Supercharge Your iPad For School: The Apps And Accessories Every Student Needs [Feature]


Photo by {Flixelpix} David -
Photo by {Flixelpix} David -

Earlier this year Apple announced iTunes U, making it clear that Apple intends to make the iPad ubiquitous in academia. The iPad is truly coming into its own as a legitimate alternative to the PC. For students, this means that the iPad is quickly becoming a powerful learning tool, which is good for a lot more than reading.

I sat down with a Boston-based PhD student who, for the past year, has been using her iPad nearly exclusively for her studies. Here are the core peripherals and apps that she recommends in order to supercharge your iPad for use in the academic setting.

Portable Keyboard (peripheral).

Description. It doesn’t matter whether you choose Apple’s own Wireless Keyboard or something a little bit fancier like the ZAGGfolio keyboard case provided you choose a keyboard that well-designed and well-reviewed. Our PhD student uses Apple’s Wireless Keyboard because of its sturdy, lightweight and compact design, reasonable price ($69) and usability with other Macs, but there are a lot of great options out there.

Suggested Use. You should consider your portable keyboard as your primary mode of text input. The iPad’s touchscreen keyboard is nice for typing small amounts of text, but it’s not going to provide you with the most efficient experience. Chances are, if you don’t use a keyboard you’re going to have trouble keeping up when taking lecture notes. If you can’t keep up, then your iPad isn’t going to stand as a viable learning tool. Get a keyboard and carry it wherever you go.

Stylus (peripheral).

Description. Just like your portable keyboard, your stylus is going to be a crucial tool for annotating electronic documents and for drawing pictures and diagrams. Under many circumstances your finger will work just fine, but having a stylus will enable you to markup notes and documents with far more precision. Having a fine-tipped stylus comes in very handy when drawing detailed charts or graphs during class or underlining text in PDFs. As with the keyboard, there are a number of great options out there, but you should do your own research and decide on a stylus that works best for you. Some notable suggestions include the Targus Stylus for the iPad and the Wacom Bamboo Stylus. Our PhD student has been using the same Targus Stylus for nearly a year and is very happy with it.

Suggested Use. Carry your stylus in the same bag as your keyboard and get used to using it in your note taking and reading apps. The extra precision offered by the stylus will enable you to be more effective and efficient when drawing in notes or marking up documents, and even handwriting notes when you don’t have your keyboard at the ready.

Notability – Your Note Taking App.

Description. Notability is one of the leading note taking apps available and is one of our PhD student’s favorite and most frequently used apps. It’s feature-packed and is one of the few note-taking apps that offer everything most students will need. Notability offers 1) text-based note taking; 2) quick, seamless, and fully-integrated drawing capabilities; 3) audio recording with replay that is synchronized with user input; 4) and the ability to organize notes within multiple notebooks (i.e. by course title). Priced at $0.99, Notability is a bargain. Other apps such as Evernote (free) offer the ability to take notes via textual input, but from our PhD student’s perspective Notability is better suited to the needs of the average student and, therefore, is the better option.

Notability lets you organize your notes by class or subject

Suggested Use. Notability is going to be every student’s bread and butter for effective note taking. Use it for note taking in every class and be sure to take advantage of the audio recording feature. Being able to juxtapose your notes with the specific audio portion of a lecture will be invaluable when reviewing material for exams. Notability is the student’s complete note-taking package.

iAnnotate PDF – Your Reading App.

Description. Often entire courses consist of reading from primary sources, which are frequently given to the student in the form of paper or digital handouts. This is where iAnnotate PDF comes in. iAnnotate PDF is a well-designed, feature-rich PDF reader and annotation tool. Although iAnnotate PDF is rather pricey at $9.99, it offers the best solution for students who read a lot of electronic literature. It provides an easy way to mark-up, highlight, and annotate documents. It also features the ability to organize documents within nested folder hierarchies, which our PhD student suggests is one of its features that set it apart from competing apps.

Suggested Use. Use iAnnotate PDF to read and annotate any digital course literature. Put whatever you can into iAnnotate PDF. Within iAnnotate PDF you can easily search across all of your documents (provided those documents contain textual content) and, therefore it’s very easy to quickly important documents, passages, and quotes. This comes in very handy when studying for exams or searching for references while writing papers. When reading documents using iAnnotate PDF, mark them up using a variety of techniques such as underlining, highlighting, textual annotations, drawings, and audio notes. You can even adjust color schemes.

Add notes to your documents with iAnnotate PDF

You can also easily share documents through iAnnotate PDF and you can control how you share them. For example, you can choose whether you want to share the original PDF, the iAnnotate PDF version, or a flattened (i.e. edit-protected) version of your document. It even has Dropbox integration.

