Study Tips For Graduate School

Graduate school requires reading, writing, laboratory work, and other homework at a level you have never experienced before. You will need to read quickly, comprehend fully, and draw conclusions based upon your reading. You will need to take clear notes from both your reading and class lectures – notes that will enhance your study time and help you ace graduate-level exams. The study tips in the next articles will help you develop the study skills you need for graduate school. For example, read the article about active listening to improve your listening, note-taking, and comprehension skills. Learn general writing tips so you can prepare clear and concise papers. Develop the SQ3R (Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review) approach to reading to help you improve your reading comprehension. Find tips on studying before an exam, doing well on an exam, and evaluating your work after an exam. In short, these articles provide comprehensive and generous tips to help you develop the study habits you need in order to do well in graduate school

General Writing Tips

A lot of graduate school work involves writing: not just writing your thesis or dissertation but writing research papers, laboratory reports, articles, summaries, and more. Follow these tips to strengthen your writing skills:

  • Make sure you know what you’re saying. Don’t use a big word just to sound impressive. Your goal should be to communicate clearly and concisely.
  • Have someone else proofread and edit your papers for you. No matter how carefully you look over a paper, you are bound to miss something because you’ll see what you meant to type, not what the paper actually says.
  • Figure out who your audience is and write for that audience. Your audience will affect not only what you write, but also how you write it. Are you writing for a technical audience that will understand professional terminology and jargon, or do you need to avoid such terms (or at least define them)? Do you need to provide background information? How much detail do you need to provide?
  • Write with a purpose. Are you writing to persuade your audience, summarize data, or demonstrate your knowledge?
  • Learn your style guide. Most programs use a particular style guide for citations and bibliographies, such as the American Psychological Association or the Chicago Manual of Style. Buy a copy of the style guide and become familiar with its basics so you don’t have to look up the guidelines each time you write a paper.
  • Learn how to type. This isn’t really a writing tip, but if you learn how to type, your writing will go much faster than if you try to hunt-and-peck your way through graduate school. If you really can’t type, break down and hire someone to do the typing for you.
  • Keep backup copies of all your work. You REALLY don’t want your computer to crash with the only copy of your dissertation on it.

Taking Good Lecture Notes

You will likely spend hours of your grad school life listening to lectures and taking notes. To be useful, you want your notes to be clear and well-organized so you can review them quickly later. Follow these tips to take good lecture notes:

  • Use a separate notebook for notes in each class so you can quickly find the notes you need.
  • Before you begin taking notes, write down the date and the topic of the lecture.
  • Write down definitions for terms that your instructor defines. If your instructor uses a term you don’t understand, write it down so you can get the definition later.
  • If your instructor indicates that something is especially important, mark it with a highlighter, star, or other symbol.
  • Don’t write down every word the lecturer says or shows on a presentation slide. Instead, use keywords and short sentences and phrases to summarize the major points. Using your own words as much as possible will enhance your learning.
  • Learn to write or type quickly. Use abbreviations, symbols, and your own shorthand to help you take notes more quickly.
  • Keep your notes as neat as possible. Use white space between topics in case you need to add more information later.
  • Create lists of related topics, using indentation to show relationships between ideas.
  • If you miss something, leave space so you can add that information later, after asking a friend or the lecturer to fill in the blanks.
  • At the end of the class, review your notes to see whether they are clear. Do you need to add any information? Are there important points you want to highlight?

By taking the time and effort to take good notes during lectures, you will have an excellent study resource for later use.

Teacher in a long black sleeve shirt with a blonde bun writing equations on a green chalkboardPracticing Active Listening

Developing active listening skills will help you get the most out of fast-paced lectures in graduate school. Active listening means that you are listening carefully to what a speaker is saying so you can understand the speaker’s meaning and learn the information that is being conveyed. To listen actively, you need to:

  • Be on time for the lecture and sit where you can see and hear.
  • Complete any required reading before the class so you will have some level of familiarity with the topic.
  • Listen for the main point and major subpoints of the lecture so you can understand how all the information you are given relates together.
  • Listen for the overall organizational structure of the lecture, which will again help you see how information relates together. Look for organizational cues that reflect the organizational structure of the lecture.
  • Pay close attention to the introduction of the lecture for cues on how you should organize your notes.
  • Listen for signpost words such as ‘next,’ ‘first,’ and ‘finally.’ These words indicate transitions between topics.
  • Listen for words that indicate cause-and-effect relationships (because, therefore, thus, etc) or that compare and contrast ideas (similarly, however, on the other hand, etc).
  • Pay attention to what the person is saying and how the person is saying it (tone, nuances, word choice, body language, etc). Using all of your senses will help you stay focused.
  • Pay attention to the lecturer’s volume and speed. Most people talk more loudly and slowly when they are emphasizing important points.
  • Avoid multitasking. Turn off your cell phone and put away the newspaper. Don’t try to balance your checkbook or do work for another class while you are listening to the lecture.

