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How to make a study guide that works for you

We’ve all been there. It’s time to study for a final exam and you’re ready to hit the ground running. You’ve got your latte, your study playlist, and a quiet place without any distractions.

The only problem is, once you finally sit down to study, you realize you don’t even know where to start. You’ve received so much information throughout the semester, and now you’re trying to determine what will be on the test.

If your study session usually involves reading through months’ worth of notes with no direction, you’re wasting valuable time.

So how can you spend your study time wisely?

This is where study guides come in.

If you don’t know how to create a study guide, you’re in the right place.

With the help of a study guide, you can prioritize the most important material, retain the information you need to know, and feel confident walking into your exam.

Say goodbye to frantically scanning your history textbook the night before the test, hoping to miraculously develop a photographic memory.

Creating an effective study guide that works for you is a skill that takes time to develop. Once you have the basic idea down, you’ll be creating effective and efficient guides like a pro. 

What is a study guide?

Study Guide 101

So, what is a study guide and what are the benefits of making one?

A study guide is a tool many students use to help them study for an exam or test. It’s usually a collection of the most important content displayed in a clear, condensed way which makes it easy for you to study multiple chapters or units at once. 

You can make a study guide for any subject from English literature to trigonometry, and all the subjects in between.

Although there are some teachers out there who will provide a study guide for you before a test, many teachers will not. Sometimes all you’re told is the general topic of the test, and from there you’re on your own.

With practice, you can learn to create your own study guides that will help you ace a test in any subject. 

  • An outline of each chapter with key points
  • A concept map giving a visual of the most important content
  • A chronological timeline for subjects such as history or literature
  • Flashcards or concept cards for vocabulary
  • Sample tests 

What’s so great about study guides, anyway?

Maybe you’re asking yourself, “What’s the point of making a study guide?” If you’re the type of person who likes to jump right in, and you feel like you’re doing just fine on your own, hear me out for a minute.

Creating a study guide doesn’t just help you focus specifically on the really important points. It also helps you weed out the not-so-important stuff.

Remember when you aced your test on Chapter 6 without even studying because you had already learned all that last semester?

You probably don’t need to spend too much time studying the chapters you already know.

Even if you’re already a great test taker, a study guide will still benefit you because it will allow you to spend less time studying. And who doesn’t need more time in their lives? Finishing your study session an hour early means you can catch up on that show you’ve been binge-watching.

Without a study guide, we tend to find ourselves without direction while studying for a test. Maybe that looks like trying to actually read through every single chapter (which will make for a very long night and is not very effective) or maybe it looks like browsing through your notes aimlessly, hoping the really important points stick.

No matter what kind of test you’re studying for, creating a study guide that works for you makes all the difference when it comes to retaining information and being prepared to ace that test.

Before you start

Creating a study guide can seem daunting if you’re unsure of where to start. If you haven’t been working on it throughout the semester, you might be overwhelmed by the idea of going back through everything you’ve learned.

To help you manage the stress of creating a study guide, here are some ideas for breaking down the process:

1. Break up the work into chunks

Don’t try to create a study guide for the whole semester in one night. You’ll wear yourself out, which will keep you from being as productive as you could be. Instead, break up the work into bite-sized pieces, and focus on completing one task before you move on to the next.

If there are 10 total chapters on the test, go through one or two chapters at a time. Figure out how much material you have to cover, and then break it down into however many days you have to complete it. Instead of jumping right in, make a study plan.

Many students swear by the Pomodoro Technique, which involves setting a timer for 25 minutes, and then allowing yourself to take a short break afterward. Taking a break every once in a while is a good way to help you stay focused on the task in front of you. 

The goal is to work uninterrupted for 25 minutes. If you’ve already broken up your work into simple tasks, you could complete a whole task during that time.

2. Put aside all distractions

Part of the Pomodoro technique is setting aside all distractions and working diligently for the whole 25 minutes. Whether you’re following this technique or not, putting aside distractions is a great tip for any kind of study session.

Silence your phone, turn off the TV, and find a quiet place to work. If you know your roommate’s having friends over during your study time, or you have trouble finding a quiet spot at home, go sit at a coffee shop and put some headphones in.

Never underestimate the power of a good study playlist. According to the Learning Scientists and what they call the Mozart Effect, putting on the right kind of music can actually benefit you during a study session.

You don’t realize how much distractions interrupt your workflow until you put them aside completely. Putting on headphones and a study playlist is one way to drown out any distracting noises around you.

3. Ask questions

You’re bound to have some questions come up while you’re working on your study guide, but it’s a good idea to ask questions before you begin as well. Whether you’re consulting with your teacher or another classmate, make sure you have the correct information before you start the work.

It could be as simple as bothering the person who sits next to you and asking, “Hey, do I have the assigned reading right for next week’s test?”

Or it could be more thorough, such as sitting down with a study buddy and comparing notes to ensure you have everything you need.

No matter what this step looks like for you, don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. 

Tips for making a study guide that works for you

Get organized

The first step to making a study guide is figuring out what you need to study. All of a sudden you may be wishing you had been more organized during the semester.

