3 Essential Study Skills You Need to Save Time and Work Less

There are numerous beautiful illustrations of how to improve your study skills using current technology, color coded binders and folders, sixteen different pens, and codes so complex you'll need a cheat sheet just to understand what that weird little squiggle meant.

I love seeing students' binders neat and organized with color coded tabs and diagrams that look like they've been copied and pasted off the internet (maybe they were). However, all of those are like icing on the cake, and the cake, my friends, is why we're all here.

Not all of us are hyper-organized, neat, or even all that into multicolored (or scented!) highlighters.

My notebooks look a lot like Einstein's, barely legible, full of thoughts that don't get finished until a few pages later.

And yet I still easily earned A's at UC Berkeley (while running two businesses in two different cities).

And I did not have to stuff myself full of last-minute notes during study sessions, because all of my in-class and in-the-book note taking fully prepared me for tests.

So this, my friends, is what I'm offering you today. A way to stay sane and save time while improving your grades.

These are the 5 Essential Study Skills that will improve your ability to retain information and focus during study sessions. Heck, these are so good, you might not even need a study session!

For those of you who like to put in minimum effort for maximum result, this list is for you.

(And to make your study smart strategy even easier I've included a free discussion question worksheet for you near the end of the post)

Study Skills Essential List


This may seem obvious, but there are ways to improve your as-you-go note taking that will allow you to retain more information.

The most basic level is underlining. Underlining physically reinforces a passage, and while you're underlining, you're re-reading quickly. This helps cements the information in your brain, and lets you come back to that passage faster if you need to review. Underlining also signals quotes you can pull for essays or gives you immediate study locations for tests.

What should you be taking notes about?

Too many notes will hurt you, just as too few will. So how do you find the perfect balance?


Anything that is interesting to you, essential to the meaning of the text, or that you don't understand.

Safe Rule:

Underline whenever a new topic is introduced, a term or definition is explained, a bold claim is made, or supporting evidence is listed.

Answers/Solutions to Questions/Problems

Also note the problem presented. These notes can be helpful when writing an essay later, and you can boost your engagement with the text and practice analytical/critical thinking skills by offering your view on the problem/solution expressed.

Beautiful Passages

If a quote stands out to you, underline it! You can use these for essays and class discussion. You can also start building a notebook full of great sentences/arguments that you can turn to for writing inspiration.

That's it!

Want to take things further? Once you've read through, copy out everything you've underlined into your notebook. Add comments and thoughts as they come.

For even more improvement, download this worksheet that I designed to help you understand difficult readings and generate questions for class discussions or thesis topics for your essays.


I've experimented with in-class notes in lots of ways. I've taken extremely thorough, detailed notes that included everything that was on the board, and all of the important things the professor said (which was practically everything) and tried to stuff in thoughts I had along the way.

This can lead to a dense notebook full of hastily scrawled information. It sure means that most of class in there on the page for reference, but I found I didn't retain as much when I was note taking as when I was actively paying attention.

Again, this one is all about balance, and this time it's all about your learning style. But try this:

Do include what's on the white board IF...

It's already up at the beginning of class and you can copy it before lecture.

It's a graph, table, chart, or formula you'll need to have a copy of.

Otherwise, leave it alone. Pay attention to the lecture.

Do take lecture notes IF...

A method is given that will be useful to you later (often in math or science)

You really want to use that information later (like for an essay or presentation)

The professor said something awesome (inspiration is always good to have around)

If you can find it online (ie a statistic, interesting fact, or reading passage) leave it alone. Write down what it is and look it up later. You'll get more information out of it that way if you do your own research. Which leads us to #3....

3. Outside Research

Supplement your education with outside research. You'll raise your grades, become more confident in the material, and ace tests with less study time if you make a point to become informed about the topic outside of lecture.

  1.  Read scholarly journals in your field (take notes!)
  2. Find other work related to lecture topic to read or a find a relevant podcast to listen to (TED talks, recorded lectures by your professor or others, iTunes U)
  3. Read other textbooks (they'll include different, complimentary information. Bonus actually if the two text books disagree! = interesting thesis topic, discussion question, or office hour discussion)

To take this further, write down three discussion items, questions, or key ideas that came from your outside research. Present these to the class for discussion, speak up in lecture, visit your professor for a chat, or use the questions you've formulated for paper ideas.

Anything else you'd like to add: stickers, highlights, etc, feel free. These are the three simple and effective methods for focusing better and understanding more, which leads to better grades and less stress. 

Not naturally organized? You don't need to be hyper neat to get straight A's in college. Learn these three methods for styding smart, and spend less time studying overall. Raise your grades with minimal effort. And you don't need to be super organized to do it! Post includes a free bonus download to help you generate discussion questions for class.