Listening actively is a skill that will be useful both during graduate school and in your post-school career.

Graduate school involves a lot of reading of textbooks, professional journals, research reports, and more. To help you understand what you have read and to synthesize it into a form that you can easily use to study, it is helpful to take notes as you read. Then, when it is time to study, you can review the important information in your notes instead of having to reread the entire chapter or document.

These tips can help you take useful notes from your reading:

  • If you are reading a textbook, begin by reviewing the table of contents. This section often lists the major headings in each chapter, giving you a clear idea of what information the chapter will include.
  • If you are reading an article in a journal, look for an abstract or summary to give you an idea of what information is included in the article.
  • Skim through the material the first time without taking any notes. This first reading will give you an overall idea of information and organization.
  • Look for bold and italicized words, which typically indicate important information.
  • Use a highlighter or post-it flags to mark additional important information that you may want to review again later.
  • Write down questions you have as you read.
  • Don’t copy the text word-for-word. Paraphrase everything in your own words, which will help you remember the information later.
  • Don’t skip over information in boxes or in the margins of the text. This is often where you will find definitions and examples that can help you understand your reading.
  • When you are done, compare your notes with the text to make sure you have correctly gleaned all the important information.

Improving Your Reading Skills with the SQ3R Method

Grad school requires a lot of scholarly reading. The SQ3R method of reading is a systematic approach to reading that is designed to help you understand and retain what you have read. It has five steps:

  • Survey.
  • Question.
  • Read.
  • Recite.
  • Review.


In this step, you survey the material in order to get an overview of the reading. You skim the sections, look at the topic headings, and read the introduction and summary paragraphs. Your goal is to get an idea of how the document is organized and what general information it covers.


Look at the heading and subheadings in the first section of your chapter or article, and turn them into questions. Write down the questions in your notebook. Think about what the author is trying to say and what you need to learn from this section.


Read the first section in your chapter or article and actively seek the answers to your questions. As you find the answers, write them in your notebook, using your own words.


Once you’ve finished reading the first section, look away from the book or article and try to recite the answers to your questions. Use your own words and examples.

You will complete the Question-Read-Recite steps for every section of your reading.


Once you’ve completed the Question-Read-Recite steps for every section of your reading, go over all the questions again. Review your notes to give yourself an overall view of the chapter. Write a summary of the chapter, including:

  • How the information you have learned fits with other information you have learned in this course or other courses.
  • The significance, implications, and applications of the information.
  • Any questions you have about the information.

With the SQ3R method, it may take you a little longer to complete your reading assignments, especially at first when you are just learning the method. However, your reading comprehension will improve and you will have excellent reading notes to use as a study guide.

Making the Most of Your Notes

You will have pages and pages of notes from class lectures and reading material. When test time comes, can you efficiently use your notes as study guides? Follow these tips to help you make the most of your notes:

  • Review your notes regularly. It is a good idea before every class to briefly review the notes you have taken for that class. The more you review the information regularly, the greater your chances of remembering that information when needed.
  • As you review your notes, mark anything that doesn’t make sense or anything about which you have a question. Then you can ask the professor or another student for clarification.
  • Compare your notes with those taken by other students once in a while. You may find that you missed something in a lecture or reading or that your fellow student has a different perspective on something than you do.
  • If your lecture notes are too messy and hard to read, try re-writing them or typing them into a computer file. This action will serve as an additional review of your notes.
  • Number the pages of your notebook so you can cross-reference with notes from other classes and from your reading materials.
  • Convert your notes into study questions. Then answer the questions until you can do so without looking at your notes.
  • Underline and highlight your notes, looking for themes, dates, important facts, etc. Color- code your highlighting: for example, you might use yellow for dates or formulas and blue for definitions.
  • Read your notes aloud. Even better, walk around while you are reading your notes aloud. The more parts of your brain that you can engage while you study, the more you will remember.

Study Tips For Grad School

Once you begin grad school, you may find it difficult to focus and concentrate when you study and to later remember what you have learned. This is especially a problem if you have been out of school for a while and have fallen out of the studying habit. However, developing good study habits and memorization skills is crucial to your success in graduate school. In addition, remember that graduate school requires that you not only learn information but that you comprehend it.

Improving your concentration

To help you improve your concentration when you study:

  • Plan your study time so you review the most important information first, while your mind is fresh.
  • Schedule a regular study time every day so studying becomes a routine part of your day.
  • Make your study time a manageable length. You cannot concentrate fully for hours at a time – plan for breaks to refresh yourself.
  • Set your worries aside while you are studying. If you are anxious about something, try to resolve it before your study time or do something relaxing such as taking a walk or working out.
  • Set up a quiet, well-lit area in which to study.

