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How to Take Notes like a Graduate Student

31 March 2017

Katrina Dunlap

One of the more tedious tasks to studying or reading for your graduate course work is taking good notes on what you are reading. While this may or may not come easy to you as a student, it is an imperative skill to master as soon as possible. Below, I’ve summarized how to use the Cornell method on note-taking that you can apply to almost any graduate course you take.

Why take notes? Well the obvious answer is so you don’t have to waste time re-reading the text or article again. A somewhat less obvious reason is for a deeper comprehension of the reading. Whatever your motivation for note-taking may be, it will prove itself to be well worth the effort.

The Cornell method.[1] First, take your note paper and divide it into 3 sections and leave room to write (see picture on the right). On the top line write the topic’s name and the date of the lecture. The right side of the box is the notes column. Make sure you skip lines and do not cram everything together. Also, abbreviate wherever necessary to save time. Use the left column to draw out any main ideas, key points, or important people and dates. When writing these phrases or main questions down in the left column, make sure they are aligned with the corresponding text in the right column. The bottom section is your summary of a few sentences that wraps up all key points. Be sure to write this section as if you were going to explain this to someone who has never studied the subject before. This exercise aims to reinforce what you’ve read.

Why the Cornell method? I’ve personally found that this particular method of notetaking allows me to think critically on a given subject. Also, writing in a methodical way helps me recall what I read. Lastly, the Cornell note-taking method helps me to better understand the material and prepare myself for an exam.

Whether you choose to take notes by hand or by computer, find out what works best for you. If you find yourself struggling to complete your assignments, it may be time to re-evaluate your approach and try something new. Mason’s Learning Services offers additional resources to aid graduate students with reading strategies, including workshops, academic coaching, and online videos. Visit the Learning Services website for more information.


[1] “The Cornell Note-taking System.” http://lsc.cornell.edu/study-skills/cornell-note-taking-system/ Accessed March 27, 2017


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