You're Probably Reading Too Much...and What You Can Do About It

You might be reading too much. Think that's impossible? Think again. Here are some tips on getting the most out of how much and how often you're reading.

“But Erik!” I hear you protest. “Reading is good!” Yes, yes, worry not—I am not knocking reading. But if you don’t think you’re reading too little, you’re probably reading too much. For those of you who aren’t yet willing to pick up your textbook and hammer through it, I don’t intend for this to validate your decisions here. Go study.

But for those of you who spend a lot of time reading, I want to challenge you: you might be reading too much!

How can this be?

To sort this out, I want to assert a principle: everything you do should be in pursuit of a result. This result could be a grade, it could be a skill, it could be the pleasure of the story or the knowledge or the challenge. But it should be in pursuit of something. If you can’t identify the benefit to yourself of something you’re doing, you probably shouldn’t be doing it.

Seems easy! But we tend to get very lazy when we’re answering this question. If we get a stack of reading for class, we can easily decide that this reading is important for us because the class demands it. If we have a research paper, we’re going to read books relevant to the research topic in order to write something clever or stack up a bunch of citations. Unless we really challenge ourselves about the value of every single article, every chapter, every paragraph, we’re going to end up reading far too much, drowning in notes, and having a few dozen citations that we waste (or worse, stick into the paper anyway to show that we did the reading).

Two examples of me reading too much and what I did about it

At MIT, I switched from mechanical engineering to political science as a junior. I wanted to get my master’s by the end of my senior year and had some catching up to do. This meant some extra classes and, thus, some extra reading. If I didn’t rationalize a bunch of it, I was going to be in trouble. Luckily, by challenging the value of each reading opportunity, I was able to cut down my reading by more than half without affecting my performance or (ultimately) my own learning. Let’s see how:

  1. Handling a week of reading. I had some pretty ambitious professors. Often they’d assign a pretty thick book for a week of reading, and we’d be expected to show up on Monday ready to discuss it in depth. These were small classes (it’s a small department)—no hiding. Sometimes I’d have four of these books (or an equivalent mix of books and articles) to power through from week to week. I probably had the time to read every page, but it would have been crippling to a whole lot of other priorities. During the first few weeks, I was skipping out on social engagements and cutting into my precious sleep. What to do? Challenge and rationalize, my friends! Here’s how I did it:

    a. Figure out what the expectations were in class. One can’t talk about a whole book in class every week. What details did the professors focus on? What kinds of questions did they want answered? In my case, it was generally, “What is the author arguing and how would you support/oppose it?”

    b. Quickly analyze the book to read only what parts contribute to those expectations. Spend a few minutes in the table of contents before diving in the rest of it. There will be many parts of the book that are wholly irrelevant, for a lot of reasons—many books are articles that have been expanded to “book size” and add a bunch of parts that don’t cover the main point, or many chapters go very in depth to a certain argument or into the methodology. You might not need this.

    c. Can you skim? Probably. For a one-time or two-time discussion of a book, you can likely skim some paragraphs to get the main idea, jot down the idea with the citation, and then move on. Nobody expects you to memorize it, and you’ll impress people rather than embarrass yourself if you’re going back to the right parts of the book to pull up the details in the class discussion because you took good, quick notes.

    Doing this, I was able to cut reading for class by maybe 70%. If you’re paranoid that you’re going to show up and fumble, think of it is a low-risk experiment: if you totally flub it, you can fess up that you had an off day, and nobody will hold it against you. Remember that I’m not saying to not be prepared—I’m saying to use the book as a tool to prepare you, rather than blindly reading all the pages because they happen to be there!

  1. Reading for a research paper. As a TA I graded lots of research papers, and the number of completely useless citations I saw was mind-boggling. It was irritating for me to try to even figure out what point was trying to be made with the citation. I learned in this time that students frequently put in loads of citations—either consciously or subconsciously—to prove that they did a lot of research and therefore put in effort. First important news flash for those of you that do this: nobody cares how much effort you put in. The only question your TA or professor is asking is whether your paper answers the question compellingly and clearly. Remember: results!

Getting the most out of the time you spend reading

To be fair, I was guilty of this too. In my first political science research paper (25 pages), I must have read close to 1,000 pages of material and had a bibliography of more than 20 pieces of literature. Boy, was that a lot of work! I was very proud of myself and got a B- for the effort. I’d spent all my time reading and didn’t actually take a half-hour to sit back with a clear mind and come up with a  strong argument. Let’s briefly cover what changed into the future:

  1. Pick your thesis early. When you know what you want to say, you’ll cut out a whole lot of reading that’s ultimately irrelevant to your final point. As soon as you can (hopefully within about half an hour of the paper announcement), pick what you want to say, and stick to it. Not comfortable picking a thesis before mulling over all possibilities? Remember there are many sides to any issue, and unless this paper is going to be your magnum opus, you should see it as an exercise in skills, rather than a global declaration of your moral self to the world.

