This is the only way to read in college

6 min read

“The books you don’t read won’t help.”
—Jim Rohn

The majority of the time you spend in college will be doing readings. They are the foundation of your class. Every lecture, every paper, every project, and most certainly every exam, will be based those readings.

When I was in college, readings were always just from a textbook. Today they can also be PDFs or online reading sources.

Regardless of what they are, you are going to have a lot of them. They are the biggest cause of stress in college because students continually underestimate the time they are going to take to get done.

This is why knowing your time and workload is so important.

Read EVERY Word

Reading everything sounds ridiculously obvious, but it’s amazing how many students don’t read everything in their textbooks. They just think they’ll get it from their class lectures.

They won’t.

I read every single word that was ever assigned to me in college. Literally. Every single word. Not only did I want to get a decent grade, but I actually wanted to learn something for my tuition money—and I wasn’t even paying it myself.

If you’re a student who’s just trying to get by, you are only cheating yourself. Have some passion for really learning. Open the book and read it all.

I realize that may be tough for some students. Many just don’t have time. I understand that, but you can do more than you think.

As we talked about, one of the main reasons that students skip readings is failure to plan their time. Solve that first and you may have more time than you think.

Lack of time is also an argument for knowing your workload and estimating how long each of them will take. Once you break it all down and know exactly what you have to do, readings are actually the easiest things to estimate.

Just break it down into small steps. If you really don’t have time, then look at what you have to do and prioritize it. I’m not a big fan of that but I realize some students just can’t do it all. Do your best. If you use the small blocks of time efficiently, you may surprise yourself and get way more done than you think you can.

Time How Long Things Take

I’m going to say it again and again. Underestimating time is the biggest problem students have. They continually think they can get things done in time and they are almost always wrong.

Every book has a time per page that you can reasonably estimate over time. The better you can estimate that now, the better you can plan the future.

From now on, every time you read something, either use a stopwatch or write your start time on the first page and the end time on the last page of the reading to know how long each reading took you to do.

This takes no time and the benefits are huge.

I always did this when I was in college. I developed a sense of time about how long things might take that let me plan with pretty good accuracy.

If I had 30 pages to read I always knew how long my next reading from the same book would take me. If I was wrong, I would would adjust my estimates.

One thing for sure, I didn’t like surprises. There is nothing worse than looking at your syllabus and seeing a huge reading that you didn’t expect. It’s even worse when you have no idea how long it’s going to take. Just don’t go there.

Highlight Every Reading

Remember, effectiveness is about doing things right. You are going to invest a lot of time doing readings and you want to do them with the end in mind.

One thing for certain—something on that page is going to be on the exam. Sooner or later you’re going to have to revisit that page to study it and you want to have it prepared in a way that allows for faster review. That means doing a good job of highlighting (or underlining) from day one.

In high school, kids usually aren’t allowed to highlight their textbooks. In college, you have to. It’s just that important.

It amazes me how many used books I see that still look brand new. It’s crazy to me how someone can read a textbook without highlighting and still get an A. I knew some people like that, but I sure wasn’t one of them.

I know those textbooks of yours are expensive and you want to trade them back in looking like new, but that just isn’t going to happen. Kiss them goodbye. They’ll need to be sacrificed to get you that A.

And let’s be honest: it’s a little crazy to stress about a few bucks in buy-back costs when you’re paying thousands of dollars for that college class. Consider it the cost of succeeding in college: you’re going to get less when you trade in your textbooks, but you’ll also get better grades.

I know which one I’d choose.

There are a lot of contrary opinions on highlighting. Some think it’s a waste of time, that it really isn’t effective. I couldn’t disagree more strongly. Highlighting does more than just draw attention to important points. Highlighting adds value in many ways.


It’s often hard to read new and complicated material. When you highlight, it forces you to concentrate. Really concentrate. You can’t just breeze through it and you certainly won’t be daydreaming. You have to have an intense focus and read with a purpose. You are constantly looking for the most important points and the best ways to abbreviate them. You will always be asking yourself after reading each and every sentence if this content is likely to appear on the exam and how it might be presented.

You are already preparing for the exam.


When highlighting, you’re forced to read the material twice. Often on your first pass, you’ll read the paragraph entirely so you’re clear about what is important. You then go back and highlight only those words that qualify as triggers for what you need to remember. That alone is worth it.


Really, the most important reason to highlight your books is to speed review. This is where hours are saved. If you don’t highlight and isolate the important concepts in your textbook, how do you know what to review for your exam?

This goes double for writing papers. Underline the most important, relevant concepts and it will make finding material for your papers a breeze.

High school students scan over their textbooks searching for things they don’t know. You don’t have time to do that in college. You could waste literally hundreds of hours during your college career reading and re-reading irrelevant material.

Highlighting by definition will key you in on only those points that need to be reviewed the most. You’ll automatically ignore the rest.

How to Highlight

Highlighting doesn’t necessarily mean a yellow highlighter. You can use a pen, a pencil, or a green highlighter. Some use multiple colors for different things. I always used a mechanical pencil. I recommend it because you can’t remove pen or marker. Many times you start reading and highlighting only to find out that the very best material was in the next paragraph. I also like a pencil because you can write notes, question marks or other comments on a page without stopping.

To those of you who are used to highlighting, this may sound simplistic. Bear with me here because the fact is that most students just don’t highlight their books at all. They simply read them.

But just staring at the page doesn’t really count as reading.

You have to be diligent about clearly identifying the most relevant content in each paragraph. This is the tough part.

