Ben Casnocha mentions that in a room full of young Silicon Valley entrepreneurs being addressed by Mark Zuckerberg, the two people taking notes were also the two most experienced and accomplished entrepreneurs in the crowd. He makes the case that, “if you want to identify the most senior, knowledgeable people in an audience, look for the people who are taking notes and asking questions.” Notes are key to learning content and being able to revisit concrete ideas rather than letting them float away. In college, I’ve noticed that the better notes a person takes, the better they learn the material and the more successful they are when they are studying for exams and remembering the semester’s topics. I personally spend a fair amount of time taking notes, organizing them, and reviewing it and so far it’s been a system that’s worked for me. While a lot of my peers look at me a little suspiciously when seeing my Google Drive (which basically contains my entire academic life), I know that when it comes midterm or finals season, I’ll be set. Here’s a breakdown of my super structured note-taking system that I’ve found incredibly effective.

Written or typed?

I say both. Some classes are more inclined to be note-taking friendly on a laptop, usually when there’s a lot of dense material to cover and specific terms. However, some professors don’t allow laptops or electronics based on personal policy. In that case, writing is the only option. If the latter is the case, then I highly recommend typing your notes up afterwards. Not only does it make everything neat (sometimes, quickly scribbled handwriting can be difficult to decipher three months down the line), but it also reinforces the content one more additional time as it is being typed. There’s also a case for consistency here as it’s easy to access notes for a class when they’re all in one format.

Keep it all in once place

Screen Shot 2015-04-27 at 12.31.00 AM

All of my classes color-coded and in a folder Image from Personal Library

As I said before, my life is on Google Drive. It’s perfect for me because it can be super-compartmentalized and it’s word document functions are perfectly adequate, though it can’t do quite as many fancy things as Microsoft Word or Pages. But that’s fine because the most important part is that it’s all online. This is super important because in the case that your computer crashes on you, you’re on a different computer and you don’t have access to your personal files, or for some reason you spill coffee on your keyboard and fry the logic board (guilty as charged), every single world will be saved on the beautiful Drive. But even if you decide that you like Evernote better or maybe wanna keep it simple and on your hard drive, just make sure it’s not scattered in different places. You don’t want to be scrambling for your hand-written notes and your files and your friend’s borrowed notes the night before an exam.

Different notes for different purposes

Separate division of my lecture notes

Separate division of my lecture notes

Division is key to an organized note-taking machine. I categorize all my notes into three different types: lecture, readings, and discussion. Lecture notes are the classic write-whatever-your-professor-says. If the professor has a Powerpoint but doesn’t upload it after lecture, its super important to include it in the notes for future reference. Be sure to mark off special points of interest when professors explicitly tell the class what’s going to be emphasized on the midterm.

Because I dabble in the humanities and social sciences, I have hundreds of pages of readings to do for all my classes each week accompanied by in-class discussions moderated by the professor. For major readings in the social sciences where concepts and author’s and their specific arguments and theories are key to remembering, I make sure to take reading notes. Typically, I’ll read the assigned work and highlight main points, then I’ll go back and type down all the points that I highlighted. This is great because I’ll be forced to read the piece two times. Readings notes are my personal secret midterms/finals weapon, because I never have the time to go back and look through all the hundreds of pages to prepare for an exam a week before, so all I need are my notes for a quick and thorough review. It’s tedious at times to put in the extra effort, but it’s an invaluable investment I reap the fruits of when finals rolls around.

Reading notes labeled by week, title, and author

Reading notes labeled by week, title, and author

For classes that include discussions or are discussion-based seminars, discussion notes are pretty helpful. Classmates and the professors offer invaluable insight and interesting arguments that are great to remember when writing a final paper or prepping for an exam. Also, it’s a good way to stay engaged in discussion and keep track of what’s happening rather than letting your mind wander.

Labeling is essential

Notes labeled by date, type, and topic

Notes labeled by date, type, and topic

With all these different notes, it’s essential that they are properly labeled and categorized for easy access. It’s wise to include the date, lecture/discussion topic, or specific reading in the title. If the class is separated by general themes or themes, it might help to further separate them.

Review, review, review

Now that this exhaustive note system is in place, it’s important to actually use them to review. A great way is to devote each day of the week to reviewing previous notes for a certain class. Monday for Chemistry, Tuesday for Macroeconomics, Wednesday for French, etc. It doesn’t have to bee too fancy, 10 minutes a night is enough. If this is too much, then just an occasional review of a class every two weeks is better than nothing!

Hopefully these tips will help organize your notes and bring you success in future exams.

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the author

Jilliann Pak hails from the suburbs of SoCal but is currently attending school across the coast at Johns Hopkins University. When she’s not complaining about the cold weather or sleeping in the library, she’s probably eating, cuddled up into a blanket burrito, or watching Parks and Recreation, preferably all at once.

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