What are CliffsNotes?

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  • Written By: K T Solis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 07 November 2019
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CliffsNotes is a study guide publishing company that has been in existence since 1958. These study guides can be read in pamphlet form or online. The common misspelling of the study guides is "Cliff Notes." Some opponents of the study guides believe that the guides encourage students to avoid reading the actual literary work, instead relying on the study guide to provide them with all the information they need.

The CliffsNotes company was founded by Cliff Hillegass, a man born in Rising City, Nebraska. Hillegass loved literature from an early age, and this love of reading led him to a career helping students develop a stronger understanding of literature. When Hillegass became a graduate student at the University of Nebraska, he worked full-time as a college bookstore representative for Long's College Bookstore.

While working there, he made important contacts that would serve him well in later years. A contact in Toronto named Jack Cole was instrumental in encouraging Hillegass to begin his company Cliffs Notes. Cole was the owner of Coles, The Book People. The Canadian company wrote study guides called Cole's Notes. Cole told Hillegass that American students might wish to purchase study guides as well.


In response to this suggestion, Hillegass began CliffsNotes in August 1958. Initially, the company published 16 study guides based on Shakespeare's literature. The guides were designed to help students understand literature they were assigned to read in school. The trademark yellow-and-black study guides quickly grew in popularity around the world.

The company recommends that students use the study guides in one of two ways. The first method is to read the assigned chapter of the book or act of the play. Next, students should read the section of the CliffsNotes that corresponds to the chapter or act. Students may also decide to read the entire book or play first, and then refer to the CliffsNotes for further understanding.

CliffsNotes provide information about the author of the literary work, chapter summaries, insight into the characters, social and historical background in which the work was written, a glossary of terms, and a bibliography to help students glean more information about the literary work. Today, CliffsNotes study guides exist for non-literary subjects as well. Students can find CliffsNotes that discuss topics such as algebra, basic mathematics, science, history, foreign languages, writing, test preparation, and other academic subjects. The website at features free study guides students can download and use to enhance their knowledge of a particular school subject.


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