I see highlighted books where entire paragraphs are yellow. That defeats the purpose. It’s important to try to eliminate the filler from the critical concepts and do it in a way that still makes it readable.

Most books contain way more words than you’ll ever need for the test. I’m not saying the material isn’t important, because it is. That’s why you should read everything that’s assigned to you. However, most words in a paragraph give context—background info, explaining the reasons for something, or setting the stage for the central point that the paragraph is trying to make. Words lay the foundation.

You are looking for the salient points in each paragraph and each sentence. Everything may be important, but you’re looking for the triggers—those words and phrases that provide the meat of the concept and help you remember the rest when you need to.

Always ask: What might be on the exam?

Sometimes it seems like you have to highlight the whole thing, but you can usually pick out the key words and phrases and highlight them to understand and remember the concept. With practice, you’ll craft whole sentences that make perfect sense using words or even parts of words spread across one or many paragraphs.

There’s an art to pulling the most from the least words and still making it readable. We’ll give you examples in the Learning Center. It’s never a perfect process, but the more you do it, the better and faster you’ll get at it every week.

Highlight EVERY page of EVERY textbook. NO exceptions.

Understand Everything

Reading is good. Understanding is better.

I know this may be stating the obvious, but I am always amazed by how many people just read past things they don’t really understand. They assume they’ll figure it out later, get it during class, or at the very least, that it won’t be on the exam.

You need to understand everything you read in college. Everything. That includes the definition of every word in every book. Don’t skip over a word hoping it isn’t important. Never move ahead until the content is clear.

You have a dictionary right on your laptop. Open it and use it.

The main reason students pass over something they don’t understand is—as always—is they are short of time. They have to take shortcuts. No time for highlighting, no time for looking things up. Bad habits come back and they compound. Skipping past complicated material is one of the most common elements in getting behind.

The solution, as always, is to assume that everything will take longer than you think. Take a smaller bite, start earlier, and slow down. Know the time it takes to cover difficult material and plan accordingly. Don’t waste time reading a textbook if you don’t have the time to understand it and prepare it for review. You’re just piling up confusion and pushing the work to an even later date.

You’re wasting more time.

Reading is the one thing that you can always get ahead on. You can’t go to a lecture in advance, but you most certainly can read your textbook as far ahead as you want. Get ahead and stay ahead. You’ll be prepared for every class, understand the lectures better, and leave yourself way more time to clear up the confusion.

Write Test Questions

Okay, so you’ve read every word. You’ve highlighted the salient points. You understand everything. You’ve cleared up any confusing concepts with your professor.

Do you think any of that material might be on your exam?

Of course it will.

So now, just like with your class notes, it’s time to write some test questions. This is where your highlighting really pays off. Writing the test questions is one of the most helpful study techniques you can use. Go back over each page of your textbook and look at every highlighted section.

Ask yourself how the professor would ask about this content on the exam and WRITE THE QUESTION DOWN. If you’ve done a good job of highlighting, you’ll have the material pretty well narrowed down already. The question should jump right out at you.

Write the test questions in the margins if you can. Some books might not have room, so it’s always smart to keep a notebook nearby as you read. That way, you’ll have all of your questions in one place.

Keep it simple. Just flip to the back of your class notebook, turn it upside down, and start at the back page. Link the content to the question in your notebook. Just number each question to connect it to the reading.

If you’re typing on a laptop, create a Test Question document in Google Docs. You can type questions or you can dictate them, assuming you won’t be annoying anyone. Google Docs has a very good voice recognition app. You can quickly review your highlighted pages, think of questions, and dictate them onto a page. That too will save you time.

Writing test questions will both dramatically reduce the time you need to study for the real thing and increase your retention. We’ll give you some examples in the Learning Center.

Wrap It Up

As with everything else that you do, make sure you treat each and every session with your textbook as a single unit that should be completed before you move on. Read it, understand it, highlight it, and write test questions.

Spend a little time now to save time later.

As always, ask yourself, “If I took an exam on just the material that I covered today, would I get an A?”

The answer should always be “Yes.”

Again, ask yourself how long that particular task took, start to finish. Reading, highlighting, writing test questions. Know how long it took so you can adjust your estimates and plan ahead.

Remember, Shovel App makes this easy. Just use it and your time will take care of itself automatically.

Know What’s Ahead

When you’ve finished reading your current assignment, just take a quick scan of the pages ahead. Is this new and complicated material? Will it take even more time than you estimated in The Pile? Should you start earlier and allow extra time just in case? Your instincts will tell you right away if you can expect problems. Always look ahead to avoid getting behind.

One of the advantages of setting up all of your readings in the Shovel app is that it forces you to really get a good overview of how long each reading will take. Individual chapters can be radically different in terms of their difficulty, especially as the weeks go by. Your estimates of how long things take may be way off in the pages to come.

Don’t get caught by surprise. Look ahead and know what’s coming so you can plan accordingly.

Back It Up

Just like your class notes, you invest a lot of time and effort into reading and highlighting your textbook. You’ve created an extremely valuable asset. What if you lost it? Unlike taking notes in Google Docs, you can’t automatically back up your textbook to the cloud.

Ask yourself: If you lost your textbook today, would that affect your ability to review and get a perfect grade? If you’ve done things right, the answer should be a resounding “Yes.”

I know this may sound anal, but there is nothing wrong with taking a photo of every page and backing it up to the cloud. You can have all of your photos automatically back up to either iCloud, Dropbox, or Google Drive. We’ll also cover backup methods in the Learning Center.

I realize that most students won’t do this, but if you choose not to, all I can say is guard that book with your life.

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