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Pro tips: The study guide Stanford students use


Max Ferguson


Apr 15, 2024



read time

8 mins

simple illustration of a happy young man sitting at his desk staring at his laptop. It is purpose and two sparkles are coming out of it.

Many students believe that burying themselves in textbooks for hours is the key to success. Wrong. Lumin's founder, Max Ferguson, runs through the secret study guide Stanford students use.

Tips to try:

  • 1. Stop cramming

  • 2. Stay active

  • 3. Go beyond textbooks

  • 4. Keep calm and conquer

  • 5. Use software to prepare

  • 1. Stop cramming
  • 2. Stay active
  • 3. Go beyond textbooks
  • 4. Keep calm and conquer
  • 5. Use software to prepare

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I like to think I'm a perpetual student, always learning and growing; but let's be honest: university was where most of it happened.

And it happened intensely.

I spent many years shooting for the academic moon; first at the University of Canterbury and then at Stanford University. It wasn't all late-night cramming. I landing amongst the stars via focused, strategic studying; the secret weapon of all top performers.

I used the techniques below to achieve top scores on the GRE exam and ultimately earn a Ph.D. from Stanford. I give this study guide to you in the hope more students will be equipped to take on any academic challenge. Knowledge is power!

Stop cramming

Don't wait until the pressure builds! I always started by creating a clear study schedule. During my time at Canterbury, I found allocating specific times for each subject helped me stay focused and avoid last-minute cramming.

Identify your resources – textbooks, class notes, useful study buddies. And don't hesitate to consult with your teachers about additional materials.

Stay active

Passive reading just won't cut it. Top performers actively engage with the material. Here are some of the techniques I found most effective:

  • Take effective notes: I used mind maps to capture key points and relationships between concepts. This not only helped me understand the material better but also served as a fantastic review tool. Often I would find it helpful to try and summarize the main content of a course into 2-3 letter-size pages. This forced me to prioritize the most relevant information for the exam.
  • Create practice tests: simulating the exam format was a game-changer for me. While at Stanford, my study guide included plenty of practice questions. You can find questions online; there might even be practice exams and tests available. Completing practice exams is my #1 way to ace any exam. 
  • Explain it to others: teaching a concept to a friend or classmate forces you to solidify your understanding. During my Ph.D. program, I found explaining complex research topics to my peers not only helped them but also solidified my grasp of the material. 
  • Space out your studying: spaced repetition, also known as the interval method, is a scientifically proven way to enhance memorization. Don't just cram the night before! Review information at increasing intervals to solidify it in your long-term memory.

Go beyond textbooks

Textbooks are a foundation, but explore other resources:

  • Online lectures and tutorials: gain a different perspective from expert instructors. I found online lectures by renowned professors at other universities particularly helpful during my studies. For instance, while researching for my dissertation, I stumbled upon a series of online lectures by a leading expert in my field at MIT. These lectures provided valuable insights and exposed me to new perspectives that enriched my research.
  • Practice problems: apply concepts to real-world scenarios and identify areas needing improvement. During my GRE prep, I heavily relied on practice GRE exams to hone my test-taking skills. By working through a multitude of practice problems, I identified my weaknesses in specific areas like quantitative reasoning and verbal reasoning. This allowed me to focus my studying on those areas and ultimately improve my overall score.
  • Educational apps: utilize interactive tools and games to make learning engaging and fun. Especially for foundational concepts, educational apps can be a great way to gamify the learning process.

Keep calm and conquer

Test anxiety can derail your best efforts. Here's how to stay cool under pressure:

  • Get enough sleep: a well-rested brain performs better and retains information more effectively. I prioritized a good night's sleep throughout my academic career, especially during exam periods. During my finals week at Stanford, I made sure to get at least 7-8 hours of sleep each night to ensure my brain was functioning at its best.
  • Practice relaxation techniques: deep breathing exercises or meditation can calm your mind and sharpen focus. Before the GRE, I found short meditation sessions helped me manage test anxiety and improve my focus.
  • Visualize success: picture yourself calmly answering questions and confidently completing the exam. I used visualization techniques throughout my studies, picturing myself acing exams and achieving my academic goals.

Use software to prepare

A photo of a desk showing various tools that could be be used for studying

As someone who valued efficiency throughout my studies, I always looked for tools that could streamline my learning process. Lumin, a powerful PDF editor, could be your secret weapon for exam prep.

You can use it to:

  • highlight key points directly on your readings and notes
  • consolidate scattered notes into a single document
  • collaborate with classmates by sharing notes and study materials

Lumin empowers you to actively engage with the material, improve organization and foster a collaborative learning environment – all within a user-friendly platform.

We created Lumin because we thought working with online documents should be as easy as pen and paper - or as easy as your exams will be thanks to all these tips.

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