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College Is Important. So Is Mental Health. Here's How To Study Without Burning Out

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There’s no single magic way to take notes, but the act of writing down our interpretation of what we’ve learned helps organize and consolidate information in our brains. (Paige Vickers for NPR)

You've signed up for classes, you've learned your way around the virtual course system — and now, you've got to make sure you survive all the way to graduation.

Laptop or paper notes? Highlighter or flashcards? And does music help while studying? Here's how to take better notes and study so that you remember what you've learned — without getting crushed by college stress. Plus: what to do if you do feel crushed.

1. Learn how to take notes.

There's no single magic way to take notes, but the act of writing down our interpretation of what we've learned helps organize and consolidate information in our brains.

What should you write down? Use clues from your professors to figure out what information is important and what is not.

  • Listen to their words: "This is going to be on the exam" or "This is important," for instance.
  • Watch them as they teach — they might get animated, repeat themselves, write things on the board.
  • Pay attention when they offer categories and numbered lists. "Be on the lookout for the ways that professors will organize information," says Natalie Murr, a psychologist at North Carolina State University. "You know, 'Here are the categories of x. There's three categories: No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3.' "

Also, laptop or paper? It doesn't matter, Murr says. What's more important is that you take down key information, not everything your professor says verbatim.


2. Get a planner and actually use it.

You'll have a lot going on in college, and managing your time is a critical skill to master. Use your planner to control your schedule. Write everything down: your classes, your work shifts, assignments and meetings. Let your schedule help you find small windows of time to knock out smaller tasks and keep track of bigger deadlines.

3. When studying, don't just put information into your brain. Draw it back out.

We know from research that the most common study strategies are rereading textbooks, rereading notes, and highlighting. We also know that those methods don't really work, because they only focus on the input, not the retrieval, says Pooja Agarwal, a cognitive scientist at the Berklee College of Music.

Think of learning as a two-way street. When you re-read and highlight, you're only focused on getting information in, not doing any retrieving.

"Research demonstrates that when we engage in that process of overtly retrieving, we actually organize concepts and create a better structure for what we're understanding," Agarwal says. "So through that process of retrieval, we help make sense of what we're trying to learn."

Here's what Agarwal recommends to strengthen your retrieval skills.

  • The "Two-Things Rule": As soon as you finish a lecture or a reading, write down two things you remember.
  • Explain the information to a friend or classmate to test your understanding.
  • Use flashcards — but say the answer out loud (in other words, retrieve it) before you turn it over to check yourself. Shuffle the flashcards and do it again.
  • Set a timer to study for a certain time, take a break, then to get back to work. "It's almost like an intentional forgetting or a purposeful forgetting," Agarwal explains. "By taking that break, you're letting things simmer a little bit."

Another tip — and you might not like this one: Don't listen to music while you read. Research has shown that silence almost doubles reading comprehension, compared to listening to music with lyrics, Agarwal says.

4. Failure is not the end.

An F on a test — or even for an entire class — doesn't mean you won't graduate.

"Anyone can do badly in a class," says Odette De Leon, an adviser at Valencia College in Orlando. "We're not born knowing college material. That's why we go to college. That's why we're college students. We're trying to learn these things."

Sure, it's difficult to hear negative things about yourself — and bad grades are no exception. But being hard on yourself can just make it worse.

5. Take care of yourself — and get some sleep.

Students who are sleep-deprived show many of the same symptoms as students diagnosed with attention disorders, says Natalie Murr at North Carolina State.

Emotional problems can also throw off a student's focus and interfere with academics.

"If you're really sleepy or if you're really struggling emotionally, there's not a lot of motivation to get up and go to class or do your work or put the effort in that needs to be done," Murr says. "They can really kind of take up space in the brain that would otherwise be open for learning."

6. Let go of the stigma around mental health problems.

Mental health issues are pervasive among college students, and COVID-19 is only making things tougher. It's nothing to be ashamed of.

"One out of two Americans over their lifetime will have a diagnosable mental health disorder," says B. Janet Hibbs, psychologist and author of The Stressed Years of Their Lives. "They're highly treatable. It's not something to be scared about."

And parents, if your kid is in distress, don't judge, says Hibbs. Listen and be supportive so they'll continue to confide in you, and take their anguish seriously.

7. Know when to reach out for help.

Stress is so common in college, it can be hard to recognize when it becomes clinically treatable anxiety or depression, says Anthony Rostain, a doctor and professor at the University of Pennsylvania and Hibbs' co-author.

Here are warning signs to watch for:

  • Trouble sleeping.
  • Trouble waking up.
  • Trouble eating.
  • Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness.
  • Drinking to the point of blacking out.
  • Having lots of random sexual partners.
  • Not being able to stop playing video games.

Got a neighbor or a niece in college? Consider sharing this story with them.


If you're experiencing thoughts of suicide, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text START to 741-741 to get in touch with someone who can help.

The Jed Foundation specializes in supporting mental health in teens and young adults as they transition into adulthood., by the Jed Foundation, offers a database of campus mental health resources at more than 1,600 colleges.

Lauren Migaki produced the podcast version of this story.

We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at


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