Many students learn the hard way that college requires you to fine-tune your study habits. And it’s not about studying longer; it’s about studying more effectively and learning how to manage your time. You have to orchestrate your new college schedule—which often looks loaded with free time—and cope with a work load that is probably far greater than anything you’re used to. (You probably want to squeeze in some fun and relaxation with your friends too!)
Classroom expectations also change. “It is a much higher level of learning,” says Dianna Van Blerkom, author of College Study Skills: Becoming a Strategic Learner. In high school, many students do well just by memorizing facts, but college classes really delve into their subjects, and if you don’t understand the material, it will be difficult to progress. Van Blerkom, who has seen National Honor Society students devastated by a failing grade in college, says students “have to accept that it is like a full-time job, and they have to treat it that way.”
Siobhan Brady, a pre-med major at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, said good grades always came easily to her. “In high school, I could get by without studying at all,” she says. Even freshman year of college wasn’t too tough. So when she struggled in sophomore year science classes, she was surprised. “I realized I had to put more effort in,” Brady says.
Many experts recommend mapping out your academic requirements and activities. Don’t just look at one week at a time—really think about what is coming in the next month. “Studying becomes a process,” says Dan Hickey, a study skills instructor at Rochester Institute of Technology’s academic support center. “It is a strategic way of learning.”
College is often the first time students are truly independent, with no one to remind them about deadlines or wake them up so they don’t miss class. Although you may be taking fewer classes than in high school, each one is more demanding, covers more material, and requires you to study effectively to succeed.
“Students may not realize how active they need to be,” Hickey says. That means studying the syllabus and understanding what professors expect. Review notes immediately after class and preview the material before lectures, Hickey recommends. Then you can focus on material you’re struggling with, and you will also familiarize yourself with the terms and concepts.
Approach your studies as tasks to be completed slowly and steadily over the semester. “Do something for each class every day,” recommends Dr. Sandra U. Gibson, past Director of the learning center at Georgia State University and co-author of Making A’s in College.
Some students put so much effort into one class that they neglect their other courses, Gibson says. Once your grades start to slide, it’s tough to catch up in those other classes. And the emotional toll can make any student feel unable to meet the rigors of college, when in fact it is just a matter of studying more efficiently.
To avoid hitting that slide, constantly assess your study habits to see what is working for you. “I never used flash cards before,” Brady says. “Now I use them all the time, and they really help.” Brady, never one to ask for help from a tutor in high school, went to one weekly for an especially tough chemistry class.
Study skills are key
When you arrive on campus, take a study skills seminar. Sarah Harvey, a recent graduate of Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and now a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York City, says her freshman seminar helped her adapt to the college pace. “A big thing for me was learning how to plan when classes didn’t meet every day,” Harvey says. “I had to look at the syllabus and figure it out, and figure out what the professors expected from me,” she said. She says she relied on personal planners/agendas, lists, and calendars to stay organized.
One of the biggest predictors of your success is also one of the easiest things to do—show up for class. Some students see attending each class as optional, Gibson says. Or they might skip a few classes to focus on an upcoming test in another area. Not only will you miss vital information, but some classes have attendance policies that could impact your grade. You might only have class two or three times a week, but professors pack a lot of information into that time and expect you to know it.
“The best thing students should be doing is self-testing and self-monitoring,” Van Blerkom says. “So many students read over the material and say, ‘I’ve got this.’ Maybe this worked with high school tests. However, when they study by reading over the material for their college exams, they are surprised when they do not excel because they thought they knew the material.”
Figure out what kind of self-testing works for you. For math courses, create problems and time yourself, Gibson says. Biology or psychology classes might require something like flash cards, where you record questions, facts, details, or concepts to quiz yourself. Flag information you don’t understand so you can focus your time even more. Finally, seek out study groups so you can get different perspectives on the material.
Tackle time management in high school
Even while in high school, time management is a habit worth mastering and cultivating to ensure college success. Setting daily goals and writing them down is a great way to prepare for college demands. Whether it’s with school, work, or sports, be mindful of expectations—be on time, be prepared, and put forth your best effort.
Some small tasks make a big difference. Professors often communicate by e-mail, so check yours frequently. Harvey says she had to remember to check her e-mail every day so she wouldn’t miss important announcements. (Gibson advises students to address professors formally when e-mailing them: use his or her proper name, spelled correctly, and compose your message as you would a letter, not a text message!)
“Students have to work a lot harder in college than they do in high school,” Van Blerkom says. Self-motivation is crucial. In high school, your routine determines many of your study habits: you are in school for a certain number of hours, have after-school activities, and generally study when you get home. In college, your weekly class time might only add up to a few hours, but the remaining time is not “free.” “Those are the days you have to work,” he says.
“You have to look at what is in front of you and what is forecast,” Van Blerkom says. If you have a soccer tournament scheduled for the weekend before a chemistry test, do some advanced studying and planning so you will be at your best for both events.
Diana Tamburri, an illustration major at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, found balancing academic and extracurricular activities tough. Tamburri says she loved joining the theater group—so much that she devoted a little too much time to the activity. “When I got to school, it was a shock because I had more free time, and I didn’t know what to do with it all,” she says. “It is all a big learning experience to figure out what needs to get done versus what you want to do. I learned [you must do] everything in moderation.”
Ask for help
Academic support centers recommend making a fixed commitment calendar, which includes the time you need to get to class, study, sleep, eat, and work. This will give you a realistic picture of your available time.
Office hours, which all professors usually have, let you work one-on-one with your in-structors. Harvey says she occasionally sought help from professors or teaching assistants, even though it intimidated her at first. “In high school, you see your teachers daily, and it is easy to ask questions in class or after class,” she says. “In college, you are in a big lecture, and it is easy to forget you can meet with them or send them an e-mail.”
College will bring huge changes in how you approach your studies. Be open to making adjustments, asking for help, and using ev-ery minute of your time to reach your fullest potential.