Literature Class Survival Tips for College

Surviving a college level literature course is not as daunting a task as many people make it out to be. It only requires you to pay attention in class, do the assignments you are given, and not be afraid of asking the questions everyone else is wondering. But, just in case you need an extra hand making it through class, here are a few suggestions to help you on your way.

Wikipedia is your friend

While no serious college professor will accept Wikipedia as a reliable source of information in your bibliography, that does not mean that you should avoid it like the plague. You can find information about almost anything there and while you should not cite it as a source for a paper or project, it is a good place to orient yourself with an assigned topic, or even to brainstorm for ideas for a paper. If you need to write a paper about Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland for instance, you might visit Wikipedia to explore other people’s interpretations of the story, or their ideas on Charles Dodgson’s life and why he wrote it. Using the ideas that you gain there, you can find a topic that interests you, then do further research of your own to support or debunk those ideas. So long as you are learning and using other credible sources to support your newly formed opinions and ideas, you will be fine.

Using cliff notes is not a sin

This helpful tip runs along the same lines as the previous one. A lot of people think that using reading aids and summaries like you might find at Cliff Notes or Spark Notes is cheating, but it is not. A lot of professors will also design quizzes specifically so that people who rely solely on summaries like these will not be able to get all the questions right. The solution is simple: don’t rely specifically on these guides for all your information. Do the assigned reading. However, if you are reading something like Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and cannot make heads or tales out of the words in front of you, it is useful to have a little help understanding what you are about to read before you dig right into the work itself. Additionally, if you find yourself overwhelmed and falling behind, Cliff Notes can be a useful way to help catch yourself up in class. Just be careful not to depend on it. 

Take notes as you read

A helpful reading strategy is to use a 3×5 or 4×6 card as a book mark and keep it handy as you’re reading. Whenever you come across something in the story that you think is ironic or contributes to the story’s themes in some way, underline the sentence(s). On the note card write down the page number and a short reminder of what the sentence is about. By the time you have finished the book you should have several quotes prepared and marked to support any paper topic that interests you from the assigned book. It may take a little bit longer to work through a book this way, but it will save a lot of time when it comes to writing a paper or studying for a test.

A movie critique is not a book report

Sometimes a student will discover that the book that they were supposed to have read and written a paper about in the next day and a half was made into a movie a few years earlier. Invariably something like, ‘I could just watch the movie and write a paper on that!’ will cross through their mind. And why not? It would save a lot of time, a lot of energy, and it’s basically the same thing, right? Wrong. Films are often times cut short, omit important pieces of the story, and on occasion change the story entirely. Take for instance the Warner Bros film “Troy” that came out in 2004. Meant to depict the Battle of Troy in Homer’s Iliad, the film deviates from Homer’s epic poem in several areas. A student who watched this film in the hopes of writing a paper on the Iliad would make it abundantly clear to their professor that they had not completed the assigned reading when they mention the death of main characters who do not die in Homer’s telling of the battle.

Ask questions

This is an especially important tip that can help in any class. If there is something that you are struggling with, that you find confusing, interesting, compelling, etc. bring it up with your professor. All too often professors find a group of students in their class who are only there because they need to get some credits out of the way, and consequently don’t really care about what the teacher has to say. If you make a noticeable effort to understand what is being taught, even by questioning it, this will set you apart as one of the students who is at least trying and who deserves a better grade. Also keep in mind that if you have a question, thought or comment, no matter how simple it may sound to you, one or two other people are probably thinking the same thing. You can hope that they mention it and that you can get some answers while flying under the radar, but this will not set you apart as being a student who is interested and trying. Make and impression: speak up.

While you may be reading this article hoping that there is some magic phrase that you can say, or some pair of shoes that you can slip on and click together to give you an A in class, the reality of it is this: there is no substitute for managing your time wisely and doing the assignments that you are given. However, there are some strategies like those listed above to help you maximize your time, and to help keep you from getting too frustrated or overwhelmed as you explore the multifaceted realm of literature.