There’s not much to say about OneNote that hasn’t already been said. It’s Microsoft’s best-kept secret, one of the most underhyped Windows apps, and an overall productivity beast.

It’s been out for over 10 years and just now starting to get the appreciation it deserves. Microsoft has recently opened the app up to more users by making it available for free across a variety of platforms, including smartphones, tablets, Windows 8, and the web. Thanks to this openness and new features, OneNote is now a viable alternative to popular note-taking apps like Evernote. Its full desktop version is still only available with an Office subscription; however, students can receive four years of Office access for only $79 with Office 365 University.

Let’s take a look at how to use OneNote for more than just taking notes. In the process, however, you’ll learn how to take better notes and enjoy doing it.

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Develop a Style

OneNote offers you the freedom to take notes anywhere on a page; if you want to jot a few side notes in bullet format, you simply click where you want that list to be and start typing. You can insert images, music, Office documents, and any local file to assist you in this process.

(Images can be embedded for reference or sent to the background so text can be written over them, and Excel spreadsheets can be created or imported directly into notes.)

This freedom allows you to develop your own style of note-taking that transcends pen and paper or your typical Word document. You can turn notes into a fun activity, as opposed to a task that must be completed.

Quick Styling Tips:

  • Treat a note like a scrapbook or infographic — Use the resources and formatting available to create a page that best organizes the information for future study sessions. This means adding plenty of headings and separating certain things to improve readability.
  • Use tags — You can mark certain pieces of information by using the built-in tagging feature. It allows you to set highlights for standout lines, questions for items you may need to brush-up on, to-do lists for problems and tasks associated with the note, and much more.
  • Experiment with equations — For your more complex notes, you can insert equations from a default list or write them in yourself and then, using the ink-to-math feature, convert them to text.

Use Templates for Quick and Simple Notes

onenote templates

Whether you’re just getting used to OneNote or simply don’t feel advanced styles will help you study, templates offer a way to always have an organized note ready for class.

To find templates in the desktop version of OneNote 2013, navigate to “Insert” and find “Page Templates.” A list of template categories will pop up on the side — one for almost every need. Under the academic section, the “Lecture Notes and Study Questions” template is a great format for nearly all college classes.

Try making a habit of using it during each class. You may find it not only helps you take better notes, but also helps you remember more, as it allows you to associate dates with topics.

Extra Credit:

  • Use the notes you take during each class and create more comprehensive “study packets” for yourself. Not only will you be able to organize all the information you need to know in one document, the process itself will help you memorize things.

Your Magic Digital Notebook

handwriting in onenote

If all of the previously-mentioned freedom wasn’t enough, you can also take handwritten notes using a stylus and convert them to text. This is best accomplished using one of the latest touchscreen Windows 8 laptops or tablets, but it may work — with more effort — on laptop touchpads, as well.

In OneNote 2013, head to the “Draw” tab and choose a pen style that fits your handwriting. (For additional options, click on “Color & Thickness.”)

Once class is over and your notes are ready for converting, click “Lasso Select” from the “Draw” tab and draw a circle around the notes. (If you took a lot of notes, you may want to do small sections at a time.)

From there, right click inside the selected area and choose the “Ink to Text” option. If your handwriting isn’t full of too many small imperfections, you should now have the error-free converted text on your screen.

Handwriting Conversion Tip:

  • The technology used to convert your handwriting to text isn’t perfect, as many things can cause it to mistake one word for another (or not recognize it at all). To make sure these potential mistakes don’t cause you trouble down the road, copy the converted text into a new note and undo the conversion using the undo (Ctrl + Z) keyboard shortcut. You can now double-check the text and get a first round of reading in while you’re at it.

Sync and Go Mobile

One of OneNote’s most desirable qualities is its ability to be synced and used on all types of devices. Using SkyDrive to back up notebooks, as well as smartphone and tablet apps, your notes are accessible — both online and offline — wherever you take your devices. (Evernote currently charges $45 a year to unlock offline syncing.)

In addition, you can use the OneNote web app (on top of other Office apps) — accessed via SkyDrive — to create and edit documents on any desktop platform. It’s not a full-featured version, but it is enough for some advanced note-taking.


  • SkyDrive – Includes 7 GB of free storage (20 GB more with Office 365) and the freedom to access documents anywhere.
  • Web App – Found in SkyDrive, can be used in-browser on any desktop platform.
  • Mobile Apps – Available for iPhone, iPad, Android, and Windows Phone (pre-installed).

Beyond the Classroom

one outside the classroom

OneNote has plenty of great uses for college students, but it’s also an amazing tool for organizing thoughts and projects. For instance: if you can’t seem to type out your thoughts, try recording a quick audio session in OneNote and playing it back later.

Here are some other unique uses:

 Are you using OneNote? Let us know what you think of it in the comments below.