Note-Taking Tips for Incoming College Students

Like critical thinking and problem-solving, note-taking is a key skill for incoming college students to master. However, if you have never discussed effective note-taking in your high school courses, you are not alone — and you may be wondering where to begin in order to hone this skill.

Because most college classes begin covering content from day one — and because the majority of college students are expected to learn more content more independently than the average high school student would — the summer is an ideal time to begin practicing.

One way to start is to review advice from students who have been there. Below are some tips and tricks from a current undergraduate student and a former graduate school student. As you read a new novel this summer or binge-watch that highly anticipated TV show, consider trying your hand at note-taking with these suggestions:

[READ: 5 Must-Do Tasks for the Summer Before College.]

Capitalize on Technology

Putting a traditional pen or pencil to paper is a great way to take notes, but it is not the only way. Hailey Cusimano and Danica Todorovic have used technology to strengthen their note-taking skills.

Cusimano, a graduate of the MBA program at Rollins College in Florida and a professional tutor, says she relied on a stylus “to handwrite my notes on the computer.”

“Handwriting helped me to remember and annotate in a way that felt natural to me, and the computer format allowed me to harness some serious ‘high tech’ organizational advantages,” she says.

This note-taking system works equally well for both in-person and online classes, as Todorovic attests. Todorovic, who was a junior this year at North Park University in Chicago, uses a smart pen and its accompanying notebook. She says she loves this method because “the smart pen records the lecture while I take the notes, so that I can go back later on and listen to the lecture at home.”

Utilize an Organizational System

Even the most thorough notes are unlikely to help if you cannot understand what they relate to or — even more simply — you cannot find them. The disaster of lost notes is why an organized note-taking system is particularly key.

[READ: 5 Tips to Use the Summer Before College Wisely.]

Cusimano urges incoming freshmen to “keep organized,” sharing that she sorted notes “by lesson, content area and class” on her digital devices. Certain software programs like Evernote, an app whose basic version is free, will even allow you to tag your notes to further simplify the process. You can download it and familiarize yourself with it over the summer so that you’re comfortable with it when classes start in the fall.

If you prefer a more manual approach to taking and organizing notes, Todorovic recommends using a separate notebook for each course. “That way,” she says, “you don’t get all your notes mixed up in one notebook, and it will be easier to find the notes when you go back and study later on.”

Todorovic also recommends labeling each set of notes “by the date of the class so that you know where to find the notes in the notebook.”

This labeling technique is applicable if you save your digital notes as Google documents or Microsoft Word files. Simply include the date in the name of the file for easy reference.

Think Outside the Box

Here are some additional note-taking tips:

Don’t try to write down every word. It’s almost impossible to do and can cause you to fall behind if an instructor speaks rapidly. It also can hinder your ability to effectively listen. Capturing key concepts and phrases, sometimes in outline form, can help you keep up and can be easier to decipher later.

[15 Good Things to Do the Summer Before College]

Use shorthand. If you don’t know shorthand, which is an official abbreviated writing method that includes symbols, create your own system. Try using @ instead of “and” and t/ instead of “the,” for example. Also, skip nonessential words that your mind can easily recall later. The seconds saved using a shorthand technique can help you keep pace with lectures and reduce stress.

Audio record while taking notes manually. Listening to the lecture again later while reviewing your notes can help you learn key information better. Plus, recordings are a great backup in case technology fails or you lose your notes. When test time rolls around, you can maximize study time by listening to the lectures while cooking, commuting or going for a walk.

Rewrite or transcribe your notes as soon as possible. This strategy is especially effective if you are writing rather than typing your notes. Words that seemed clear during a lecture can be fuzzy weeks later when it’s time to study for an exam. Try to rewrite your notes within 24 hours of leaving class, the sooner the better.

Compare notes. Course instructors sometimes recommend or require that students get a study partner or join a study group, although that’s not the norm at the undergraduate level. It could, however, pay off to identify a group of students in each course with whom you can compare notes and study. This approach can benefit everyone involved.

Strong note-taking skills are invaluable to collegiate success. Build yours with the strategies outlined above.

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