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My Note-taking Method Works

As an undergraduate back in the late 1990s, I was excused from attending classes because I could study independently, show up for exams and earn perfect scores. The reason I could do so is that I had worked out a system of studying from texts that worked.

First, I read every page assigned by my professors.

Second, I took detailed notes on everything I read.

Third, my note-taking method was partly academic, and partly personal. I sought to distill the author’s own outline and aims in my notes, trying to create what I thought might have been his outline before writing. However, I also talked to myself throughout the notes, using a number of different symbols. I asked questions, entered my own meditations, gave myself study instructions, etc. I did this in pencil and constantly erased and re-wrote as I went to make the notes as concise, orderly and neat as possible. Lastly, I highlighted all the main headings so I could quickly find any topic and memorize the look of the pages for recall.

Fourth, I scheduled my studies so that I would have all of the reading done and my notes prepared a week before the exams. As long as I achieved that, I would have a week to memorize all of my notes. I would read them over and over and recite the contents until I could picture the page in my mind. Then, I’d write out the notes from memory on blank sheets of paper. I would study overnight the night before the exam, without sleeping and continue studying until the exam began.

Now, I have to admit, I was motivated in this by pure competition. Injuries had ended my athletic career as I finished high school and I had to replace an entire life of competition with something. For me, studying replaced athletics. Studying became my sport and exams became my contests. The professor and my classmates were my opponents. Not only did I want to beat them all, I wanted to take away any justification for the professor to curve the class’s grades. Yes, I was a jerk, but it made studying lots of fun.

Anyway, today, I still use the same method and enjoy success. I have a mid-term exam for a philosophy course at Harvard and some of my notes can be seen below. I don’t have as much time as I used to, but I have one more day to finish reading and taking notes and then one to study it all before taking my exam. Fortunately, I’ve been studying this stuff for the past 25 years, so I know it pretty well already. Just need to polish it off this weekend.


Those notes earned me a 97% on a Harvard Mid-Term exam.

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