Study Tips

Originally Published On February 17, 2018

By Melissa Milbrandt & Peter Wedlake

As the second semester kicks into full gear, the mid-year slump is beginning. The freezing days don’t help exhausted students feel any more motivated to stay on top of schoolwork. Unfortunately, teachers can’t be sympathetic to our waning sanity. So how do we regain (or gain) control of our academic life?


The first and most important thing you can do to get your academic (and general) life together is to find, get, and stay committed to a planning system that works for you. We know that’s vague but here are some ideas that work for us:


I’m someone that needs a to-do list and a monthly view to see when stuff is due. For that, I found that the best system for me is a custom solution, I just use a TUL junior size discbound notebook (this allows for the pages to be taken out and reorganized without tearing anything out). I also use their 5 tab dividers to organize the notebook into different sections: Months, To-Do, Politics, Lists, and Notes. Months is where I draw out and label a month calendar, I’ll put due dates for assignments, test dates, or any personal dates I need to remember here. To-Do is just that, a long list of everything I need to get done during a particular week; I create boxes for tasks so I can quickly gauge if I’ve started it, am halfway through, or done. I also, color code the tasks based on what class the task is for. Politics is where I write down what’s on the news during a given day (I’m someone that loves politics and news, but if you don’t, use it for something else). “Lists” is where I make, well, lists; Movies I need to watch, books I need to read, gifts to get my friends. Notes, honestly, I haven’t used it at all yet, but it’s nice just in case I need it.


I have a crazy difficult time keeping organized! If I don’t write down every little detail in my planner, it won’t happen. Since it’s not in my nature to stay organized, I’ve come up with some ways to make planning fun (so that I actually do it!). First off is my planner. It took me some time to get a system down that I liked and actually worked. Most planners just have a box for each day, and that just isn’t enough structure for me. After hours (I’m not joking) of scouring the internet, I found the Erin Condren Academic Planner and I absolutely LOVE it. One planner provides you with six months’ worth of monthly spreads, project logs, and weekly spreads. They’re completely customizable, so you don’t need to wait until January to get organized — you can start right now! I’m also kind of completely obsessed with planner stickers (part of the reason I bought the Erin Condren planner was that it came with some). I bought these seasonal stickers at Michael’s and they’re just too cute! Obviously, stickers aren’t everyone’s jam, but they’re probably the #1 reason that I keep my planner updated. Finally, for those who are technologically inclined (or just don’t want to carry a planner around) I would also suggest Trello — with it you can make to-do lists, and categorize them based on your classes.


Equally as important as a planning system is a paper organization system. It is crucial that you can easily store and access papers handed out by teachers. Again, this is a matter of preference as to what works best for you.


For me, I use a 7 pocket expanding file folder to put what I call “floating papers,” papers that I’m still interacting with or are planning to interact with. Once I’m done with a “floating paper,” I store it with the notes that it relates to in my notes binder (which we will go over later).

Another system that I used to use and like was just getting notebooks with pockets on the inside and keeping my “floaters” there and then using a file folder to store papers I was no longer using. I highly recommend the Office Depot brand poly cover notebooks in 5 subject, 3 subject, or 1 subject. They have moveable pockets, and come with a ruler and some page tabs!


For regular classes, I like to just put extra papers into the pockets in my Five Star notebooks, but for AP’s, I put loose papers in a 2–3 inch binder, and after each unit, transfer my notes from my notebook into the binder as well. I use Yoobi binder dividers to keep each unit separate. This system really helps me, because it’s just so difficult to organize a notebook when you can’t move pages around or insert extra papers in.


Just as important as organizing, taking good notes is what we’d say, is the key to being successful in school, especially for college. Notes aren’t supposed to be you reading and just copying what the reading says, verbatim. Note taking is the first point of interaction between you and the content and that sounds super teachery, but it’s true. Just like you want to make a good first impression on a date, you want to make a good first impression with the material.

Everyone has their own style and method for taking notes (are you sensing a theme?) but there are a few things shared between successful note-taking strategies. First, you need some sort of structure, it could be rigidly structured like the linear method or more free formed like the mind mapping method. Regardless, you have to be able to follow the flow of your notes (this is especially important with AP classes or just complex topics). Second, you have to make the concepts understandable to you; whether that means explaining concepts in your own words, or including examples or things that remind you of that concept. This also means that if you can’t understand the concept, you should ask your teacher or look it up online.


I recently switched to a new note-taking system that I love! I use loose leaf A4 paper which I will then put in a unit specific binder after I’ve taken the notes. At the top right corner of the paper, I write whatever number of pages I’ve taken of notes so far (the first page is “1,” second page “2,” just so I don’t get the pages mixed up). Next I write what chapter I’m doing at the top of the page in the middle, so for AP psychology, I’d write, say, “Module 25 Outline,” then I highlight it with my Mildliner highlighter which I have dubbed “sections/titles” (in my case, it’s purple and I’ve actually labeled my highlighters). Then in the space beneath, I write the title of the chapter (or module), so continuing with AP psych, I’d write “Psychoactive Drugs.” Then, I start actually taking notes. All the textbooks I use, have clearly defined sections (25–1, 25–2, etc.) so I would write the number and title of that section, and highlight it with my “sections/title” highlighter. Then I start writing down what I think is important, in my own words, with as many examples as I can (which I then highlight pink). If I come across a vocab word, I highlight it green and write the definition. If the section has a subsection (still in the same section but has its own heading) then I write the title of the subsection and highlight it a dark blue. Then continue as usual. And if I come across something in a section or subsection that I think is very important and has a lot to it, then I find a word or two to describe it and highlight it dark yellow. That’s my general note taking method, however I do have class-specific tweaks. For AP Gov. for instance, I highlight Supreme Court cases, orange, legislation, light blue, and organizations, light gray.


The most important thing about my note-taking system is color-coding. Just writing out bullet points is difficult to efficiently review, so I use highlighters and colored pens to emphasize key points. I like to make my notes aesthetically pleasing by using a variety of fonts and doodles (ribbon titles are my favorite). When I first started decorating my notes, I would use Pinterest as a reference and basically just copy things I saw, and over time it’s kind of become natural to me.

These are some of my favorite easy tips that will change your notes for the better:

  • Use ribbon banners
  • Use different kinds of fonts
  • Color code!
  • Doodle
  • Utilize your space well (example: sticky notes!)


While you may have taken notes and done your homework, that’s not studying. Studying (again comes a teacher-y explanation) involves interacting with the material you’ve gone over in a new or different way than you have been. Just going over your notes is a great way to refresh your memory, but that’s not studying, that’s reviewing; still useful but not studying. Studying could be making flashcards and quizzing yourself or friends, explaining what you’ve learned to a friend that doesn’t really know the topic (or better yet, someone that does so they can fill any gaps you might have). Again (wow, surprising) successful studying methods vary by person.


I find that the best way to study, for me, is to take sticky notes and write three to five sentence summaries of entire sections, trying to boil down the whole concept into a short description. This is extremely useful when you’re reviewing and can tell based on the summary if you really understand the concept or not. I also like to go out with my friends someplace and work on quizzing each other and just seeing what we all know and getting their perspective on it. Lastly, I find it good for me to review my notes one last time and highlight the core words relating to a topic.


I love quizlet! In Health Sciences, we have huge medical terminology tests about once a month, and quizlet’s learning tool is so helpful! It takes a while to enter in the terms, but sometimes you can find the terms in previously made study sets, and either way, it’s totally worth your time. I also use free practice quizzes online for my AP classes — just type in the class, unit, and “practice quiz” and you’re golden! Otherwise, I make a list of concepts that I need to know and try to explain