A Basic Guide to Notetaking in College

Janessa Morelli on Thursday, 28 February 2019.

Hi everyone!

I’m Janessa, a 4th year Psychology major and self-proclaimed notetaking queen. During my years here, with a lot of trial and error, I’ve learned a ton of helpful tips and tricks for taking the best notes you can for your different classes. I’ve taken classes from a wide variety of fields, including biology, statistics, psychology, political science, and even some courses on coding!  

So, being a bit too enthusiastic about note-taking in general, here’s some advice about materials, methods, and ways to make your notes suit your learning and studying style.

  • Materials: Notebooks and TabletsGoodnotes
    • My favorite notebooks are the Arc ones from Staples. Disc-bounds are great because you can move the paper around like you can in a binder, but they’re easier to write in. The paper is also high quality, so if you’re picky like me, it’s a perk. You can also get generic paper online. At the end of a semester I swap out my cover for a cheaper one just to store it, so I can keep my notes for each semester in one place if I ever need one again.
    • If you need a pretty high volume of paper for some STEM classes involving lots of practice problems, such as calculus or organic chemistry, it’s helpful to use a standard binder or notebook so you have as much space as you need. I prefer grid-lined paper; it’s just easier to draw diagrams and work out problems on without annoying lines in the way, but it’s also great for notes!
    • I've seen lots of people use iPad Pros or other tablets for notetaking, usually with a stylus. The benefit of this method is that you can keep all of your notes in one small device, and never run out of pages. You have infinite colors to use to highlight important terms, and to color in diagrams. GoodNotes is an awesome app, and is a good place to start. 
    • Nothing???
      • Now, this option definitely isn’t for everyone, but a friend of mine completing their master’s, who TRIPLE majored in while doing their undergraduate degree, almost never takes notes. Sometimes, it can be most beneficial for you to simply take in what the professor is saying during the lecture, and just write down and work on the practice problems. Most professors will provide their notes online later, so you can go back to study for exams by looking at these.

  • Writing UtensilsMaterials
    • Alright, I know this totally seems nitpicky and a bit dorky. But seriously, figuring out what’s good and what isn’t can make note taking easier (and more satisfying if you’re a type A kind of person, like me).  
    • Pens
      • My favorite pens are the Pentel Energel Needle Tip 0.5mm pens. They seem a bit expensive at first, but you can get ink refills for great prices on Amazon, and reuse the pen, which means less waste! I also love the Staedler Triplus Fineliners, which write beautifully. Another great option is the Pilot G2 rollerball pens, which are also super smooth. You can get big packs of these on Amazon, and they last a long time! I only go through a couple per semester, and I write A LOT! If you want to go a utilitarian, cheaper route, you can get those huge packs of the Bic pens.
      • Now, I love color-coding my notes. I like to write important terms in a contrasting color, and use colors for diagrams (pro tip: they’re so helpful when drawing different electron patterns in organic chem!). My favorites are, again, the color packs of the Pilot G2 pens and the Staedler Triplus Fineliners.
    • Pencils
      • If you want something traditional, don’t get anything but the Dixon Ticonderoga pencils. I’m a mechanical kind of girl though, and my favorites are the big packs of the Paper Mate SharpWriter and Bic pencils.
    • Highlighters
      • Here, you can use whatever suits you. I like having a wide range of colors for color-coding, so the Zebra Mildliners are my absolute favorite. Again, you can get these on Amazon (which, if it wasn’t already, is your new best friend). The Sharpie highlighters are also great! I’ve put a sample of my Statistics II notes below, which pretty clearly shows how nuts I am about color-coding things.
  • Methods
    •  Your notetaking method is the most important thing, and can really impact how efficiently you get material down. I really like the Cornell system for some subjects, and it worked wonderfully for organic chemistry and biology. It’s essentially a diagram (peep the photo above) where a small portion on the left side of the page is used for notes or questions, the bigger right side is for your typical notes, and the bottom is used as a summary. Personally, I leave out the summary section, as I didn’t find it helpful and I prefer more room for notes.  I like to put important diagrams or notes on bright sticky notes to help them stick out in my mind later.There are lots of helpful videos on YouTube where you can check out different methods and see what might suit you. My favorite people to watch are:
      • Studytee
      • Mariana's Study Corner
      • Mistral Spirit 
    • It’s great to figure out what you prefer before you start your first semester! You can always adjust, too. I didn’t figure out what was perfect for me until my third year. Most importantly, don’t write down everything the professors says or displays! Look at it, process it, and write it in your own words. It really helps you recall the information later, and creates a more meaningful relationship with content.


Depending on your major and the classes you take, what works best for you may be drastically different than what suits another person. It’s stress-relieving to go into your first classes knowing how to best get down the information you need to. We are always told that professors will blow through material and you’ll have to jot it down or you’ll miss it. From my experience, this totally isn’t true, and most of my professors post their notes or slideshows on myCourses, our academic portal. You can always go back to fill in notes or redo diagrams to your satisfaction, and it helps you retain information when you go back and work to understand the material better! I could mention more on that here, but that’s probably an entire blog in itself.

Good luck to all of you finishing your senior year. We can’t wait to see you in the fall!