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This is the only plan you’ll ever need for taking notes in class and studying for exams. It’s time tested and simple. You’ll be smiling ear to ear when you start to see the results, but you have to follow all of the rules for this to work.

Step 1: Choose a Study Buddy

A “study buddy” is someone in your class who is willing to collaborate to do better in class. You’ll generally want to pick someone who is successful academically. But don’t think that you need, or even want, to choose the top student in the class. The smartest student who has erratic work habits is not who you want.

Choose someone who is reliable and is willing to following through on your commitment to work together. Especially choose someone who will follow through on Step 2. A committed B+ student is far better (for these purposes, at least) than an A student of questionable study habits.

The benefit of having a study buddy is two-fold:

  • You will hold each other to your commitment.
  • With two different perspectives being considered, you are virtually certain to have at least one of you who understands any given point in class. Put another way, it’s rare for you both to miss or not understand the same point. (But if you do, see Step 3 below)

Step 2: Meet After Each Class to Combine Written Notes into a Single Outline

Here’s the key part of this strategy.

After every single class – that same day if at all humanly possible! – meet with your study buddy to take your individual class notes and combine them into one outline.

The outline should capture every single important point. If you come across something tricky or subtle, it’s helpful to write your own deeper explanations or examples.

Remember: you may understand something subtle the first week of class that is hard to remember toward the end of the semester.

Because this step is so important, let me dive a little deeper:

  • Meet after every single class. That means after the first class, on the first day of school. Really. If this is absolutely not possible (for example, you simply don’t have the time), then schedule this note-review session for the very next available day. Absolutely get this done on a weekly basis. Do it, and thank me later.
  • When you are done creating your combined outline, throw away your original handwritten/typed notes. Why? Because it forces you to put every single important idea in the outline.
  • It’s been my experience that a typical semester-long class results in an outline of about 20-30 pages. Your mileage may vary.

Take your class notes on a laptop to begin with? No problem. Choose one document as your starting point, and modify it to include the points your study buddy caught that you missed.

Step 3: Resolve Questions At the Next Class

Inevitably, as you are reviewing your class notes together, you will realize either that you both don’t understand something, or you disagree on something. No problem!

The very next class, discuss the point with your professor after class. He or she will be happy to explain the point to you. What next?

  • Revise your outline. That day!
  • Include an example, if it’s a tricky concept.

Oh, and know what? Besides making your exam prep easier — by removing a source of uncertainty — you just impressed your professor. Nice work!

Step 4: Review Outline for Exams

Now is the time for rewards. The last class has just ended, and you’ve combined your notes. Now what? Now you can relax. That’s right. Finals is when YOU get to relax! You have a 20 or 30 page written outline that includes all important points of the class.

Be prepared to become the top student in your class.

This approach resulted in me and my study buddies generally being at the very top of each class. We weren’t smarter than the other students. And frankly, when viewed in total hours spent studying, we actually worked far less than other students.

How did we end up studying less? By spending an hour or two each week to work on our outline, we avoided the frantic days and weeks of mid-terms and finals. We already had well organized materials. All we had to do was quietly keep re-reading our own awesome outlines!

Here’s the bottom line:

Everyone has to work in college. You can choose either to work calmly, little by little throughout the semester, or work frantically and pull all-nighters at the end. You can’t escape the work — but you can lessen the amount and choose your own timing.

Here’s Some Extra Advice:

If this concept really appeals to you, consider the following refinements:

  • Give some deep thought to the structure of the course syllabus. Why did the professor structure the course a certain way? Understanding this will absolutely advance your understanding of course materials.
  • I generally tried to use the same study buddy for as many courses as possible. I found that the big benefit of this is that you don’t have to sell them on an idea that may seem a little “extreme” at first.
  • Just say no. With some regularity, you will find that about half way through the semester — especially right after mid-terms — someone will plead to join your study group. Don’t do it. It’s unfair to you and your study buddy, and has the potential to upset your equilibrium. Instead, tell the person that you’d be happy to have their participation in another class.
  • Which brings us to the last point. The ideal number of people for your study group is two. You and your study buddy. On some rare occasions, I have had three people in my group, especially where in a given class, I already had more than one previous study buddy.
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