How to Improve Your Study Skills for Grad School

Grad school is tougher than undergrad, and some of your study skills just won't cut it. Here's how to strengthen your skills for graduate-level work.

Now that you have successfully completed an undergraduate degree, you may think that your study skills are as strong as they will become. Your college study skills are likely solid, but in graduate school you will be expected to produce much different results than during your undergraduate work.

Understanding the study skills you need

Studying in graduate school differs greatly from undergraduate school, and so do the study skills you’ll need to succeed. Graduate school requires an entirely different approach to studying, as there is far less rote learning involved than in undergraduate school. Whereas undergrad students "cram" for frequent exams, a graduate education emphasizes your understanding of the information more than the memorization of the information. Skills important for graduate study include:

  • Detailed scheduling
  • Concentration
  • Full-focus listening
  • Detailed note taking
  • Advanced reading and comprehension skills
  • Advanced writing skills

To study successfully, students must prepare both mentally and physically. They must mentally prioritize tasks, set timetables, and indulge in breaks. Students also need to be mindful of the physical location and comfort of the study space they utilize, as well as to assemble all the materials needed to study.

Related: Undergraduate vs. Graduate School: What to Expect

Figure out your learning style

As a graduate student you may be required to design and implement original research studies. You will hone your abilities to read, interpret, synthesize, and use research. Graduate study demands that the student be motivated and self-discipline, and the student's study skills must reflect these qualities. Significantly more responsibility is involved in being a graduate student because you will be more in charge of scheduling your time and workload. Graduate students can benefit from taking time to identify their learning styles if they haven't already. Everyone has a learning style, and most students fit into one of three categories:

  • Visual learners learn best through sight, can easily visual things in their minds, prefer demonstrative learning over verbal learning, and visualize images for reading comprehension.
  • Auditory learners learn best by hearing information explained to them, have an easier time developing oral communication skills and vocabulary, prefer thinking out loud, and enjoy participating in group discussions.
  • Kinetic learners learn best by engaging in learning activities, concentrate better when movement is involved and prefer to be in motion when completing work, and prefer seeing someone do something then trying it themselves.

The first two are rather self-explanatory, while kinetic learners are those who learn best by doing. Once you know what your learning style is, you can adapt your study skills to follow suit.

Learning time management

It's of paramount importance that graduate student study skills include the ability to divide time efficiently. Grad students live busy lives and often have more responsibilities than just those involved in their education. No matter what other roles you must fill daily, you must set aside time for quality study time. Setting short- and long-term goals is helpful if you struggle to manage your time. Imposing deadlines, even in addition to those established by your professors, can be beneficial and keep you ahead of the game. The most important study skill when it comes to time is the ability to resist procrastination. It is much more difficult in graduate school to rebound when you have fallen behind than when you were earning your undergraduate degree.

Related: How to Improve Your Time Management and Study Skills

Opt for organization

Organization and time management share a reciprocal relationship. Having one of these study skills strengthens the other. One of the most important things you will need to organize is your note taking. Having a separate notebook for each course is one way to avoid becoming confused. Successful study skills in graduate school are contingent upon the ability to take clear, concise notes you will be able to read and review when studying outside of the classroom. You may find it helpful to type out longer versions of your notes on the day you first take them, while your memory of a lecture or presentation is still fresh.

Graduate students should consider setting up some type of filing system to organize all the different components of their coursework. Create separate folders for things like research ideas, professional credentials, articles, and study materials. File folders are a great way to hold onto old exams, class notes and all those handouts. Your study space should be organized as well. The less clutter and distraction, the better you will be able to use your study skills. Be sure your study space has all the supplies that you need right within reach. That way, your studying will not be interrupted by a search for that missing pencil or stapler.

Reading for comprehension

Graduate school engages students in more reading than ever. The ability to glean meaning from readings quickly and efficiently is another of the critical study skills in graduate school. You should schedule time to read and take periodic breaks to keep the information fresh. When you were back in grade school you may have learned the "SQ3R" method for reading comprehension:

  • S for Survey: Read the headings and summaries in the text and review brief overall details.
  • Q for Question: Pose questions to yourself about each section of the reading as you read and after you read.
  • 3 Rs for Read, Recite, Review: The questions are answered during the read step, when you read the text while keeping your questions in mind. After reading the text, you recite without looking at the text and try to recall the answers to your questions. Review requires you to go back over the questions and reread the portions of the text that need refreshing.

While the SQ3R method may seem elementary, it’s an effective way to read for meaning, especially when considering the volume of text grad students are expected to absorb. It is best to read before class, as not all of the text will be covered in lectures. If you buy your textbooks, you can highlight important passages or flag important pages.

Related: 6 Quick Tips for Better Reading Comprehension

Still need help?

If you remain doubtful about your study skills in graduate school, you will find study-skills courses available through colleges and other organizations. It’s also advised that graduate students establish study groups. Study groups can allocate responsibilities, giving each person a task, such as note taking, recording lectures, or creating vocabulary lists and practice tests. The student study skills necessary for success in graduate school are possible for every student to build. It takes time, dedication, and self-motivation to make it in grad school, as well as to enhance your study skills. Once your skills are in place, you’re ready for an exciting journey through graduate school.

Find more great advice to get you through grad school in our Graduate School—Articles section.

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