The term “study skills” is a little misleading. The way it’s often framed is as an us-versus-them spectrum: some people have them, some people don’t, and there’s not much any of us can do about it. This year, when everyone is learning differently, though, the truth is more complicated. Your classmates who’ve never gotten below an “A” on a test in their life aren’t smarter than you: they’ve just developed effective study habits. The good news is that you can, too. Read on for lots of great advice on small, easy things you can do to feel better, study smarter, and rock your next test (even if you’re taking it in your living room).
Sleep and Time Management
Yes, you read that right. These two go together like any of your favorite duos: PB&J, SpongeBob & Patrick, Batman & Robin. When you are well rested, you can think more clearly and therefore manage your time more wisely. Plus, sleep is part of being a happy, healthy, and functioning human, and to us at Collegewise, that is the most important thing. To ensure you are well rested, you need to build consistent sleep into your schedule. It may be a simple concept, but somehow teenagers are notorious for not getting enough sleep and procrastinating (AKA not managing their time well). Here are some tips to help you with this:
- Do difficult tasks first. Dreading something you have on the agenda for the day? Get the dread out of the way and start with your most difficult assignment first. This allows you to use your mind while it’s fresh and to keep focused on the task at hand.
- Reward yourself for every accomplishment, even the small ones. This helps build good habits. Finished a long assignment? Get off the computer and reward yourself with a nice walk around the neighborhood. Studied for an hour? Reward yourself with a 20-minute episode of your favorite show, podcast, or audiobook. Checked something off the to-do list? Watch a funny video by your favorite TikTok star (while you still can). This not only creates good habits in your mind, but it can also add some fun to your day and break it up. We’ve also seen students use the Pomodoro Technique to good effect. Keep in mind the reward time should be equivalent to the effort. You can’t do a ten-minute assignment and then watch a two-hour movie. That wouldn’t be smart time management now, would it?
- Set priorities, then build a schedule that fits you. Online learning has given teens a lot of newfound freedom. You might not have to be up and in a certain class at a certain time, so use that to your advantage. Set up time-blocks on your calendar to tackle your work in the way that is most productive for you. Is chemistry your hardest subject? Maybe set that one up for the first part of the day. Not a morning person? Give yourself a little extra time to ease into the day so you can work more efficiently once you are fully awake. And set personal deadlines for yourself, too. Your paper might not be due for a few weeks, but set small, tangible goals along the way. Have your resources and topic picked by week one, first draft written by week two, and use week three for editing, fine-tuning, and teacher feedback.
- Make a game plan for your learning (yes, we want you to get organized!). Buy a planner and set up a weekly schedule. We recommend buying a fun physical planner or trying an online scheduling tool. Carve out specific hours for homework, lessons, extracurriculars, and sleep. By creating a set schedule, you’ll establish greater regularity and expectations for yourself. And don’t forget to share your schedule with your family and friends for greater accountability.
- Utilize each minute. This doesn't mean you need to be working every minute of every day—remember you are building in rewards and sleep—but we often waste a lot of time waiting for the next thing to start because we feel like we can’t get anything done in a short timeframe. But you’d be surprised what you can accomplish in 5, 15, or 30 minutes. Here are some ideas:
- In 5 minutes you could: plan out your day, stretch, do a deep breathing exercise, organize your notes, desk, or room.
- In 15 minutes you could: call a loved one, answer emails/delete all your junk mail, study for a quiz, take a walk.
- In 30 minutes you could: exercise, nap, read a short assignment or chapter, research a college, meet with your teacher or counselor, study with a friend.
Learning Online and Your Personal Space
We hate to break it to ya, but online learning means you still have to learn and study. We understand everyone is learning differently during this time, that some students might not have reliable internet or technology at home, and that finding a space, your own little oasis in your home, might not be possible. The following information is intended for a broad audience, so please take away what you can and utilize the pieces that work for you and your situation. How can you best learn online during COVID times? Here are some tips to consider:
- Make the most of video lectures.
- Engage on the call if you are able to. Ask questions, share when something is exciting to you, or say hi to classmates. Close all other tabs, put your phone away, and really listen.
- Stick to a normal class schedule.
- Again, the goal is to make this all “normal.” So create that schedule and stick to it. And keep in mind that it should, for the most part, reflect a typical school day in some way, shape, or form. Just because you can sleep in until 1, do school from the couch with a show on in the background, and stay up until 2 a.m. doesn’t mean that you should.
- Ask questions.
