Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was employed to examine the effects of a study task manipulation on pre‐stimulus activity in the hippocampus predictive of later successful recollection. Eighteen young participants were scanned while making either animacy or syllable judgments on visually presented study words. Cues presented before each word denoted which judgment should be made. Following the study phase, a surprise recognition memory test was administered in which each test item had to be endorsed as “Remembered,” “Known,” or “New.” As expected, “deep” animacy judgments led to better memory for study items than did “shallow” syllable judgments. In both study tasks, pre‐stimulus subsequent recollection effects were evident in the interval between the cue and the study item in bilateral anterior hippocampus. However, the direction of the effects differed according to the study task: whereas pre‐stimulus hippocampal activity on animacy trials was greater for later recollected items than items judged old on the basis of familiarity (replicating prior findings), these effects reversed for syllable trials. We propose that the direction of pre‐stimulus hippocampal subsequent memory effects depends on whether an optimal pre‐stimulus task set facilitates study processing that is conducive or unconducive to the formation of contextually rich episodic memories. © 2015 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.