How to Stay Organized in College

How to Stay Organized in College

About a year ago, I read Cal Newport’s book, How to Become a Straight A Student, an excellent resource for students of all stages. In the book, Newport synthesizes his conversations with top performing students to show that it’s possible to work smart, score well, and not spend all of your time studying.

For me, the most useful part of the book is Newport’s suggested method of staying organized, which I’ll present (with my own additions) below. Newport’s system is tailored for students: powerful enough to manage academic requirements, but not so complex that it’s burdensome to use.

If you’re a student looking for a system to keep on task, this is a great place to start.

First off, you’ll need a few things:

  • A calendar. I’ll demonstrate with a Google Calendar below, but any calendar with a weekly and monthly view and sufficient space to write in each day’s blocks will be fine.
  • Some notecards. 3” x 5” is fine. If you don’t have notecards, any paper will do.
  • A few minutes every day to plan. Newport suggests doing this in the morning, but you can do it in the evening as well. Ideally, find five to ten minutes that you’ll be able to carve out every day for this.

Here’s how it works:

  • Use your calendar as the place to store all of your to-dos and deadlines. Everything must go through your calendar. So, any homework that’s due, papers that need to be written, phone calls that need to be made, office hours that need to be attended, etc., get logged in your calendar as you collect them (more about that below).
  • Every day, ideally before you get your day started, take five minutes to look at what’s on your calendar for the day. Using that as a guide, transcribe onto your notecard everything that needs to be done. By transcribing items from your calendar, you are focusing on and organizing what needs to be done. You’re also making decisions on when and where to do things, which will increase the likelihood of completion.
  • Then, use only that notecard during the day as your guide for what to do. Cross things off as you accomplish them.
  • As new things come up during the day that need to be inputted to your calendar—new deadlines, tasks, or things to remember-—write them down on the back of your notecard.
  • Then, the next morning, you’ll want to “upload” everything from your notecard into your calendar to an appropriate day, and then “download” the next day’s plan onto a fresh notecard. If something didn’t get done, try to reschedule and prioritize it.

All of this is a little abstract, so let’s look at a concrete example. This schedule and mock task list was taken from the schedule of an actual current freshman at Harvard. We’ll call her Jen.

First, here is Jen’s calendar for a pretty typical week. A few quick explanatory notes:

  • Jen is a pre-med student, hence the science courses.
  • Jen has already put in her assignments from all of her syllabi (problem sets, drafts, etc.)
  • Jen has a very light extracurricular schedule—just one mentoring activity that has two commitments per week.

Now, let’s assume it’s Wednesday morning. Here is Jen’s notecard after a quick 5-minute planning session.

Notice a few great things about this:

  1. Jen is looking both ways on her calendar: backwards for things to review (lab notes) and forwards to things that need to be done (new calc pset).
  2. This is a simple list, but if Jen gets it all done, she’s definitely staying on track.
  3. Even though Wednesday is one of her busiest days, there’s still some time for fun (TV with roomies).

Now, here’s what Wednesday’s cards look like on Thursday morning. Note, Jen begins first by “uploading” the items that need to be scheduled that were on the back of Wednesday’s card.

And here are relevant the updates to the calendar, in blue.

Then, Jen repeats the process she uses every day to create Thursday’s card:

Now that you see how the system works, here are some things you can do to avoid common pitfalls:

  • Plan as far ahead as possible. If you get a syllabus, put due dates into your calendar for the entire semester.
  • Routinely—at least once a week—look forwards and backwards for several weeks. You want to make sure that longer-term projects don’t sneak up on you. If you’re not doing this, a large-scale project may only become visible to you the week it’s due.
  • Set aside a few extra minutes once a week, perhaps at the same time you look forwards and backwards, to clean things up. Look over all of your cards and your calendar for the past week to make sure you haven’t missed anything or forgotten to reschedule something you didn’t complete.

No system is perfect, but this is one of the best I’ve come across for students. While it may not be practical for planning everything, like long-term projects, you can still address those tasks with some forethought. Its strengths—simplicity and effectiveness—make it a really great starting point for organizing your time. Give it a try and leave us a comment with your experience.

Picture of Jay B.

Jay B.

Jay Bacrania is the CEO of Signet Education. As a high schooler, Jay won awards for chemistry at the state level in his home state of Florida, and at Harvard, he initially studied physics. After graduating, Jay spent two years studying jazz trumpet at the Berklee College of Music.

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