If you're a college student — whether a brand-new freshman, or a jaded, experienced senior — there's a good chance that you are currently struggling to balance all your obligations as the new semester gets underway.
Many college students are juggling up to six classes and labs; a job or three; extracurricular activities like sports, music, volunteering, or campus clubs; and/or family obligations.
Since no matter how many activities you have to complete, there are still going to be only 24 hours in the day, one of the most important skills you'll learn as a college student is how to manage your time so that you meet your obligations, have a life, and also get enough sleep!
If you're moving from a highly structured high school where most hours of the day are planned out for you by other people, it is very easy to get into trouble without even realizing it, simply because you haven't learned yet how to manage your own time without someone looking over your shoulder constantly.
Whether you've just received your first syllabus or whether you're realizing in your junior year that you need help with time management, here are some strategies that will help you survive and thrive — not just in college but in whatever career you undertake afterwards.
1. Plan Ahead for Long-Term Projects
Getting through a semester of college successfully means managing multiple mini-projects and mini-deadlines. An average five-course load might mean 10 to 15 tests and 10 to 15 papers, labs, presentations, or other substantial projects that can't be completed the hour before your class meets. You might also have other big projects at an internship or an extracurricular activity.
During the first week of classes, make a list of all these important due dates. How do you do that? Collect a syllabus for each class. (A syllabus is the road map for the semester; it should include a calendar listing both major and minor assignments as well as tests, quizzes, etc.) Highlight each major due date and test and copy them all into a planner or a separate document.
Then, attend the first meetings of any extracurricular activities you have and ask about major events during the semester. Do you have a big chorus concert on December 7? Write that down.
Your final list will look something like this, except longer:
- September 15: Economics quiz on chapters 2 through 5
- October 15: Political Science midterm
- October 16: English midterm and Finance midterm
- November 1: Proposal for final Political Science paper
- November 10: Travel soccer league
Once you have your list, you can do two things.
First, identify trouble spots well in advance so you can make a plan and, if you need it, ask for help. Do you have two midterms on the same day? You might want to ask your employer for a day off so you can study. Some schools even have rules that protect you from having too much on the same day; your university might have a rule that says you can't have more than two exams per day, and allows you to ask for one to be rescheduled if you end up unlucky.
Second, work backwards from due dates and think about what milestones you might need to hit earlier. If your Political Science proposal is due November 1, when do you need to do your bibliography research? You might want to add that to your calendar.
Here's the reason why employers ask to see a college degree — any college degree — before hiring for jobs that might not seem like they need one: successfully finishing college means proving that you can plan ahead like this and work independently enough to get through multiple semesters.
2. Make a Weekly Calendar
Not only should you sit down at the beginning of the semester to map out longer-term projects, but you should also have a system for managing your shorter-term time: your day and your week. Whether you use a paper planner or a phone app, you need a calendar to help you both plan what to do, and remember what you're supposed to be doing!
Start your weekly calendar by filling in fixed obligations including classes, shifts at work, and meetings. Then plan out what to do with the rest of your time. The rule of thumb for most college classes is that you should spend two hours preparing for each hour of class. So if your English class meets for 60 minutes on Tuesday afternoon, you should schedule in two hours of reading on Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning.
Making your weekly calendar at a fixed time — say, every Friday afternoon — gives you an opportunity to look at your long-term plan every week, too. If your semester plan shows that you have a big project due in three weeks, then you can block out some time this week to think about it and make some notes.
You can check your calendar as much as you need, of course, but at a minimum it's a good idea to look at it either first thing in the morning or the night before.
3. Set Up a Reminder System
Collating and writing down all the things you have to do is important, but you also have to remember things! How did you remember what you needed to do in high school? Maybe your parents or your teachers constantly reminded you; if that's the case, now is a great time to develop a better system.
Personally, I really like to have a physical set of reminders. I prefer to-do lists written on paper, and I have a notebook that is small enough that I can carry it around with me all the time. But I also use Google Calendar linked to my Gmail account. That's an especially useful tool if you want to share your calendar with others — your fellow students, your boss, whomever. And you can use it to send yourself reminders about important appointments, too; you can get a push alert or an email.
I also like Google Calendar for planning ongoing commitments like classes and work shifts that repeat every week at the same time; you can set it up once at the beginning of the semester and your weekly calendar will automatically populate, leaving you only with variable appointments to schedule in.
4. Multitask . . .
One of the best ways to manage all your obligations as a college student is to meet two of them at once. If you play a sport, can you listen to a book on tape while you're working out, or study while you're on the bus to a game? Or can you get a job that allows you to do schoolwork while you're there?
