Hack Your Note-Taking System

Every August for the past ten years, I have marched into Wal-Mart to buy new school supplies, in most cases bring along my mother and some very archaic ideas of what to buy.

My list would include a single-subject spiral notebook for each class (the cheap ones), a 10-pack of pens, a binder, and a paper folder for each class.

Over the years I experimented slightly with some of these; replacing eight single-subject notebooks with two five-subject notebooks, trying to stuff all my class handouts into the divider folders in said five-subject folders, and buying a trapper keeper with a zipper so my papers wouldn’t fall out.

However, inevitably my supplies only ended up causing me stress.

Without fail, the notebooks would have their covers ripped off, my folders would become disorganized and their 3-ring binder holes would tear, and I’d spend most of my writing time angry at that my pens wouldn’t write.

In reaction to those past experiences, this summer I decided to find a system that would be organized, efficient, and actually fun to use. With these criteria in mind, I came up with the following note-taking hacks.

Before we get into them, though, here’s a question: What note-taking system do you use? If you’re looking for a better one, here’s a video I made detailing five of the best systems:

If you enjoyed the video, you might enjoy the other study-related videos on my YouTube channel as well.

Use Only High Quality Materials

As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, my previous experience with cheap supplies caused me nothing but stress in the past. Therefore I set out this time to buy high quality materials that I would enjoy using.

Instead of buying cheap Bic pens, I picked up Sharpie pens. While a bit more expensive, they write much more consistently and look better.

Plus, an added effect of buying more pricey pens is that you’re less likely to lose them. They are a bit like fine markers, so I’m hoping they won’t dry out. If they do, I’ll try something new.

I also switched my strategy on notebooks. Instead of getting one notebook (or section of notebook) for each class, I opted to buy a single, refillable notebook. I made sure to get one with a high quality cover and back as well.

I couldn’t find this on amazon, but I’m sure you’ll be able to find it at Wal-mart. It has three rings that hold the pages together; the rings can be pulled apart to add more paper when needed.

I decided to go this route for a few reasons. First, I wanted simplicity. It’s so much nicer to take out one notebook and turn to a marked section than to dig through my bag and sort through several.

Secondly, having one notebook saves space and allows me to carry around a small laptop bag rather than a large backpack. When a certain section of the notebook gets too full, I’ll take the notes from them and file them away in my filing box.

Here’s a picture of the notebook I got:


My single refillable notebook. It’s made by Mead.

Use Evernote To Store Your Notes In The Cloud

If the above tip was the appetizer, then this is the main course.

Incorporating Evernote into your school life will make such a difference that you won’t know how you lived without it before.

Evernote is a note-taking service that allows you to store notes in a variety of ways. You can type text notes, clip things from the web, and import scanned documents.

So with this, you might be asking: Why is Evernote so great?

Evernote makes your notes searchable.

You heard me. When you scan your handwritten notes into Evernote, you’ll be able to search for terms in them.

Have you ever wished life had a ctrl-f? Evernote gives you that.

I tested this feature out with a sample of my own terrible handwriting; the program made every word perfectly searchable. This saves tons of time when you’re reviewing and need to find key terms in your notes, especially in, say, history classes where you likely create 10-15 pages a week.

Evernote also has an app for most major desktop and mobile platforms. That means you can go home at night and scan your notes, and then be able to pull them up and search through them on your iPhone or Android device.

This allows you to safely file away the paper versions of your notes and carry everything you’ve ever written down right in your pocket. You can also view all your notes from the Evernote website, so if you’re at the library you can get to them from a public computer.

The free version of Evernote gives you 40mb a month of upload bandwidth. This is a vast amount of space for typed notes, but it can become a problem for scanned notes if you don’t change your scanner’s default settings.

I’m using a Canon PIXMA MX320 to do my scanning, and the default scan setting is 300 dpi. Scanning a sheet of notes at this setting will result in a file that’s anywhere from 2-4mb.

Needless to say, you’re not going to get many pages uploaded at that rate. Luckily, you don’t need nearly that high of a dpi setting for Evernote to accurately recognize your handwriting.

Set your scanner to scan at 75 dpi, and also make sure to resize your images down to around 800×600. If you forget to resize your scans, not only will they result in bigger file sizes, but they’ll also be slow to load and difficult to navigate on your mobile device.

canon pixma mx320 printer/scanner/fax

My scanner: the Canon PIMXA MX320. $50 bucks at Wal-mart.

So there you have it; my simplistic and awesome note-taking system. Hopefully this will help you tame your mess of notebooks as well. Now go out and get yourself a notebook and scanner! Also, leave your own note-taking tips in the comments section!

Thomas Frank is the geek behind College Info Geek. After paying off $14K in student loans before graduating, landing jobs and internships, starting a successful business, and travelling the globe, he's now on a mission to help you build a remarkable college experience as well. Get the Newsletter | Twitter | Instagram

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14 Comments on "Hack Your Note-Taking System"

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Joseph Hotto

Great explanation. For classes like computer science and physics though, how would you store your notes? How would it help you for problem sets? I’m an engineering student who needs help with organizing my notes btw.


Great tips! Quick question though…how efficient is scanning all of your notes with a flatbed scanner, especially scanning in double-sided notes? I feel like it could get really cumbersome/confusing…what’s your method that works for you? Thanks!


Hi Tom,

What is your take on typing notes directly into Evernote versus handwriting notes and then scanning them? Do you believe it is a personal preference thing or is there any benefit to one method over the other?


Found the refillable notebook (well one like it) on amazon…
Great idea, definitely getting it for the upcoming term!

Zechariah Shrum

Have you tried any mobile apps that act as scanners such as Genius Scan? Would that be sufficient regarding note-taking ?


Hey, do you know a way to automatically import the scan document from your pixma to Evernote without having to manually drag and drop it?

Ryan Nguyen

I couldn’t agree more on the subject of buying quality note taking material. I used to buy bulk packs of poor quality Bic pens but noticed that I was only using 5 or 6 of the 100 quantity box, and that these pens were easily lost and were a pain to write with. 

Switching from the pack of 100 poorly made pens to a slightly higher cost pack of 3 fine quality pens has made a world of difference for my hand-writing. I guard these 3 pens with my life, and they write amazingly. 


I've seen those Refillable notebooks at walmart. I always put them back on the shelf because I thought the rings would break and papers would fall out. I guess I'm gonna have to give them a try. Awsome post!


That's a really nice refillable notebook! I wish I'd known about that before I became a senior.

A fantastic notetaking app for the iPhone is Awesomenote; as the name implies, it's awesome!

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