How to Read for College

Learning Objectives

  • Identify effective reading strategies for academic texts in a variety of formats

Photo of a man lying on the ground, against a tree, holding a book and a pencil in handActive learning and effective reading requires more engagement than just reading the words on the page. In order to learn and retain what you read, it’s a good idea to do things like circling key words, writing notes, and reflecting on what you are learning. Actively reading academic texts can be challenging for students who are used to reading for entertainment alone, but practicing the following steps will get you up to speed:

  • Preview: You can gain insight from an academic text before you even begin the reading assignment. For example, if you are assigned a nonfiction book, read the title, the back of the book, and table of contents. Previewing this information can give you an initial idea of what you’ll be reading and some useful context for thinking about it. You can also start to make connections between the new reading and knowledge you already have when you preview a text.
  • Read: While you read an academic text, you should have a pen or pencil in hand. Circle or highlight key concepts. Write questions or comments in the margins or take notes in a notebook.  This will help you remember what you are reading and also build a personal connection with the subject matter.
  • Summarize:After you read an academic text, it’s worth taking the time to write a short summary—even if your instructor doesn’t require it. The exercise of jotting down a few sentences or writing a short paragraph capturing the reading’s main ideas is enormously beneficial. Summarizing not only helps you understand and absorb what you read but also gives you ready study materials for exams and other assignments.
  • Review: It helps to revisit what you’ve read for a quick refresher. It may not be practical to thoroughly reread assignments from start to finish, but before class discussions or tests, it’s a good idea to skim through them to identify the main points, reread any notes at the ends of chapters, and review any summaries you’ve written.

The following video covers additional active reading strategies readers can use before, during, and after the reading process.

You can view the transcript for “College Reading Strategies” here (opens in new window).

Reading Strategies for Specialized Texts and Online Resources

In college it’s not uncommon to experience frustration with reading assignments from time to time. Because you’re doing more reading on your own outside the classroom, and with less frequent contact with instructors than you had in high school, it’s possible you’ll encounter readings that contain unfamiliar vocabulary or don’t readily make sense. Different disciplines and subjects have different writing conventions and styles, and it can take some practice to get to know them. For example, scientific articles follow a very particular format and typically contain the following sections: an abstract, introduction, methods, results, and discussions. If you are used to reading literary works, such as graphic novels or poetry, it can be disorienting to encounter these new forms of writing.

Below are some strategies for making different kinds of texts more approachable.

Get to Know the Conventions

Academic texts, like scientific studies and journal articles, may have sections that are new to you. If you’re not sure what an “abstract” is, research it online or ask your instructor. Understanding the meaning and purpose of such conventions is not only helpful for reading comprehension but for writing, too.

Look up and Keep Track of Unfamiliar Terms and Phrases

Have a good college dictionary such as Merriam-Webster handy (or find it online) when you read complex academic texts, so you can look up the meaning of unfamiliar words and terms. Many textbooks also contain glossaries or “key terms” sections at the ends of chapters or the end of the book. If you can’t find the words you’re looking for in a standard dictionary, you may need one specially written for a particular discipline. For example, a medical dictionary would be a good resource for a course in anatomy and physiology.

If you circle or underline terms and phrases that appear repeatedly, you’ll have a visual reminder to review and learn them. Repetition helps to lock in these new words and their meanings get them into long-term memory, so the more you review them the more you’ll understand and feel comfortable using them.

Look for Main Ideas and Themes

As a college student, you are not expected to understand every single word or idea presented in a reading, especially if you haven’t discussed it in class yet. However, you will get more out of discussions and feel more confident about asking questions if you can identify the main idea or thesis in a reading. The thesis statement can often (but not always) be found in the introductory paragraph, and it may be introduced with a phrase like “In this essay I argue that . . .” Getting a handle on the overall reason an author wrote something (“to prove X” or “to explore Y,” for instance) gives you a framework for understanding more of the details. It’s also useful to keep track of any themes you notice in the writing. A theme may be a recurring idea, word, or image that strikes you as interesting or important: “This story is about men working in a gloomy factory, but the author keeps mentioning birds and bats and windows. Why is that?”

Get the Most of Online Reading

Reading online texts presents unique challenges for some students. For one thing, you can’t readily circle or underline key terms or passages on the screen with a pencil. For another, there can be many tempting distractions—just a quick visit to or Facebook.

While there’s no substitute for old-fashioned self-discipline, you can take advantage of the following tips to make online reading more efficient and effective:

  • Where possible, download the reading as a PDF, Word document, etc., so you can read it offline.
  • Get one of the apps that allow you to disable your social media sites for specified periods of time.
  • Adjust your screen to avoid glare and eye strain, and change the text font to be less distracting.

Look for Reputable Online Sources

Professors tend to assign reading from reputable print and online sources, so you can feel comfortable referencing such sources in class and for writing assignments. If you are looking for online sources independently, however, devote some time and energy to critically evaluating the quality of the source before spending time reading any resources you find there. Find out what you can about the author (if one is listed), the Web site, and any affiliated sponsors it may have. Check that the information is current and accurate against similar information on other pages.

Depending on what you are researching, sites that end in “.edu” (indicating an “education” site such as a college, university, or other academic institution) tend to be more reliable than “.com” sites, but not always. Be sure to always check where your information comes from before you cite the course.

Pay Attention to Visual Information

Images in textbooks or journals usually contain valuable information to help you more deeply grasp a topic. Graphs and charts, for instance, help show the relationship between different kinds of information or data—how a population changes over time, how a virus spreads through a population, etc.

Data-rich graphics can take longer to “read” than the text around them because they present a lot of information in a condensed form. Give yourself plenty of time to study these items, as they often provide new and lasting insights that are easy to recall later (like in the middle of an exam on that topic).


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