long or working on one thing for too long can actually hinder your productivity and drain your motivation.
Instead of forcing yourself to sit in one place, try to move around as you finish different assignments. For example, you may sit in the library to write two pages of your research paper and then relocate to the student center to work on a bio lab and then go back to your room to take psych notes. Constantly changing your environment refreshes your mind, body and brain, making you more productive as a whole.
In the event that you absolutely do not have time to keep changing buildings, perhaps consider just moving cubicles in the library or tables in the student center. Even this slight change of environment can make a world of difference.
3. Don’t Go on Study Dates (Even If You Think They’re Effective)
I struggle with this one myself but I’ve found that going on “study dates” (as in sitting at a table with your best friend and studying together) is actually one of the most counterproductive things to do. I can’t remember the last time I tried studying with one of my friends and actually retained any of the information. Furthermore, if you’re taking notes, it’s harder to spread all of your stuff out and really concentrate on transferring the information when you’re constantly interrupted by your friend who is trying to show you a food video that popped up on her Facebook feed or the cutest Vine of a puppy jumping up and down on a trampoline. If your thoughts are constantly interrupted, you’ll never be able to focus long enough to take notes, and you definitely won’t retain the few notes you actually can write.
Instead, use this potential hang out time to motivate you to finish your notes and work. For example, if your best friend asks if you can hang out and go on a study date at 2pm, ask her if you can instead just get coffee at 3pm and challenge yourself to finish whatever you’re working on by the time you meet up. This way, you have something to look forward to at the end of the insanely boring psych chapter you’re reading, and you can use that time as a break between two of your assignments.
4. Don’t Rewrite the Textbook
I know it can be difficult to follow this because it’s hard to figure out what information is actually relevant and necessary, especially if you are using one of those newer textbooks that has a more conversational approach rather than a “here are the facts, learn them” approach.
However, it’s important to remember that you are taking your own notes for a reason. Try to paraphrase and omit lines that seem unnecessary. It may also help to try to condense a whole paragraph into one sentence to see if you really understand the point of the paragraph. If the whole paragraph or all of the text on the page seems necessary, challenge yourself to turn the sentences into questions and see if those questions reveal information or are just vague and thereby unnecessary.
For example, if there’s an entire paragraph about how grainy the sand is on a particular beach, turn that paragraph into “How grainy is the sand on the X beach?” and simply write a one to two word answer to the question. If the question you produce makes no sense to the context of the rest of the chapter, it’s probably just an opinion the textbook’s author has and isn’t really necessary to try to understand or memorize.
5. Embrace All Those Middle School Acronyms
I don’t think I can emphasize how important it is to not write in complete sentences when you’re taking notes. While this may be difficult for you if you are someone who really cringes at every grammatical mistake and struggles to write in shorthand, the amount of time it saves is so significant that I feel like you should really challenge yourself to push past this mental block. There’s literally no reason to write the word “because” when you could write “bc” or spell out states when you can write their abbreviation.
For example instead of writing “In 1692, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue because he wanted to discover land and increase trade relations with other countries,” you could write “1692: Xris Columbus sails Atlantic bc 1) he wanted to discover land and 2) increase trade w other countries.” This is a shorter sentence and still conveys the original point. Furthermore, I usually follow the general rule of thumb that once I write out someone’s name once, I abbreviate their name the rest of the time they are mentioned. Since these are your own notes and no one else will really be reading them, it’s totally okay to make things easier on yourself, as long as you still understand what you’re trying to say.
Also, along the same lines, sometimes I’ll write my notes in a more conversational tone because it makes things a lot easier to remember. For example, if you were talking about the causes of the 100 Years’ War, instead of saying something like “There were many disputes between the French and English monarchies because everyone thought they were amicable and had good relations, but France really did not want to pursue these relation,” you could say “French and English monarchies were fighting bc France was fake as hell to England.” Already, that sentence is much simpler, conveys the main point of the reading and is in colloquial language, making it easier to remember.
6. Record Lectures That Don’t Have SlideShows (With Your Professor’s Permission)
I’ve been in so many lecture classes where the professor does not use a PowerPoint and I struggled to keep up with what he or she was saying. Often times, since I’m so focused on getting the important information down, I miss the next part of what they say in class and then before I know it, I’m so far behind that there’s no way I would be able to get all the information down in my notes.
I’ve found that the best way to combat this is to ask the professor if it’s okay to record his or her lectures. You can use the recording app on either your phone or computer, and instead of writing down everything in class, you can spend your time writing down the big ideas and then going back and listening to the recording to get the specific details. This has been amazing in terms of my note-taking and ability to study the notes before the exam because it’s allowed me to really pay attention to the professor, the discussions in class and the overall dynamic of the class, instead of wasting my time trying to speed write all the info the professor gives (which also results in really sloppy, illegible notes).
You may even want to invest in a recorder (you can find them for really cheap on Amazon), so you don’t have to worry about draining your phone or laptop’s battery in class.
I hope these tips help you out and allow you to spend your time being more productive than ever before. Good luck on all your exams and note-taking endeavors!