Many on-campus job positions, library attendant or office helper, might combine time spent on tasks with time spent sitting at a desk and waiting for someone to need help — in other words, time you can use to work on a problem set. Babysitting in the evening might be another good job; if you take babysitting jobs that include time when the children are in bed, you can get schoolwork done while also earning money.
You can also try taking several classes that are related to each other, rather than five classes in five different departments. You'll still need to complete separate projects and exams for each one, but it's easier on your brain to learn a lot about a relatively constrained subject rather than a little about a variety of subjects. And, cognitive issues aside, if you take three classes about economics, then research you do for one final presentation might well be relevant to helping you solve problems in another class.
5. . . . But Don't Multitask Unproductively
It is possible to try to be a little too clever when you're struggling to get everything done. It might seem like a good idea to do your Economy problem set while you're supposed to be taking notes on a Political Science lecture. But your GPA will probably end up suffering in the end. In an emergency situation, skip class and ask a friend to record the lecture, then catch up on it later.
When you're deciding what to multitask, you should also take into account that some of your schoolwork can probably be done quickly under any circumstances — you can work a single math problem in a few minutes on the bus — but other assignments will be "deep work," work that needs to be done while you are really focused.
There's no point in trying to read a long Philosophy essay a few minutes at a time while responding to patron requests. Give work like that the time it needs, and do it in a location you find productive — popular choices are the library, a quiet lounge, a coffee shop, or your dorm room desk.
6. Know What Your Priorities Are
College students tend to become overcommitted. Most are young, ambitious, and enthusiastic, and a lot of students sign up for too many activities, too many classes, and too much paid work. It's the time management version of your eyes being too big for your plate!
If you find that you really have more to do than you can handle, you'll need to triage. Assess everything you're supposed to be doing, and figure out what really has to be done now, what can be put off, and what can be cancelled.
For most college students, aside from true family emergencies, the order of priorities should be academic work, then paid work, then extracurricular activities. While some people might have good reasons to put paid work ahead of academics, you should think very carefully about this.
After all, what good is paying for a college education if you don't learn what you need to learn, or if your grades aren't good enough to help you get to your next step? In the long run, you might well be better off taking out an extra student loan and focusing on your studies, as opposed to working many hours a week — especially in a minimum-wage job.
By the way, if you do find that you need to put off or drop a commitment, make sure you let all the relevant people know as soon as possible. The faster you get in touch with your professors, coaches, bosses, or club presidents, the more likely they are to take the news well and to help you figure out an alternative solution if you need one. And doing so just shows good manners!
7. Give Yourself Enough Downtime
If you feel overcommitted, you might also start to develop symptoms that are close to depression or burnout. Many college students drive themselves so hard that they find themselves tense, stressed, and ultimately unable to focus.
Part of good time management is making sure you sleep, exercise, and eat enough. When you have too much to do, it can be very tempting to try to shove through everything and stop taking care of yourself. But ultimately, while an all-nighter every now and then won't kill you, you'll work much more efficiently if you are well-rested.
It's not just about the "grown-up" parts of downtime, though. It's also a good idea to have some fun every now and then! Meeting new people, developing friendships, and enjoying the place you live or the places you can travel to — these are all important parts of the college experience whether you're an 18-year-old freshman or a 45-year-old commuter student.
When you write down your weekly schedule, make sure it has plenty of time for socializing, taking long walks, having long meals, and for whatever relaxing, refreshing activities you enjoy.
8. Take Advantage of Campus Resources
Your campus probably has a writing center that will help you with longer papers, and individual departments often have tutoring programs. If you're finding yourself strapped for time, it may just be that you need some extra help with your classes.
While the writing center, tutoring programs, and so on are usually available for everyone, if you have a diagnosed disability — whether a learning disability, a mental health issue, or a physical disability — you may well be eligible for special accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Speak to your university's disability office. Some students are eligible for extra time on quizzes and exams, for note-taking services, and for other services that might help with time management.
Robert Farrington is America’s Millennial Money Expert® and America’s Student Loan Debt Expert™, and the founder of The College Investor, a personal finance site dedicated to helping millennials escape student loan debt to start investing and building wealth for the future. You can learn more about him on the About Page, or on his personal site RobertFarrington.com.
He regularly writes about investing, student loan debt, and general personal finance topics geared towards anyone wanting to earn more, get out of debt, and start building wealth for the future.
He has been quoted in major publications including the New York Times, Washington Post, Fox, ABC, NBC, and more. He is also a regular contributor to Forbes.