As long as the power of the human memory is less than perfect, we will need notes. And nowhere is your memory more taxed than in college. When studying for midterms or finals, your notes can make or break your success.

So how do you make sure your notes will work when it counts? Well, there is a fine art to note-taking and we are happy to share. These are our five tips for taking effective college notes:

1. Use your own words.

In lectures where instructors present slideshows with bullet points, it’s easy to get into lazy note-taking mode and just start copying what they have word for word. We sometimes do this as we go through textbooks, copying down any chapter, section, or paragraph headings we see without really thinking about it.

Unfortunately, this method of note-taking doesn’t do very well at getting that information stuck in your brain. You need to force your brain to think about the information as you’re hearing it and recording it.

One great way to do this is to think about what the instructor or textbook is saying but writing it down in your own words. This forces your brain to receive, understand, organize, and finally translate that information. This exercise is like creating a new folder in your brain where everything is labeled and filed especially for the lecture or chapter. In addition to having it on paper, you have a much better chance of pulling that information from your brain when you need it.

2. Diagram it out.

Another effective way to do this is to create diagrams that help you better understand the concept you’re studying. This works especially well for visual learners. Although writing is good at capturing information, diagrams help you see how different pieces of information relate to one another. They also tend to be easier to recall later on.

So don’t be afraid to doodle in your notes or draw arrows from one piece of information to the next. This kind of understanding will come in handy later.

3. Record your connections.

Often, students will be in the middle of a lecture when their brain connects what they’re learning with another piece of information from another subject. For instance, a few years ago, someone randomly made a “connection” between biological viruses and the way people share stuff online and used the term viral. It turned out to be the perfect way to describe a complex topic and is now used anytime a video, article, or photo spreads through the Internet at rapid speeds.

These “connections” are unique to your brain and aren’t usually a part of your instructor’s curriculum. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write them down. They can be a very effective way for you retain and enhance your understanding of class material.

4. Use a medium you use often.

Notes don’t do you any good if they are written in a file somewhere buried deep in your laptop’s hard drive that you’ll never see again. On the other hand, if you are known to usually have your notebook with you, writing your notes on paper in your notebook might be perfect way to make sure you see your notes regularly. Also, some apps that are available across your laptop or mobile device, like Evernote (, are a great way to keep your notes with you in a place where you will see them. Avoid putting your notes in places where you will lose or forget about them.

[Unrelated note: Some apps like Evernote will actually record audio, which means you could record entire lectures and store them for future listening. Not a bad way to take notes.]

5. Make it memory-proof.

You’ve probably had the experience of writing down a note and then coming back to it a week or month later only to be completely clueless as to the note’s meaning. Just the fact that I’m writing this means you’re not alone. If note-takers aren’t careful, they will find that their notes are useless just when they need them most.

To avoid this issue, make sure that your notes aren’t just blurbs of information but that they can be understood later after you’ve forgotten the lecture or chapter they came from. This means you’ll have to step back as you write and mentally ask yourself, “Will I understand this if I come back to it at the end of the term?”

So how do write your notes to make them more effective? Share your secrets in the comments below!

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