Organize your documents however you like in iAnnotate PDF

Photo To PDF / DocScanner – Paper Document Conversion App.

Description. It’s helpful to have an app that will let you use your iPad’s camera to snap pictures of multi-page documents and merge them into a single PDF for easy reading (i.e. for reading and annotating in iAnnotate PDF). There are many different apps out there that do this. Our PhD student has used CamScanner Free (free), Photo To PDF ($2.99) and DocScanner ($3.99). AppAdvice has a good breakdown of similar apps. When selecting a document scanner it’s probably a good idea to choose one out that has OCR capabilities, which will prove useful for document searching within apps such as iAnnotate PDF.

Suggested Use. Equip your iPad with a decent document scanner. You never know when you’ll need to snap pictures of an important document. You may also find it useful to take pictures of select reading from large and heavy textbooks in lieu of lugging them around on weekend excursions. Another great use is for snapping photos of class syllabi, assignments, or other paper handouts so that you have them available for markup and reference.

SimpleMind+ – Your  Brainstorming App.

Description. SimpleMind+ is a visually oriented app designed for brainstorming and organizing thoughts and concepts. For the average student, this app may come in handy during the early stages of writing a paper or while collaborating with other students on projects. The app comes in a free and paid ($6.99) version.

Visualize your ideas with Simplemind+

Suggested Use. Use SimpleMind+ for brainstorming papers, research projects, and presentations. The app’s interface is very straightforward, but the free version is somewhat lacking in features compared to the paid version. Some users may find this app useful if mirrored onto a larger screen using AirPlay mirroring for collaborative study sessions. Our PhD student occasionally uses SimpleMind+ while planning research papers. My take is that this may be incredibly useful for those who are visual learners, but those interested in this app should try the free version out before buying the full version.

Pages, CloudOn, LogMeIn – Your Best Options for a Word Processor.

Description. Word processing on the iPad still isn’t where it needs to be. Eventually Microsoft will likely release Office for iOS and, after a few rounds of fixes and updates, we’ll have an iOS word processing suite that we can really sink our teeth into. Presently, there are several options for the student. Apple’s iWork Pages ($9.99) is far and away the still the best word processing option for the iPad. Our PhD student admits to using both CloudOn (free) and LogMeIn (free) for her word processing needs when on her iPad, but still does the bulk of her writing on her MacBook.

Suggested Use. Pages is still the best choice for a native iOS word processing app. CloudOn runs a virtual instance of the various Office applications and requires and Internet connection to do it. CloudOn integrates very well with Dropbox. Similarly, if you own a copy of Office on your home computer you can use LogMeIn to access your home computer and run Office on your iPad from there. All of these options are less than ideal, but our PhD candidate has had very good success using these options for short assignments and revisions.


Are you a teacher or student that uses the iPad in the academic setting? Do you have any opinions about these apps or others that students or teachers may find helpful? If so, we would love to hear what you have to say.


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  • Kieran Shari

    NICE article!  This has really given me some great ideas on how to better incorporate my ipad into my studies.  Thanks!


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  • Nona Suomy

    great article… helpful.
    one outstanding query though…
    what’s a PDF-annotating app that can collect and export all highlights/notes (in the style of Skim for mac)? is there such a thing for iPad?

  • Nona Suomy

    great article… helpful.
    one outstanding query though…
    what’s a PDF-annotating app that can collect and export all highlights/notes (in the style of Skim for mac)? is there such a thing for iPad?

  • Brian Horsley

    I really like to use ClassOrganizer. It incorporates some of the individual apps listed here into one. It’s $4.99 but it’s well worth it and they are constantly updating it.

  • Joseph Barbour

    Noteshelf and a Bamboo stylus are my go-to’s for handwritten notes on my iPad :) Perfect combo for a paperless university life! I also love GoodReader for PDF annotation and organization because of how it supports iCloud.

  • 5thelement

    Check out this blog, Cool idea!

  • pat3ck

    Personally, I still prefer PenUltimate for my note taking needs. It was rated 7/10 on Tapscape here:

  • MeerkatMac

    Just in time for Back-to-School – Visual Journal just released on the App Store today!

    A perfect virtual alternative to the traditional paper journal notebooks you use for taking notes, recording experiments, and detailing development projects for school, work, research, and hobbies. It lets your iPad replace dozens of paper journals in one app that’s as simple and easy-to-use as the real thing.


  • With your iPad you can also use iTakeClassNotes released in June 2014 which is a free complete course notes app that uses all the media features of the iPad (photo, mic, drawings) and allows you to share the notes on the cloud (Dropbox, GoogleDrive) or social networks (Facebook, Twitter)