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Essential Study Skills to Master for Academic Success in College

Transform your study habits with our essential guide for college students. Learn how to manage your time, take effective notes, and retain information more efficiently. Keep reading to discover the keys to academic success!

Author: Angela Myers
Editor: STEPS Staff
Close-up of a person writing in a notebook with a pencil. The person's hands rest on a wooden desk, alongside a laptop, sticky notes, a smartphone, and a small potted plant. The person is wearing a white shirt and multiple bracelets on one wrist.

It’s finals season, and panic floods your system. You should have studied consistently instead of cramming the night before. Plus, you’re unsure if your study techniques are effective.

If you feel like this before a major test or assignment, you’re not alone. In a 2021 study, 51.3% of participants reported feelings of test anxiety before taking an exam. One of the best ways to decrease stress and boost your GPA is to learn effective study techniques. If so, you’re in the right place!

In this guide, we will cover techniques you can implement to improve your study routine and grades. These techniques include tried-and-true approaches, key skills, and research-backed methods that can be applied to your next test and throughout your academic career.

  • Learn five skills to study better and boost your GPA
  • Explore additional strategies to optimize your study routine
  • Read to the end for 10 free resources that make studying easier

Key Study Skill #1: Time Management

The first step to any effective study routine is to gain control of your time. Effective time management skills allow us to balance more tasks successfully, make the most of the time we have to study, and feel in control of our daily schedule. Below are four tips to help you master your schedule.

Create a study schedule (and stick to it)

One of the best ways to remember to study is to make studying a staple in your routine. At the beginning of each week or month, set aside a specific number of hours to study. This could look like larger chunks a few times a week, an hour or two reserved daily for studying, or a mix of study block lengths.

To stick to your schedule, add study blocks into your calendar and approach them as if they are a class or lab where attendance is mandatory.

Prioritize tasks

As a student, you have plenty of homework assignments, readings, tests, and extracurriculars vying for your attention. To make sure important tasks, such as studying for a big exam are completed, you need to prioritize. An easy approach is to create a schedule where urgent and important tasks are completed first. Often, intentionally planning your week and keeping deadlines in mind can help you prioritize effectively.

Avoid procrastination

You’ve set aside study time and know which tasks you should complete first. Yet when you sit down to study, a recent text message or social media post demands your attention. Procrastination is a common hurdle we all face, but there are methods you can use to avoid it.

To eliminate procrastination, consider ways to minimize distractions, such as putting your phone in airplane mode or closing out the email tab while in online classes. You can also assign specific tasks to each study block, which causes less overwhelm than generic task labels such as “study for my Spanish exam.”

Use planners and digital tools

Planners are a great way to track your to-dos, test dates, and study sessions. Each week, you could set aside 30 minutes to write down your to-dos for the week, or you could take 10 minutes each evening to note tasks for tomorrow, important dates, or meetings in your calendar.

If you prefer a virtual tool over a physical planner, there are plenty of free digital task managers, such as Notion, Google Calendar, and Trello.

Key Study Skill #2: Goal Setting

After you’ve mastered time management, it’s time to set some academic goals. Below are three important considerations when setting goals so they’re easier to achieve and contribute to your academic and professional future.

Setting SMART goals

Too often, we set vague goals, such as getting a 4.0 GPA, without a concrete plan to make them a reality. Instead, try to create SMART goals, which are easier to implement because they are more defined.

SMART is an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound. For example, the goal of getting a 4.0 GPA is specific but lacks the four other qualities. To make it SMART, you could write it as: “I want a 4.0 GPA by the end of the year because it will help you get a better summer internship and increase job prospects down the line. I will measure my progress through individual course grades, and I will set aside 60 minutes a week to study, at minimum, so I can achieve good grades in my courses.”

Short-term vs. long-term goals

As you set goals, you should understand the difference between short-term and long-term objectives. Short-term goals are easy to complete within one semester or even one month. These goals could include getting A’s this semester, implementing a new study routine by the end of the month, or attending a professor’s virtual office hours six times before midterms.

Long-term goals often span multiple semesters and are more closely related to your professional plans. These could include maintaining a 3.4 GPA or higher this academic year, finding the right summer internship, or completing a multi-semester research project.

Tracking progress

Once goals are set, you have two options: forget about them or track your progress. Taking time each week to reflect on your goals and your progress is a great way to hold yourself accountable and course-correct if necessary. During this time, you can also celebrate the steps you are taking toward your goals, which is great for mental well-being.

Key Study Skill #3: Effective Note-taking

Note-taking is a key strategy to organize different concepts from a course and help you cement new concepts in your mind. Even if you’re an online student with access to all course materials 24/7, taking notes helps you actively engage with what you’re learning. To help make note-taking more efficient, we researched different methods and tips.

Note-taking Methods

There are several note-taking methods you can try. While all are effective, each works for a different type of learner, making it important to test them out and see which works best for you.

