Study Habits of Successful College Students

I tutor students as a way to supplement my income, get valuable teaching experience, and have an excuse to talk about some of my favorite subjects because I am an enthusiastic nerd.


I was inspired by one of my students to sit down and write this guide. No one is born knowing how to study for college. It is a learned skill that has to be both carefully taught and diligently practiced. You might ask, why are you qualified to write a guide about study habits of successful college students? Good question! Well, dear reader, I was a successful college student. I got good grades and successfully graduated from both undergraduate and graduate school. I can tell you that good time management skills help facilitate the habits outlined below, however, they are habits. They can be cultivated and practiced, even if you struggle with time management.
Suppose you are a college student. You’re going to class. You’re turning in assignments. You’re using tutoring services and doing group work. You’re taking the examinations. And you’re doing poorly. What is a student to do? Re-evaluate your study habits! Whatever you’re doing, it probably isn’t working as well as you think it is. Below is a list of strategies that successful students use to succeed in school.
  1. Read ahead before class.
    1. This might sound like a big ask, but it is very useful. You have a syllabus that tells you what you will be reading every week and sometimes professors give out the powerpoint presentations (PPTs) in advance.
    2. Over the weekend, review the text you will be reading the following week.
    3. Before class, read/skim the PPT if the professor provides one.
  2. Go to class and take notes.
    1. Take notes on what a professor says, rather than what is on the PPT, if a PPT is used.
    2. Strike a balance between writing down every word you can and keeping up with the pace of the professor.
    3. If you can’t keep up, use abbreviations, pictures, and leave blanks as needed.
  3. After class, re-write your notes as soon as possible.
    1. This is important. Notes during a class are often messy and incomplete, especially if you’re trying to be detailed. Taking the time as soon as you can after a lecture to re-write the notes to fill in blanks and clarify ideas will accomplish the following:
      1. You’ll have notes that are easier to study from for tests.
      2. You’ll have a clearer understanding of what did and did not makes sense from class.
      3. You’ll know what questions to ask your prof during office hours and/or your study group and/or your tutor.
      4. You’ll actually learn the concepts, especially if you take the time to incorporate parts of the PPT into your re-copy and/or page numbers from your textbook.
  1. Work on studying your material every day.
    1. The metric for success is: for each credit hour you should be studying two to three hours outside of class.
      1. EXAMPLE: 4 credit class = 8 to 12 hours of studying outside of class per week.
    2. If you study one hour every day during the week, and one and a half hours per weekend day, you will be keeping pace with the minimum amount of studying required.
    3. If you are struggling in a class, you will need to supplement your normal 8-12 hours of weekly studying with additional study sessions with tutors and/or study groups.
  2. Use a combination of solitary and group work.
    1. Solitary studying in a quiet place where you can focus on the material is essential to succeeding in college. When you take an exam, generally, you are working in solitude. No one is going to be there to help you organize your thoughts. You have to know the material on your own.
    2. Having a tutor and/or a study group to supplement your studying can be a fantastic way to clear up questions you have, think of creative memorization tips, and cement the understanding you have of the material.
  3. Do your homework and turn it in on time.
    1. This might sound elementary, but it is fundamental to success. If you don’t do the work and turn it in on time, you won’t succeed. The homework is there to help you stay accountable and make sure you’re learning the material.
  4. Ask questions when you’re confused.
    1. It’s okay to be confused, in fact, it is expected. College is hard, it is supposed to be hard. The purpose of college is to push your limits, expand your knowledge, and eventually achieve your goals. You need to be asking questions. If something is confusing in class or in the text or as you’re re-copying/reviewing your notes, write down your question, and ask your prof during their office hours and/or ask your tutor or study group. This is how you learn.

