Head into college or university with a PLAN

I've been a student for a long time. Through my undergrad, I wasn't great at managing my life. But going through my two masters degrees, I got to the point that I was no longer pulling all-nighters, or working frantically all weekend. No one taught me how to go into my semester's with a plan, but if you want to survive and thrive, you need one. Working these suggestions will help you survive and thrive in college or university.


1. Process your syllabi and plan your entire semester in the 1st week

 Once you have received all of your syllabi for the classes you’re taking, you need to sit down and make a master plan of action. Make sure all due dates are in your calendar, every single one—whether they are assignments, class times, labs, or reading. Next, you need to identify and label major projects for each class–these are the projects that are worth major marks for a class (included under the major projects category are exams). The next category to label are minor projects–these are projects that will take you only a few hours or perhaps up to 2 days to complete. The final category is weekly readings.

Next, you need to create “have done by” dates for all of your major and minor assignments. For a minor assignment, you should AT MINIMUM have it done 1 day before it is due (if you follow this process, you’ll have most due well ahead of schedule). For major projects, you should have them done AT MINIMUM 5 days before they are due. Why create this second earlier due date? Simple. If you can finish a major paper, and ignore it for 5 days, and then proofread it two days before it is due, you will find all sorts of spelling, grammar, and logic mistakes that you will be able to clean up before handing in, which will bring up your mark. Second, you need to plan for life. When your dear old aunt Beatrice dies and three days of your life are consumed.

One more thing - you may be in a class that has presentations as part of the class where you can choose a date to present through the semester. I almost always chose to present in one of the first 3 available slots, and I volunteered for it as soon as possible. Don’t make the mistake of choosing to do a presentation in the last week of the semester when everything else is due - get it done as early as you can.

You may be the type of person who likes to use something like iCal, Google calendar, or Outlook, you may prefer a good old paper notebook, or you can use something handy like iProcrastinate or iStudiez Pro or other such apps for homework management. Either way, get everything processed and into your system, with all due dates correctly assigned and everything placed under 1 of the 3 categories.


2. Add your work schedule, volunteer time, church events, etc., into your plan

When you are a university student, school is your full time job, so treat it as such. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have other things going on in your life. You need to get these into your calendar, especially in preparation for the next step. This will ensure that you are prepared for that all-weekend camp trip with your buddies, rather than realizing the night before that you have a major assignment due on Monday. Trust me, that assignment will not get done in time.


3. Lay out your master plan and stick to it

 Now that you have slaved over your syllabi and got them into your calendar system and put into your calendar other events that you are committed to (work included), you need to lay out what you’ll be doing every day of every week of your semester and stick to it. First of all you need a daily reading schedule. Set up your reading in such a way that you have always finished the required reading for any class on time or ahead of time. I am the kind of person who typically likes to read only one book at a time if possible and so I try to massage my reading plan to fit that if I can. Next, you need to lay out all of your minor projects through the semester so that you are scheduled to be working on a particular minor project everyday of the week. It may be that a particular minor project goes by a lot quicker than the time you have allotted for them. This will give your schedule some flexibility for those times when minor projects take a little more time than you thought, and will also provide more time for working on your major projects. Lastly, you need to lay out your major projects such that you are working on a major assignment every single week of your semester. I don’t know why, but students think that a syllabus dictates when you should work on a particular assignment—your syllabus does not say “start this assignment that is worth 50% 2 days before the due date.” Take control of your own life and own it. By the end of your first week of class you should begin working on a major project, even if it is not due until the last day of class. So every day on your calendar there should be no wondering what to do—do your reading then do your minor assignment(s), then do your major assignment.


4.  Adjust accordingly each week

Unexpected events may pop up or your work schedule may vary week to week. If this is the case for you, then reevaluate and adjust your entire master plan as soon as you are able whenever something changes. And make it a habit to always be looking at your master plan to know what is coming down the pipe. If you can, make it a daily morning or evening habit to look at your calendar.


The above points are about setting up a master plan of action. The following points relate to lifestyle that will contribute to succeeding in your college years, as well as some tips for being productive and creating quality work.