- Your teachers are still there to help you. Engage with them! Ask questions in the live sessions and utilize hours they set aside for individual meetings and emails. Make it your goal to truly learn in this season, not just get by. If you need a selfish reason to engage, remember (if you’re a junior): these are the people who will be writing your letters of recommendation for your college applications.
- Create a regular study space.
- Try to find a nook where you live that is free of distractions (younger siblings, pets, your phone). Have a set of headphones ready to plug in, notebooks and pens to write with, and good lighting to stay focused and alert. In short, make this space your own if you can, and designate it for your schoolwork.
Most summers, kids are able to disconnect, relax, and have a little fun. Hopefully you found some time for that, too. If you did, your brain might have gone into hibernation mode. So, how do you get back into school mode? Fortunately, there are some easy things you can do to study smarter, not harder, even if you’re still attending class in your PJs. Here they are:
- Here’s a secret: Just about everything important in a novel revolves around the main character’s relationship with those around them (seriously—take a look). If you can track how the characters’ relationships change over time, you’ll master all the other content, and you’ll finally be able to decide whether Romeo should, after all, compare Juliet to a rose.
- Practice will get you pretty darn close to perfect.
- Here’s some free science knowledge. The more you do something, the more neuron connections form in that region of your brain, speeding up your processing and turning awkward, half-remembered techniques into solid habits. So, practice your math and science skills. As school starts, dig up your old notes from last year, and practice twenty or so of each type of problem. You’ll be up to speed in no time.
- There’s no “I” in “Study Group.”
- Ever wonder how your teachers know so much about their subject? It’s because they teach. it. six. times. a. day. Teaching something is an incredibly effective way to learn, so give it a try. Form a study group with your friends (Google Hangouts work during quarantine, by the way). Teach each other what you learned that day in class, even if you’re still struggling with the skill. You’ll be surprised how quickly you pick it up when you’re teaching someone else.
- Reading ≠ Studying.
- Eevn wehn the sepllnig is wonrg, you can siltl raed tihs sneetcne. That’s because when we read, our brains tend to skip over the details. So when you’re reviewing your notes, don’t just read them. Instead, engage with your work. Highlight important passages; write questions in the margin; draw a picture; write a short summary. Honestly, it doesn’t matter exactly what you do—as long as you’re wrestling with the information, you’ll remember it later.
- Take those tests.
- We humans are primitive beings. In stressful situations, our lizard brain takes over and provokes a flight-or-fight response. That sinking feeling of despair you experience while testing is your brain thinking there’s a lion perched above you, ready to pounce and eat you. In that situation, correctly factoring an expression really isn’t that useful. So, to crush your next test, try to relax. Tell yourself: “I studied, so I got this,” or “Hey, if I’m struggling, that means everyone else is too.” Reframe negative thoughts into positive ones and trick your brain into going along with it. Your lizard brain is pretty credulous, actually.
- Worried about the SAT or ACT? Now’s the time to lower the temperature. For juniors, use the fall to take practice tests of both the SAT and ACT (we offer them for free) to determine which test might be a better fit for you. We recommend choosing one format and taking the official exam at least twice in the spring of your junior year.
No one starts out as a great writer. Just like anything else, writing is a skill that needs to be honed over time and practiced often in order to stay sharp.
- When you’re struggling to work up the motivation to start an essay, just remember: You can do anything for ten minutes. Breaking your writing up into manageable chunks will turn a grueling 1,000-word essay into a bunch of 50-word pieces. And 50 words is easy—I just did it!
- Practice your writing every week. There are tons of prompts online, or you can write a story from your own life. Keep it short. Over time, you’ll find that writing becomes easier and more enjoyable. You’ll also develop a more unique, fluid writing style.
- Read lots of books. Just as the best NBA players are constantly studying film, the best writers spend a lot of their time reading. Writing is a skill; you’ll get better at it if you study the masters of the craft. So, pick a book you know you’ll love and try to identify what the author does successfully. Then, shamelessly steal it for your own writing. You’re welcome.
If there’s one through-line to all this advice, it’s this: Half the battle is showing up. If you jump into your classes excited, optimistic, and ready to learn, you’ll be more likely to succeed. You got this!
With more than twenty years of experience, Collegewise counselors and tutors are at the forefront of the ever-evolving admissions landscape. Our work has always centered on you: the student. And just like we’ve always done, we look for ways for you to be your best self – whether it’s in the classroom, in your applications, or in the right-fit college environment. Our range of tools include counseling, test prep, academic tutoring, and essay management, leading to a 4x higher than average admissions rates.