The transition from high school to college academics can come as a bit of a surprise to most people. No matter how hard you practice your study skills and how well you think you take notes, college level courses still might throw you for a loop based on how much work they really require, and the caliber of content that is given to you to learn.
That’s why it is incredibly important to develop solid note taking skills, and learn how to get the most out of classes so that you can spend less time worrying when studying for tests. Learning how to take thorough notes that encapsulate the most important content in succinct words (that don’t completely tire out your hand during every class) can help you feel less anxious and overwhelmed when it comes time to review what you have learned. Here are some tips on how to take effective notes in college-level classes:
1. Use a Form of Shorthand: There are plenty of great resources online that you can personally look for if you are interested in learning how to write in shorthand. However, if you don’t know/want to spend the time learning classic shorthand, make up your own that you can follow! For instance, find the shortest way to write common words: + for and, w/ for with, and acronyms for commonly used yet lengthy terms or titles (SHCC for Study Hall College Consulting). This can save you a ton of time and space in your notes, and your brain will be able to expand everything back out when you read it over.
2. Bullet Point: Just in case you are someone who is tempted to write in full sentences and capture everything that your professor says, here is your fair warning: DON’T. Make sure to write in short bullet points, don’t get caught up in perfect grammar, and organize topics with sub bullet points if needed. Create categories that make sense under larger titles, and use arrows or numbers as needed whenever it makes sense for lists or showing connections between two ideas.
3. Use diagrams/drawings and don’t focus on writing down every word: Visual learning has proven to be incredibly impactful and can help you learn concepts more thoroughly through image association. Take the Phases of Mitosis and Cell Division that you learned in science class - most students are able to internalize these stages by drawing them out with pictures/simplified diagrams, and actually showing how a cell divides. Additionally, using creativity when taking notes is healthy for your mind and will make reading your notes back the second time a bit less daunting (more succinct writing with visual aids is more efficient to study from later on than scribbled sentences that try to capture every word that was said).
Finally, try organizing your notes with boxes, circles, lines, or scribbles. For some, content might make more sense in graph form, while for others, it may make sense as a list. Find what layout works best for you, be creative with it, and explore!
4. Take Advantage of Technology! Devices can be incredibly distracting when you’re trying to focus, but if you learn how to regulate your use, they can actually be really helpful in enabling you to be a more effective & diligent note taker.
During my latter years of college, I opted to go paperless as much as possible for my classes. I wanted to have a lighter backpack to carry to and from class every day, and I wanted everything to be more centralized and accessible. So, instead of spending money on physical copies of my textbooks, notebooks, planners, markers & pens, I invested in an iPad that had a slew of E-book options for my textbooks, note taking apps, calendar dashboards (GoodNotes is my favorite), creativity apps, you name it! Of course, I still kept around a sketchbook or two for my design classes and mid-day doodles, but I was largely able to eliminate a lot of the paper I had previously been consuming.
Some of my friends invested in pens that record audio alongside your written notes. When studying later on, you could touch your pen to a line in your notes, and replay the audio from when that specific note was being written. From what I heard from my friends, this often eliminated a lot of the anxiety they had about not being able to write down every word. Oftentimes, they would feel less stressed, and actually end up writing more succinct and clear notes because they were able to relax more.
If you don’t want to go paperless and prefer taking notes in a notebook, that’s totally fine! Studies actually have shown that writing with a pen/pencil on paper is the most effective way to learn and retain information, and that no screen alternative can compare. So, I totally support it! Make sure that with physical notebooks, you remain organized and consistent - maybe you have a separate colored notebook for each class, or you keep post-its stuck on the most important pages. Or, maybe you keep a loose leaf binder ready with sections for class hand-outs, and plenty of spare note taking paper.
5. Take Advantage of Provided Slide-Decks or Lesson Outlines: Oftentimes, my professors put in extra effort to provide digital copies of the slide decks they used during lecture (either before or after the lecture), or would even create class-by-class lesson outlines that detailed the biggest topics of what would be discussed during that class (which was incredibly helpful for me to use and take notes directly onto). This helped me hone in on the most important topics to remember, and it also helped me feel less stressed about missing important information if I couldn’t write quickly enough. These online resources were especially useful when I went paperless, since I could pull them up on a moment's notice on my iPad, and take my notes side-by-side with the provided content (and really just focus on ADDING whatever wasn’t already written, rather than rewriting everything).
6. Use Lecture Recordings as a Supplemental Study Resource (Not an Excuse to Skip all your classes!): Particularly during remote learning, professors will often record their classes when they happen, and post the videos online (though this is also often used for in-person classes too!). This can be incredibly useful when you are going back over your notes and studying - having sat through the lecture in real time and then using this replay feature as a way to review content can help you really internalize more information.
Be cautious about recordings! Oftentimes, if a class is recorded, it can make you less motivated to actually attend the live class. Trust me: falling into this habit can make it really easy to fall behind, and really hard to catch up once you’re behind. Classes are spaced out during the week for a reason: it takes your brain time to digest and retain information, and you can’t just speed through a bunch of lecture recordings right before your test! You’ll get mentally exhausted pretty quickly, and you won’t remember a lot of important information.
7. Explore Different Page Layouts: Most of the time, students tend to stick to the normal college-ruled lined paper, which has a small left-hand margin and a space for a title at the top. However, if you are someone that likes to segment your notes a bit more, you can explore the option of using Cornell college-ruled paper. This format gives you a separate larger section on the top and bottom of the page, as well as a larger left-hand margin that you can use for jotting down new vocab/keywords, questions, comments, you name it! You can use it to easily separate different components of your notes and keep your thoughts organized.
There is never one right way to take notes: it’s all about finding what works best for you, and what method helps you retain the most accurate and thorough information. Additionally, it’s all about what makes you feel the least stressed and confused when it comes time to study and review what you learned in class. Effective note-taking is just another useful skill to add to your college toolkit.
Sarah is a Consultant and Social Media Marketing Manager on the Study Hall College Consulting Team. Sarah graduated from UC Berkeley in the class of 2020 where she majored in Architecture and minored in Spanish Language and Literature. For more college application and essay tips, check out our Study Hall College Consulting website at: shcollegeconsulting.com.