5 secrets to a concise academic summary

5 secrets to a concise academic summary

  1. 1. Does it matter?
  2. 2. Cut out the boilerplate
  3. 3. Conciseness over form
  4. 4. Figures are (mostly) overrated
  5. 5. Look at past papers & the syllabus

If you’re on this website, there’s a good chance you’ve discovered it through my summaries.

Summarizing things is very important. Nobody likes to go over every detail of a course right before an exam, it can cause massive stress, cost precious time, and does not put emphasis on what is important.

For me, summarizing is the most efficient study method. When done properly it forces you to really understand what is going on. My style is the “super concise” summary and here are some of my secrets to make that work.

1. Does it matter?

Think like a professor. If you had to boil down whatever you discussed today into core concepts, what is included and what is not? The number 1 question is always, does this bit of content help me understand the overall concept or the broader message of the lecture? If the answer is no, cut it out entirely. This rule cuts the content in half already. Examples are: multiple case studies (you might need one) or anecdotes. For formulas, include the generalized one only, unless you know you will need to derive it on an exam for example.

2. Cut out the boilerplate

Too often lectures are filled with boilerplate statements that are repeated over and over. This often looks like 3 to 5 slides discussing a single topic. Unless the lecturer is exceptionally good at creating concise slides, this can be boiled down to 4 to 5 sentences.

3. Conciseness over form

Be drastic in cutting down words. Even more so if you will not be sharing the summary with others. Typically concepts can be brought down to simple “if this then that” or “and then, and then” structures, so use them. Use arrows to indicate causality for example. Create your own abbreviations to avoid repeating (long) words all the time. Aim for 1 to 1.5 A4 pages per lecture.

4. Figures are (mostly) overrated

Sure they look nice during a lecture and can help you grasp the concept initially, but once you understand the concept you can “remind” yourself of how it works with a few words. When you really want to include a figure, push it to the edge of the page and reference it with as few words as possible (e.g., I tend to use [right] in-text to reference a figure to the right of the text). This forces you to really consider whether you should include it or not.

5. Look at past papers & the syllabus

Remember that the goal of the summary is to cover the concepts of the course as briefly as possible. Looking at past papers makes sure you covered all concepts that should be covered. If you do not have access to past exams, look through your syllabus thoroughly, they typically contain objectives for each of the lectures.

If you have done all of the above, your summary should be less than 20 pages for a decently sized university course. Summarizing like this is also an intense study method. That means your preparation is basically done afterward and you can focus on practicing exams, redoing homework exercises, or other “high return” preparation methods. Whenever you are worried about a bit of theory, you can now easily reference your concise summary.

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