When Hannah Gallagher arrived at Worcester Polytechnic Institute last summer, she knew her life as a college freshman at the rigorous engineering school was going to be busy. What she didn't count on, however, was all the fun extracurricular activities she wanted to fit in among her classes. And she needed to figure out how to do that when her college schedule looked so different from anything she had in high school.
Trying to plan your time when your classes only meet a few times a week, your deadlines are few and far between and your calendar appears filled with blocks of free time is one of the biggest challenges facing incoming college freshmen. Luckily, there are a few tricks you can learn early on that will make your first year a success.
1. You can't do it all
“Going into school, I was so nervous about falling behind, I felt I had to do everything,” says Gallagher. She was meticulous about doing extra problems, combing through study guides, examining all the extra resources professors gave out. After a while, she learned to pick and choose what was going to help the most, thus saving herself hours of time.
2. You may not be in class, but it isn't free time
One of the biggest shocks for college freshman is realizing the amount of free hours on their calendar doesn't mean they have free time. They have to learn the biggest time management rule in college: “You are expected to do three hours of studying for every hour of lecture you have,” says Claire Weigand, in charge of time management and study strategies at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. “College should be a full-time job.”
3. The syllabus is your best friend
“Use the syllabus to plan for the entire semester during that first week,” says Emily Schwartz, author of The Time Diet. Your first project may not be due for a month, but that doesn't mean you don't have to get started on it now. Figure out how long it takes you to read a chapter and break that down so you can do a little every day. List the tasks you need to complete for that project and make your own deadlines for when they need to be done. “That is the difference between a successful student and a procrastinator,” Schwartz says.
4. Write out your days
“Think of your time as a closet,” advises Julie Morgenstern, author of Time Management from the Inside Out and Organizing from the Inside Out for Teenagers. “You have a limited amount of space and will only fit so much into a week. We all have 168 hours to work with.” Morgenstern is a big believer in time maps where you make a grid of your time and write in all the essentials (sleeping, eating, classes, work) first. Follow that with what you need to fit in (paying bills, cleaning, homework, social life). Your real free time is what is left.
5. Time management is a daily task
Even the best time management plan isn't effective unless you use it. “This is a tool you look at every day,” says Morgenstern. At the end of every day, take 5 minutes to see what is coming tomorrow and then look at the two days beyond that. You need a three-day arc, says Morgenstern, because every day is different and there will be unexpected opportunities, roadblocks, or even chances for fun that you want to be able to plan for. “When surprising opportunities or derailments happen, you have three days to fit that in,” she says.
6. Your high school study habits won't cut it
“College is about growth, not about what worked before,” says Weigand. Colleges are a bridge between doing the bulk of your learning in class like in high school and developing the entirely independent critical thinking you need when you get a job, she says. “Colleges want students to become more autonomous and independent.” You have to figure out a new approach that works for you and not try to force old methods to work in a new environment.
7. Get focused
Whatever you can do to limit distractions helps you work more efficiently and work faster. Weigand recommends avoiding checking email or favorite web sites while you are studying. If that is too hard, set a timer for 20 minute increments and check only at the end of those. It might take time and practice to learn to avoid those temptations, but don't give up. “Building the power of concentration is like building muscle,” she says.
8. Stop burnout before it happens
Believe it or not, taking time to care for yourself will save you hours in the long run. Meditation, says Weigand, is a great tool to help you relax and focus. “Meditation is a stress reliever,” she says. “It improves your focus and you work far more efficiently.” On-the-go students can download a few guided meditation apps or can check out calm.com to even take a quick 2-minute meditation break. Who doesn't have time for that?
9. Smart students get help
Academic resource centers are there for a reason – they offer the help students need. Use all the resources your college offers. Tutors, counselors, librarians, and professors can all guide you and save you enormous amounts of time. They will keep you on the right track, help you find materials, and show you effective shortcuts. “You don't have to figure it out on your own,” says Weigand.
10. Fit in fun
Gallagher was involved in everything from a sorority to organizing activities for her dorm, but she diligently tracked her time. “The key is prioritizing,” she said. “I made a list of what to get done and stuck with it. Even if a project isn't due for a week, it creeps up fast. But once you are done, and you have free time, enjoy it. Have fun, but don't lose track of why you are there.”