• Zachary Tham

Noteworthy Apps for Note-Taking and Streamlining Your Workflow

The new school year has begun, and with that, students once again find our fingers glued to our keyboards, frantically typing our notes.


Indeed, note-taking is a complex yet quintessential part of being a student. There is a plethora of note-taking apps out there, each with their various quirks and functionalities. Choosing the right app could streamline your study process and get you closer to that tantalizing A grade. But there are so many to choose from! So: which one is the one for you?


For the Basic User: Microsoft Word

If you’re a user who prefers a no-frills, straightforward app, then it’d be wise to stick with the tried and true Microsoft Word. While Word may be a “vanilla” option with limited functionality, it’s important to pick an app that is compatible to your own needs and preferences. After all, why complicate matters with the slew of different functions of other apps if they don’t appeal to you?


With Word, you can get the job done without any fuss.


On the other hand, Word has no organizational functionality – it’s made for word processing and pretty much nothing else. You won’t be able to organize your notes hierarchically, meaning it’s difficult to organize notes that go beyond a single document. Formatting can also be a pain (we’ve all been there: trying to shift an image and all the text gets jumbled up).


That said, if it works for you, it works. Word is battle-tested and reliable, and you really can’t go wrong with it. Sometimes, keeping it simple is the way to go.


For the Intermediate User: Microsoft OneNote

For users requiring a bit more functionality in their apps, OneNote is the app for you. Think of OneNote as Word’s bigger, more sophisticated brother. Where Word restricts you to a linear, top-down structure, OneNote removes these restrictions – allowing you to place your notes anywhere you want on the page. You can even reposition blocks of text by dragging them around the page, giving you full creative agency over how your notes look.


Goodbye, linear formatting!


OneNote also allows you to insert other documents within pages as printouts – allowing you to annotate in-page. This is a nifty feature for students, as you’ll be able to write notes and place them right next to the point you’re highlighting – so your notes are well-organized and easily accessible.


For students using tablets to take handwritten notes, OneNote allows users to scan handwritten text and make that text searchable. You won’t have to worry about not being able to CTRL-F your handwritten notes with this lifesaving function, so your note-taking experience can transition seamlessly between your tablet and laptop.


You can also convert handwritten notes into text in an instant with OneNote's "ink-to-text" function.


OneNote’s audio recording function can also be a game-changer when taking in-lecture notes. When you start recording, the app syncs every block of text you type to the audio that’s being recorded at that moment. This allows you to review your lecture notes and listen to what was being said at the exact moment you wrote them – making it easier for your reference. (Disclaimer: it should be mentioned that not all of your lecturers or tutors would be open to being recorded. You should always ask for their explicit permission before recording in class.)


Users requiring greater organizational capabilities in their virtual notebooks will be able to make full use of OneNote’s nested hierarchies. OneNote’s notebooks are structured according to Notebook > Section / Section Groups > Pages. You can make as many sections and pages all linked to one another in this hierarchical order. Imagine this function as a virtual representation of a physical book with multiple tabs separating chapters and subsections. By segmenting your notes, you’ll be able to keep your notebook tidy and your notes easily accessible.



Best of all, the premium version of OneNote comes entirely free with an Office365 subscription, which you should have if you’re an NUS student. Further, there are no limits to the amount of notes or notebooks you can create.


Unfortunately though, OneNote isn’t without its flaws. The app doesn’t allow users to sort their notes by date created or date modified, so you won’t be able to perform a quick search to view all your recent notes. OneNote also has limited tagging functionality, so its not the best app for organization.


Overall, because of its slew of functionalities and extreme value, OneNote comes out on top in the intermediate category.


For the Advanced User: Notion

Finally, the advanced user will be able to make the most out of the absolute powerhouse that is Notion.


Notion is a multi-faceted workspace that makes your note-taking experience a breeze with its limitless organizational capabilities.


Like OneNote, Notion allows you to create nested hierarchies of notes (called pages), which can be re-positioned elsewhere within your notebooks. Also like OneNote, you can easily format your text, as blocks aren’t constrained to a linear structure; they can be placed anywhere you like on the page.


Where Notion sets itself apart is its boundless customizability and organizational power. You can build virtually anything in-app – from spreadsheets to calendars. The sheer potential of Notion can be daunting; which is why it’s a good thing Notion has a plethora of templates ready for you to co-opt and use to streamline your workflow. Use these templates to build huge databases for your notes and you’ll never worry that your notes aren’t organized ever again.



Once you’ve gotten the hang of the app, you can start creating your own templates to better suit your personal needs.


Notion also features markdown editing; a nifty function that allows you to format text as you type. For example, surrounding a word or phrase with an asterisk on each side like so italicizes it automatically. Such shortcuts make the typing process that much smoother as you won’t need to bother manually formatting your text – just a few clacks of the keyboard and you’re done.




For users who need to work as a team, Notion has you covered. You can create and share databases with team members who can all collaborate on the same workspace. Perfect for getting all your project groupmates on the same page. In fact, Notion is what the CNMTypes team uses to collaborate – so you can understand why my praise for the app is so effusive.


Did I mention Notion is free for students? Yes, Notion’s Personal Pro plan costs nothing (U.P. $5 per month) if you sign up with a student e-mail (that’s any e-mail ending with .edu). With this, you get all the power, and all the savings.


However..

The perfect app doesn’t exist and Notion is not without its shortcomings.


For one, Notion does not support a feature I find crucial to the note-taking experience: annotating a document in-page. As mentioned above, OneNote allows you to insert PDFs and other documents as printouts, and annotate either on an overlay or with text at the sides. This is extremely useful, and is unfortunately not possible in Notion.


Another drawback of Notion is that it can be difficult to precisely highlight text if it exceeds one block. With these issues, Notion’s note-taking capabilities take a hit, but its organizational power more than makes up for lost ground.


It should also be reiterated that Notion is strictly not for the faint of heart. It is an extremely powerful app, but all the extra functions can serve to confuse you if you’re not a user who needs them. This could have the opposite effect of decreasing your productivity instead of boosting it, so if you’re not a power user, you’re better off sticking to the above-mentioned options. Notion definitely takes some getting used to; that said, once you get the hang of it, your workflow will be smoother than a baby’s bottom.


Summary

Note-taking and organization is an integral part of being a student, so choosing the right app for your needs is of paramount importance. It’s important not to be distracted by the bells and whistles of fancier apps like Notion – if you don’t need it, you don’t need it. Use what’s right for you, and you’ll achieve great results.



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