How dealing with my piles of notes helped me gain a first-class degree

The folder shown above contains all the paper notes from my postgraduate dissertation. That does not even include the mass of online notes which I never printed off. In any major assignment, it is critical to remain on top of the important information from your subject.

By piling notes on top of each other with no clear strategy for dealing with them you are setting yourself an extra arduous and completely unnecessary task.

This blog post will outline the specific steps that I took to clear the clutter from my notes, and which I feel contributed significantly to obtaining my first-class degree.



Since exams are supposed to cover everything that you have done so far in your course it is necessary to start breaking down the essential points from each week’s lectures or seminars – ideally every week – before the end of term. By doing this you are not being faced with a daunting mountain of clutter, with a disappointing lack of coherence.

Take the notes for each week and use different highlighter pens to isolate the more important evidence, academics, and schools of thought. Then re-write them in a cohesive order from which you could build a stronger model answer when term ends and then final exam preparation begins.



As I have mentioned in a previous blog post, my essay strategy used to be that I would research until I felt that I could build a plan with a cohesive argument. However, being a perfectionist I could never stop researching, and when I took my plan and tried to write out my essay I would always want to find more information from my massive pile of notes. This led to many stressful all night writing and editing sessions.

The key to managing essay notes is to build them into your essay as you go along. When you find an important piece of evidence or analysis in an academic source you should write it as you would if you were inserting it directly into your essay. Then if you find any pieces of evidence or analysis which you can connect to it you can then add them to the same paragraph in your notes directly. Even if you do not think it would fit when you cut and paste it into your essay, it will still make it easier to edit. It is also a fantastic way to overcome writer’s block.

If you start your research with the most recent major source then you can map out the different schools of thought, and then read the following important texts by seniority and theme, so you can then establish an ideal structure for your essay.



For your dissertation, most of the rules for your essay still apply but in a considerably greater quantity. However there are strategies which you can use to overcome the extra work which is required to take control and prevent extreme clutter in your notes.

If you have a huge amount of evidence from certain major sources then it helps to have it in a linear order based on some logical timescale in the first place. From there you can:

-Make a list of keywords at the top of the notes:

  • When you conduct a keyword search by clicking ctrl + f on your keyboard you can locate every time when you have used it.

-Number and date your pages:

  • This is the most logical and time efficient way of locating a particular piece of evidence. If you are making a plan and using an ideas sheet and want to leave a reminder of where to find a particular piece of evidence then just leave the identifiable number with whatever extra identifiers  you need (e.g. source name).


  • If you do use dates for cross-referencing then it helps to organise your notes by date. If you made notes on Word Documents then maybe include dates on the file name so that you can find it when you keyword search for documents on your File Explorer.


  • Above all else it is important that you adapt when you feel you need to. Add another identifier when and how you feel is necessary to keep your notes organised.


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