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Tips on Reading for College: Home

Girl with head resting in giant stack of booksReading for college is very different from reading for pleasure, and even from reading in high school. You won't just be reading literature and textbook chapters; you'll also be reading scholarly articles, research papers, and scientific publications. You'll come across a wide array of writing and publication styles, and you constantly need to readapt your approach to the subject matter. These texts demand a greater range of foundational knowledge, introduce new vocabulary, and require you to draw inferences, analyze, and evaluate. Luckily, other professionals have already posted tips and guidelines for reading in college.

1. Designate a reading spot

Instead of reading your college material in bed or the cozy armchair you pleasure-read in, try setting aside a quiet corner where you can concentrate, or read where you study and write your papers. If you can't get away from a noisy home environment, book a study room in the library. Play classical music or sounds that put you in the right mindset, if this doesn't distract you. Or if you're a silence-reader, try wearing noise-canceling headphones. Make sure the lighting is bright enough to see easily and not nod off. Silence your phone. But like we said, this isn't high school. You probably know best how you retain more information. Just make sure you follow your own learning process.

2. Schedule yourself & break it up

Some people best retain what they read if they dive into the material without coming back up until they're at a stopping point. If you retain more by reading in short bursts, try breaking up your reading into smaller sections. For instance, commit to read one chapter per sitting, or break a scientific article into a few sittings, depending on how the article is inherently broken up. If there aren't clear sections or the chapters are long, set a timer for 10-20 minutes, then come back to it after taking a break. Either way you prefer to read, you should set aside blocks of time every few days or every week for when you're alert and no one will disturb you.

3. Reward yourself

Have an M&M every time you finish a paragraph, give yourself a meditation break between chapters, or listen to a fun song between articles. Find what motivates you best.

4. Look for the thesis or main idea

When you find this in an article or publication, highlight it or put brackets around it. This is often revealed in the introduction and opening paragraphs, and often repeated in the end. This statement is what will be proven in the body of the paper; take note of the proof backing it up as you read.

5. Preview the sections

Like you might look at a map of a new country before going on a trip, scan the headings and sections of your reading, along with any maps or diagrams, to get a lay of the land. This will prepare you for what you need to absorb. We often skip over the headings and just read the body of the text, but the headings can be a great overview of what you're looking for when you read.

6. Take notes

Summarize each chapter if you'll need a reminder later, and definitely jot down any insights you have while reading. Take note of any motifs, character development, foreshadowing, psychological analyses, any critical theories you may have. For nonfiction texts, jot down any questions or uncertainties, speculations, and main points. Underline, asterisk, highlight, scribble in the margins, make flashcards as you read— do whatever you have to do understand what you're reading, not just absorb it. If you read, understand, and note effectively the first time, you won't have to reread the text before your finals.

7. Adjust your speed

Slow down when you come across unfamiliar and abstract ideas, new vocabulary, technical material, and information you want to retain for tests or papers. Feel free to speed up when reading familiar, simple, or irrelevant material, and anything you know for a fact you won't need.

8. Define unfamiliar vocabulary

Don't be afraid to look up unfamiliar words and phrases while you're reading. You can save it for later if you're deep in a narrative, but it might help your immediate understanding of what you're reading if you do it right away. Consider keeping a dictionary app open for easy, quick reference.

9. Try "what it says" and "what it does"

Read a paragraph, section, or chapter, then summarize what it says. Also consider what it does; whether it backs up the author's thesis, provides different opinions or evidence, serves as a red herring or plot device, etc.

10. Consider the context

While you're reading and analyzing what the author is saying and implying, also ask yourself what the author is assuming. Is the author entering his/her text with a biased point of view or preconceived notions? If you're reading Mark Twain, it's important to familiarize yourself with the setting and the archaic beliefs of his time. If you're reading an older scientific primary source, research whether the conclusions have been disproven or built upon. Often, context can be just as telling as the material.

11. Consider biases

Watch for biases while reading (and researching), even in materials found in scholarly databases. Some academic articles are persuasive and not merely objective or data-driven. Some persuasive articles still have useful factual information, or reference great primary sources, but be careful that reading a biased source does not cause you to produce a biased paper or assignment that's meant to be objective. These sources can be okay to use, but it's important to balance out your sources to solidly make an argument, and make sure you can recognize bias and determine if it's appropriate for your assignment.