Note Taking: High School vs. College


When it came to my first semester of college, I was a little bit frazzled by vastly different being in class was.  My professors seemed to talk at the speed of light, I never wrote down everything I needed fast enough, and it was difficult to get down anything concrete before they were moving onto the next power point slide. College can be like that a lot – especially in classes where the subject is your weak point. It was different from any of the classes I’d taken in high school because I was expecting what I'd already been used to. Here, I’m going to break down just exactly how note taking in college is different from high school, as well as a guide you on the right path to excellence in note taking.


In high school -  even most AP classes – a teacher can only go so quickly with the notes. A good teacher makes sure everyone’s gotten what they needed from the slide before switching up. A good professor will probably give you an extra five seconds before moving on.

It’s the nature of the classes, really. College classes (specifically the humanities) tend to be shorter, with more talking necessary to get complex ideas across in a linear fashion. There’s also a large volume of material necessary to cover before the next test, be they every few weeks, or every few months. STEM classes go on longer, but are still just as information packed and speedy on note taking days. Your professor expects you to be jotting down those differential equations at the speed of light, quite frankly.

It’s important to be prepared for the speed, and to adjust to it. It might be tough if you’re a naturally slow writer, or if you put time into the neatness of your notes, but it’s definitely possible. Even if you're typing but enjoy spending time in properly formatting what you'd just jotted down, you might have to make sacrifices. It works in your favor if your notes are disorganized and cluttered enough to warrant a rewrite: take it as an extra studying opportunity.

Volume of Work

As I said earlier, your classes will be jam packed with information. Though, that’s kind of expected. It’s tough covering thousands of years of civilization into four months.

After all that note taking, you’ll start to realize how much work will be going into studying. There might be dozens of pages of information that you’ll have to memorize to pass your midterm, final, and all the in-betweens (if any). Many of us have the bad habit of typing down every single thing that comes out the professor’s mouth verbatim, but that’s not very conductive when you go back into your Google Docs to see a thousand words of your necessary information, littered with unnecessary fluff.

The real difficult part comes with studying. Vast amounts of knowledge are forced into your brain for several months before you spew them out onto a test paper, but most of the time, you’ll be forced to interpret that information in a coherent fashion. It doesn’t matter that you know that Alexander the Great conquered Greece – what effect did it have?

Becoming comfortable with your memorization skill takes time, especially with so much pressure put on passing your tests, but not impossible. Finding methods that work best for you is the most important part. And remember that your professor is always there to help.


You’ll hear this a lot, but college is test based. Most of the time, you’ll have very little outside assignments. Sometimes, all you’ll be left with for the semester is an email address, a syllabus, and a date for your final. (Honestly, nightmares have an awful way of finding their way into real life).

High school classes mostly grade as an relatively even amalgamation of your grades. Classwork, homework, tests, quizzes, and other arbitrary sections are calculated and graded up. If you didn’t do so well with your classwork, but aced your homework and the test, you could still end up getting an A for the semester. It goes both ways. Usually (athis rings especially true in AP classes) the most important part was getting your work done.

The most important part of a college class is passing your test(s). That’s about it. And all semester, you’re taking notes, studying, and gearing up for them.

This is where a lot of freshman in college make their mistakes. Since they have little to occupy themselves with aside from studying, they slack off all semester, only zeroing back in on their work when a sudden essay or project is assigned. That’s how it worked in high school for them, except those errant assignments are much less frequent and routine.

If you can’t take tests, and at least pass them, you won’t pass your classes. That’s sort of a terrifying fact when you either hate tests or just aren’t very good at taking them, but have no fear. If you study right, you’ll be fine. Your professors are there to help you along the way, as well as your fellow classmates, so the important part is to kick your but into gear.

Using Your Notes

Personally, the studying I did for my first semester of college was like how I studied for my SAT’s my whole year of junior year. Constantly reviewing, revising, and rewriting – although, I was an honest slacker as a high schooler, so maybe that doesn’t hold much weight. None of my classes were engaging or challenging enough for me to study at that level. Keeping up with the classwork and homework was study enough for me on most days.

Your notes in college are your literal lifeline in college for some classes. That’s why skipping a day or two can end up being detrimental. You think it’s cool to miss that Romeo & Juliet discussion for Thursday in your Early Shakesperian Literature class? Good luck writing a decent essay on the play when the prompt is “free will vs. fate” because you expected something simple like “love vs. lust”.

You have to seriously engage with the notes you take in college, and study them more than once. They have to be neatly rewritten, clear, and easy for you to digest.

And also, probably cute looking, since you’ll be looking at them a lot.

Transitioning from High School to College Note Taking

It’s tough, honestly, and you might struggle a little in the beginning. Experimentation is important. If you feel like a certain method isn’t working for you, then feel free to change it. Switch from typing to hand writing, or from a study partner to a study group. College is about exploring who you are, even things as mundane as what type of learner you are, and how to capitalize off your strengths.

So get to studying. You have A’s to collect.

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