For most students, classes have either started back up or will be starting up soon, which means it’s time to make your decision for the semester: how exactly are you going to take notes in your classes? In this digital age taking notes the classic way has fallen by the wayside in favor of the many apps and programs touting increased productivity and connectivity, meaning that students have more options than ever before when it comes to their educational organization.

When I was at school, the most important thing I looked for in my applications is ease of use and connectivity: I needed programs that made my crazy-hectic life with a million and one obligations that much easier to manage across all of my devices, which can be difficult when both my phone and tablet are Apple products but my computer is a PC. Through my time at University I explored the ins-and-outs of various applications, and in my opinion, these are three most effective applications I’ve found to help me with the two most important aspects of my classes: note-taking and readings.

Microsoft OneNote

I used OneNote for over a year and a half to take notes for my lectures, primarily from sophomore to junior year. While many study blogs herald the importance of handwritten notes to help with memory, I found that if I attempted to handwrite my notes I would focus too much on making my lecture notes pretty instead of what the professor was saying. And when your teachers talk a mile per minute, it’s nearly impossible to ensure you have all the relevant information if you’re writing in your notebook. Plus, handwritten notes take away the possibility of adding clarifications throughout the document after the lecture is over, which I tend to do as I do my reading assignments.

OneNote Example

OneNote is fantastic because it has so many levels of organization that comes with the familiarity of Microsoft Word formatting: you have notebooks, section groups, sections, pages, and page groups, all of which allow you to effectively organize any class. I had a notebook for my courses, my research and background guides for my extracurriculars, and at one point I had a notebook for general to do lists. In my courses notebook I had section groups organized by semester, sections organized by courses, and pages organized by class lecture days.

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OneNote really helped me keep track of all of my notes easily, and I could integrate it across all three of my mixed-brand devices, which was a major plus! OneNote is also included with Microsoft Office 365, which many universities now offer free, and it’s available for free on the App Store.

While OneNote is good for taking class notes, I would pass on attempting to annotate PDFs in this program. It’s difficult to do without a touch screen and even then it isn’t the most responsive, unfortunately.


Although the main function of Notability is to take notes during lectures, I tended to use this application as a way to annotate PDFs. I’d open the PDF in my browser on my iPad, select the “Open In… Notability” option, and after a few seconds of organizing it into the right section, I was ready to go! You can highlight, write in the margins, underline, draw, etc. on any of the PDFs that you download, and I have them set up to automatically back up to my Google Drive so I can access them on my computer. Unfortunately Notability doesn’t have a PC version, so the only way to access your documents on a non-apple device is to back them up to a third-party cloud storage option.

notability example

The one really cool thing about Notability is that it also gives you the option to record audio as you’re taking notes, if you decide to use it to take notes during class, so you can go back and listen through your lectures if you’re an auditory learner!

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The pros of Notability are that you can download and save an unlimited amount of files to the program, and the simplicity of the app makes organization and finding what you need a breeze! Unfortunately once you upload the PDFs they become unsearchable, as if you’re using a picture-PDF document rather than a text one, and your annotations look a bit off once you pull up the document on the computer. I also had issues at one point with the program losing all of my PDFs before, so while I’ll still use it for general class readings, I moved over to a different platform for things like my research. Admittedly this was a while ago and the app has made many updates since then, so there’s no guarantee that this is still an issue!

Overall Notability is a great, free option for reading and annotating PDFs on your Apple devices! For anyone just looking to get through class readings or read larger documents without having to print them out, it’s a great resource.


Now, Evernote is the program that I’m really excited to tell you all about! After Notability crashed on me in the middle of my thesis research I immediately started looking for a new platform to store my documents, since at that point I would be working on my thesis for the next year and a half and couldn’t afford to lose all of my annotations. And let me tell you, it really does not disappoint!

Evernote markets itself as a place to store Everything so that you never forget it, and I can surely see how that’s possible. The first thing I love about it is that it’s available on my iPhone, iPad, and PC, so I’m always connected no matter which device I’m on! It also syncs all of your data to your account as you’re working, so you never have to worry about forgetting to save your note and the program crashing. You can create to do lists, organize notebooks and notebook stacks, clip full-text articles and PDFs from the web, set reminders inside your notes so that they open the next time you look at the note, record audio as you type, draw, or snap photos! All of this comes with the free version of the app along with a 60MB download limit per month.

evernote phone example

Unfortunately, the only way to annotate PDFs, the main reason I downloaded the program, is to purchase a Premium Membership with Evernote, which costs either $4.99 per month or $49.99 per year, a hefty price for a college student. But, you can easily get around having to pay for it by inviting friends to make accounts with Evernote! Each friend that registers, installs, and signs in with Evernote using the link you send them gets one month of free Premium Membership, and you receive 10 points. Those 10 points can be redeemed for one month of free Premium Membership, or you can get 12 friends to sign up (120 points) and reward yourself with free Premium Membership for a year automatically! And trust me, you’re going to want the Premium Membership.

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The amazing thing about the PDF annotating that comes with the Premium membership is that you can access all of your annotations at the front of the PDF in your account. For researching and studying this is crucial! You won’t have to keep track of all the pages on which you highlighted a main idea or a support for your research because this program does it for you. Additionally, any picture or PDF that you upload into the application automatically becomes searchable! For example, I uploaded a 1200 page picture-type-PDF of the first five major EU treaties, and rather than having to read through the entire document to search for the five clauses relevant to my research, Evernote was able to read the text and pull up the key words I searched for. It literally saved me hours of scouring the pages that would end up yielding very little support for my research question.

evernote computer example

A Premium Membership also allows you to work on your documents and sync them across devices without having to be connected to wifi, scan business cards, and download/store up to 10GB of data per month! I had gone through 60MB in a matter of hours when I first downloaded the app, so the increase in download capacity was a godsend. All of these features are invaluable when working on a big project such as a thesis, I found, especially since I would read my articles on my iPad, set reminders on my phone, and write my drafts on my computer, as well as travel often to conferences where I didn’t have wifi.

Overall, the most important thing is that you find the applications that work for you and make your college experience easier!

Do you have a note taking app that you adore and can’t live without? Let me know in the comments below!


4 thoughts on “Take Notes Like a Pro: A Review of OneNote, Notability, and Evernote

  1. Oooh this was a really well-thought out post – I loved the detail!!! You clearly really know these platforms and I can’t emphasize enough how much I appreciate a blogger going in-depth instead of keeping things on the surface. I used One Note in school, and then Evernote. One Note was nice, but i found myself ending up using the “stickies” function on my mac the most! Since you have a PC that probably isn’t an option, but I think they were a great option for Mac users who want to keep a bunch of tabs open at once -(guilty!)- sometimes I would have 20 sticky notes open. Thanks for the reccomendations!

    1. Thanks so much girl, I really appreciate it!! PCs actually have a version of the stickies called something simple like notes, or sticky notes, I can’t remember, but I would use them to jot down reminders or quick notes that didn’t need to be filed anywhere. I can totally see how you could take a ton of notes there though!

      But yeah, I think the problem a lot of college students encounter is how to integrate notes across PCs and Macs, since I know a lot of people had an iPad and a PC, so I wanted to make sure that they could go into their semester with some solid knowledge on what I think are the best note taking apps!

    1. I feel you, I always want my notes to look so neat and pretty like you see on tumblr, and I end up focusing on that instead of the professor! Definitely let me know how you like OneNote though!!

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