Study Tips

How to Study like a Harvard Student: 14 Study Tips from Top Students

June 19, 2023

Studying is hard. Studying effectively? Even harder. 

If you have ever stared at a syllabus or paper not knowing just how to study, you are not alone. 

Thankfully, we’ve gathered up some of the best study tips from top students, including those from Ivy League schools. 

Read on as they share their experiences and hacks that have helped them achieve academic success and learn how you can study effectively too!

Read more: Check out our guide to digital stickers.

1. Prone to procrastination? Plan your study hours in advance

Creating a study schedule is crucial to avoiding last-minute cramming sessions that can leave you in a nervous and anxious mess.

To do this, set aside some time everyday to dedicate to studying. You can even try to assign each hour to a specific task. Breaking down big tasks into smaller manageable chunks can help ease your anxiety and prevent procrastination. 

“I often felt overwhelmed with the amount of deadlines I had and didn’t know how to study or even where to start. It wasn’t until I sat down and made a plan that I realized they were actually manageable and all I had to do was follow the plan. I stopped procrastinating and felt a lot more productive after I knew exactly what I had to do.”

- Christina Sorochinsky, Physics, Harvard University. 

Key takeaways: 

  • Break down your tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks 
  • Schedule them into your planner during your study hours

2. Listen in class to get started on review faster

Go to class. Sometimes it is that simple. Research shows that repetition is the first principle of all learning. This means that by simply showing up, the material that you review later will already be the second time you engage with it. This will help you better understand how to study and digest the information faster. 

You already go to class? Sometimes that isn’t enough. 

“I like to sit in the first three rows of a lecture hall because it makes a big lecture class feel smaller and more engaging. It also encourages me to ask questions and take notes during lectures that save me a ton of studying time later on.”

- Celine Yung, Engineering Psychology Major, Tufts University.

Key takeaways: 

  • Go to class in person - lecture recordings are a helpful tool to compliment learning, not replace it. 
  • Engaging with the material multiple times will help you gauge how to study it best
  • Actively engage in class by sitting close to the front, asking questions and taking notes

3. Spaced out repetition can help prolong your concentration 

Studies have shown that taking short breaks (as short as 5 minutes or as long as 60) can help you refresh and re-energize your brain and encourage productivity and focus in the long run. 

One technique you can implement is the Pomodoro technique. The Pomodoro technique references a time management method where you do focused work on one task for 25 minutes followed by a 5 minute break. A longer break can take place after about four consecutive intervals. These spaced out short breaks can help keep you fresh and productive, making the most of the time that you do spend studying. 

“The Pomodoro technique really taught me how to study productively. I was able to get through longer study sessions than if I were to have not taken any breaks at all.”

- Evelyn Howe, Social Studies, Princeton University

Pomodoro timers can be found both on the web and in apps to best suit your needs! 

Key takeaways: 

  • Breaks can improve your concentration in the long run 
  • Use the Pomodoro Technique to guide you on how to study productively and prolong your concentration

4. Make use of study groups 

Ever stared helplessly at 300 pages worth of content and wondered just how in the world you will get through it? You’re not alone. This is where study groups can be crucial to your academic success. 

Get people’s number on your first day of class and form a study group early on in the semester. You can then divide the work up and assign them to each member. 

This will cut down your study time and also reinforce the information you learned when you teach it to the rest of your group. You can also share ideas on how to study the material best.  

“I found this especially useful when memorizing course content. Psychology is a very content intensive course with pages and pages of reading. I found that by splitting up the work, the readings did not seem so daunting and it made the studying experience more collaborative and enjoyable. After participating in study groups my second semester, my grades shot up”

- Meagan Chau, Psychology Major, University of British Columbia. 

Key takeaways: 

  • Befriend people in your class and form a study group 
  • Divide the work/reading amongst different members of your group
  • Create a shared study guide
  • Get together and go over each section, teach each other the content and share ideas on how to study

5. Timelapse yourself working to stop procrastination 

Sometimes the problem is not how to study but how to stay concentrated. 

Studying can be hard when you’ve got a million other things that seem to be calling your name. Phones and social media can be especially distracting during times of crisis when suddenly, everything seems to be more entertaining than the paper you have to write. 

