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How to Ace your History Class

Updated: Mar 20, 2022

Follow these super simple steps and you will find yourself passing your history class with flying colors!

by: Ava Kesler

How to take awesome notes

Choose your tools

Before you can begin taking notes, you have to have something that you really love to take them in. If your teacher gives you the choice to pick your own note-taking system, take advantage of it!

Play around with different binders, papers, notebooks, brands, and colors until you find the perfect one that just vibes with you. It needs to be something that will actually make you want to study (and something that can also serve as a comfort object when it's cram time). I find that the TUL discbound poly cover notebooks work best for me because of their thick durable paper that can withstand any level of highlighting and underlining.

Just as important, if not more, is finding the right writing utensil. Try out lots of different pens and pencils, both in terms of brands and styles, to find the one that works best for you. In other words, what is easiest to write in, makes your handwriting look the neatest, and just feels good to use. Personally I love the BIC round stic pen and the Pentel R.S.V.P. pen. For highlighting, my favorite is the Stabilo BOSS highlighters for their pastel and easy-on-the eyes options.

Filter the fluff

Taking notes is a very crucial part of preparing for history. However, it is not enough to simply write down whatever the textbook has written down. You must develop the skill of analyzing your book. Try to sort out what the book is saying vs. what it means. For instance, instead of writing a huge paragraph like the textbook, try condensing it into just a line or two. This takes a lot of practice to really get down, so just start writing and you will eventually develop a great technique of this.


Try to summarize every paragraph in your textbook under the heading. If the book already provides headings, then still add this little "heading" to the side in the margin for example. This helps really get the wheels turning on what you are reading, and therefore retains it in your memory better. In other words, this ensures active reading, rather than passively going over the words.

Key Words

Another way to use active reading is to color code certain key words. For example, I use dark blue for policies, and light blue for names of people. This way I have to actively think about what exactly I'm writing, and what category it falls under. After a while of note taking, it is easy to just write whatever you see, but by having to use certain colored pens for different things, you are able to more actively participate in the note-taking.

Pacing Plan

If you already know when your quiz/test is on a certain number of pages, then the best way to ensure that you have enough time to memorize the information is to create your own pacing guide. For me, I find it stressful to be writing notes and learning new content the day before a quiz. So I try to finish them with at least one day of pure review to spare.

Once you choose a day to have them finished by, you need to see how many pages you are dealing with so you can divide them amongst each day. At first, it took me an hour at least to write two pages (one front and one back). But as the year got harder and harder, I was having to do bigger chapters in less time. As this pressure increased, I had to learn to write my notes faster, and now I can write 5 pages in an hour and a half, even if I get lured onto my phone from Instagram.

So what you need to do is prioritize your ideal number of pages per day, and the pressure will help you achieve this goal. Just remember, when you open your notebook, you are in the zone. Don't get distracted, I highly discourage playing music or YouTube videos in the background, and STAY AWAY FROM YOUR PHONE. When we sit down to take notes, we need to be in the mindset that it is only for a quick moment. If we get a movie playing in the background and a snack, we are not only increasing the distractions around us, but we are also putting ourselves in the mindset that we are here for a long time. By just sitting down with the bare minimum to take your notes, you are setting yourself up for a successful, quick, and efficient note-taking session.

Pacing Execution

Even if following your pacing guide isn't an assignment, you need to treat it like it is the most important homework assignment you have. Trust me, when quiz day comes you will thank yourself BIG TIME.

Set a timer if you have to, so you are working against the clock. You don't have to stop when the timer goes off, but it is a good idea to have the clock pushing you to keep on reading.

After taking notes on your chosen number of pages, the next step is to PUT IT AWAY. By this point in the note-taking process, you will likely be very peeved. But it can actually hurt your memorization capabilities if you are reviewing your notes in a bad mood. At the most, you can flip back through your notes and read the headings, but this should be kept to a minimum.

The next day, you should begin your note-taking session by taking a few minutes to reread what you have already written. At first, this will only be the previous day's notes for the particular chapter, but as you progress, this will include several day's notes too. As you reread, take the time to highlight your headers or make them bold. I like to highlight the main heading given by my textbook in orange, and I do so across the entire page, and then I highlight my own headings that I created in yellow all the way across the line on the page.

Then, the most important part: sectional highlighting. You need to find a way to categorize the information in your history class. For AP US History, the curriculum has already done this for you. APUSH falls under three main categories: political, economic, and social history. I have chosen a color for each category, and in my notes, I use the designated color for the particular type of information. This will help you memorize the information better, and it gives your brain something else to hang on to besides the words themselves. Choose colors that make sense to you, and you will see great results on the quiz.

Next, after you have finished all of your notes, is my personal favorite part. Underlining. This is where you sit down with your notes, and attack them. Underline, circle, box, star, make them messy! Press into the paper and really connect with the notes. Keep your pen pressed down and in contact at all times, and just do whatever your brain feels like doing. The point is to integrate the kinesthetic method of learning into your study time, so that the facts will not only be associated in your visual memory, but also your muscles in your hand and arm. When it comes time to the quiz, you will get triggers in these areas, and have more effective results.

Extreme measures for the extreme chapters

We are all familiar with the chapters that leave us going "Wha???" These are the ones that seem to have dozens of policies that are literally the same thing with names consisting of every letter of the alphabet, ones that have too many names to keep track of, and overall just leave us feeling lost. Well, worry no more! There are two main ways to attack the monster.

The first is the summary page (my personal favorite). Take a piece of paper, and open your notebook to the first page of that chapter. Then write down every significant detail. The multiple choice section of tests tend to ask questions like, "this and that is the description of what term?" By writing down every single term, you are essentially creating a cheat sheet that has every answer. But it is easy to get astray in this if you don't color code. Since this is a fairly new strategy I have learned, I have only had the chance to do this with my color coding of shades of blue for policies and names etc, but you should consider using the same color coding of your category key (e.g. blue=political, green=economic, and purple=social) to see what works best for you. For really complicated and allusive terms, I add a 1-5 word description in grey just to keep everything straight.

The second option is to create mini summaries. At the top of each page, create a list of all the important terms in your favorite color coding key. This list should pertain to only topics on the same page. This way you can easily navigate your notes and see the lengthy pages in a condensed and relieving way.

Review methods

After finishing your notes, it is important that you go back and review often.

The more you underline, highlight, and reread, the better. But at this point it all just falls on your determination and self-discipline (check out more MyMindsMap articles for inspiration).

The most effective way of studying is to get a study buddy who can quiz you. Start out with them giving you a definition and making you say the term. Once you begin to feel more comfortable, ask your buddy to say all the main terms in the chapter, whether that be a government policy, movement, or protest, and have you define them. This is the hardest way of review and will guarantee that you remember the content. Not only is it requiring you to pull the information from your memory, but it also adds the pressure of working with someone else, and if you get anything wrong, it is actually better, because the moment will stick in your head longer.


No matter what, always remember that you are a highly capable person, and you will overcome any difficulties that history, or any other class, might be giving you. All it takes is dedication and perseverance. As long as you keep on pushing even when it gets tough, and keep on reminding yourself why you are doing this, then you will definitely go far. Have a positive attitude, get some sleep, and get on that study grind. Love you all and good luck on your studies!


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