When I was in 7th grade, my Middle School scheduled an unexpected assembly in the middle of the week. The student body was curious about this new development, but welcomed the reprieve from classes.
At the assembly, the principal explained to us that the school had decided to make Cornell notes required for all classes, effective immediately. We then watched several presentations on what Cornell notes were, why they were far superior to other forms of note taking, and listened to some heartfelt testimonies from Harvard students and millionaires who credited their success with the early adoption of Cornell notes.
Most of us rolled our eyes at that, but nevertheless started using the Cornell notes style (after all, it was now part of our class grades).
Here’s a basic rundown of Cornell notes for the uninitiated:
1) Draw a vertical line a little left of halfway down your paper.
2) On the left side, write topics, vocabulary terms, questions, and anything else you would like to stand out.
3) On the right side (directly to the right of each entry on the left), write your notes, definitions, answers to questions, diagrams, and formulas.
Overall, I’ve found that this note style works very well for a number of reasons.
First of all, drawing the line down the center of your paper forces you to categorize your thoughts. Most people’s notes are kind of “stream of consciousness,” and have little organization to them. But with Cornell notes, you have to take an extra step and think about the material and what falls into each category you make on the left.
I’ve also found it helpful to use two colors with Cornell notes, as the act of switching colors of pen forces you to pause and consider the text you’re emphasizing. I take that a bit further, and alternate which colors I use for each different chapter of the material. This helps me subconsciously categorize information by chapter as well, as I’m a visual learner and I remember which color the material was written in when I study for exams.
So get yourself a nice set of colored pens that are easy to write with! I’m partial to the Pilot Frixion (erasable gel pens) and Uni-ball pens myself. You can get those on amazon here and here, or at any office supply store.
The clear layout of Cornell notes also makes it very easy to review. Your eyes can easily jump from term to definition, from question to answer, and can easily pick out the text you’ve emphasized in a different color.
I honestly credit much of my academic success to my use of Cornell notes in school. I didn’t just limit this to class notes either; I would also frequently take notes while reading my textbooks, basically summarizing entire chapters into Cornell style notes after class.
The act of physically writing down the material in my own words forced me to remember it far better than if I had just read it or heard it. On top of that, I was forced to organize which side of a line each tidbit of information went on, and needed to choose appropriate colors for the emphasis of important material. This further cemented the material in my mind, so much that I rarely needed to review my notes after creating them.
This style of note taking adapts itself well to many different subjects (except perhaps math). Let’s take a look at some examples of the Cornell notes I created during my MCAT study days. Below, you can see my notes for chemistry, biology, and writing.
When you try Cornell notes for yourself, it might take some time to adapt. But be patient with yourself, and you’ll begin to notice how much it will gradually improve your organization and comprehension of the material.
For more tips on improving organization and comprehension, read this post.