Not to worry, after you make your first study guide, you’ll know better for next time.

You need to find the most important content so you can add it to your study guide.

Here’s how to do that:

  • Get out all of your notes, handouts, textbooks, and other related material from the semester or unit, as well as a highlighter, and some sticky notes. 
  • Highlight anything you know you need to study for the test. If your teacher said “This will be on the test,” highlight it! If it’s new material you learned this semester, highlight that as well. 
  • Use sticky notes to write down any questions you have or mark any terms you need to look up. 
  • Use page flags to mark important information in your textbook that you need to include in your study guide.

Create a summary sheet

Now that you’ve highlighted the most important concepts, create a sheet where you summarize all the key points from the chapter or unit. A summary sheet is the first step in turning your notes into a study guide.

Even though it may be faster for you to type up a document, handwrite your summary sheet. There are numerous benefits to handwriting your notes versus typing them, one of them being that you’re more likely to retain the information.

I see you out there, wondering, “How can I handwrite anything when I can’t even read my own handwriting?” Lucky for you, there are plenty of ways you can improve your handwriting!

Be sure to paraphrase the key points instead of copying them down word for word. Content writing the key concepts in your own words is another way to help yourself remember them.

Here’s one way to create a summary sheet:

  • Create two columns on a sheet of paper, making the column on the right about twice the size of the column on the left.
  • In the right column, write down all of the important concepts, key ideas, definitions, formulas, etc. from the unit. Include a brief explanation underneath each concept.
  • In the left column, write down questions that relate to the material on the right. If you used sticky notes to write any questions down during the last step, you could write those questions on your summary sheet.
  • As an additional studying tool, you can cover the right side of the paper and quiz yourself with the questions on the left. 

Figure out what type of study guide works best with the content

There are many different types of study guides out there. You have to figure out what type works best for you, and works best with the content you're studying.

The study guide you made for your trig test is bound to look different than the one you made for your biology exam.

Your study guide can also be a mix of different types of study materials, so don’t feel like you have to stick to one type.

In order to figure out what type of study guide you need, first ask yourself what type of material you’re studying. Is the material mostly math formulas? Definitions you need to memorize? Essay questions?

You probably don’t need a timeline in your algebra study guide, but it’s important to know the different types of study materials so you’re aware of all the choices you have.

Here are some examples of tools to use in your study guide:

Concept maps

Concept maps, also called mind maps, are a great tool for any study guide because they’re extremely diverse and can be used for many different subjects.

A concept map starts with one main topic: studying, for example. The topic is then broken down into different branches or subtopics. Here’s an example from

Concept maps can even include images or drawings to help you remember the term. Using a combination of words, images, and related phrases to map out a term will help you remember and understand the term better. This type of study tool can be used for virtually any subject that requires you to understand or define terms or concepts.


Timelines are great for visual learners, and they work particularly well in classes such as history or literature. If you need to remember the progression of World War II, for example, you could include a timeline that shows the chronological events that occurred, as well as a detailed outline that explains the importance of each event. Check out this video to learn how to make a timeline.

Practice essay questions

If you’re studying for an essay exam, you may not have any formulas or vocabulary to study, but you still have to prepare as best you can. If you’re struggling to figure out what the most important concepts are, ask yourself, “What concepts did the teacher spend the most time on?”

When predicting essay questions, here are some words to consider that may be used on the exam: describe, define, evaluate, discuss, prove, and compare/contrast.

Make it your own

Whether you decide on an outline, a Venn diagram, a comparison chart, or a combination of all three for your study guide, find what works for you and the subject you’re studying.

We hope these tips help you create an effective study guide, but feel free to make it your own. You might keep your study guide simple, or you might color-code the entire thing if that’s your style.

Whatever you do, keep the focus on understanding and studying the most important concepts. Don’t worry too much about making your study guide Pinterest-worthy. Focus on making it clear and effective. 

Don’t forget the vocabulary

English isn’t the only subject that requires you to study vocabulary, but vocab ends up being an afterthought for many students. The first step to studying vocab is memorizing definitions, but it doesn’t need to be the only step.

Flashcards are one of the most powerful tools to add to your study guide, since they allow you to quiz yourself on vocabulary and other basic concepts. You can easily create a set on index cards to take with you, or you can even create your own study set over here on Quizlet, like this English vocab set for example.

Concept maps are also great for vocab terms. Once you memorize the definition, a concept map can help you understand the term in a deeper way. If you only know the definition of a word, you may not know how to use it in a sentence or apply it within a different context.

This is why it’s helpful to use several different tools in your study guide, instead of only focusing on one type of material.

Study guides are a great way to prepare for an upcoming test. The best thing about study guides is that you can adapt them to fit your specific needs.

You’ll save yourself a lot of trouble if you can work on your study guide throughout the semester, but they’re also simple enough that you can put one together in just a few easy steps (just in case you’re reading this three days before your exam).

If you have a test coming up, don’t put it off any longer, go make yourself a study guide. We’re rooting for you!