Excel in High School with these Note Taking Tips

Taking notes is stressful to some students, but it doesn’t have to be if you learn how to take the right kinds of notes for each of your high school classes. Everyone has a different view on how to take effective notes, and everyone does it differently, but finding the right style that works for you is important and will help you succeed.

Your chosen classes will determine the types of material you learn and the note taking abilities you will need to use to succeed academically. Before you enter college, it is best to start developing good note taking habits at an early age, starting in your high school classes. For more in-depth guidance, you should consult with an academic or student coach.

Maths and Sciences

Although many students feel fine using lined paper, you may want to consider using graphing paper, or even blank paper in math and science courses. Graphing paper is great if you need to draw diagrams in class, like stem-and-leaf display in your statistics class, or to copy down equations in your calculus and algebra classes. Many students also use blank pages as scrap paper, so they can work out the equations alongside the teacher while keeping their actual class notes neat and orderly. Organization is important when it comes to taking notes and it will help you stay on task.

To develop good note taking strategies for your high school career, you need to start early in your freshman year if possible. You should always bring more paper than you think you will need to any math and science classes. Unlike in the Humanities, where you can jot down the names of important figures and events to return to study later, STEM courses require more effort to cement class material in your long-term memory due to their technical nature.

If you are worried about your note taking abilities and are planning to head to college when you graduate high school, talking to an academic coach can help you get your skills up to speed. They will be more than happy to help you figure out where your current abilities are and help you develop a note taking system that works for you.


The Humanities are more diverse in terms of material and class structure than math and science. While both class types are interdisciplinary to some degree, the Humanities have a greater rift between subjects. Each class, however, is slightly different and may require a unique approach, depending on the subject matter, your note taking preferences, and the teacher’s class style.

English (which includes Shakespeare, Greek classics, literature, and any other type of class that focuses in-depth on the English language) and the political and social sciences make up the majority of Humanities courses. Depending on your high school, you may be able to enrol in different courses unique to your school, like Philosophy or International Relations. Talk to your high school guidance counselor or an academic coach about your course options. They are a great resource to use, and they are happy to help students who show initiative and self-reliance. These traits will help you succeed when you get to college as well.

All of the major Humanities courses in high school have distinct note taking styles. However, ideas and context are two important themes that appear in most humanities courses and successful students will develop a note taking style that allows them to capture them.


You should keep a running sheet and timeline. This will help you map out and understand the different characters, settings, main events, plot twists, and, of course, your personal commentary and questions. To avoid making your notes confusing, you should write your questions for the teacher in the margins. You will be able to find all the relevant questions you wish to ask without having to flip through all your notes in a flurry.

These tips are helpful when deconstructing any novel, play, or other fictional literary work you are discussing in class. It is not enough to just summarize the books. While famous and well-known authors will be discussed in your classes, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Shakespeare, and Tennessee Williams, it is necessary for you to establish good note taking skills that will help you dissect and understand any work of literature you are assigned. In later years, as you become a high school senior, you will be required to analyze similar books in greater depth and developing these skills at an early age will serve you well. If you do not have a note taking system in place that works for you, it will be harder for you to excel.

Political and Social Science

Most of the material you will cover in political or social sciences classes are qualitative in scope. Only in specific classes or at a more advanced level will you study things like statistics or game theory, which require you to take notes as if you were a math and science student. At the early levels, your notes will be about grand theories, societal problems, and a much broader approach to the subjects with a minor focus on statistical data.

Drawing out a web on a blank piece of paper that connects all the major players on the political arena you are studying, for instance, like how the various branches of the United Nations interact with each other, can be helpful when studying the associations between bodies of governance and contextual ideas. This also works when studying interpersonal political relationships in class. For example, if you are taking notes in European Political History and you want to remember the British monarchy during 16th century Britain, you might want to draw the Tudor’s family tree to help you remember it.

In General

While your note taking abilities will improve over time and practice, there is no one-size-fits all approach to writing excellent notes. Note taking alone will not ensure you achieve stellar grades. Your notes are a tool, among many others like your textbooks and online resources, that help you succeed. Other tools include time management, reviewing concepts after class, study groups, and more.

Everybody takes notes differently and it is important that you find your winning strategy. Consulting with an academic or student coach can be beneficial to fully developing your note taking abilities as they will help you discover your strengths and weaknesses when it comes to taking notes.

Here are some tips:

  • Pay attention to your teacher. Each one has their own distinct style, which will affect the notes you take. Some might speak slow and repeat important material over again, while others speak with a rushed tone and do not repeat material for students while speaking in class. Some may provide slides, while others refuse to use technology and will speak from their memory. After the first few classes, you will be able to understand your teacher’s style and whether they make use of whiteboards, charts, handouts, and other tools.
  • Make sure you are organized for each class. It helps to prepare your notes in advance with a short sentence or two on the gist of your previous assignments, as well as any questions that came to you after completing them. This will ensure you are prepared for the class material each day, and help you internalize the lesson. Your notes for each class should be housed in their own binder. Use a 3-hole punch to prevent your notes from falling out of the binder and becoming damaged in your backpack. If you would rather use a notebook, use a binder with pockets. You can also use a multi-subject notebook or accordion/butterfly folder if you would like.
  • Ask questions if you do not understand. Teachers understand that you are a high school student and they are usually happy to answer any questions that you have as it shows you have engaged with the material. Regardless of your exact courses, your teachers will not expect you to know the subject inside and out when you first walk into class. If you have questions, or are confused by some of the class material and assignments, don’t be afraid to ask questions during and after class. If your teacher allows students to meet for a one-on-one conversation, take advantage of this. Developing an academic relationship with your teacher is a great way to show that you are a dedicated student who is genuinely interested in the material and most teachers want their students to be active.
  • Study in groups. You may like to study in groups for tests and exams. After all, not everyone likes to study alone. Study groups are an effective way to ensure you are not missing any information in your notes by comparing them with your friends. Study groups also present the opportunity to “teach” each other the material again. This is a great study method to ensure that you know the class material thoroughly and to help you work with the material in an intelligent way. If you can do this, you will be prepared for any test or exam.
  • Handwrite your notes. In high school, you will have to handwrite your notes. Most high schools do not allow students to use laptops to take notes. if you still need your computer to study, you can always type your notes up after school, or take a photograph of your handwritten notes to upload later. If you save these photographs on a professional note taking program like Evernote, you can tag your notes and keep them organized. Taking notes by hand however, will help you better remember the material. If you want to memorize your notes even better, try re-writing or re-typing them on your computer later as it forces you to engage with the material a second time, encouraging additional memorization.
  • Use the Cornell note taking method. One preferred method of note taking in universities and colleges across America is the Cornell Notes method. This is a way to organize and condense your class notes, making them more coherent and logical to you. The page is split into three sections: a left column, a right column, and a bottom section. The left column holds your keywords and questions. The right column holds your definitions and examples from the lecture. The bottom section is where you write a summary of the class. Cornell notes, originating from Cornell University in the 1950s, are the most recommended form of note taking in America because they work. Even though you are not in college yet, taking Cornell notes will help you prepare for success at any class level.

If you have any questions about note taking, the college prep experience, or anything related to college preparations, Nikki Bruno – a qualified student coach – is here to make high school easy, simplify the college application process, and to take the stress out of your future college experience.

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