10 time (and life) management tips for making the most of college

5074660811_bbcfc46759_zLaura’s note: This week, I’m answering some of my Frequently Asked Questions — questions that I often hear from readers. As I email my answers, I sometimes think, hey, that would make a reasonable blog post! So here we go. If you have a question to add to the series, please email me at lvanderkam at yahoo dot com.

Q. Most of your books are aimed at people who are working and have kids. I’m a 20-year-old college student. Do you have any time management advice for people like me?

A. I do! Here are some discoveries that I think can help students make the most of the college years.

1. A good rule of thumb: plan to study roughly 2 hours for every 1 hour of class. Calculate this on a weekly basis. Studying more at the beginning of the semester will keep you from having to cram at the end of the semester.

2. Block in times to study. For instance, if you have sports practice or other activities after classes, and then eat dinner, you could plan to settle in around 7:30. Work from 7:30-11:30 (it’s college!) four weeknights per week, and you’ve got 3 off to party or do other activities. Do 2 90-minute blocks on each of your lighter days of classes, and 2 4-hour sessions on weekends, and that’s 30 hours of studying right there with no all-nighters required. If you’ve got a lighter schedule, you won’t need that.

3. If you get a part-time job, aim for one that lets you use that time to study. I worked in a cafe from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. some nights, and traffic was light enough that I could get work done. I also worked at the front desk at the student center for a while, and that was perfect for reading or writing papers. I had a newspaper delivery job early on in school that (clearly) did not allow me to study — and I got rid of that one as soon as I could.

4. Getting up on time on weekends gives you all sorts of extra hours. I don’t mean the crack of dawn. Even just waking up at 9 a.m., as opposed to noon, is like manufacturing time. By the time your classmates roll out of bed around lunch, your study hour quota could be done for the day.

5. Your professors most likely have office hours. Go visit every professor at least once. The ability to get to know them is at least part of what your tuition is paying for. Or just ask them to do stuff with you. A friend and I once wound up having drinks with our econ professor, just because we bumped into her at a show, and my friend asked.

6. Avail yourself of random opportunities. If your university is like mine, famous people come speak and they’ll be talking to a half-full auditorium. They have nothing to do afterwards and would be happy to chat with students. Go!

7. Make time to get to know classmates. Take the long view. If people are weird and cliquey, understand that in 3 more years, none of that will matter. You’ll all be thrust out into the real world and the fact that you have any connection to each other whatsoever will be enough to make friendships possible.

8. Spend some time figuring out how to position yourself for future career opportunities. If you already know what you want to do, great. If you don’t, work on figuring out what you like and what you don’t, and how people make a living doing whatever it is you like. If you have an alumni office, check in and see who works in your areas of interest. People love to help college students. Take advantage of this fact.

9. If you’re into a creative field, work on building up a portfolio. I cannot emphasize this enough. You can get professionals on your campus to critique you, and one way or another (loans, parents, part-time job) you’ve already figured out a way not to be homeless. This is not guaranteed afterwards. So build up some work you’re proud of now and start showing it to people. If you’re a dancer, choreograph some dances and tape the performances. It will be really, really hard to get a great troop of dancers to perform your works on a whim after you graduate.

10. Make time to grow your mind. Study things you find fascinating. Take courses just because the books look incredible at the student book store. Study the great books and great works of art. My favorite classes from college were on art and music history, and a class on the Bible in western cultural tradition. You’ll spend your life mastering useful skills. Some things are worth studying for beauty alone.

What advice would you add to this list for students?

Photo courtesy flickr user faeryhedgehog

20 thoughts on “10 time (and life) management tips for making the most of college

  1. 1. Assuming that you have smaller classes…If you have questions or comments that you would like to ask/make in class but are a hesitant speaker, summon the courage to speak up anyway. Focus on being part of the discussion by putting your question or comment out there, and don’t be silenced by the fear of failing to come across as a genius. Don’t talk just to talk, but it’s important to learn to speak when you think you might have something to say or have a question. Try out your voice early in the semester. At first, your heart will pound in your ears and you’ll spend half the class trying to formulate your thoughts, but it will get easier. (Not speaking from personal experience….:-)

    2. If you arrive at college without great study habits, Laura’s #2 will be hard, but do try it. Once you experience the power of incremental progress, you’ll be hooked on such a routine.

    3. Be aggressive in seeking out information about good professors and good classes.

    4. If you’re at all inclined in that direction, get as much of a liberal education as possible.

  2. Knock things out early in the semester if you can, because things get crazy later on. In some of my classes, we had writing assignments that could be turned in at any time over the course of the semester, and I always tried to turn them in fairly early on. It was such a great feeling to get them out of the way.

    In a somewhat similar vein, don’t wait to study until just before a test. Like Laura said, regular, consistent study times are the way to go.

  3. If you want to be seen in class by the professor during class, sit in the second or third row. If you want credit for being a go-getter but don’t want the professor to actually look at you during class, sit in the front row. If you want to irritate the professor, sit in the last row.
    Don’t think the professor can’t see you engaging with social media in the classroom. That’s either your smartphone in your lap or you’re doing something much more disrespectful.
    Make study groups. Sitting in the front also has the advantage that you’ll have a higher quality study group if you get to know the other people sitting there.
    That number in 1 is too small. Maybe LV only studied 2 hours for every 1 in class (or maybe she’s not including assignments as study time), but the official university line is 3-4 hours outside of class for undergrads and 5-6 for grads.
    Read the syllabus.
    Another view on part-time jobs. Aim for p/t jobs that can help you in the future or can help your schoolwork now. Don’t work so many hours that it interferes with your learning or causes you to graduate later–that is a false economy.