To help with this, it can be super helpful to find little ways that can help you focus on one task for longer. 

“It sounds silly, but I like to prop my phone up and video myself in a time lapse whilst I study. This helps me stay on task because I can’t be on my phone at all. It also holds me accountable and I end up with a fun little video, which is cool.”

- Lynn Lee, History, Yale University.  

The phenomenon Lynn talks about with accountability is actually rooted in research as studying and making decisions in front of a mirror or your reflection will make you more self-aware and better align you with your morals. (You can read more about this here!)

So the next time you find yourself getting distracted, whip out your phone, hit record, and see what happens. 

Key takeaways: 

  • Find ways to prevent access to things in your life that distract you 
  • Take a timelapse of yourself studying to stop procrastination 

6. Implement active learning techniques: reading is not studying

Are you reading or are you studying? Contrary to popular belief, these are actually two very different things. Instead of just reading the textbook, try to implement more active learning techniques such as summarizing information that you just read in your own words, teaching concepts to others, or creating flashcards.

“One way I like to study effectively is to create outlines for the information that I’m reading because this way, you can better understand how different pieces of information fit together and relate to the overarching theme. This really shortens the memorization process because it helps me gain a deeper understanding of the course material.”

- Sophie, Statistics Major, University of Michigan. 

“I also found that teaching a friend with a little extra time on their hands was really helpful. Going through a course outline with someone helps me better understand the material myself because I’m forced to explain the information in a clear and concise way. I typically like to do this right before an exam when I’m already familiar with most of the content and it leaves me feeling even more confident.”

- Anna, Computer Science, Yale University 

Key takeaways: 

  • Implement active learning techniques 
  • Create an outline or a study guide
  • Teach others

7. Get 8 hours of sleep the night before an exam

Sleep more! I know, I know, you’ve probably heard this tip over and over. But trust me, it’s true, and it works. But if you don’t trust me, trust Nicole, she took a class on it. 

“Sleep really helps with your memorization, and sleep is when most of your memory forms. On the night before an exam, if I were faced with a choice of studying more or sleeping, I would choose to sleep. I remember I once made the mistake of studying more, but my grades suffered because I could hardly remember anything I had spent all night reading”

- Nicole Lee, Social Studies Major, Harvard University 

As students however, procrastination and last minute cramming is pretty inevitable. So if you really can’t help it, Nicole also advises to sleep less two nights before the exam and get a proper 8 hours of rest the night before. 

Key takeaways: 

  • Try to get as much sleep as possible
  • It is when memory forms
  • Try to get your full 8 hours of sleep the night before an exam

8. Use AI to summarize long readings 

Ah, AI and all the new possibilities it brings. Chat GPT, write my essay for me, wouldya? While we definitely don’t encourage doing that, AI can be really helpful in helping you summarize large chunks of research, record lecture notes and many more cool features that can save you time and make studying that much less painful. 

“I like to use AI to summarize my required readings. It saves me a ton of time and I can actually spend more time on my understanding rather than reading through pages and pages of material.”

- Jacqueline Lo, Business and Media and cinematic arts Major, University of Southern California. 

We know that finding the time to study can be difficult. So the next time you are in a bit of a crunch, AI may just be the way to go. 

Key takeaways: 

  • Use AI to summarize readings 
  • AI can shorten the time you spend studying

9. Break it down: visualize to gain deeper understanding

Abstract concepts can be hard to grasp. Rather than spending countless hours reading over an idea again and again wondering just how to study, you can try to visualize it in simpler terms.

An effective way of visualization includes creating a mindmap of all the different topics of your notes. This can help you visualize how all the little points relate and build on each other to arrive at a bigger, more complex topic. 

“I like to break complex topics down into smaller digestible graphs where just one thing is going on. This is especially helpful in subjects like economics because complex concepts can be broken down into individual steps. I honestly use this method in all my subjects though, and have been drawing pictures to solve word problems in math since the third grade.”

- Ethan Lau, Economics Major, Cornell University. 

So the moral of the story? Nothing is too complicated if you break it down into simpler terms. 