Developing memory skills

To help you improve your memory skills:

  • Review your notes regularly instead of trying to cram a lot of information into your brain the night before a test.
  • Rewrite and summarize your notes into essential ideas.
  • Use memory techniques such as mnemonics to remember sets of information.

Testing your comprehension level

As a graduate student, you are expected to move beyond rote memorization and to show that you truly understand the material. As you study, make a habit of regularly asking yourself, ‘Do I understand this information?’ Put all of the concepts you are learning into your own words and try to come up with your own examples and illustrations. Taking these steps will ensure that you indeed comprehend what you have learned.

Preparing for Exams

Different kinds of exams require different preparation techniques. Try to find out from your professor or from experienced students what to expect for the exams in your classes. Knowing this information will help guide your study time.

Problem-solving questions

You typically find these types of questions on math and science tests. To study for this kind of exam, begin by reviewing your homework assignments and lecture notes. Write down problems from your homework and textbooks and then try to solve them. Check your answers. If you got any wrong, try to figure out your mistake and tackle the problem again.

Objective questions

Objective tests include multiple choice and true/false problems. To study for these kinds of questions, review your notes, looking for information that could be included in an objective question. Examples include definitions, dates, and names. Also be sure that you study concepts and examples in addition to facts. If you can get copies of old exams to look at, you can get an idea of the kinds of questions that could be included in the test.

Short answer questions

Short answer questions often focus on definitions. As you review your lecture notes and textbooks, list and define these important terms and concepts. Think of examples that illustrate each term or concept and how it relates to the overall subject of the exam.

Essay questions

Essay questions require you to quickly gather your thoughts and knowledge and to support your ideas. To help you prepare for essay questions, review your notes and be sure you have a clear understanding of all of the main concepts you have studied. Be sure that you have thought out examples and reasons to support your interpretation of these main concepts.

It can also help to review old essay assignments and exams and to write practice essays.

Strategies for Graduate School Exams

Just as you study differently to prepare for different kinds of exams, so should your approach to the exam itself be different.

Problem-solving questions

The first step to take when faced with a problem-solving question is to ask yourself three questions:

  • What information is the problem asking you to find?
  • What do you need to know in order to find this information?
  • What information does the problem give you to help you with your search?

Stopping and asking yourself these three questions will slow you down long enough that you don’t waste time answering the wrong question.

Once you have an answer, go back to the first question and verify that you have indeed found the information prompted in the problem.

Objective questions

To answer multiple-choice and true-false questions:

  • Look for the main point of each question.
  • Look for key words such as not, always, never, none, except, most, or least.
  • Look for answers that you know are wrong so you can narrow down the possible right choices.
  • For multiple-choice questions, try to answer the question yourself before you look at the possible choices.
  • Mark an answer for every question. If you’re not sure about a question, you can go back later and review it if you have time.
  • Your first instinct is often right. Don’t change your original answer unless you’re sure it’s wrong.

Short answer and essay questions

For short answer and essay questions, you are demonstrating both what you know and how well you can support your ideas. For these types of questions:

  • Read the entire question before you start writing. Underline key words such as define, describe, compare, or explain.
  • Before you begin writing, think about what you want to say and what details and examples you can use to support your ideas.
  • Start by responding directly to the question, and then provide supporting details.
  • Use a technical vocabulary that is common to your field of study.
  • Write quickly but legibly.
  • If you have extra time, proofread your answers for errors in grammar, punctuation, and spelling.

Acing Your Exams in Graduate School

Good test-taking strategies begin well before your exam paper is handed to you, and they continue long after you turn in the exam. Follow these tips to do your best on your graduate school exams.

Before the test

  • Attend all classes, listening attentively, taking good notes, and participating in classroom activities and discussions.
  • Complete all assigned reading.
  • Study and review your notes regularly.
  • Meet with other students for a study group.
  • Ask your professor for specific information about the test so you can create appropriate study guides.
  • Use relaxation techniques to reduce test anxiety.
  • Get enough sleep and eat a healthy diet.

During the test

  • Read all the directions and test questions carefully.
  • Answer all test questions unless you know there is a penalty for guessing.
  • Keep an eye out for test questions that give you hints at the answers to other questions.
  • Use your time wisely. Keep an eye on the clock so you don’t run out of time before you finish the test.

After the test

  • Think about which parts of the exam you found to be the easiest and the hardest. Does this indicate a study technique you should use differently next time?
  • Think about which study techniques helped you the most as you prepared for the exam.
  • Think of how you could study differently for future exams.