How to Take Good Notes on College Readings

Note taking is a key tool to help you process reading and prepare for class. But it can easily become a hindrance rather than a help if you do it without direction. Below you'll find tips for effective note taking.

There are a lot of different ways to take notes: you may write notes by hand, you may use a notes app, you might use a system like Cornell Notes, or you may prefer a concept map. What works best for you can be highly individual. I won’t tell you to use a particular system for note-taking, but the following are some suggestions to help make note-taking more effective, and to help you transition from note-taking to writing.

Don’t Take Notes on Everything

This is the most important piece of advice you should follow when taking notes: you cannot (and should not) take notes on everything. Start your reading with a set of questions or goals in mind: what do you want to get out of this reading? Think about what you’ll discuss in class, or what your research question is. Orient your notes around these questions. You may also want to take notes on key concepts, terms, and ideas you learn. But you shouldn’t try to capture every argument or piece of analysis in your reading. When you take too many notes, it becomes counter-productive. Taking notes more selectively will help you to remember key points.

Start with a Citation

At the top of your page of notes, include the full bibliographical information of the text. You can use a reference tool to help you do this, or write it yourself. This will save you time later and ensure you don’t lose track of where your notes came from.

Always Include Page Numbers

Nothing will eat up your writing time like trying to search through a book for the page number of a quote you wrote down weeks ago. Learn from my mistakes! Always keep track of page numbers as you write – you’ll thank yourself later.

Don’t Write Everything Word-for-Word

Writing down full quotes in your notes often feels like the easiest and best way to remember important information, but it will take up a lot of time. Instead, summarize or paraphrase important ideas in your own words. This will be quicker, and doing the mental work of summarizing will help you to remember the content later on. Because you’re writing down the page number, you can always revisit the original quote later. If I come across a particular passage I want to keep track of, I often flag it with a post-note or highlight it to make it easy to come back to later.

Differentiate between Your Thoughts and the Writer’s Thoughts

Lots of your notes will be dedicated to summarizing ideas from your reading. Develop a system to differentiate your own ideas that you want to write down. This may be a question about something you don’t understand or want to research further, a response, or an idea the reading sparked. If taking electronic notes, you can use font tools like italics or highlighting to do this. If you’re taking notes by hand, you can use a different color pen or add a symbol like an asterisk. This practice will not only help you avoid plagiarism by confusing someone else’s idea for your own; it will help you skim for the ideas you developed as you read.


When you finish a reading, don’t immediately skip to the next thing. Instead, pause for a few minutes and write down some reflections and conclusions. This can be a great time to summarize the main point or take-away from the reading. You might summarize what this text says on a key theme. You might also want to jot down questions you have, a point you want to make in class, or next steps you want to take in your research.

Note-Taking as Drafting

When you’re reading things you’ll use for a paper, you might start to think about your notes (or at least some of them), as pieces of your first draft. For example, when summarizing a key point, write it as you would in your paper. Then you can transfer your summary and a citation directly into your first draft. When you release yourself from the expectation that you have to write a paper in order, from the introduction to the conclusion, you can start to use your notes to flesh out ideas that you’ll plug into your paper later. If you start to have ideas for paper as you read and take notes, take a moment to write those down, even in rough form – this is another reason why pausing to reflect can be really important. When you go to “start” writing, you may surprise yourself by how much you already have written down. When we think of writing as a process, reading can be writing too.

When Note-Taking is Taking too Long

I’ve been there: I’ve been reading something for hours, my hand is cramping from taking pages of notes, and I’ve only read 15 pages. If this is happening to you, you’re probably taking too many notes. You need to refocus around your reading questions: what is the most important in this reading? Try to focus your notes on a couple of things. You may also want to take a break from note-taking. Try using post-it flags or another tool to mark sections you want to take notes on. Come back once you’ve finished the reading and take notes on the sections that still seem important.