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When Reading, Here's Why You Can't Do Less And Expect More

"Make the time to read slowly without your only concern being getting through the required page count."

A few times a year I have this recurring epiphany. I would be flipping through pages of a book, or scrolling quickly down an online article, and realize that I’m not actually reading the words. I wouldn’t even call what I’m doing “skimming.” At best, I’m glancing, hoping that a few key lines jump out and give me some sense of what’s going on. I know — deep down, and also not that deep — that this strategy is pointless. That’s when it hits me. Why am I doing this? Why am I reading just the first sentence of the paragraph? Why did I just skip two pages? Why am I not considering chapters three through 10? Why am I even reading this book?

I often listen to college students share advice with each other on how to succeed on campus, but despite good intentions, sometimes their recommendations become basic lists of shortcuts. And I get it. College life can be a struggle, working to balance an ever-increasing load of coursework, activities, internship applications, socializing and more. This is why it’s crucial to be self-aware and not fall into the traps of doing less and expecting more. We have to ask ourselves “why am I reading this book” and then make sure we are actually getting what we set out to get.

There will be some classes and some reading assignments where the best strategy is to optimize. Figure out which books, chapters or sections are the most critical in order to turn in a solid paper, understand a particular concept or participate in the class discussion. There are other times when you need to go deeper. Make the time to read slowly without your only concern being getting through the required page count. Focus on really getting the ideas, asking questions as you go, determining whether you agree or not, thinking about connections to other readings and themes. Look up other related articles, Wikipedia pages and background sites and books. Look at the notes and the sources. Read through other chapters not assigned on the syllabus. Enjoy the process of learning and acquiring new knowledge not just for a grade, but because it’s helping you develop as a scholar and person.

Whenever I catch my own kids reading and they tell me it’s not a book for school but just for them, I have another epiphany — that we are doing something right in our house. Make the time to engage in actual reading, not simply going through the motions. For now, I will keep this one short and end here, because I’m sure you probably have something else you could be reading closely.

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Brian is the Director of Makuu: The Black Cultural Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of Higher Learning: Maximizing Your College Experience.