  • Cornell – as one of the most well-known styles, Cornell note-taking has helped many students retain more information. The style prompts students to write down any cues and questions they have, record, and reflect on a reading or lecture. At the end, students write a summary of the lesson. To get started with this notetaking method, check out this Google Docs template.
  • Outline – a common note-taking method, outlining requires students to organize the main concepts of a reading or lecture into a logical outline. Students also visually show the relationship between concepts, creating a coherent image of the overall lesson. If interested in this method, check out this guide from Missouri State University.
  • Mapping – if you’re a visual learner, you may appreciate the mapping method. With this note-taking style, students chart the content of a lecture or reading into a mind map, adding key points as they go. The University of Portland does a great job explaining how this method works.
  • Charting – for chronological information, charting may be a good note-taking method. With this approach, students draw columns on their page with different headers. The University of Tennessee Chattanooga provides an example where a student charts key wars from the 20th century using this method.
  • Sentence – if your notes are fragmented and confusing, the sentence method may provide clarity. With this approach, students write different notes as complete sentences, numbering each. They skip a line between sentences to keep their notes organized.

Tips for taking notes during lectures

Between the endless lectures, readings, and extracurriculars, it can be hard to remember every detail from each. Instead of relying on your memory alone, take legible, easy-to-understand notes during classes.

For better notes, use shorthand so you can capture the key concepts. You should also put away any distractions like phones, and focus entirely on taking notes in a way that makes sense to you. If you don’t understand a concept while taking notes, either ask a question in class or make a note to follow up on that concept in office hours.

Reviewing and organizing notes

At the end of each class, it’s a good idea to review your notes, organize them as needed, and jot down any questions you have. Reviewing doesn’t have to be a huge process. You could spend two minutes at the end of each class reading them over or reserve a 20-minute slot before dinner where you review all notes taken that day.

Key Study Skill #4: Active Learning Techniques

Active learning is a valuable skill in and outside the classroom. According to a 2021 study, active learning was associated with better test scores and higher life satisfaction. Cornell University defines active learning as any method that engages students via writing, investigating, discussing, or another action. Active learning is successful because it empowers students to take ownership of course materials and ensures they truly understand it before test time.

If interested in adding active learning techniques to your study routine, the four below are great options.

Summarizing and paraphrasing

A good way to test your retention is to write a summary of each lecture or reading. These summaries allow you to reinforce key concepts and see if there are any you need to review in-depth. If you’re summarizing a lecture from a criminal justice class, for example, and don’t understand how the penal system works, that may be a concept to research in more detail during your next study session.

Teaching the material to others

True mastery of course material often comes from being able to explain it to others. Whether in a study group with fellow students or in conversation with a close friend, explain the key concepts from a lecture or entire unit. This should give you a better idea of what you do and don’t know.

For a more independent route, you can also create a mock lesson plan around the materials. In the lesson plan, jot down key concepts as if explaining them to someone who is unfamiliar with the topic.

Creating flashcards

Making physical flashcards or using an online flashcard program is a great technique for actively reviewing key concepts. After each lecture or reading, add any new terms to your flashcard deck. To review, you can schedule time either weekly, daily, or somewhere between to review all the flashcards.

As you review, place the cards into two piles: one for concepts you’ve mastered and the other for concepts you haven’t. Continue reviewing until all cards are in your mastered pile.

Creating flashcards

Making physical flashcards or using an online flashcard program is a great technique for actively reviewing key concepts. After each lecture or reading, add any new terms to your flashcard deck. To review, you can schedule time either weekly, daily, or somewhere between to review all the flashcards.

As you review, place the cards into two piles: one for concepts you’ve mastered and the other for concepts you haven’t. Continue reviewing until all cards are in your mastered pile.

Using mnemonic devices

Many students run into confusing rules or concepts in their courses. To help remember these, consider creating mnemonic devices. For example, if you’re in an Introduction to Chemistry course and are having trouble remembering the periodic table, you could create a mnemonic device for each row. Alternatively, you can use mnemonic devices others have created, such as these devices for the periodic table from Bradley University.

Key Study Skill #5: Good Reading Comprehension

When assigned readings, the objective shouldn’t be to get through them as fast as possible. The goal is to be able to remember as much information from the reading as you can. To help, we’ve listed three of the best reading comprehension techniques below.

Active reading techniques

For assigned reading try to read actively instead of passively. Active reading is when you engage with the test, either through writing, speaking, or another form of communication. Passive reading is when you consume the text quickly and don’t reflect on what you’ve read.

Effective active reading techniques include:

  • Make notes in the margins about the main idea of each paragraph
  • Underline the main thesis or idea of the reading
  • Define unknown terms
  • Take notes as you read

SQ3R method (Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review)

The SQ3R method helps students break down reading comprehension into five key steps: survey, question, read, recite, and review. For the survey step, students review the main headings and points from a reading. After, they jot down any questions they have on the reading.

