Learning How to Learn in College

Fall at Illinois: a time when campus doesn’t look any better than when blanketed with ombre orange leaves. Colder weather means sweater weather. The smell of pumpkin flavored coffee diffuses through the air, and football games become a weekend ritual. At this point students have successfully survived a third of the semester! But as leaves fall off trees, my fellow freshmen and I try to turn a new one (or two) — a process a little less cozy than campus comforts.

University of Illinois Foellinger Hall at sunset in late fall.

Adapting to the academic rigor of college is a big challenge for many new students. Here are a few pieces of advice and study strategies that I’ve gathered from conversations with professors, advisors, TAs (teacher’s assistants) and upperclassman over the past month. I wish someone told me these tips when I was preparing myself for college!

  1. Create Your Own Meaning – When taking notes in high school, I would write down everything my teachers said verbatim. Subconsciously, I believed that if I didn’t understand material the way my educators did I was doing something wrong. However, college taught me that in order for material to “click”, it has to make sense to you. In other words, concepts will only become clear if you personalize them and produce your own meaning. In college, you’ll be exposed to different ways of thinking about the same concepts all from your professor, TA, and textbook — but it’s up to you to figure out or find your own.
  2. Change Your High School Ways – Memorization and shortcuts were the default methods to passing tests in high school, especially when in a time crunch. Most high school students can survive their classes by cutting corners and using shortcuts. But in undergrad, so long are the days of robotic regurgitation! College has a way of giving your brain a wake up call: memory can be unreliable and short term. Unlike high school, college exams heavily test how deep your level of conceptual understanding is, not whether you can remember the rules of exponents through some provocative phrase. Don’t get me wrong, mnemonics work, but in order to use them effectively you must know the how AND why behind the idea first! For science classes in particular, students must be able to apply concepts to new situations.
  3. Don’t Focus on Your Grades/GPA – This tip may seem contradictory but ironically, there is a method to the madness. After my first month of college, I realized that I was learning in fear. I would move from homework, to quiz, to exam with one goal in mind: to get a good grade. Many times, my focus on letters and percentiles derailed my concentration and created unnecessary stress. Unlike high school, college grants students the opportunity to choose classes and majors based off their interest. Class material should excite you and taking biology exams should make you feel like a biologist! I realized this vital college survival tip when I left a biology lecture about hemoglobin speechless and with a big smile on my face. In that moment, the deep concern I had for reaching high metrics faded away. I changed my focus from “I have to pass this midterm” to “I want to pass this midterm!” Enjoy the information that’s right in front of you and the academic achievement will follow.
  4. Be Patient – Adapting to the academic rigor of college doesn’t happen overnight or even after one month. Getting information to stick, changing study habits through trial and error, and developing conceptual understanding are all foreign challenges. As cliché as it sounds, good things take time. Finding your rhythm can be frustrating and discouraging, especially after your first college exams. But keep in mind that assessments only evaluate a student’s knowledge during a specific (rather short) time period, not potential! Maintain a growth mindset instead of a fixed one, you’re learning new material and skills after all.
  5. Budget Your Time – The most common piece of advice I’ve received so far is to have good time management. It’s quite annoying actually — it’s such a difficult yet crucial skill that is way easier said than done. In college, not only do you have to keep yourself from falling behind in class, but you also have to take care of yourself and maintain a social life. One way that I try to take control of my time is plan out my day by hour. Within my schedule, I prioritize which assignments are most challenging and schedule them for when I have the most energy during the day. I also designate time for doing laundry, catching dinner with friends and study breaks (when I want to grab a salted caramel anything). Using my daily planner helps me keep my focus fresh and avoid burnout!
  6. Don’t Quit, but be Realistic – Despite knowing that I’ve wanted to major in STEM since the application process, sometimes I doubt whether I can handle it or not. But my passion for science always outweighs my doubts. If you feel that a class, major, or study strategy isn’t working for you then change it. Once again, way easier said than done! I personally had to switch math classes a month into the semester because I realized that I just wasn’t at the right level yet. Situations like these can be disheartening but can only help you thrive when it comes to handling the workload of subsequent semesters. Be sure to meet with your advisor and ask your professors and TAs for their opinions. You’ll be surprised to find out just how much wisdom they have to share!
  7. When in Doubt, Just Relax – Walking to class is never boring as I get to see students playing frisbee, studying, and enjoying hammocks on the Quad. Indeed, the Quad is a common ground for students to take a break from the business of college. I never truly experienced it’s vibrant atmosphere until one of my TAs told me to “just go sit outside” hours before my first chemistry midterm. At first, the idea seemed trivial. But it wasn’t until I actually sat on a bench near the Quad that I realized how relaxing it is. In college, it’s very easy to go through the motions of your day, especially when trying to adjust from high school. But it’s important to keep in mind that college is meant to challenge students and help them grow into better versions of themselves. 

    If you’re falling into fall, just be sure to pick up the leaves!




Class of 2022
My major is Molecular and Cellular Biology (more commonly and lovingly known as MCB) in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. I'm on the pre-med track—I’ve dreamed of becoming a doctor since I could spell the word!

1 comment

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  • Excellent and very useful information for any high school student. I loved it.
    Please help me for any online or virtual training resource for improving my expository writing skills.

    Thank you.