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If there’s one thing a university student does a lot of, it’s taking notes. As a person with two university degrees under her belt, I know the value of having effectively organized notes. In fact, forgive me for humble-bragging, but I believe being able to organize my university notes is one of the things that led to me getting top honours twice. (That and an effectively organized planner.)
By knowing how to effectively organize your university notes, you’ll be far better prepared when midterms and finals roll around. Exam prep is a breeze when everything is easy to find.
During my time as a university student, I went through a few organization systems, always looking for ways to make my life easier. University is already stressful enough – why make it any worse with disorganized notes!
In the end, I narrowed my preferences down to the three best! Each one has its pros and cons, and I’ve done lots of leg work so that you don’t have to.
The Best Ways to Organize Your University Notes
This was the first system I tried, and I went through lots of variations. There are lots of great notebook options on the market today.
A five-subject notebook contains five sections of notes separated by dividers. A good quality five-subject notebook, such as those from Five Star, will have a sturdy cover and handy pockets in the dividers.
- Could be used for most if not all of your courses at any given time.
- May be cheaper than buying several separate notebooks.
- I only ever needed to grab one notebook when leaving for class.
- The pockets in the dividers were a great place to keep the course syllabus, handouts, or any photocopies I’d made.
- Could sometimes be a tad heavy and unwieldy, especially if I also had lots of textbooks or other things to bring with me.
- Each section usually has less pages than you could get if you bought separate notebooks. I wrote a lot and would often run out of pages in a section, which was especially frustrating if I wrote more for one course than another so I couldn’t just replace the whole notebook all at once.
While I quickly switched away from using a five-subject notebook for regular class use, I did consistently use one for my midterm and exam study notes. I could arrange them in order of the tests, compile information from various sources, re-create my notes based on an exam study guide, and have all my study material for that week (or month) of hell right in one place.
A classic notebook, often with an iconic marbled black and white cover. They feature sturdy covers and a sewn binding to keep pages secure.
- Very lightweight, so I could easily dedicate one to each course but still fit several in a bag without breaking my back.
- When the notebook inevitably filled up, it divided my notes into a date range, which often made it easier to find notes on a particular topic later.
- I used the classic black-and-white composition notebook, meaning all of them were identical. Even though I wrote the course code on the front of each, it still became very easy to mix them up and grab the wrong book in a hurry. (Some companies, such as Amazon, have released composition book with coloured covers, which does help solve this problem.)
- They were a bit cumbersome on those small desks attached to the chairs in lecture halls. I would have to fold the spine backwards to try and fit it onto the desk without jabbing it into the person sitting next to me. Those spines were not meant to fold like that, so it wouldn’t lie flat, which was annoying while writing.
- Not too bad as far as taking up valuable real estate in my bag, and was never any heavier than the five-subject notebook.
- Lots of pages – I almost never filled up a notebook.
- I could keep my lecture/seminar notes and reading notes in the same book. I started my lecture/seminar notes on the first page and went forwards as normal, and started my reading notes on the very back page and worked backwards. (Pro Tip: To differentiate between lecture and seminar notes, I used different pen colours and made sure everything was labelled and dated.)
- COLOUR-CODING! I’m a big colour-coder. I could assign each course a colour to use for my notebook, in my planner, and on my wall calendar. I could also coordinate each notebook with any other supplementary things I needed, like a folder of sheet music. When I was out the door, I just had to make sure I had the right colours in my bag.
- You may still be grabbing quite a few things when leaving for class each day, meaning there may be things you forget or that your bag may get quite heavy.
- If you have lots of loose sheets, it means your course materials could be spread across several different locations.
Clipboards & Binders
By the time I graduated with my first degree, this was the way I would organize my university notes. While it still had its pitfalls, I still felt that this system was best-suited to my needs at the time.
How to use clipboards and binders to organize your university notes:
- Get a clipboard for each class – the kind that has a cover that folds over so it protects your papers. Bonus points if the cover also has a pocket and if you can coordinate each clipboard’s colour with your planner (see my comments on colour-coding under “one-subject notebooks” above). Honestly, the best clipboards I ever found were at my university’s campus store, so I stocked up!
- Stock each notebook with important papers as needed, like the course syllabus or assignment outlines.
- Keep a good supply of blank paper in each clipboard. I used lined paper the most, but I also needed music staff paper and graph paper.
- Use your clipboard for all lectures, seminars, etc. I chose a clipboard over a folder because it provided a hard back to write on, so I could easily use it in any setting.
- Date and label all notes. If your notes for one day stretch across several pages, number the pages.
- At the end of each week, empty out the clipboards and organize the notes into one big binder (or several smaller binders – again, colour-coded to match everything else). Make sure you re-stock the paper so you don’t run out!