  2. Start with Wikipedia. There is probably some professor out there reading this who’s grinding their teeth right now, but hear me out: Wikipedia is actually as accurate as Encyclopedia Brittanica. Can you and should you cite it? Heck no. But it gives you a great starting place to get some of the key points, know which specific questions to answer or facts to get, and even has some citations that could send you down the right rabbit hole. I always start here.

  3. Pick your reading based on questions. Build your outline quickly based on your thesis and your skimming of Wikipedia or other wide field literature. For this thesis, identify the facts or answers you’ll need to flesh it out, and each of those will be an article, or a part of an article, or a chapter of a book, etc. When you shop around for reading, match it to these needs.

  4. Challenge every reading. Before you pick up an article or book, ask yourself, “How is this contributing directly to my paper?”

  5. Skim first. Know where everything in the book or article is, and the main points. Take notes, and then come back later. Citations are pulled most efficiently when you pull them the moment you need them to back up an argument—this way you only mine for the citations you need, rather than collecting a few hundred and deciding what to do with them later.

This helped me crank out great papers in record time. I wasn’t “doing less” as far as building understanding and evidence—I was just doing less wasted reading that didn’t apply directly to the paper itself. I was able to spend more time thinking about the key message and more time crafting it, rather than doing dubiously-helpful reading.

I want this concept to dovetail into an important step in my book, How to Crush College. When you’re in Part II, “Ruthlessly Eliminating Waste,” you’re probably going to come across a whole lot of reading in your Time Study Pareto. If you don’t gut-check, you might skim over this huge opportunity to recover wasted time, and leave hours every week on the table. So challenge yourself! For all of your academic pursuits, what do you really need to do in order to learn and succeed? What work are you doing because it’s in front of you, and you didn’t think about how it would help you . . . or not?

Thanks to Erik for sharing this advice, which can also be found on his blog, and be sure to check out his book, How to Crush College.

Like what you’re reading?

Join the CollegeXpress community! Create a free account and we’ll notify you about new articles, scholarship deadlines, and more.

Join Now

About Erik Fogg

Erik Fogg is the author of How to Crush College, an unorthodox guide to adding sleep, reducing stress, double-majoring, graduating early, and getting way more out of the college experience

 

Join our community of
over 5 million students!

CollegeXpress has everything you need to simplify your college search, get connected to schools, and find your perfect fit.

Join CollegeXpress
CollegeXpress Logo

$10,000

Are you our next winner?

Register now for our scholarship giveaway

Laura Wallace

Laura Wallace

High School Class of 2019

My favorite part of CollegeXpress is that it features student writers so I get an inside perspective from students slightly older and farther along than me. I realize that other college websites also utilize student writers; however, I relate the most to the college writers that I read articles from on CollegeXpress.

Keaun Brown

Keaun Brown

$2,000 Community Service Scholarship Winner, 2020

As I transition to furthering my education, I can say with certainty that it simply wouldn’t be possible without the help of generous organizations such as CollegeXpress. Those who initially founded CX had no idea their platform would give a plethora of information to a first-generation homeless kid native to the ghettos of over half a dozen states. Everyone at CX and Carnegie Dartlet gave me a chance at a future when the statistics said I had none. And for that, I thank them.

Melanie Kajy

Melanie Kajy

High School Class of 2021

CollegeXpress has helped me tremendously during my senior year of high school. I started off using the college search to find more information about the universities I was interested in. Just this tool alone gave me so much information about a particular school. It was my one-stop shop to learn about college. I was able to find information about college tuition, school rank, majors, and so much more that I can't list it all. The college search tool has helped me narrow down which college I want to attend, and it made a stressful process surprisingly not so stressful. I then moved to the scholarship search tool to find scholarships to apply for because I can't afford to pay for tuition myself. The search tool helped me find scholarships that I was eligible for. The tool gave me all the information I could ever need about a particular scholarship that was being offered. The CollegeXpress scholarship search tool is so much better than other tools offered, like the Chegg scholarship search. Thanks to CollegeXpress, I was able to apply to tons of scholarships in a relatively easy way!

Sierra Carranza

Sierra Carranza

High School Class of 2022

I had absolutely no idea where I wanted to go to school; I was considering colleges in almost every state. CollegeXpress was an amazing resource and helped me compare all of my top schools. Without the help of CollegeXpress, I probably wouldn't have made such an informed and confident decision.

Monica

Monica

High School Class of 2023

Being a sophomore in high school, I never really worried about college. I thought it wasn't important to worry about until senior year. Through this program opportunity I came across, I realized how important it is to start looking at colleges early and start planning ahead. CollegeXpress has opened my eyes to what colleges require, what colleges are near me, and what they offer. The daily emails I get from CollegeXpress really help me look at the different options I have and what colleges I fit into. Without this website, I would not be taking the time out of my day to worry about what my future will be nor what opportunities I have. I could not be more grateful for such an amazing and useful website. It's thanks to CollegeXpress that not only me but my family now know how much potential I have in to getting into these colleges/universities that we thought were out of my reach.

College Matches