From there, students read, stopping occasionally, to see if they could answer the questions they wrote down. When they stop, this is considered the reciting step. At the end, they review what they read and then write a summary of the material.

Annotating and highlighting effectively

Annotating and highlighting are great techniques to draw attention to key concepts you want to return to and to help you process those ideas. However, there are effective and ineffective ways to use annotation and highlighting.

To be effective, consider only annotating and highlighting crucial information. By using both sparingly, you draw attention to what matters. You could also highlight with different colors to organize the reading thematically and write explanations of confusing concepts as annotations.

How to Optimize Your Study Time

The five skills we’ve already discussed are a great starting point, but they aren’t the only ways to set yourself up for academic success. Along with having the right study methods, you should optimize your study time to get the most out of it. The following tips can help you make the most of the limited time you have to study.

  • Choose the right study location: It’s not just what you study that matters, where you study is important too. For most students, a quiet location, such as the library or their bedroom, works well. If you’re easily distracted by Netflix or social media when at home, make plans to study in public spaces on campus.
  • Minimize distractions: TikTok can be entertaining, but it probably won’t help you ace your chemistry final. To minimize distractions while studying, consider different blocks you can put on apps you frequently use and how you can avoid studying in a location where socializing is more enticing than hitting the books.
  • Organize your study space: An organized space leads to an organized mind. If you agree with that statement, make sure to keep your study space as clean and organized as possible. Scheduling time each Sunday, for example, to organize your space can ensure that a peaceful, decluttered space is a reality each week.
  • Prioritize sleep, nutrition, and exercise: When you feel healthy and energized, you often perform better academically. Getting 8 hours of sleep, eating a balanced diet, and exercising for at least 150 minutes a week are three steps you can take outside of studying to improve your GPA.
  • Manage stress: When we’re stressed, it’s hard to study effectively. Fortunately, there are many stress relief techniques, such as meditation, yoga, and breathwork, that can help. If signing up for an hour-long yoga class sounds overwhelming, start smaller. Schedule a five-minute meditation into your morning or write three things you’re grateful for before you begin studying.
  • Take breaks: While it may seem enticing to study for 12 hours straight, your body and brain need breaks. Taking a five- to 30-minute break between study sessions allows your brain space to process and come back refreshed. Keep in mind social media isn’t a refreshing activity for your breaks. Instead, consider chatting with a friend, walking in nature, coloring, or doing an offline activity that restores you.
  • Make it a group effort: A study group is a great way to stay engaged with the course materials and your classmates. Plus, when you study with others, you can ask questions about concepts you don’t understand. If offered by your school, free tutoring is another viable path to bring more perspectives into your study routine.
  • Give yourself enough time: All-nighters before a big exam are common, but that doesn’t mean they’re an effective study tool. Instead of waiting until the last minute to study, space out your study sessions in the weeks leading up to a big test.

Additional Study Resources for College Students

Looking for additional help? The 10 resources below can help you find the right study techniques and create an effective study routine. Each resource is free, and some are interactive templates that can improve your studying.

  • Annotate Effectively
    As you read, annotating can help you understand key concepts. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill provides this free guide full of strategies and techniques to get more from your annotations.
  • Google Calendar for Students
    If you’re using Google Calendar to organize due dates, lecture times, and study blocks, this video may help. In it, a fellow student presents different strategies and tools within Google Calendar to improve time management.
  • Improve concentration
    Our world is full of distractions, which makes it difficult to concentrate. This guide from Oregon State University outlines how to improve your concentration when studying.
  • Improve study efficiency
    For those hoping to study smarter, not harder, check out this guide on optimizing your study time so you’re more efficient. In it, experts from Central Michigan University share their tips on how to get the most benefit out of a study session.
  • Notion for Students
    Using a digital task manager is a great way to stay on top of your homework, studying, and classes, but setting up that manager can be time-consuming. Instead of creating it yourself, check out these free Notion templates designed for students.
  • Pomodoro Timer
    If you need undisturbed time to study, consider trying the Pomodoro method. With this study technique, a timer like this one indicates when it’s time to study and for breaks.
  • Quizlet
    Like the idea of flashcards but don’t want to carry physical index cards around with you? Quizlet is a free program that lets you create different flashcard decks virtually.
  • Smart Goals Worksheet
    As you create smart goals, refer to this fill-in worksheet that can guide you through the process and help hold you accountable for your goals.
  • Studying with a full-time job
    Balancing a full-time job, attending classes, and studying can be a challenge. This video provides a working student’s perspective on how to find time to study while working 40+ hours a week.
  • SQ3R Method
    If interested in learning more about the SQ3R method, this interactive guide from the University of Pittsburgh may be helpful. It’s aimed at undergraduates, though graduate students may find it useful too.