College Student's Survival Guide
Smart stuff, from five high-achieving students, for keeping your grades up while working or participating in college activities
If you're a new college freshman, it usually doesn't take too many weeks into the first semester to realize: you're not in high school anymore. College is a whole different ball game.
The classes are harder. Assignments are tougher. Papers and tests are longer. And suddenly, you
re in charge of your own schedule—for better or worse. No more parents or teachers to help plan your day and keep you on track to get assignments done. It's up to you.
Adjusting to the new rules can be challenging. But if you're like most college students—juggling school alongside other demands like sports, jobs, or family responsibilities—you soon realize time is too precious to waste.
We interviewed five high-achieving college students who manage to keep up their grades while packing more into a day than might seem possible. (And yet they still find time to sleep.) They shared their tips for achieving college-life balance and getting it all done. If they can do it, you can too!
Keeping track of assignments
Owen Electric member Ashley Baker, a Northern Kentucky University sophomore from Butler, has managed to maintain straight A's (and several
academic scholarships) while going to school full time, working 25 hours a week at Frisch's, and caring for her son, Levi, who is 11 months old.
It's a lot to tackle, so Baker makes a point of
creating "to-do" lists each day to not let anything slip through the cracks.
"I have a whiteboard on the wall where I write down everything I have going on and everything that's due each day," she says. "I have paper notes to myself all over the house."
The whiteboard approach also works well for Collin Keen of Scottsville, a junior criminal justice major and football player at Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia. Keen, a Tri-County Electric member, is a regular on the Dean's List and had the honor of catching his team's first regular season touchdown last fall.
To excel both on the field and in the classroom, Keen keeps track of assignments and practice schedules on the whiteboard in his dorm room, and on written academic calendars that his coaching staff provides.
"The coaches really keep on us to stay on top of our assignments, especially if we have road trips coming up," Keen says. "We have to work with our teachers to make sure we don't have anything due while we're gone."
Other students prefer a more high-tech approach to tracking their assignments. Kelsey Hinken of Burlington, a junior honors program student and cross country team member at Thomas More College in Crestview Hills, programmed all of her school assignments into her smartphone using an app called iProcrastinate.
"It's so much more convenient to have it all on my phone," says Hinken, an Owen Electric Co-op member, who attends school on an academic scholarship and fits in her running training while working two part-time jobs as a professor's assistant and resident assistant for a senior assisted-living facility. "Little alerts pop up when a due date is nearing. Everything is color-coded by subject and priority, and I can just go to my phone and see what's coming up," she says.
Schedule class times carefully
If you need to have large blocks of time to hold down a job, volunteer on campus, or be part of a sports team, it's essential to get your classes done back-to-back, preferably in the mornings, students say. Leaving afternoons and evenings open for work shifts or practice times is key.
"I love getting classes out of the way in the morning," says Hinken. I'm wide awake. I'm focused. My head's on class then, and afterward I have the afternoon free for running or other things."
Having an hour break between classes may seem like a good idea, but it can be a recipe for wasted time.
"My first two semesters, I scheduled breaks between my classes, thinking I would study, but I ended up going shopping or out to eat with friends, basically any excuse I could come up with not to study," says Baker.
Since then, Baker has found a set routine to be much more productive. She now goes to school back-to-back from 9 a.m. to 1:50 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and then works from
4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays, along with a weekend shift.
Hinken finds that the busier she is, the more productive she is, because she doesn't have time to waste: "This year, because I have such a tight schedule after class with working and cross country, I don't put things off, and I get much more done," she says.
Use chunking instead of multi-tasking
It's tempting to text or read e-mails or make a quick phone call between classes.
But if you're a student-athlete like sophomore Georgia Van de Zande of Raleigh, North Carolina (whose mom is a reader at our sister publication), tackling mind-bending classes like thermal fluids engineering at MIT while swimming competitively and designing low-energy underwater gliders for a team robotics club, no minute is too small to waste.
On a typical day, Van de Zande must pack in five hours of class, three hours of swim practice, and five hours of studying—not to mention finding time to sleep and eat. That's why she makes a point of working during down time between classes and swimming, no matter how small the break.
"The other day I had a 30-minute break before practice, so I worked on writing an English essay that was due," she says. "Because I broke it down into a few half-hour sessions, I got it done without having to block out a huge, separate chunk of time."
The same approach worked for Baker, who was able to tackle an entire accounting class project by working on it during the 10-minute breaks between her classes over a two-week period. Getting it done in small breaks allowed her not to have to take time away from her son to get it done at home, she says.
Find an accountability partner
Finding a study partner—either a friend you knew before or someone in the class—pays off.
Louisville native Lindsey Hammers, who graduated with a social studies teaching certificate from Campbellsville University last December, hated taking early morning classes. She avoided 8 a.m. classes whenever possible, but when she had to register for an 8 a.m. economics class one semester, she signed up with a friend.
