How to Write the Perfect Study Summary

Summary writing is a useful skill when you are studying and making notes. If you have a textbook, or series of articles, then it is easier to read the text once and then summarise it than it is to re-read the text over and over again when it comes time to cram for the final exams.

Summarising is also a useful skill if you want to briefly explain something in one of your assessments – why use several paragraphs when one will do? Save yourself some precious words.

When crafting a study summary, the trick is to start with a lot of information and then revise again and again until you have the bare bones of what the text is about. By this point, since you’ve revised several times, the information will be easier to remember (by improving your neural networks). In the end, you should be able to read the summary, which will have bare facts, and then be reminded of supporting evidence, anecdotes, and any other things you need to remember.

Warning: It may be tempting to go online and download a summary that someone else has written. This is a short-term, bandaid solution. It is like reading reviews of a movie instead of watching the movie yourself; you may understand what happened, but that doesn’t mean that you can say that you’ve seen it, you won’t know all of the quotes, and you won’t know how some scenes looked.

If you read someone else’s summary, then you are not actually taking in what was said in the text. You’re taking in someone else’s interpretation of the text, which may not necessarily be accurate or trustworthy.

Step 1: Read the text
Fairly straight-forward – just read the text that you are supposed to be summarising. Don’t take any notes. Just read the text and focus on taking in as much as possible.

Step 2: Read it again
This time, make your notes. You’ve had time to digest the information and now you know what is most important for you to remember. Take note of important paragraphs (highlight and make note of the topic sentence, as this is what will jog your memory later on), important concepts, and anything that may strike you as important. Most textbooks actually have these important points highlighted for you.

Also, Remember to consider why you have been assigned this text to read in the first place. If you’re reading it for a specific course, then you should take note of anything that may be important in that class.

Step 3: Write an outline of the text
Every text is supported by an internal structure – a skeleton of information. Write the structure down and make sure to include as much information as you think you need to remember. You will revise it back to the bare bones later. At the moment, just make sure that you’ve got the structure clear. It can help to use bullet points or numbers.

It is a good idea to use your own words for this step. Paraphrase, re-write, and re-structure sentences. This allows you to internalise the information and consider it in different ways and this helps you to retain it.

Step 4: Revise it back
Now that you’ve got the basic structure, cut out all the words that don’t need to be there. Simplify your sentences, your vocabulary, and remove any statements that are ‘extra’ or used to develop other statements. Bring it back until only the most deeply important information remains.

Step 5: Craft your summary
This step is essentially taking your bullet points and turning them into a coherent narrative so that they are easy to read later. You can use a lot of different formats, but the essay structure is the easiest to follow and can work in short-form (less than 100 words). The important things to include are:
1) The introduction/topic sentence, where you write what the text was about
2) The elaboration, where you explain the key points
3) The conclusion/takeaway message that you will need to remember later on

Step 6: Check for accuracy/get a second opinion
This step is optional, but useful – get someone else to read your summary. It helps if they have read the text that you are summarising, because this will allow them to know whether you are missing something important or whether, in the process of revising and drilling down to the core components of the text, you may have misunderstood something.

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