- This saved a significant amount of space in my bag and wasn’t nearly so heavy to carry everything around.
- Grab the wrong clipboard by mistake? Not the end of the world – you still have paper and can still take notes, just make sure it’s extra-labelled so it isn’t mixed into the wrong course’s notes.
- The weekly ritual of transferring my notes to the binder was a great way of reviewing what I’d learned.
- By eventually having everything organized in a binder, I could easily integrate my notes with other things, like hand-outs, returned assignments, and reading notes. That way everything was together when it came time to review and make study notes for midterms and exams.
- Since everything was in a big binder, I always knew where my notes were. Plus I got to invest in some super cute dividers!
- The pages may get out of order if you’re not consistently dating and labelling every page.
- The clipboards may be too full to use or you may run out of usable paper if you don’t regularly transfer the pages into your binder(s).
It is possible to do this with only one clipboard, but then you have to be even more careful with your labelling so you’re not confusing content from several different courses. This is particularly true if you have several courses that are similar (like near the end of my degree when I was taking nothing but music and literature).
Laptop, Chromebook or Tablet
You may be wondering – in the 21st century, why was I even bothering with pen and paper? That’s partly personal preference – I learn and retain information better when I’ve written it down – but also due to my technological issues at the time.
When I started university, the laptop I had was unfortunate. It was old, it had zero battery life, it was big and clunky, and it was slow. It wasn’t until nearly the end of my first degree that I had a good laptop that could be carried around to classes, but my laptop bag wouldn’t fit a lot of books. I only really brought my laptop to campus if I had an assignment I needed to work on between classes.
For teacher’s college, I finally had an iPad mini. I’ve since bought a cheap-but-great Chromebook that was perfect for the additional qualifications course I recently completed (and teaching and blogging). It was great to finally experience life as a student that didn’t involve hand cramps!
Tips to Effectively Use Technology for Your Notes:
- Consider the size of the device you’re using. I much prefer a Chromebook because it’s a lot lighter to carry around than a laptop, but I also love being able to go even smaller and just bring my iPad places, too. Just make sure the device has the speed, power and capabilities you need.
- If using a tablet, get a decent Bluetooth keyboard to make typing easier and faster.
- If using a laptop or Chromebook, get a wireless mouse. This Jelly Comb mouse has a little USB receiver that can be stored in the mouse when not in use so it doesn’t get lost.
- Keep your devices safely secured with the appropriate cases, covers, and bags. Cracked screens are not your friend!
- Invest in Microsoft 365 and use OneNote to keep all of your notes organized in digital notebooks. (I originally used Evernote but wasn’t a fan.) Since everything is stored in the cloud, you can use it across all your devices. It’s particularly handy on a tablet, where you can take a photo of a lecture slide, notes on a whiteboard, or a chart in your textbook, and pop it right into your notes.
- Consider getting a stylus, if using a tablet or touchscreen device. OneNote lets you annotate your notes by using a stylus or your finger (but I’m not a fan of using my finger for writing – too messy!).
- The cloud is your friend! Between my OneNote and Google Drive, I know I’ll never lose data again. (If you’ve ever experienced the tragedy of losing a 5000-word essay at the last minute, you’ll know how important it is to make sure that never happens again.) Plus, again, then things are accessible no matter what device you’re on.
- Have a folder (and perhaps sub-folders) in your Google Drive for each course. OneNote is great, but you may still have separate files to keep track of – assignments, music files, PDFs of readings. Those still need to be kept well-organized, too!
Organize Your University Notes – Which System is Best For You?
To find which system helps you organize your university notes the best, you may need to experiment a bit. Goodness knows across my 6 years of university life, I kept changing my mind and trying to improve things.
Here are some questions to consider to help you decide where to start:
- Do you prefer writing or typing?
- Does one help you learn and retain information better than the other?
- Are you a fast enough writer to keep up with even the fastest talking professor?
- How will you best study for exams? Will you want to have everything already contained in a notebook? Would you rather print your notes and highlight them?
- Is being paperless something you value?
- What is your budget?
- How much do you want to carry around with you from day to day? (Consider your mode of transportation – if you ride the bus, like I did, you might want to carry less than if you live on campus or own a car.)
I really hope I’ve given you a good idea of how you might like to organize yourself for school. I really do think a solid organization system is key if you want to achieve big things. After all, like my Mom says, “You can’t get dishes clean in a dirty sink!” (Which isn’t a metaphor – she really doesn’t like dirty sinks – but I think it somewhat applies here, too.)
Let us know in the comments how you organize your university notes and if you have any other tips for student success!