How to Study in University

October means most universities have survived midterms (and hopefully the students have too!), and professors are probably already looking forward to final exams. So I’ve compiled a list of some tips for studying for tests and preparing for writing essays. I was an English major, but hopefully these will apply to any field of study.


Essay-Writing Tips

Utilize databases. Universities subscribe to many databases for students to use, and they have more articles and resources than you can ever use. But still, use them. You’ll need these sources to support arguments you make in essays. Personally, I used JSTOR, EBSCO, Academic Search Premier, and ProQuest most often. Ask professors or older students in your department which ones are best to use for your major.

Bookmark the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL). If you ever have to write a research paper (hint: you will), this is a fantastic resource! It has tons of information about the difference citation styles (MLA, AP, Chicago, etc.), how to cite different sources in accordance with each style, and even sample essays to look at! You’ll feel like a master at citing after spending some time with this.

Bookmark Citation Machine or EasyBib. If you need help forming a citation and don’t have time or patience to scroll through OWL, these are quick and simple to use.

Break up tasks into manageable pieces. Unless you’re one of those people who works best under pressure (I am decidedly not), don’t wait too long to start writing. Tackle it in stages: first choose a topic or come up with a thesis statement. Then, find sources and read through them. After that, outline your essay. Then, just write a paragraph or two at a time, especially if you’re busy. Give yourself small goals a day. Then, only after you’ve finished the draft, go back and edit.

Flag places to edit in your draftWhen writing, sometimes my brain would get ahead of my hands. I would know what point I needed to make but hey, I can only type so fast. (Which isn’t very fast, to be honest.) But since I wanted to finish my thought, I didn’t want to be distracted by small details. So I’d flag places I needed to return to. I’d write [SYN] for “synonym” if I found myself using a certain term over and over; [EDIT] if a passage sounded really awful; [SOURCE] if I didn’t want to take the time to add a parenthetical or footnote one the first pass; [MOVE] if I needed to move a sentence or paragraph to another place. Considering I… well, usually… gave myself time to complete the entire essay before going back and editing, this worked for me pretty well.

Note-Taking Tips

Use paper. In my experience, writing down notes rather than typing them was better for me. Sure, it’s slower, but it helped me concentrate better in the moment and retain the information later. Also, if I had to use any of that information in an essay, I didn’t have to be constantly switching between tabs on the computer, which is a bit of a pet peeve of mine. But going between a notebook and the screen let me avoid that.

Develop a “shorthand.” I don’t know real shorthand (my mom does, and it’s a bizarre and fascinating thing to watch being written), but to survive lectures, I had to adapt. I starting using my own standardized code-like abbreviations in notes so I could write faster. Here are some common ones I used all the time (there were probably more, but these are all I can remember at the moment):

  • B/t = between
  • B/c = because
  • + = and
  • 2 = to
  • 4 = for
  • —> = results in

I’d also develop abbreviations specific to a class. For example, in a World War II history class I used shortcuts like “Ger” for “Germans/Germany/German army” and “Bat:” for “Battle of” (as in Bat: Bulge for Battle of the Bulge) and “Op” for “Operation” (as in Op Market Garden). Also, if I wrote out a full term (like Market Garden) I would later just use a nickname (Mar Gar or something).

Basically, anywhere I could, I wouldn’t write full words. I’d skip vowels, write half-words, make up symbols. It probably looked weird to others, but it worked for me. The only hazard is not remembering what the abbreviations mean, but ultimately having a concise system for taking notes by hand is worth it in the time and paper you save in class.

Listen carefully. It’s tempting, particularly in large lecture halls, to get distracted. People get on their phones or browse the internet on their laptops (another potential side effect of typing your notes). But when taking notes, pay attention to information the professor really focuses on or repeats. Definitely write that down; there’s a good chance that’ll be on a later exam. And if the prof writes something down on the board, write it down too. They’re writing it for a reason. Also, if you have a particularly helpful prof, they might actually say “this is a key concept” or “remember this.”

Studying Tips

Skim over your textbook. First thing to do is reread (or more likely, skim) the relevant chapters your test will cover, which most of the time will be listed in the syllabus. Pay special attention to introductions and conclusions of chapters; look for key terms, dates, and names; take note of pictures and footnotes (sometimes profs use those as material for test questions).

Reread your notes. Using a similar technique to skimming your textbook, take another look at your notes. If your tests are few and far between, the material they cover might have been lectured about weeks and weeks ago, so reading what you wrote then will be very beneficial to refresh your memory.

Mark important ideas. If you haven’t already, highlight or underline important passages, definitions, and themes in your notes and textbooks. Make notes in the margins of your textbook, even. You’ve paid enough for them, so you might as well mark them up!

Make flashcards. If you have a lot of vocabulary words, dates, and names to remember, flashcards and other study aids are your friends. Don’t write an essay on the back, but just the most important ideas or definitions, something—a phrase or sentence that will jog your memory about the answer.

Team up with a study buddy. If you’ve got a friend in your class, or someone you sit by all the time, meet up and go over the info on the test together. Quiz each other using flashcards, devise mnemonic devices, come up with inside jokes even. Anything that’ll help you get interested and remember the topics. If you’ve got a goofy way to remember the sequence of events in cellular respiration, you’re more likely to ace that question. (Disclaimer: I do not have a goofy way to remember cellular respiration, so please do not ask. I am not your girl for that.)

In conclusion…

Tests and essays happen less frequently in college/university than they do in high school (at least in America). So you might find yourself facing a history exam that covers six chapters, and 100 years of information! Just break it up—start studying about a week in advance (or at least 4 days, which was my general rule of thumb), going over notes, videos your professor showed you, skimming the textbook in small amounts. It’s way easier to just review, for example, one chapter a day for five days than five chapters in one night. This method might not work or be feasible for everyone, but I physically cannot procrastinate. If you’re like me, or want to avoid pulling all-nighters, give this method a try. Just discipline yourself and plan ahead.

Again, these tips are based on my own experiences, preferences, and abilities. So they might not work for you, and that’s fine. I’m a bit type A and procrastination gives me anxiety, which is why I focus so much on organization and spacing out the work.

If I forgot a vital tip, or you have a different method that works for you, share in the comments!

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