How to Read for Grad School

Before I attended boot camp for my library school program, we were assigned to read a colossal amount of material. We’re talking hundreds of pages of (mostly) interesting, yet dense and often challenging material. In the weeks leading up to boot camp I became increasingly panicked as I realized that not only would I not be able to complete the readings, but I would most likely forget most of it before I even got to campus.

What nobody ever told me is that reading for graduate school is not the same as, say, reading for pleasure. Spoiler: you don’t need to read every word! A handful of tricks and shortcuts can turn that mountain of scholarly articles into something far more manageable. Here are some techniques that have worked for me.

  1. Find your medium. What is your preferred way to read for school? It could be print, a laptop, or even your cell phone. Hackers have recommended a variety of gadgets for studying. When you read the way you like to read, there is a better chance you will retain the information.
  1. Take notes. This one goes without saying. Whether you are marking up the page with highlighters and comments or writing in a separate Word document, make sure you are recording your thoughts. There are a variety of notetaking apps out there that might work for you. My method is to read on my laptop and keep a running notesheet in Google Drive. This way I can easily pull up my notes while I’m in class no matter which computer I’m using.

    Photo from zaveqna, Flickr Commons CC 2.0

    Photo from zaveqna, Flickr Commons CC 2.0

  1. When you are finished reading, write down a few key points to bring up in class. What is the author’s main point? What questions do you have about the argument being presented? These notes will help refresh your memory later on and provide content to contribute to class discussions.
  1. Set priorities. Some material may be more specific to your specialization or interests than others. They may also be more important for the course or in-class activities for a given week. Decide which readings are most important and start there. If you don’t have time to read everything, at least you will have the most important stuff down.
  1. Skim when necessary. This may the most important reading advice I’ve ever received (say it with me now): you do not need to read every word! Spending too much time analyzing every sentence will slow you down. Instead, pay attention to the abstract, introduction, and section headings first. Focus on getting the author’s main point for each section. When you get the main idea, move on. Skimming is especially relevant when reading articles that go over research methods. When you are crunched for time, focus on the results of the research rather than the explanation of each variable and the equation used to analyze data.
  1. Backtrack when necessary. If you’ve skimmed an article and feel you missed a piece of the bigger picture, go back and review.

One particularly helpful method recommended by the American Psychological Association is the SQ3R method:

  • Survey: Skim the meatiest parts of the article to get an idea of the content.
  • Question: Brainstorm some questions based on the parts you have skimmed.
  • Read: Read the article to look for answers to your questions.
  • Recite: Look away from the text for a moment and think of the answers to your questions.
  • Review: Go over the main points of the article and summarize.

Everyone is different and what works for some may not work for others. How do you manage reading for grad school? What other tips do you have for students?

3 replies

  1. These are wonderful and helpful tips. I am also starting graduate school in the fall, but for history, And there are TONS of reading. I hope these tips will be useful!


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