5. Eat well, exercise, and SLEEP

You know you need to eat well, so don’t live off of pizza pops and pepsi. And if you are eating in a cafeteria make wise choices. Your brain needs good food. You also need to exercise, because our bodies perform better the more we are moving. Finally, their isn’t some sort of college rule that all students should sleep as little as possible. If you aren’t in bed between 11-12 each night, you better start rethinking why you came to university - to party or to learn.


6. Practice Rest

While Christians and Jews are familiar with the practice of Sabbath (even if they don't actually do it!), the idea of a consistent time of "no-work" during the week is good for everyone. There are cycles and seasons of life and by and large college study means little leisure time. Still, if you can manage it you should try and take a day or half of a day off from school work. During these times, do the things you love to do.


7. This is your job, treat it as such

If you are in university, IT IS YOUR FULLTIME JOB. Treat it that way. Don’t sleep in just because your class starts in the afternoon that day. Get up at a decent hour, get ready for your day, and get to it ! If you are not in class, you should be doing work in your dorm or in the library. If you keep at this pace, you’ll start to notice that your evenings will be free much more often. You will also find that while your fellow students are cramming, pulling all-nighters, or begging for extensions, you'll be heading to the movies to see the latest block-buster because you managed your life well through the whole semester.


8. Get some distance from major assignments

You know as well as I do that your best work on a major project is not at 3am, 6 hours before it is due. In the outline of creating your master plan, I said to try and finish major assignments a week early. This gives you a chance to step away from it and then come back for a final proofread and edit. If you start this practice you’ll soon recognize how valuable it is because you’ll catch all sorts of mistakes and bring up your marks.


9. Know what kind of learner you are and tap into it

I’m surprised how many students don’t know what kind of learner they are, or if they do, how they do not tap into that knowledge. For instance, if you are an auditory learner, I’d consider audio recording lectures to listen over again (for instance, use the notebook feature of MS Word, or the awesome Notability on the iPad). Auditory learners should also be reading out loud to themselves or getting their texts as audiobooks.


10. Reading is active

Don’t read all curled up under a blankie with a cup of tea. Sit up, listen to some non-distracting music (i.e. no words), and use a finger or pencil to guide your eye. Most people can double their reading speed, comprehension, and retention just by sitting up and using their finger. Your textbooks are your other teachers for your classes, treat them as such.


11. Understand and practice the different levels of reading

Some of my colleagues out there may shoot me, but I don’t think every book you are assigned is worthy of a front-to-back-every-single-word read. There are some books, or perhaps large chapters where you just need to decide, “I’m going to spend 2 concerted hours on this to get as much out of it as I can.” You then proceed to read the intros, conclusions, headings, and delve in here and there….and WRITE DOWN WHAT YOU'VE LEARNED. You’ll be amazed at how much you get out of it. And don’t forget to ALWAYS write about what you find - you should write a little abstract of every chapter and essay you read.

If you decide that there is a book that needs a thorough read, get the picture before diving in. Read a few book reviews first. When you know where an author is headed, your reading and comprehension speed increases.


12. Invest time and smarts into your marks

I defined major assignments as those that have large marks associated with them. But you also need to actually make sure you are doing things correctly. If your syllabus is fuzzy on what exactly a teacher is looking for, get clarification right away. Also ask around and find out about your teacher's marking style. If your teacher moonlights on the grammar police squad, then put extra time into that. If they like very specific types of footnotes, then invest time into that. Don’t be afraid to ask for example papers. Also, determine how much weight is put on class participation. If it is significant, then you need to break past that shyness and engage in class.


13. Find a like-minded peer

Find someone who will sit with you in the library - not to distract you but to keep pushing each other towards excellence. Even introverts like having someone they know close by, even if words aren’t shared. Also, agree to edit each other’s major assignments. A peer will really help you see when your writing is unclear.


You (or your parents) are investing time and money into your education. Honor those investments and take it seriously. Create a PLAN and buckle down and you will find your time in college to be an amazingly rewarding experience.