    1. If one’s study sessions are high quality, focused time, I think 2 hours/1 hour in the classroom is enough on a typical week, even at a top-notch school. That’s 45 hours of school-related activity/week for someone with 15 hours. The 3-4 hour rule means a 60-75 hour week, which isn’t sustainable.

      This might be different for people who do a great deal of lab work–I can’t say.

      1. @sara – that’s what I was thinking. I always had at least 12 hours of class time, sometimes more like 15. At 12 hours, 4 hours outside of class gives you a 12 + 48 hour workload. That’s 60 hours right there. Add in 10 for a part-time job (the expected student contribution) and you’ve got a 70-hour workweek, which most people can’t sustain. If you can double up working with studying you could get it down to 60-65 maybe. But that’s still a lot.

  4. Go to office hours and homework help sessions no matter what. Even if you feel intimidated and/or the prof is a jerk (because you may end up with a boss who is an intimidating jerk).

    I remember a particularly horrible semester where the only way to get a good score on the homework was to go to the help session each week. The professor was a tyrant who would throw people out for the slightest infraction (a whispered request for a pencil from another student) and he spent at least 30 seconds berating the student who asked each question before answering it (“If you put any effort into your would you would clearly see… “), but his help was, well, helpful.

    My other piece of advice would be to shadow people in careers that you are interested in. What does that person really do day in and day out? How do you feel about sitting at a desk/dealing with patients/dealing trying to come up with creative ideas/ practicing an instrument day in and day out for XX years?

  5. Definitely agree with #10 on your list. Many people take college for granted but there are so many interesting classed beyond your own major.

    Also agree re: sitting in the front and paying attention. I didn’t actually do this though.

    Ask questions! I don’t think I felt comfortable speaking up until post-college (certification classes) but I wished I had spoken up way back in college.

  6. Develop good exercise habits. You probably have a pretty great gym or running trail nearby – take advantage of them!

    And remember: “Exercise doesn’t take time – it creates time.”

  7. Great advice, Laura. I would add that you should major in whatever you’re passionate about–not what you think would look good on a resume, or appealing to a grad school, somewhere down the line. I say this as a Poli Sci major who hated every course in my major because the subject matter just didn’t interest me much. I thought it would help me get into law school–which was doubly foolish, because law schools are already jam-packed with Poli Sci majors!

  8. Reading this made me nostalgic for those carefree college days! I love # 6 and #10. My favorite courses were art history and music theory. I also got to see SO MANY concerts, plays, speakers, dancers, etc… for dirt cheap as a student. Definitely take advantage of what’s available on campus. I wish I’d spoken up more in class and gotten to know my profs more—I finally started doing this my senior year, but missed out on lots of great opportunities earlier on.
    I’d add this: volunteer. There are likely lots of groups on campus that organize volunteer projects for students or you can set something up on your own through local hospitals, churches, etc… Its easy to get caught up into your own insulated life on campus. Volunteer experiences in the community helped me stay in touch with the wider world, and kept in perspective how lucky I was to have 4 years to grow my mind and have fun doing it.

  9. This is a great list – Besides being a psychology professor, I work in the area of my university dedicated to promoting success in the first year of college (at a non-elite, public institution). I’ll circulate this to my like-minded colleagues; I think they will really appreciate your direct and upbeat take on the issues! I helped create a program, the First Year Learning Initiative (www.nau.edu/fyli) that pushes professors to explicitly “socialize” students to what’s expected in college. We found that people who teach first-years almost universally state that students blow it not because they lack the intellectual capacity needed to pass, say, freshman chemistry or psychology – rather, they don’t have key attitudes and behaviors like the ones you’ve outlined here. Exciting stuff!

    1. @Michelle – thanks! The transition to college is tough, and better time management habits can make a world of difference.

  10. Eat regularly, make sure you’re getting enough protein, and watch your alcohol consumption. Yeah, I know, this is a post about time management in college, and I’m off topic – except that I’m not. None of your wonderful advice will be helpful if the student is too drunk or hung-over to get any work done from Thursday night to Sunday noon (which was the norm at the small college where my husband taught).

  11. I think the opposite advice for getting a job could be true too. Instead of getting a job that allows you to study while working, you could get a job that teaches you while working such as a Research Assistant job in a lab or in Social Work or Psychology departments. That type of job will pay off in the long run in terms of experience and figuring out what you want to do by trying it first to make sure.

  12. Laura, as a one time college student and wife of a college professor, I agree with your advice here wholeheartedly. I didn’t pull a single all nighter during college, thanks to getting up early on weekends and built in study times. I wish I had spent less time comparing my writing to classmates I deemed superior and more time building a portfolio.

    1. @Jacey- I wish I’d been more strategic about my portfolio too. But oh well — I also know that I get better at writing over time, so I’m not sure how great the college stuff could have been…

  13. I’m not entirely sure I understand Point #2. Could you write out a mock study schedule?


    M-7:30-11:30pm (4 hours)
    T-7:30-11:30pm (4 hours)
    W-7:30-11:30pm (4 hours)
    R-7:30-11:30pm (4 hours)

    That doesn’t add up to 30 hours. Neither does:

    T-180 minutes (light class)
    R-180 minutes (light class)
    S-240 minutes (1st 4 hr session)
    U-240 minutes (2nd 4 hr session)

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