Throwback Thursday: If only I had OneNote when I was in college

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Today’s post was written by Jenny Hansen, a OneNote user and participant in the Microsoft Office Insider program. 

Students have returned to school in my Southern California neighborhood, which means my local Starbucks is filling up with the gadgetry of today’s college crowd. Laptops, tablets, smartphones, Livescribe smartpens…frankly, I’m jealous. The technology today is remarkable.

We didn’t have all this wizardry when I was in college. Studying would have been so much easier if I’d had the technology I take for granted today during my college years.

OneNote is my favorite tech tool. It allows me to keep all my notes, research and to-do lists in one place, neatly organized and easily accessible from wherever I am. I use OneNote to take meeting notes and action items, manage home improvement projects, track grocery lists and keep track of research for my writing projects. Whether I’m on my PC, Surface Pro or Android phone, everything I need is all in one place.

“Back in the day,” most students didn’t have computers—much less a cell phone. If we wanted a paper typed, we reserved time at the computer lab or borrowed a typewriter— a prehistoric device only found in museums today. My notes were written by hand in separate spiral notebooks dedicated for each class.

I would have loved to have OneNote back then to do what I can do today. Writing papers would have been a breeze. I could have tagged and searched, listed and imported, recorded audio and video and still have been able to take handwritten notes—and I wouldn’t have spent so much time searching for my lab summaries. OneNote would have definitely improved my grades.

If I could go back in time to give myself a gift, I’d give myself a tablet with OneNote and share these five features with my younger self:

1. Smartpens—The Livescribe 3 smartpen integrates seamlessly with OneNote on iOS devices, and it’s easy to use. I tried it out myself on an iPad and a Livescribe 3 smartpen that my friends at Microsoft loaned me, so I can attest to just how smooth this trick is. Not only can you take notes on your iPhone or iPad by hand, with just a tap of your finger you can flip your scribbles into digital text so they are easily found with a quick search when compiling notes later in OneNote. You can also click a button and record what you hear while you’re writing. The ability to have listened to the lecture play back while I read through my notes? Like I said, this would have improved my grades.

2. Ink to Text—Whether you’re a pen-and-paper person and you write with the Livescribe smartpen, or you’re an all-digital kind of person and you handwrite with a stylus, this “ink” can be converted to searchable text via OneNote’s Ink to Text feature. To handwrite notes using a stylus, click the Draw tab, click any of the color pens in the Tools group and start writing. Click Type on the Draw tab when you’re done. To convert handwriting to text, select what you want to convert and click Ink to Text. It really is that simple. If I’d had this capability back then, I would have retained more from all my lectures.

OneNote Text to Ink

3. OneDrive + OneNote—In the old days, my spiral notebooks and a hefty three-ring binder (complete with big pockets and envelope inserts for every class) went to campus with me every day because I’m notorious for losing things. How amazing would it have been to keep it all organized digitally in a neat little OneNote notebook that I could have accessed from anywhere using OneDrive?

4. Audio/video recording—The audio feature that makes my life so easy on my Windows devices isn’t quite ready yet on the Mac versions, but it’s coming (says the OneNote team under “pledge of secrecy”). I use this feature all the time, hitting record while I take notes in a meeting. Later, when I tag the notes to group my action items, I’ll often press the playback button to hear exactly what was happening in the room while I typed so that I never miss anything. I exchange a lot of data between OneNote and Outlook, and OneNote and PowerPoint, so this feature keeps it all in context.

5. Send to OneNote key—This feature cannot be beat when compiling research for papers or getting ready for a presentation. The freedom of not having to do more than press Window + Shift + S to save whatever I’m looking at as a screenshot during the creative phase is heaven, pure and simple. And it saves time and keeps everything organized so it can be found with a simple search.

College students today are blessed with innovations that I could never have dreamed of when I was in school. With all the technology available to them today, OneNote should be top of the list to get things done and have more fun. I could go on about OneNote all day, but for five more features I wish I’d had back in the day, visit me at my blog, More Cowbell.

—Jenny Hansen (@JennyHansenCA)

  1. Thanks so much for having me here, Microsoft. I’m having a grand time with OneNote. 🙂

  2. I certainly wish I had OneNote when I was in college. It would have come in handy for me too. OneNote is such a great application.

    • Exactly, C. I think of all the ways I use it now…and then I think of how much money I spent having papers typed. It’s enough to make me want to time travel.

      • Hah! I was one of those who got paid to type other people’s papers!

        • I’m jealous of those typing skills AND that revenue stream!

  3. Boy, Jenny, as someone who went back to college at 50, I wish I had taken advantage of OneNote! I fell back into my rhythm of writing in spiral notebooks too easily. I’m going to have to go explore how to integrate it all with my writing projects now, although it may need to wait for a computer upgrade! 🙂 Thanks for the info!

  4. You got me started on this after the WANAcon class. I love it! I haven’t played with the Ink to Text yet but that would have been a lifesaver in college. I still have most of my notebooks. How awesome would it have been to have all of that converted to searchable text?!

    • Sonia, I’m so glad you kept up with OneNote! That WANACon seminar was so fun. Did you click over to see the other five features at More Cowbell. We’ve got double the magic for this post. 🙂

  5. It would be great to add Take a photo / video/ sound button, and insert taken data directly in One Note.

    • It would be great to add Take a photo / video/ sound button, and insert taken data directly in OneNote.

    • That would be an exceptionally cool feature if it integrated with Android and iOS. Love it!

  6. Thanks, Jenny! I think you just provided me with a missing piece of my organizational puzzle. I hang on to a lot of things for reference, but it becomes a blizzard of files and folders (digital and paper) and I waste time searching for important research or story notes. I’ll give it a try and let you know how it goes!

    • I sure hope so. OneNote has seriously revolutionized how I do my writing research. I use the search feature all the time so it really doesn’t matter if I’m in a hurry when I see a site/article/piece of research. I can still tag it or throw it in OneNote, then organize later.

  7. A while ago I read that Michael Oldenburg would be writing a new book ‘Using OneNote 2013’. The book title was on Amazon for pre order but the book is no longer listed. Do you have any recommendations on how to learn more about OneNote 2013? I will buy Michael’s 2010 book for background. Thank you. Chris

    • Chris, thanks so much for your interest. “My OneNote 2013,” which you previously saw listed on Amazon, was discontinued in its planned format because the OneNote ecosystem has grown and changed so quickly — especially on the mobile platforms. While I’m still planning a follow-up work, you may find that a lot of what’s covered in “Using OneNote 2010” still applies to the current OneNote 2013 desktop version, especially the value propositions and usage techniques. The paperback and Kindle electronic version of this book are still available on and other booksellers, plus a full-color enhanced iBooks version of “Using OneNote 2010” is also available on iTunes. Meanwhile, thanks for using OneNote and thanks also for your interest in the books! — Michael

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