5 Steps to Master College-Level Reading

Before entering college, I imagined a lot of my time would be spent in a dimly lit library, engrossed in textbooks until the late hours of the night. My high school teachers had forewarned us about the overwhelming amount of reading we would encounter in college, and popular media often reinforced this notion. And there were instances when I needed to find a quiet spot and create a strategy to move quickly and efficiently through a reading assignment. What I learned was that I needed to change my approach and build effective reading skills to meet the demands of college courses. I was able to do this by being more intentional with my assignments—and you can, too.

Here are some steps you can take to become an efficient reader and stay on top of college reading assignments:

Determine the goal of the assignment.

First, consider why the professor assigned this reading. Will you be discussing the material in class, taking a test, or writing a paper? This will help you determine what you need to get out of the reading and focus on important content to achieve your goal.

Create a quiet, ideal reading environment.

Try to choose a comfortable spot, free from distractions. I know that at times, noise is unavoidable, especially if you live in a shared space like a dorm. In that case, pop in some headphones and find tranquil sounds or music that can help drown out the background noise. I can concentrate in almost any environment if I listen to the “Pride and Prejudice” movie soundtrack or a movie score playlist. Find what works for you.

Use the SQ3R method.

SQ3R is a reading technique that works well for textbooks and research articles. The purpose is to identify what you don’t know and build on pre-existing knowledge that you already have. Here’s how you use the SQ3R method:

  • Survey: Get a firm grasp on what the material is about before you start reading. Read all the titles and headlines, skim the introduction and conclusion of each section, and look at any charts, graphs, or other visuals. Some textbooks list chapter highlights—be sure to read these as well.
  • Question: Break the content down into two sections—what you already understand without reading and brand-new material that you don’t fully understand. Then, write out questions about unfamiliar content to help guide your focus as you read. Your goal is to find the answers to these questions by the time you finish reading.
  • Read: As you read, you want to focus on answering your questions. This does not mean intensely reading line by line, but actively searching for answers. Take notes or highlight important content as you go.
  • Recite: In your own words, recite the answers to your questions and then write them down. If you struggle doing this, spend more time reading to find the answers. It might help to do this in sections throughout your reading.
  • Review: Look back at your notes, highlighted content, and answers to your questions to get an overarching view of what you learned. Go through each section of the reading and check your memory and understanding by reciting the major points of each section.

Use time management.

Everyone reads at a different pace. To avoid feeling overwhelmed and rushed, look at how much reading you’ve been assigned and determine how much time you might need. Factor in time for breaks, if possible.


The transition from high school to college reading assignments can seem daunting at first, but using these tips will help you develop effective and efficient reading habits. And remember, reading is a skill. The more you practice, the better you’ll be at reading and comprehension. So, go find a good book and start practicing, and check out more tips on reading on the K12 Leading with Literacy hub.

For more helpful tips and resources that’ll get you ready for college, visit the K12 Career and College Prep page.

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