Editor’s note: In college, it took me 3 semesters to outgrow my awful study habits from high school and I had to do it the hard way. Here are some tips from a Yale alum on his way to a PhD on how to study effectively in college and ensure your success.
My experience in those first 3 semesters: I rarely pulled all-nighters but many nights I got 3 or 4 hours of sleep, which is close to nothing. It takes a toll on your body and it makes you dread starting your work. And it affected my grades. I realized that I needed a serious change.
Study habits that turned me around in school
1. Start Early. The BIGGEST change I made was understanding that doing a little bit every day is good. Starting work and getting over that initial worry is half the battle. Instead of leaving problem sets or papers to the 2-3 days before the due date, I actually started them the day they were assigned.
2. OFFICE HOURS. I CANNOT STRESS ENOUGH! GO TO OFFICE HOURS! Your TA and professor want to help, and they will. Even if you feel your question is “simple,” please go! Your instructors want you to succeed, genuinely. These days, you can participate in online office hours.
3. Collaborate With Peers. I think there’s a right and wrong way to do this, however. If you give a problem a good, honest try before you work with friends, it’s likely you’ll both make fast work of it once you put your brains together. But, if you don’t, it’s really easy to feel lost, because while you’re still getting up to speed on it, your peers will make short work of it. You will gain very little from that kind of collaboration.
4. University Lecture Slides. They are SO helpful. Use this Google tip: say I want to study quantum entanglement. I’d Google “quantum entanglement notes filetype:pdf” (no quotes). By doing this, Google will ONLY give you .pdf results, which are overwhelmingly likely to be lecture notes from other universities, and they’re amazing references and study material that give you the material through a different lens.
5. Read the Textbook. Simple, but read the textbook before starting the problem set! You’re going to have a bad time otherwise. It helps to consolidate the material so that you can give it an honest try on the homework.
6. Alternative Sources. That being said, don’t be afraid to seek out alternative sources. For any topic, there are dozens of textbooks, and some just treat the material better. Everybody has a favorite. You might find a certain textbook is WAY better for your style of learning than another. Use your college library or the Internet.
7. Use Available Resources. Make use of the other resources available to you. Peer tutors? Study breaks and study sessions? College tutors? Every university and college has a ton of resources through their center for teaching and learning, so see what they’ve got. For papers, I sincerely recommend your college’s writing center, they are phenomenal when it comes to any part of the paper process: outlining, drafting, proofreading, etc. Go to them!
8. Get a good night’s sleep. Your brain won’t synthesize information if you don’t sleep. Do what you have to for your sleep routine: white noise? Fan on? Sleep mask? Blackout curtains? Warm milk? Anything that helps you sleep is well worth it.
9. Review Notes. Try to review your notes regularly. Like after a week of classes, if you sit down and even quickly flip through them, I promise that will pay dividends when it comes time for the final.
10. Making Study Sheets. I often found myself re-writing important equations/derivations into a sheet and just flipping through it every once in a while. It helped me memorize, and it was especially valuable to look through in those ten minutes before an exam.
11. Find Your Group. Going back to what I was saying before about collaborating, don’t work with people who will make you feel dumb for not getting something. I’ve been there. Find peers and friends who reciprocate: you support them and they do the same for you.
12. Don’t Study in Bed. Research shows that you should only relax and sleep in bed, and doing homework in bed leads to less effective studying and worse sleep quality. This may not be practical for everyone, but if you can study in a place other than your bed, try it.
13. Take a Break. Toiling on a problem or a paper for hours on end has diminishing returns. Your brain subconsciously makes connections and ‘thinks’ about problems when you refocus your attention on other things. Do other work or just relax. But don’t burn yourself out; studying 12 hours in the day is not going to feel relaxing, efficient, or good.
14. Extensions. Let’s talk about extensions. Professors are, most of the time, happy to give them. Just explain in a reasonable way why you need one. Disclaimer: this has been my experience.
Hope these tips help.