Key Takeaways:

  • Break down big topics into smaller pieces 
  • Create images and visualize topics in ways that you understand

10. Carefully craft the lighting, noise levels, seating arrangements, and even color of your study space

Flow state. A state that you want to be in when you are studying. What can get you to this level of unparalleled concentration? A good study environment. 

This can look different to everyone. Some like to study in their rooms, others prefer the library. You might prefer to study alone, or in a study group. It doesn’t matter what the environment is, it is just important that you find what works best for you. Studies have shown that factors like light, noise, seating and even color have the ability to impact your levels of motivation, engagement and concentration.

“I really like to call my friends late at night when I’m studying because it’s comforting knowing that someone else is still awake with me. We typically don’t even talk, we kind of just study silently but it still keeps me on track for longer and helps stop me from getting overly anxious.”

- Wren Opperman Social Studies, Harvard University.

Many seem to share this experience and many content creators that teach you how to study have gone ahead and created livestream “study with me” study sessions for you to put on and join in at any time of the day. 

Whether it be live streams, studying alone or in small groups, a library or a cafe, find out what works and stick with it. 

Key Takeaways: 

  • Find a study environment that works best for you
  • This can look different for everyone!
  • Live streams can be helpful in keeping you on track

11. Use past exam papers to test your understanding before an exam

So you think you know your stuff. You can truly put it to the test by using past exam papers before, during and after your main study block to track your progress.

“Past exam papers give me a good baseline to find out what I know well and things that I need to focus on before I even start studying. This saves me a lot of time because I can quickly pinpoint the topics that need more of my attention. I also like to drill past papers repeatedly throughout the studying process because I like how quickly I get feedback. I know right away if I did something right or wrong.”

- Ric Tse, International Business and Global Management Major, Hong Kong University. 

Using past exam papers allows you to get familiar with the types of questions that will pop up on exams and encourage active recall - a study method that requires you to remember something you learned in the past. 

Key takeaways: 

  • Take a practice test at the start of your studying process, then again throughout it 
  • Active recall is a good way for gauging how much you know

12. Use digital flashcards for active recall and organization

Another way you can implement active recall to strengthen your understanding is through flashcards

The process of creating flashcards and reviewing them forces you to engage with the material over and over. It also frames each topic in a test like manner and will help you breeze through each topic without a problem. 

The biggest issue with using flashcards? It is incredibly easy to lose them. Luckily, digital flashcards have now been made possible with GoodNotes. This can help ensure that you can use the same flashcards throughout the year and not have to worry about keeping track of a huge deck of cards. 

Key takeaways: 

  • Create flashcards as a way to study effectively
  • Use digital flashcards to help you retain more information with active recall

13. Boost your study performance with physical activity

Go on a walk. Seriously. 

Countless studies have shown that physical activity can improve your attention span and critical thinking skills. In fact, it is found to be particularly influential in improving your math and reading skills. 

So the next time you are getting frustrated and think you’ve got to keep drilling problems till the end of time. Take a breath, step away, and go for a short walk because sometimes less is truly more. 

Key takeaways:

  • Taking a short walk and doing some form of exercise can increase your attention span and critical thinking

14. Say hi to your professor every time you enter a lecture

Last but most definitely not least, get to know your professor! Whether that be sitting in the front of a lecture hall, speaking up during seminars or asking to meet with your teachers to go over exams, show your teachers that you care! 

“I participated in a lot of competitive sports in high school. I’d probably be gone for weeks at a time because of travel so I found that what helped me was keeping my teachers in the loop, asking them how to study the material best and making sure that they knew I cared. Teachers were then more receptive to giving me extensions, writing my recommendations and giving me guidance when I needed it.”

- Audrey King, English Major, Harvard University.

If you think about it, getting to know the person that is giving out the exams and grading your papers really can’t hurt. So the next time you’re thinking about whether or not to speak up in class. Speak up. 

Key takeaways: 

  • Speak up in class 
  • Say hi to your professors 
  • Getting to know the people grading your papers can help you in the long run! 

Reach all your academic goals with these tips on how to study 

Committed to your journey to better grades? Read about more study techniques here! 

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