How to Take Notes in College

Taking notes in college/university is a skill key to success. It took me the better part of a couple years to figure out my system of organization to make both taking notes, and studying afterwards, efficient.

Why Take Notes?

Good question - you should ask yourself this question before you start your courses, or at least a couple weeks into the courses.  I’m speaking from the perspective of engineering (specifically Mechanical), which is what I studied, but I had peers who didn’t bother taking notes, or even attending lectures.  While I don’t recommend that, particularly for engineering, there’s no point taking notes if you’re not going to use them.  Avoiding useless work is just as important to efficiency as doing the important work.

In my opinion, you should take notes to enable full understanding of the material later.

In engineering, we didn’t have recorded lectures available later, and professors rarely used slides.  That meant that the majority of my note-taking was copying the notes that a professor was writing on the board.  

Now, this sometimes made it tough to follow the actual lecture itself - but I came to be comfortable with that.  A typical class involved me making sure I copied the notes correctly, as I knew that even if I got lost in the lecture, I’d have the material to sort through later.  The alternative - not taking notes - means that if you get lost during a lecture, you’re going to have to remember what was covered later.  In my experience, that’s very difficult.

Now, an important point to make here - if you can’t see or hear the notes and/or lecture because you’re too far away - you need to sit closer.  I had trouble focusing from distance after looking at textbooks in the library, so I knew if I was going to a lecture afterwards, I needed to sit near the front.

How I Took and Organized Notes

Once you’ve decided it’s worthwhile to take notes, you have to decide how you’re going to organize them.

Almost universally, unless there was a lot of handed-out materials, or the professor used slides (which I would print and annotate), I used 80-page Hilroy exercise books to take notes. Early in university I tried 200-page spiral bound notebooks, and it just wasn’t necessary.  The Hilroy notebooks are nice and light, and you can coordinate colors to make it easy to organize things.

I personally used a pencil when writing - there was a certain peace of mind knowing I could re-write things - and I also kept a short ruler in my bag for nice clean diagrams.  I was asked if I had OCD more than once - I’m okay with it.

I wrote in the notebooks notes from lectures in sequential order.  If I missed a class, I got notes right afterwards from a friend, and copied them into my own notebook in the correct spot.  It makes a difference in the end.

I took notes for the tutorials in the class separately.  I used a thin-rule notepad for these notes, and I’d mark them clearly with “Tutorial” and the date.

These then went in a file folder for each specific class, and I organized the contents of these file folders sequentially (ie. by date).  As often as I could, I would coordinate the color of the folder and the Hilroy notebook I was using, and I’d mark them both with the class code and name.

Everything else related to the class also went in the file folder.  That meant assignments, tests, midterms, extra study materials, chapter summaries (which I’ll talk about later) everything.  It was an easy way for me to organize all the materials related to a class - I had one Hilroy notebook and one folder for each.

In addition to these notes, I kept any online materials in a Google Drive folder, which I organized by [Year] - [Class Code], and then synced to my Desktop.  That meant that any digital materials I had would be available on my Google Drive wherever I was - on a campus computer, etc. - and also that it was no big deal if my computer got stolen or damaged (surprisingly common on university campuses).  To do this you just need to download Google Drive for Desktop.

Examples of the stuff in my online folder: assignments, digital copies of textbooks for the class, previous exams and midterms for practice (you can find these online), group projects, etc.

In my later years, when I was particularly OCD, I would even scan some of my study guides using Evernote Scannable and upload them so I had a digital copy.  In my last year I started taking notes on my iPad, so I’d automatically have them sync to this folder too (I used Notability).

A Couple Other Perspectives

From Mike, one of my roommates who kept a 4.0 GPA through Mechanical Engineering:

“I would say that even if there are slides for the class, it's worth writing down the most important points again even if you get the slides after class.”

From Simon, another roommate who studied science (physiology major in preparation for med school):

“Pretty much all of my lectures were in the forms of Powerpoint slides, and more often than not, we got a copy of the slides beforehand (or afterwards). I'd see a lot of people never download the slides and instead scramble to write or type all the notes. I personally think that’s a huge waste of time. I would only write key additional points the lecturer organized [during the lecture]. That way, I could focus on understanding during class.  My goal would be to understand during class and then memorize details afterwards.

During my first years I would then transcribe the slides + notations into cohesive typed notes. But I found this a huge time sink. What I did was teach myself to be able to study off the slides then I'd use a single piece of paper for each lecture and write down the key phrases and words.”

I agree with both points - if there are slides you should take advantage of them, and only add additional details the professor adds during lectures.

Another important point from both is reviewing the slides/lecture and making some cohesive notes after the fact.  I’ll talk a bit more about this in my post about studying, but it’s small things like these that make a big difference long-term in studying and understanding material.

Keeping Track of Tasks

The last component of organization for me during university was remembering what I had to do, and picking what to work on each day.  

I used a weekly planner kind of like the one linked here to keep track of all my work.  I usually bought one every school year at the campus bookstore - it was McGill branded and ran for the school year instead of the calendar year, like many do.

Every semester I would go through the syllabus and enter the due dates of projects, and add a reminder a week or two beforehand.  

Then, as things were assigned in class, I would write them down on the day they were assigned, and carry them forward until they were done.  It was essentially Kanban (work organization/visualization method), though I didn’t realize it at the time.

This system was good in a lot of ways - I could easily see at any given time which tasks I had on my plate, and generally I would pick the highest priority and work on it on a given day.

The downside was at times it could be overwhelming if I had a bunch of projects on the go, as I’d have them all written down on the current day.  It was also not kept anywhere else, so if I lost the agenda, or forgot it at home, I was screwed in terms of remembering things.

These days, I use a combination of Google Calendar, Asana and Trello to keep track of to-dos and tasks...I would still recommend checking those tools out, and using them a little bit, but the agenda was certainly nice and simple for me in university, and I think it still works.

Keys to Success

  • Have a system - whether you use mine or not, you should work to get to a standardized system as quickly as possible.  You can improve on it and personalize it after.

  • Make sure you are diligent about getting and taking notes.  Missing lectures/notes sucks if you don’t follow up quickly, because you likely won’t remember to check what you missed when exam time comes.

  • Have a method to keep track of tasks - unless your memory is far better than mine, you’ll eventually forget something, and that also sucks.  Get used to keeping track of things in one place, and you’ll minimize or eliminate those mistakes.

Read here about How to Make the Most of College and here about How to Study in College.