“I have this huge test I have to study for.” This is an email or text message that we get from our students all the time. It makes sense, after all. Grades and rigor are the most important of the five factors in your control in the college admissions process, and classes command the majority of your time.
However, students are rarely taught how to study well. We have seen well-intentioned students struggle with coursework, not because they do not put in the time and effort, but because they lack this crucial skill. Our goal with this post is to save you time, energy, and stress by sharing practical advice to maximize studying efficiency.
What Is the Point of Studying?
Beyond doing well on tests and improving your grades, studying appropriately means that you are more likely to retain information later on in life. Although exact percentages vary, research has shown that humans quickly begin to forget information we’ve acquired unless we occasionally reinforce it through review.
However, studying well is easier said than done. Students stay up late to cram for tests, fueled by anxiety and sometimes caffeine, only to find themselves exhausted and struggling to recall information for the test the next day, let alone in the future. Cramming is both ineffective and stress-inducing.
So, how do you study well?
The best kind of studying involves three main elements:
- Small, focused, and frequent amounts of time
- Targeted study
- Review that focuses on using what you’ve learned rather than simply recalling it
When to Study
- Start well in advance. If you are thinking about finals or AP exams, then starting at the beginning of the spring semester is a good idea, but these strategies can be applied year-round.
- Don’t cram. If you know you have a test coming up, you can aim to increase the amount of time you spend studying, but spread it out across multiple days. Create a realistic schedule for yourself that accounts not only for the amount of material you need to cover, but also for your other commitments.
- Focus. Students often tell us they spend hours studying, but when we dig deeper, we find that they are frequently distracted by their phone, their computer, or their family. Try using the Pomodoro technique to carve out dedicated time. Set a timer for 25 minutes, and during that time, work only on the task you have in front of you. Once the timer rings, give yourself a guilt-free, five-minute break to do whatever you’d like!
What to Study
- Begin by taking stock of your coursework. What do you feel confident in? What do you struggle with? Although you should try to cover all material at least lightly, dedicate the majority of your time to where you are struggling. Be honest here as well. If you aren’t sure how comfortable you are with a topic, allot some time for it.
- An easy way to do this is with flashcards. Once you’ve written your flashcards and are beginning to review, divide them into two decks. When you feel comfortable with a term or concept, place it in your “mastered deck.” Leave other flashcards in your “focus deck.” Aim to review your focus deck every other day or so, while going through your mastered deck less frequently.
- Not sure how to identify where you’re struggling? Try the Feynman technique, where you attempt to rewrite concepts in your own words. The Cornell method may also be useful. When taking notes, leave the left-hand margin and the bottom third of the page empty. The margin can be used for key terms and formulas, while you add a summary to the bottom third of the page when you review. Both of these methods will not only help you retain the information, but identify areas of weakness. If you struggle to summarize or paraphrase information, then it needs more attention.
How to Study
- Don’t just reread your notes! Try to use what you’ve learned. You’ll remember it better that way. Seek out extra practice problems in math; a teacher may be able to help or review past tests to correct them.
- The Feynman technique and Cornell method we discussed earlier both make you work with the information by paraphrasing or summarizing.
- Try and teach it to someone else. You can use an imaginary audience, but you might also explain what you’re learning to a friend or family member. If you form a study group, you might take turns teaching each other the material.
Sometimes, a course is just difficult, or you may still have trouble identifying what is essential to know for tests and projects. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Try forming a study group, and reach out to your teacher for assistance. If your best efforts at solo study fall flat, reach out for a tutor as far in advance of an upcoming test as possible.
Not sure where to get started or what kind of help you might need? We’re happy to have a conversation!