Becoming an Efficient Student – Tips for Academic Success

The efficiency investment. In high school, it’s almost too easy to become overwhelmed by the amount of information presented in one class, never mind managing a schedule with 4-8 classes. Spoiler alert: there is just as much to learn, and just as little time to learn it, in high school as there is in college. 

The student who learns how to study efficiently in high school will not only be able to demonstrate mastery across multiple disciplines but will also be better equipped for academic success in college. The time I invested learning how to “study smarter” in my high school AP classes was transferable to the honors program at the University of Michigan – definitely a worthwhile investment.

 What does studying efficiently mean? It’s about learning to effectively retain and demonstrate mastery of multiple difficult concepts, as opposed to memorizing every piece of information given at a lecture or read in a textbook. A shorthand description I use for studying efficiently is “reverse studying” or studying to the test. To give an example, a scientist may have achieved success in their field but is not assured full credit on the AP Bio test. Why? It’s because they have not studied for the test, notwithstanding substantive mastery in their day jobs. 

The same is true of students taking high school and college classes. Knowing material and knowing how to demonstrate that knowledge for a grade are two different things. Studying with purpose increases one’s ability to demonstrate mastery – to the end of higher grades and test scores. 

Efficiency techniques that work for me. Below are some tools I learned in high school and use in college to be an efficient student: 


Tips for Studying

  • Recognize patterns and trends rather than specific content. Instead of relearning all the information presented in class or assigned for reading, review the types of multiple choice and free response questions that may come. This tool paid off for me in AP Government. Rather than memorize every fact of every Supreme Court case I’d learned months prior, I instead focused my studying on understanding general concepts, principle ideas, and the most significant Court cases (which, not surprisingly, are also more frequently tested). This tip was useful in my larger introductory classes during my first year at Michigan, as I juggled living away from home in a new state, multiple weekly lectures, and volumes of assigned reading.

  • Do any available practice tests to familiarize yourself with what questions will look like, and how they may be asked. When it comes to testing, context is essential, which is why taking practice SAT, ACT, and AP exams is a common tool used for success in high school. Familiarizing oneself with the format of a test and recognizing questions that may be asked applies beyond high school. This was reinforced in my Stats 250 class at the University of Michigan, where the professor released a practice test before each exam. (Note: Not many college professors take the time to create practice exams, so take advantage when they do!) Overall, practice exams provide substantive review of the most relevant concepts in the most probable way they will be tested.

  • Coloring outside the lines. In high school and in college, it can be difficult to find a starting point when an exam will test a large set of data and facts (opposed to more thematic concepts). Less conventional study methods help me memorize volumes of information before tests because I actively learn and therefore retain information more quickly. One unconventional tool that can work is coloring. 

During my high school Anatomy and Physiology class, I had to memorize every bone, joint, and muscle in the human body. I was surprised when my tutor took out a coloring book, but creating a visual connection between the different body parts and color enabled me to recite all the information from memory within days. I leveraged this color-association technique in a college Cultural Anthropology course that required learning the structural features and the cultural and environmental influences on each of the skull shapes of early hominids. Coloring the various skulls and associating each color to specific environmental or cultural factors enabled me to tackle this information-dense subject in time for the exam. (Coloring also doubles as a great stress release!)


Tips for Test Taking

  • Stick to answering the questions, don’t over-explain, and cut the fluff. One harsh truth of AP testing is that graders are looking for the answer to a specific question. I know this seems simple, but common sense is easily misplaced when one opens the test packet to the first FRQ and can’t answer one piece of the eight-part question staring back. In times like these, I was prone to compulsively share any information that came to mind, demonstrating my substantive knowledge in an attempt to mask the question I didn’t understand. Newsflash: No amount of knowledge or fluff can obscure information that is not responsive to the prompt.

  • My test scores also improved when I learned to limit my response to the question asked. I tended to over-explain concepts on free response questions that instructed me to only “state” the answer. For instance, when the AP Chem exam asks about a specific titration reaction, don’t write about titrations in general. Pause before answering and consider whether your contemplated answer responds to the prompt. On AP exams, earning full credit does not always depend upon sharing everything you know. 

Though simple on their face, these tips earned me many 5’s on AP exams, and have helped me excel in college. At the university level, the professors and graduate students who grade your work (along with the work of hundreds of other students) appreciate a concise responsive answer. Said another way, mastery can also be demonstrated by what you don’t say; cut the fluff.


The bottom line: Find what’s efficient for you, and practice until it becomes second nature.  Skills I learned in high school and tutoring continue to serve me well in college. A perpetual tension exists between the tasks a student must complete and the time in which they must complete them. Efficient studying eases that tension. Of course, different methods work for different people for various types of classes and tests. Being purposeful in how you approach learning material and studying may be the key to becoming a more effective – and successful – student

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