"I knew I had to be there, so I took it with a friend. That way I knew we'd be accountable to each other, and we'd help one another show up," she says.
Collin Keen's roommate, Jarred Rich, is a fellow criminal justice major, so the two shared four out of five classes together last semester. They ended up partnering to study and prepare for assignments, and found that it benefited both of them, Keen says.
"It helped a lot. We shared notes and if something was due soon, he would remind me, or I would remind him," Keen says.
Find a study time and place
At Murray State University, student-athletes who have a GPA below 3.0 are required to meet for between two and 10 hours of supervised study time each week, says academic counselor Meagan Short. Short works one-on-one with students to help set up study schedules and establish good time-management skills for tackling assignments.
But you don't have to be a student-athlete to establish fixed study times within your routine. You can be accountable to yourself: block out two to three hours each night for dedicated study time, and go to a place—like a library or quiet study commons—without distractions so you can really focus on your work, students advised.
"The library is a great place to study," says Hinken. "Everyone is quiet there and doing the same thing you are doing, so you don't feel like you're missing out on anything."
Find your passion
Face it, college can be stressful. Tack on outside responsibilities like work or parenting, and it's easy to feel burned out. That's why it's essential to schedule time for an outlet such as exercise or a hobby, something that lets you blow off some steam and regroup, students say.
For Georgia Van de Zande, that passion is swimming. Having competed in the pool since second grade, swimming laps has become a part of her identity; it's like her personal "reset button," she says.
"I can go in the pool after having a bad day, and just restart. It lets you forget about whatever problems you were having. Then afterward, I shower and grab dinner with the team, and feel ready to get back to schoolwork," she says.
Running is what helps Kelsey Hinken keep everything in perspective. "Running is my passion. It's what I love to do," says Hinken, who tries to get up at 6 a.m. to run part of her 6 to 8 daily miles before her classes start. Getting her workout in early helps her feel focused and ready to tackle the day, she says.
Keep studies the top priority
And while sports, clubs, and jobs demand time and attention, don't lose sight of the fact that college studies have to be the first priority. Keeping your grades up and staying on track to graduate are why you're in college, after all.
That mindset is what keeps Ashley Baker working hard in class, despite the demands of waitressing and being a first-time parent. Where others might have given up the dream of college altogether, she's maintaining a 4.0 GPA. "Work is important, but school comes first. I have to go to college," she says. "I don't want to work as a waitress the rest of my life."
5 MUST-USE COLLEGE RESOURCES
Colleges offer an array of resources to help students stay on track with their studies. From academic advising to time-management skill tutorials, make the most of the help your school has to offer:
Get to know your professor. Visit him or her during office hours to ask questions about material that's confusing. Attend scheduled study sessions in advance of midterm and final exams—often these sessions will help guide you on what specific topics to focus on during test prep.
As a freshman at Campbellsville University, Lindsey Hammers signed up to take part in a program that matched new college students with "grandparents" in the community. Little did she know that the pairing would still be reaping dividends five years later. Her adopted grandparents, Dr. Robert and Lillian Clark, became close friends; Lillian, a former English teacher, even helped edit Hammers' college writing assignments. And the couple introduced Hammers to criminology professor Jacquelyn Sandifer, who became another mentor, confidante, and support to her during her studies. It was Sandifer who helped Hammers get two summer jobs working with special-needs children.
Bottom line: don't overlook opportunities to make connections with professors and others in your college community. Sign up for mentorships, shadowing, or other networking opportunities. One simple connection could lead to unexpected jobs, opportunities, or chances for growth.
3. Study centers and writing labs
At Campbellsville University, students can find a quiet place to study and even get free, walk-in tutoring at The Learning Commons. Nearby, they can get free help on an upcoming writing assignment at the school's Writing Center. Both services are part of the school's Badgett Academic Support Center, says Meagan Davidson, director of The Learning Commons.
Most colleges offer similar, free writing and tutoring help. Seek out these resources and make the most of them, from the beginning of the semester. Don't wait until your grade is in jeopardy to seek assistance.
4. Advising offices
Meet with your academic advisor routinely to go over your planned schedule of classes. This will help ensure you're on track to get degree requirements fulfilled. Your advisor can also offer suggestions of cross-disciplinary classes, work-study, or internship opportunities that can supplement your major course work and help prepare you for the job market after college.
5. Student counseling services
Most colleges' counseling services offices include an array of helpful resources, from free workshops on time management and stress management to free one-on-one mental health counseling. So, if you're feeling overwhelmed by all the demands on your time, don't hesitate to seek out a professional who can help.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: POPULAR TO-DO APPS
Looking for a great "to-do" app to help get your schoolwork and schedule organized on your smartphone or tablet computer? Go to organizational apps to read info about the Remember the Milk app and six others.