How To Ace Your College English Class | 5 Tips from an English Major

This article was first published Aug. 17, 2016.

Disclaimer: As with all posts on ShellyRawlings.com, the content published below comes only from personal experience and is not intended to be taken as professional counseling or advice. Sadly, I can’t guarantee that you’ll end up with a perfect or even a passing grade—but following these tips can help! For more information about this and other terms and conditions, click here.

English literature can be a tricky subject, particularly if you tend to be more of a math-and-science-oriented person. But don’t let this required general ed course be the bane of your GPA. If reading and writing aren’t your strong suit—or that 500-word essay is keeping you up all night—let me, an English major and professional writer, help you out with five tips to help you breeze through your college English class:

1. When assigned a reading, break it down into chunks.

It can be mentally exhausting to try to read an entire novel in one day—so don’t overwork yourself. Give yourself several days to complete a reading assignment, especially if it’s a lengthy one.

The trick to this is to be specific when planning out your reading time. Instead of giving yourself a time limit, resolve to finish Chapter 3 on Tuesday morning or to read pages 100-150 by the end of the week. By giving yourself deadlines and sticking to them, you’ll avoid falling too far behind and leaving yourself with no choice but to cram the night before the exam. Breaking long sections of reading into chunks can also help you retain more of the information, research shows.

2. Read actively.

Have you ever “read” a passage, but felt your mind was wandering elsewhere? Not only did you not remember a thing you read, but you were wasting valuable study time.

The solution to this is to actively read. This practice is different for everyone, but in general terms, active reading involves putting your entire focus into the passage at hand. For most people, this means you can’t just sit down, skim a book, and retain all of the information. Especially if you’re a kinetic learner, try implementing these strategies as you read:

  • Make notes in the margins. Whether you’re writing questions to ask your professor, predictions for what will happen next in the novel, or comments about the plot, keeping notes will help jog your memory about what you read later and help you stay aware of what’s going on as you’re reading it.
  • Highlight important passages. If you mark what’s most important, you won’t have to re-read the whole section when you go back to study—just the important parts. Color-code your highlighting for an even more interactive learning session.
  • Reflect and respond. Keep a notepad (or your laptop) close by, and after each section, synthesize what you’ve read. Answer any questions provided in the textbook, develop your own questions to answer, or even just summarize the passage. All will help you read actively and retain the information.

Related: Why Taking Notes by Hand is Better for Learning (Guest Post)

3. Divide your essays up into steps—don’t try to do it all in one night!

All-nighters are most certainly not for essays (although that seems to be what they tend to be used for). I tell the writers I work the same thing when they’re struggling with time management: you cannot try to do a whole assignment in one night. You’ll be a lot more productive—and a lot less tired—if you divide the work up over several days or even weeks. Set your own deadlines for research, first draft, revision, and final draft, and hold yourself to them, just as you do with your long reading assignments.

If you’re still coming up short, try these real tips that professional writers use:

  • Set aside specific time for writing. Like dividing up the essay into steps, this tip only works if you hold yourself accountable!
  • Write when you feel like writing. If you are in the mood to write your essay, don’t hesitate because you already scheduled biology study time. As a student, you have the flexibility to rearrange your schedule, and if you’re in the mood to do something, you’ll be a lot more productive at it. (Just don’t forget to come back to your bio homework later!)

4. Visit the writing center, or find a writing tutor, for personal help.

These services are widely available free-of-charge to college students—or at least, their cost is included in your tuition. Whether you’re still brainstorming topic ideas or you need one final read-through of your term paper before you turn it in, making an appointment with these specialists gives you the chance to get personalized help with your essays that your professors may not be able to provide.

5. When it comes to preparing for English essay tests, you can’t just study and memorize.

You have to be proactive when it comes to preparing for English exams. In addition to reviewing your notes and any highlighted passages, consider utilizing tools like SparkNotes or CliffNotes. While it’s a bad idea to rely on these to give you the whole story, they can prove to be valuable resources for review.

Also keep in mind that the test likely isn’t going simply to ask you what happened in the story; in an English literature class, your professor is going to ask you to analyze what happened, and to develop your own opinions about it. As long as you have an opinion and can articulate it, you can pass the exam, so don’t second guess yourself—just take a stand and be able to back it up.

For a lot of people, English can be one of the most dreadful classes of their first year of college—but it doesn’t have to be. With these tips, you can make it out of literature class alive—and perhaps even pass with flying colors.

This article was last updated Sep. 22, 2020.

4 thoughts on “How To Ace Your College English Class | 5 Tips from an English Major

  1. I love your tips! I’m not really talking any English classes, but as a philosophy major I read a lot of books and actively reading is one of the best ways I know of to get through all the readings I have to do!

    Liked by 1 person

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