How to Study

  1. Read the book.
    1. The book is a fantastic resource that you have paid a lot of money to access.
      1. Read the chapter (or assigned portion), from the beginning to the end in a quiet place where you can focus without being disturbed (i.e. library, desk in your room, quiet kitchen table).
        1. Note: reading on the couch while texting, watching T.V., and listening to music is not a quiet environment conducive to focusing on the material.
      2. Go back through the reading and highlight significant passages and terms. Note anything you find confusing. Pay special attention to any figures, tables, or special sections/boxes incorporated into a chapter. Use any practice questions at the end of a section after you’ve read the text first.
  1. Memorize your vocabulary and key concepts.
    1. Flashcards are a fantastic tool for achieving this. Taking the time to write the cards will help you learn the material. Flashcards are portable and easy to use in odd moments of time like waiting for a class or a bus. They are great for quizzing yourself alone at home as well as in study groups.
    2. Written lists are great tools as well. Taking the time to write out a list of vocabulary and/or key concepts while reading it aloud to yourself will help fix the information in your brain using auditory, visual, and tactile stimuli. If you drill these lists, write them over and over again while reading aloud to yourself, you will definitely learn the material. This is best done in solitude so you don’t disturb others and you have no distractions.
  2. Review your class notes.
    1. This is especially helpful if you took the time to re-copy your notes and integrate it with the concepts from your textbook.
  3. Quiz Yourself
    1. There are multiple ways to do this. You can quiz yourself using concepts from the text, from your notes, and from your flashcards. You can quiz yourself using any practice questions from your professors. You can write your own quiz based on your experience of the professor’s style, wait a day, write your own answers, and then check the answers against the book/notes to make sure you got the concept. This is a great way to make connections in your brain for how the material fits together as a whole.
  4. Have others quiz you.
    1. Work with your tutor, study group, friends, or family to see if you actually understand what you think you understand.
      1. Note: This works most effectively if you’ve already done the work mentioned above.
  5. Look at any supplemental videos anyone provides you or look some up yourself.
    1. The Internet is a great resource for videos that explain complex concepts in easy to understand and memorize language, especially 3-D models of complex things like cellular processes. Professors, textbooks, and tutors frequently take the time to find/provide high quality videos on the Internet to supplement the other class material. Use this resource.
    2. Do not use supplemental materials taken from the Internet to replace the work mentioned above. Supplements build upon the primary material, not the other way around.

Final Thought

Always remember, learning is fun! Really. You’re in school because, hopefully, you want to be and you’re taking these classes either because they interest you or the classes are a necessary stepping-stone toward your dreams. It’s a lot easier to do the work when you remember how much you love something related to it. Have fun and keep up the good work!

Bumblebee on daisy by E.A. Schneider

Bumblebee on daisy by E.A. Schneider


4 thoughts on “Study Habits of Successful College Students

  1. Excellent advice, but I have a caveat!
    Know your learning style.
    I have attention issues, to put it mildly… and the interesting part of true attention deficit is that this statement might not be true: “reading on the couch while texting, watching T.V., and listening to music is not a quiet environment conducive to focusing on the material.”

    For me, it actually is. Minus the texting, of course, as that takes active participation.

    For years before I figured out why, it was my habit to study in front of a movie I knew well. Not a new movie, but a well-worn one. My brother did the same thing, often listening to music or, like me, watching something. It used to drive my mother nuts because she couldn’t see how I could focus in such an environment.

    The problem was, though, that silence was too much of a blank slate. My brain didn’t have enough to do with just the studying, and so I would daydream, and I can’t daydream and study at the same time. So, in order to focus, I began to build in controlled distractions. The tv worked as a mild distraction that freed up the rest of my mind to study. It worked brilliantly.
    In class, I always had to be doing something as well as taking notes. Doodling, even knitting (with the permission of my professors). Somehow, a mild distraction like that helps with my absorption of information. I was also a successful college student, partly because I was able to recognize my study needs.

    So, I heartily agree with all of your suggestions (flashcards were the salvation of my G.P.A!), save that there is some variation on what makes a good study environment. The trick is being disciplined enough to find that environment and stick with it, rather than trying to study in the wrong kind of environment because one doesn’t want to seek out the right one (or give up texting or t.v. or anything else that truly distracts). ^_^

    • You’re absolutely right, Jubilare. Thank you for taking the time to not only read my post but make such a useful comment. I wrote my post thinking of average students with poor study habits but you’re absolutely right that people with ADHD have different environmental needs that are completely understandable and okay. I seem to recall reading at some point that some of level of white noise is actually useful for studying so things like familiar music or background chatter from a coffee shop/library are helpful. Personally, I like a certain playlist of music or absolute quiet but I am rather sound sensitive I think. Sitting next to someone chewing gum in an exam absolutely undid me a couple times. Everyone learns differently, whether they are L.D. or not, and learning what works as an individual is definitely key to college success. I just hope this guide is a useful place for people to start understanding themselves as well as the material. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s