3 tips for more effective studying

High School study skills

Whether in high school, college, or graduate school, studying is an important skill. Most students do not have an abundance of free time, and even if we occasionally do, we’d probably rather spend it with friends or pursuing personal passions rather than trying to re-learn or re-study material we didn’t quite absorb the first time around. So how do we study more effectively? How do we set ourselves up for success in effectively and efficiently studying and retaining material the first time around?

1. Study actively

Many of you have probably hear this before – but what does active studying mean? What does that actually look like? Well, I’ll tell you one thing that doesn’t qualify as active studying – re-reading notes! Don’t get me wrong, notes are incredibly useful. Note-taking can help us focus and arrange information as we listen to lectures or classes, but simply re-reading those notes tends to give us a false sense of confidence – “Oh yeah, I recognize this” – when we may not actually know the material as well as we think we do. So, all right, you might be thinking, but what are some examples of active studying that I can implement? If you really want to use your notes, by all means, do! But rather than reading through them, try covering up parts of them – definitions for example, or a diagram – and see if you can define the terms or draw the diagram in your head before revealing the answer to yourself. This simple step helps to challenge your brain to recall that information, rather than simply recognizing it. That’s more active studying! Flashcards are another great tool, whether physical, Quizlet, or Anki. Quizzing friends or study groups is another great way to study actively – can you explain this concept to your friend? Setting your notes aside and drawing diagrams or concept maps on a white board or piece of paper is another great way to study actively. Can you connect the concepts you’ve been learning about? Can you draw those diagrams you’ve been studying without looking at them? All of these are great strategies for bringing your studying to the next, more active, level. Have another idea for an active studying method? Leave a comment below!

2. Block out your time and include breaks

In the day and age of TikTok, Instagram, and Netflix, it can sometimes be hard to really get in the zone and focus for a long period of time. But the reality is, we can often get more done in a really focused and effective 1-hour block of time than we could in four 15-minute chunks. Why, you might be wondering? Well, each time I sit down to begin, I probably have to spend a few minutes re-orienting myself to where I’m at, what I did last time, what my goals are now. If I’m then putting in an hour of solid time, that’s probably fine. But if 3-5 of each of those 15-minute chunks is spent re-orienting myself, I just lost a lot of work time. So challenge yourself! Set your phone aside, and trying to really focus for a solid 1 or 1.5-hour block of studying! I promise that your attention span does improve – I know my ability to focus for long periods of time increased enormously over the course of my semester spent studying for the MCAT. 

All of that said, breaks are important, too! But two minutes of watching Tik Tok videos every 10-20 minutes does not count as a good break. After those two minutes you’re probably 1) more likely to feel a little bit guilty for getting distracted and 2) not feeling refreshed! So, after that streamlined 1-hour block of distraction-free studying, give yourself a good 5-15 minutes and do something that will make you feel rejuvenated. If that’s Tik Tok, that’s fine, but a chat with a friend, jamming or even dancing around to some music, a bit of yoga, or a walk in the sunshine might all make you feel even more refreshed and ready to hit the books again. 

3. Prioritize sleep! 

I cannot emphasize this enough! College students are notorious for staying up until the wee hours to cram before a test, finish assignments or hang out with friends, only to get up early for class the next morning. And yet sleep is so important! While we’re sleeping, our brain is consolidating the things we learned throughout the day, and cataloguing those things so we can remember them. If you are not making time for sleep, you are quite literally shortchanging your study time, because you will not remember the things you studied that day as well as you would with a good night of sleep. And when it comes to tests, finals, SATs, and MCATs, efficiently studying and remembering that efficient studying is what counts! A regular sleep schedule (going to bed around the same time each night) is also helpful because it makes it easier to fall asleep quickly, meaning you’ll spend less time trying to fall asleep, and more time actually sleeping – another way to maximize your time-efficiency! Moreover, a regular sleep schedule with ~8 hours of sleep per night will put your brain in top shape for those focused, distraction-free study sessions we were talking about earlier. 

As students, time management is incredibly important, and that definitely includes efficient management of study time! Hopefully, these three tips can help kick your studying to the next level. Have another tip or idea for more effective, efficient studying? Please feel free to drop a comment below!

Marta is an MD Candidate at Harvard Medical School. Prior to matriculating at Harvard, Marta headed to Bonn, Germany as a Fulbright scholar. There, she conducted research related to Parkinson's disease and expanded her German language skills.


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